In Relationship, Not Through Formula

Posted: June 17, 2019 in Uncategorized

John 16:12-15

In Relationship, Not Through Formula…

Last week Glenys asked where Pluralism had come from as a day of celebration in the church calendar and my reply was that I thought it had grown in the Progressive church movement in the USA in an attempt to both raise questions about the place of church festivals and to recognise that those festivals may no-longer be enough when it comes to expressing our faith. I have to admit that when I started parish ministry Trinity Sunday was the dreaded Sunday when one had to avoid explaining because it was too complicated. Today its not too much different in that the only thing one can say about Trinity with any credibility is to focus of relationship. Trinity is no longer about the three

That make up the one and more about the way in which the three relate as a unity.

Having said that there are a number of ways of looking at this. Gordon D Kaufman in his book “Jesus and Creativity” has some different comments on ‘trinity’.  He says it is very much tied to the traditional or orthodox ministry/death/resurrection/ascension-to-heaven story about Jesus… he says; “… the traditional trinitarian claim is that the three persons of the trinity all co-inhere in each other… and are all equally involved in everything in which any one of them is involved – and thus equally involved in everything throughout the cosmos.  He also says that; The doctrine of the trinity may be faulted here on two counts: (i) in its lifting a human being (Jesus) up into full deity, it makes the creativity throughout the universe fundamentally anthropomorphic andanthropocentric; and (ii) this sort of move seems to re-suppose some version of the old two-worlds cosmology (Pg:55).

“… Most of the vast universe, as we think of it today, is in no way at all affected by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection; it is only the human project and its evils, on planet Earth, to which the Jesus-story – because of the healing and new life that it has brought – is pertinent… (Pg:55).

He says: “We need to recognize that from the very beginning of specifically Christian thinking about God, all the major issues that needed addressing involved human choices… It was through choices made by various followers of Jesus that the affirmations and claims that eventually developed into ministry/death/resurrection/ascension-to-heaven story about Jesus]…; it was the choices of councils of bishops that eventuated in the understanding of what would be regarded as ‘orthodox’ in the churches – including the doctrine of the trinity – and what would be regarded as ‘heresy’; and it has been repeated choices over the centuries – by bishops and popes, by congregations, by reformers of various sorts as well as other individual women and men – that have determined in every new present whether those earlier choices should still be regarded as of central importance in orienting and ordering life” (Pg:55-56).

He says that: “We in the twenty-first century are the heirs of many different ways of understanding and interpreting Jesus: Which (if any) should we commit ourselves to and seek to develop further?  Which should we ignore or discard?…  When the churches in the early centuries of Christianity accepted or consented to the notion of orthodoxy, the range of options for Christians was significantly narrowed… (Pg:56).

“[Contemporary Jesus study] actually brings us a number of significantly different Jesuses to which should we… commit ourselves?  Here again we are confronted with a matter of choice or at least consent: Which Jesus, if any, really ‘grabs’ us?  Which makes sense to us?  Which will help us grow in import new directions?  Whatever we regard as of unique significance in the complex of events ‘surrounding and including and following upon the man Jesus’ will largely determine the version of the Jesus-story that we choose as we seek to discern what light that story might throw on human life and death today” (Pg:57).

All of that sounds pretty good to my mind. It seems to have logic and make sense intellectually but I wonder if there is something else going on here as well. Maybe Trinity Sunday does symbolize all the failures of institutionalized Christianity. Maybe Trinity Sunday has become an ‘empty cocoon’ -empty, because the life which shaped it has long since departed.

Indeed, we are reliably informed that the great 20th century Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, claimed that if the Trinity were to quietly disappear from Christian theology, never to be mentioned again, most of Christendom would not even notice its absence!

Rex Hunt suggests that for him, the Doctrine of the Trinity has become a mathematical formula, much like and as arid as, E=MC2 that Einstein told us was the clue to the physical universe. Today however we read that some of the more creative biblical scholars of our day, think that the doctrine was ‘created’ to describe, define and safe-guard an experience. But in the process of time, the ‘experience’ seems to have been drained right out, and what we have left is just the formula – as if this was what being a Christian is. Believe in the Trinity or you cannot be Christian. There is still a hint of that around even today but when pressed that idea falls down.

But when we stop and look back for a moment we see the originating events of our faith and we see what these events suggest to us. A man by the name of Jesus or Jeshua, who was landless and probably worked as an ‘odd-jobs’ man for some years, changed jobs in mid-stream, and became an itinerant teacher, healer and storyteller – respected as a sage. And during one to three years (depending on which storyteller is in charge of the story), he seemed to attract a mixed group of people, usually from the fringes of his society.

With these people he was able to share himself so completely that over time and after a lot of struggle they became new people – gripped with a new creative imagination. In this becoming, the thoughts and feelings and stories of each other, resonated with the thoughts and feelings and stories of others. But here’s the catch; this was not something which Jesus himself did. It was something that happened when he was present, like a catalytic agent. One theologian has put it like this: “…something about this man Jesus broke the atomic exclusiveness of those individuals so that they were deeply and freely receptive and responsive each to the other…  Notice the challenges here. It was an atomic exclusiveness. It was an exclusiveness that had huge power. And the breaking of it transformed their minds, their personalities. They no longer saw things in the way of the popular, accepted norms.  Their appreciable world was forever changed, as was their community with one another and with all people. Their experience was such that when he died, despair gripped this group of people so much so that they could not see any good in him. He was not the messiah they had expected or hoped for. He could not have been the messiah at all.

However, this is not the end of the story. After a while, when the numbness and the shock
began to wear away, something happened… They began to see the effects of that transforming creativity previously known only in fellowship with Jesus, as reaching beyond his death. It began to work again. It had risen from the dead. The enthusiasm began to spread like wildfire and to empower those who experienced community as a means to self-worth, and organizations developed and the various communities began to express and value their diversity of culture, language and ideas. Then when the church around the 4th century created the doctrine of the Trinity, it was in a climate of dissension and so-called heresy, the Trinity idea it was to safe-guard an experience… It was a way of placating the differences in thinking with an experience as ideal. An experience, not too dissimilar with the resurrection experience. An experience of calm among the dissention, replacing the focus on the battle of words with an experience. An experience of life over death, of making new and alive, that which was dead in their lives… An experience which pointed to Creativity God in the world, and in the human being Jesus of Nazareth. And Creativity God is not limited to only one form or style of self-revelation because it is always relational and not rational.

What makes us truly human, and thus truly Christian, is not accepting superstition or what can or can’t be believed, nor accepting what can only be presented in some kind of arid formula. The positive about the Trinity is not in its doctrinal form but rather in its invitation to value experience as what makes us truly human. With or without God, to be truly human is being able to live in relationship to the other. Not, to alienate or objectify the other but to live in relationship with another. The relationship is what constitutes our existence and our wholeness, not the efforts to formulate and analyse and rationalize a belief. We are all webs and we are part of a web to use the internet analogy or an orbital spectrum perhaps to use a New Copernican idea. We are in relation to everyone and everything as part of the spectrum.

I wonder if we can be a little practical here. I want to ask you a question and then invite you to ponder it for a moment – The question is ‘what are your best moments?  Your really best moments?’ Think about it for a moment. I am not asking you to answer out loud but you can if you want to.

As an example; I think my best moments were when I was in relationship. When a member of my family hugged me. An example of this is when I visit my wife in the care home, her smile and her desire to hug me reach across her struggle with Alzheimer’s and we are in relationship that is more than anything going on in the day. After attending a colleague’s funeral last week I was standing outside when the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church gave me a hug and said thanks Doug you guys held our church together. He was referring to the role David Grant played as a mission consultant and when I was a co-director of the Mission Board of our church. I was in relation with him, with the colleague and with my church.

Best Trinitarian moment, relational moments are when friendship is valuable and touchable and strong…I remember those moments when I was and am in relation as my best moments. Don’t you?

But what’s really going on here? What’s the so-called ‘point’ of all this?  Well! The fact is that these experiences are universal experiences that tell us about ourselves. They tell us that not only do we exist (a web exists) but that we exist in relationship (we are the webs). Relationship is what makes us what we truly are. And the trinity as experience reminds us that what makes G-o-d God, is relationship. Using anthropocentric language, relationship is what God is about, and therefore it is no wonder that we, who are made in God’s image and likeness, are also essentially about creative relationship.

So those are my comments: Trinity Sunday is about me and you, and it’s about Creativity God and it’s about relationship. The Trinity is not a mathematical question. It’s not even a theological question. And any reference to it is only found once in the entire Bible and then scholars tell us, it was a very late addition. At best the Trinity is a relationship. Amen.

Notes:
Wieman, H. N. 1946.  The Source of Human Good. Carbondale. Southern Illinois University Press.

rexae74@gmail.com

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