Beyond Creeds: The Circle Dance of Trinity

Trinity Sunday       May 22, 2016

invitationtodanceWhy in the world would a progressive Christian pastor in a progressive Christian congregation have anything at all to do with Trinity Sunday, the only day of the entire church year dedicated to a doctrine – and one that’s not even found in the Bible? In fact, the eminent 20th century 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.

We’ve progressed so far past the days when we would read the Athanasian Creed on this day. I’m going to pass out copies of it now – not to read (unless, as I said in Keeping in Touch, you want your head to explode) – but as a reminder of our history, of what was important to early Christians as they established the Church, and how they made sense of (or at least tried to make sense of) the relationship of Jesus to God and how the Holy Spirit fit into the picture. And the doctrine of God as three-in-one is how they explained it.

Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria in the 4th century, was the strongest defender of the doctrine of the Trinity. The creed attributed to him expands on the Nicene Creed, which had been developed (to put it in a positive way) as a statement that would unify the key beliefs of Christianity, and (to put it in a more critical light) to condemn as heretics all those who disagreed with it. You can see how seriously they took this by the last line of the Athanasian Creed: “One cannot be saved without believing this firmly and faithfully.” And just so you know, the rite of ordination in the Lutheran church still asks
candidates to promise to accept, teach, and confess the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds.

TrinityKnot-wiki.pngWe don’t use creeds in our worship here. Times have changed. Adherence to creeds and doctrine have become more of a source of division than of unity. Although ours is still a controversial position. I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked why we don’t just become  Unitarians. That is, why don’t we abandon any pretense of believing in the Trinity? And my answer is that, even though I’ve moved beyond the historic creeds and doctrines and dogma, I have not abandoned the Trinity.

Let me tell you a story that was told to Cynthia Bourgeault, author of The Holy Trinity And The Law Of Three by her friend, the Abkhazian dervish elder Murat Yagan:

In the years following World War II, Murat had spent time in a remote corner of eastern Turkey, where he became friends with an elderly couple, with whom he frequently shared a meal. Life had been good to them, but their one sadness was that they missed their only son, who had left some years before to seek work in Istanbul. And although he’d become a successful businessman, they had infrequent contact with him and missed him greatly.

One day when Murat appeared on their doorstep, the old couple were bursting with pride to show him the new tea cupboard that their son had just sent them from Istanbul. It was indeed a handsome piece of furniture, and the woman had proudly arranged her best tea set on its upper shelf. Murat was polite but curious. Why would their son go to such expense to send them a tea cupboard? And why, for a piece of furniture whose ostensible purpose was storage, was there such a noticeable absence of drawers and cabinets?  “Are you sure it’s a tea cupboard?” Murat asked them. They were sure.

But the question continued to nag at Murat. Finally, just as he was taking his leave, he said, “Do you mind if I have a closer look at this tea cupboard?” With their permission, he turned it around and unscrewed a couple of packing boards. A set of cabinet doors swung open to reveal inside a fully operative ham radio set. That “tea cupboard,” of course, was intended to connect them to their son. But unaware of its real contents, they were simply using it to display their china.

Cynthia Bourgeault says: “To my mind, that is an apt analogy for how we Christians have been using the Holy Trinity. It’s our theological tea cupboard, upon which we display our finest doctrinal china, our prized assertion that Jesus, a human being, is fully divine. This is not necessarily a bad thing, just as it was not a bad thing for the woman to set forth her prettiest teacups on the new piece of furniture. But what if, unbeknownst to nearly everyone, inside it is concealed a powerful communications tool that could connect us to the rest of the worlds (visible and invisible), allow us to navigate our way through many of the doctrinal and ethical logjams of our time, and place the teachings of Jesus in a dynamic metaphysical framework that would truly unlock their power? It’s simply a matter of turning the tea cabinet around and learning how to look inside.

So, I believe we are finally beginning to look inside the tea cabinet, where we discover that there have been other ways of understanding Trinity all along. Like so many other Christian concepts and symbols there is something archetypal about it. As Carl Jung discovered: “Triads of gods appear very early, at the primitive level. Arrangement in triads is an archetype in the history of religion, which in all probability formed the basis of the Christian Trinity.”

So, while we’ve traditionally explained the development of the doctrine of the Trinity as the need to give divine status to Jesus and the Holy Spirit while remaining monotheistic, it’s likely that from a psychological perspective it’s the other way round. Our unconscious disposition was already trinitarian, which then required a theological explanation. Three is often considered to be the perfect number, the unifier of dualities. And it appears, not only in Christianity, but across cultures, religions, and time.

Franciscan writer Richard Rohr, author of The Naked Now: Learning To See As the Mystics See: “Trinitarian theology was almost made to order to humiliate the logical mind. If actually encountered and meditated on, God as trinity breaks down the binary system of the mind. For a Christian who lives in a trinitarian spirituality, it makes either-or thinking totally useless. Perhaps, in addition to everything else, the trinity is blessing, to make us patient before Mystery and to humble our dualistic minds.”

einEven in Judaism, there are those who see precursors in the mystical teachings of The Kabbalah, which says that the three original emanations from Ein Sof, the Kabbalistic concept of God as “The Endless One” or “All That Is,” are Nothingness, Wisdom and Understanding. These three emanations are the basis upon which all other existence upon the Tree of Life was formed and the essence of which followers were urged never to try to understand.

Scholar Elaine Pagels wrote in The Gnostic Gospels that early Christian concepts of the Trinity were molded from traditional Judaic terminology. Of course, Judaism – like Islam – rejects the Trinity based on their belief that giving Jesus divinity at all was blasphemous. Nonetheless, “three” is present in both and is perhaps a way through the interfaith roadblocks caused by the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

Trinities appear in eastern traditions as well. The Tibetan Book of the Dead describes the “Three Bodies of Buddhahood” as three levels of existence: the ordinary body, which becomes the Emanation Body; speech, which is the Beatific Body; and the mind, which is the Truth Body. The three Buddha Bodies correlate with body, mind and spirit.

UnknownThere are also trinities in The Tao Te Ching in the “Three Jewels” or “Three Treasures,” which are the Buddha, the Dharma (teaching) and the Sangha (community). In The Bhagavad-Gita, there is the threefold nature of the Self, as told to Arjuna by the Hindu God Krishna: “Threefold is the faith of the embodied, which is inherent in their nature: Sattvic (pure), Rajasic (passionate) and Tamasic (darkness).”1396975590

The Jains recognize the trinity of samyag-darsana (correct insight), samyag-jnana (correct knowledge), and samyag-caritra (correct conduct).

And Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh had no difficulty seeing the correlation between Western and Eastern concepts of the Trinity. After a meeting with Christian clergy, he said, “all of us have the seed of the Holy Spirit in us, the capacity of healing, transforming, and loving. When we touch that seed, we are able to touch God the Father and God the Son.” He presents Trinity as a process of direct knowing of the Divine that transcends all religious labels and names.

So, if we go back before all the controversies of early Christianity, the hurling of anathemas at theologians who disagreed with the winning side at the Council of Nicea . . . and back before epic battles, such as whether to say “We believe in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father” or “ We believe in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son” – which was a huge deal back in the day and one of the reasons for the split between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church . . . and back before our modern attempts at explaining the Trinity with shamrocks, triangles, interlocking rings, and science project displays of water, ice, and gas . . .

we find that our ancient ancestors understood the triune nature of existence on the deepest level of the subconscious, which then translated into symbols and archetypes found in our origin stories, myths and fairy tales, like The Three Little Pigs and Goldilocks and the Three Bears and children’s songs like Three Blind Mice. And in religious texts.

And as we move further into the age of inter-spirituality (which I talked about last week), as we become more adept at using our right brains to re-imagine – as best we are even capable of doing – what God is like, we will see Trinity (this number 3), not as a literal, limiting number, but as a process of union with the completeness and perfection of All That Is whether you call that: Father/Son/Holy Spirit, Creator/ Redeemer/ Sanctifier, Creato
r/Creating/Creation, or (as St. Augustine suggested) Lover/Beloved/Love Itself.

Unknown-1

I personally appreciate the imagery of Trinity as the Divine Dance. As Richard Rohr has described it: “Trinity is the very nature of God, and this God is a circle dance, a centrifugal force flowing outward, and then drawing all things into the dance centripetally. If this God names himself/herself in creation and in reality then there must be a ‘family resemblance’ between everything else and the nature ofthe heart of God.”

Process, dance, circle, heart of God. This is not the Trinity of doctrine and dogma and creeds – although some do find meaning there. I would not exclude anyone’s preferred access to Divinity. As long as we don’t mistake a ham radio set for a tea cupboard. May we remove the china cups and knickknacks from our spiritual shelves and discover the treasures that are inside. In the name of Lover, Beloved, and Love Itself.

Amen

 

Athanasian Creed

Whoever wants to be saved
should above all cling to the catholic faith.
Whoever does not guard it whole and inviolable
will doubtless perish eternally.
Now this is the catholic faith:

We worship one God in trinity
and the Trinity in unity,
neither confusing the persons
nor dividing the divine being.

For the Father is one person,
the Son is another,
and the Spirit is still another.
But the deity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
is one, equal in glory,
coeternal in majesty.

What the Father is,
the Son is,
and so is the Holy Spirit.

Uncreated is the Father;
uncreated is the Son;
uncreated is the Spirit.
The Father is infinite;
the Son is infinite;
the Holy Spirit is infinite.
Eternal is the Father;
eternal is the Son;
eternal is the Spirit:
And yet there are not three eternal beings,
but one who is eternal;
as there are not three uncreated and unlimited beings,
but one who is uncreated and unlimited.
Almighty is the Father;
almighty is the Son;
almighty is the Spirit:
And yet there are not three almighty beings,
but one who is almighty.

Thus the Father is God;
the Son is God;
the Holy Spirit is God:
And yet there are not three gods,
but one God.
Thus the Father is Lord;
the Son is Lord;
the Holy Spirit is Lord:
And yet there are not three lords,
but one Lord.
As Christian truth compels us to acknowledge
each distinct person as God and Lord,
so catholic religion forbids us
to say that there are three gods or lords.

The Father was neither made
nor created nor begotten;
the Son was neither made nor created,
but was alone begotten of the Father;
the Spirit was neither made nor created,
but is proceeding from the Father and the Son.
Thus there is one Father, not three fathers;
one Son, not three sons;
one Holy Spirit, not three spirits.

And in this Trinity, no one is before or after,
greater or less than the other;
but all three persons are in themselves, coeternal and coequal;
and so we must worship the Trinity in unity
and the one God in three persons.

Whoever wants to be saved should think thus about the Trinity.

It is necessary for eternal salvation that one also faithfully believe
that our Lord Jesus became flesh.

For this is the true faith that we believe and confess:
That our Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Son,
is both God and man.
He is God, begotten before all worlds
from the being of the Father,
and he is man, born in the world
from the being of his mother—
existing fully as God,
and fully as man
with a rational soul and a human body;
equal to the Father in divinity,
subordinate to the Father in humanity.

Although he is God and man,
he is not divided,
but is one Christ.
He is united because God
has taken humanity into himself;
he does not transform deity into humanity.
He is completely one in the unity of his person,
without confusing his natures.
For as the rational soul and body are one person,
so the one Christ is God and man.

He suffered death for our salvation.
He descended into hell
and rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

At his coming all people shall rise bodily
to give an account of their own deeds.
Those who have done good will enter eternal life,
those who have done evil will enter eternal fire.

This is the catholic faith.
One cannot be saved
without believing this firmly and faithfully.

 

Published by

smstrouse

I've been the pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Burlingame, CA since February, 2020. I am a “proud member of the religious left” and an unapologetic progressive Christian. While I have been criticized by some as no longer being Christian and as a pastor for whom “anything goes,” I firmly reject those characterizations. I am most assuredly a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, as well as a seeker of the Cosmic Christ.  My preaching, teaching and worship leadership is based on sound theology and careful study. I would call myself a devotee of process theology with a Lutheran flavor. For two years I also served as the interim executive director of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio in San Francisco (http://interfaith-presidio.org) and served on the board for many years before that.  In 2005 I received my Doctorate in Ministry from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley in interfaith relationships. My book is The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves About INTERfaith Matters? I enjoy leading workshops and retreats on interfaith matters, as well as teaching seminarians how to think about pastoring in a multi-faith environment. I suppose I’m not everyone’s idea of the perfect Christian. But if you’re interested in exploring the questions of faith in the 21st century, drop me a line.

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