Asking, Seeking, Knocking: more on the Trinity and Faith

There’s been some good discussion in the comments on my Trinity Sunday Lectionary Post, and I feel flattered to be the host to the discussion. There are a few points I want to touch on, and they seem to me to be at the heart of the discussion, though they aren’t what people seem to be talking directly about in there. But first, I hope you’ll go read the whole discussion. Don’t worry, I’ll wait for you right here when you’re ready to come back.

The first thing I am hearing has to do with belief, with faith. I’m hearing words like understand and lip service and check our minds at the door and of course the big nasty words doctrine and heresy. And some of these are helpful words to use when we talk about the Trinity – as well as about other parts of Christian traditions – and others can be stumbling blocks. Of course, what may be a stumbling block for me may be the word that puts everything into focus for you, and that can make discussion more difficult. So I’m going to try several different words to see if they make sense, and I may fail at all of them, but maybe one of them will sing for somebody.

So the first thing I wanted to say is that yes, there are Christian groups who not only expect you to check your brain at the door, but demand and insist that you do, and that will drive you out if you don’t. I find this abusive and offensive, and I have been known to refer to the leaders in these groups as “spiritual terrorists.” However, there are many who find this comforting. If I check my brain at the door, then I don’t have the burden of thinking for myself. I’m not responsible for my decisions, for my actions, because I’m just doing what the leader of this group is telling me to do. I can understand the appeal of this, knowing that there have been times in my life when I have not wanted to have to be responsible and accountable for one more damned decision. But I could never be a member of a group like this, and I believe that the fundamental premise is anti-Christian. God blessed us with brains, with minds, with critical thinking skills and decision making skills. God blessed us with reason, with the ability to think logically, with the capacity for both deduction and induction. God blessed us with powerful intuition and creativity that we don’t always know how to harness. These are all gifts from our creator. So for a community that gathers to worship this God to demand that you strip off these very basic gifts and leave them behind is, in my mind, a grave and dangerous sin.

So what, then, is faith? We hear words like belief and faith bandied about, and I think most of us get the impression that faith is a vague feeling, and we either have it or we don’t. We don’t know how to get it if we don’t have it, and we don’t know how to get more of it if we feel we don’t have enough. But the truth is, faith is not a feeling. Faith is a way of being in relationship with ourselves, with the world, with the people around us, and with the Divine. And faith – faith is what we choose to believe, how we choose to be in those relationships. Faith comes when we engage heart and spirit and mind and body – all the gifts we have been given by the Divine – and put them together to choose what and how we believe.

One of my favourite quotations – and I can’t remember who said it right now – is this:

The opposite of faith is not doubt.
The opposite of faith is certainty.

That’s powerful stuff. It means that the things my mind doubts and questions – these do not lessen my faith, but inform it and guide it and strengthen it. I have a heckuva time understanding and believing in the Resurrection, in the virgin birth, in the feeding of the multitude – and those are basic tenets of Christianity for all denominations, without even bringing in Roman Catholic doctrines like the immaculate conception and the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven. There are many times when I find it a lot easier to believe that God can exist in three persons – Father, Son, and Spirit – than I do to believe that God would choose to be born as a helpless, squalling infant human, and then allow himself to be arrested, beaten, and executed… and then to come back for more! I mean – in what universe does that make sense?

So for me, there is much about God, about Jesus, about traditional Christian teachings, and yes, about the heresies that have been proposed and rejected and then picked back up again through the centuries – there is much about these that holds Truth, much that holds Beauty. And I will not say that Christianity holds a monopoly on Truth and Beauty. I have found Truth and Beauty in the Greek classics, in Buddhist teachings, in neo-paganism, in comic books, in the newspaper, in science fiction novels, in the people I live and move with, in the trees and stones and rivers.

The hard part is, the Truth and Beauty are not always easy to find, and they’re not always easy to accept. And there is a very special Beauty to be found in submitting oneself to an authority to learn and find those answers. By this, I don’t mean slavishly handing yourself over to a guru, and again, I most certainly do not mean that any one of the gifts given you by God should be rejected in the seeking of Truth and Beauty. But though the Trinity is one confusing and mysterious doctrine, it does hold Truth and Beauty – if we are willing to engage heart and spirit and mind and body in that search. And today might not be the right time to engage in this particular search. Today might be the right time to find the Truth and Beauty in the story of Esther or of Tobit or of Muhammed (peace be upon him). It might be the right time to search the book of Job, or in the bloodthirsty song that Miriam sings after the Israelites cross the Red Sea. But Truth and Beauty are there for the finding, when we are open to them, and when we are willing to engage all of ourselves.

When we pray the Nicene Creed each week during worship, I do not allow myself to get hung up on the parts that are, well, hanging me up. Part of the Truth and Beauty of praying this in corporate worship is that there is someone there who is fine with each individual line, even though there is probably nobody there who can speak every single word of it without a doubt or question or hesitation. And I use the word pray in this context very specifically, because even though the creed begins with “We believe,” I think this refers to the communal nature of what we are doing, and that we are asking God to help us with the places that give us trouble. It is like the one-line fervent prayer in the gospel of Mark, I believe; help my unbelief! I believe very strongly that this is one of God’s most beloved prayers. God, I want so very much to believe; help me!

So. The discussion is centered around the Trinity, and I did have a couple more things to say here. Yes, the Trinity is a doctrine of the church. No, you do not have to believe every last doctrine of the church in order to be a Christian, and you certainly don’t have to agree with every last doctrine of the church in order to be a Christian. Heck, you don’t even have to agree on what is fundamental doctrine and what is less central to the faith. That’s part of the glory and, yes, Truth and Beauty, of this church. So if the Trinity is not helpful to you in your journey, that’s okay. Engage with the idea. Let it roll around in mind and heart and soul. And if it doesn’t feed you, then set it aside. That’s okay. It may feed your soul later. It may never. There are so many wonderful ways to see God, both immanent and transcendent Divine.

There are many heresies that I adore. Universalism. Panentheism. Even some Pelagianism. I’m fascinated by process theology. I’m often pluralistic, and always heterodox. A couple hundred years ago, I probably would have been burned at the stake. But we don’t live in those times any more, thanks be to God.

So… keep on seeking. Keep on asking. Keep on knocking at God’s door. Truth and Beauty are there to be found, if we know how to see them. God loves us perfectly, infinitely, wondrously. God has promised never to leave us alone – and that is true whether we name God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit or not.

Peace be with you, my friends. And all the blessings of our God, who watches over us and loves us. No matter what name you call that God by.

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3 thoughts on “Asking, Seeking, Knocking: more on the Trinity and Faith

  1. Since I’m the person who sparked this response, I should say thanks for expounding upon your views.

    I think I find myself too estranged from Christian orthodoxy to really engage it in much of a meaningful fashion. I am beginning to think of myself much as Karen Armstrong describes herself–as a freelance monotheist. The Christian tradition speaks to me more than any other–but I will always remain way out in the far reaches of its orbit. The Trinity is to me just one example; I also don’t feel connected with any literal interpretation of the resurrection, for example. Yet despite all of that, I feel some sense of connection to the life and teachings of Jesus.

    I appreciate what you are saying, and I appreciate that you are definitely not one who believes in checking one’s brain at the door.

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