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The Advent Breakfast is postponed to Sunday, Dec 8.

The Doctrine of the Trinity: an Art, not a Science: Trinity Sunday

Sunday, June 16, 2019:
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Psalm 8
Romans 5:1-5
John 16:12-15

Holy and undivided Trinity,
you are an eternal harmony of gift and response:
through the uncreated Word and the Spirit of truth
embrace us and all creation in your extravagant love;
through the Wisdom of God,
who raises her voice to call us to life. Amen.
Prayers for an Inclusive Church (2009) alt.

With some trepidation we come to the Trinity Sunday sermon. Throughout the world preachers have made the annual pilgrimage to the attic, and performed the yearly ritual of cracking open their decades-old textbooks so that they can more confidently talk at their congregations.

Some of the more idealistic, perhaps especially those railing against the evils of post-modernism, or maybe even just modernism, will have their churches reciting the formulas of the 5th century Athanasian Creed. From which we hear:

3 Now the Catholic Faith is this, / that we worship one God in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity;

4 Neither confusing the Persons, / nor dividing the Substance.

5 For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, / another of the Holy Ghost;

6 But the Godhead of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one, / the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal.

7 Such as the Father is, such is the Son, / and such is the Holy Ghost;

8 The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, the Holy Ghost uncreated;

9 The Father infinite, the Son infinite, the Holy Ghost infinite;

10 The Father eternal, the Son eternal, the Holy Ghost eternal;

11 And yet there are not three eternals, but one eternal…

It’s not that that’s unclear. It’s put pretty plainly, if a little clinical: one God, not three. Each one is eternal, but there aren’t three eternals. So each one is a one — distinguished from the others — but not entirely divided. So we can maybe sort of get that, but without really getting it. And already around the time of the writing of this creed, things are getting complicated in that the equivalent to the words “person” and “substance” had slightly different nuances, depending on what one’s first language was. When things get translated from Greek to Latin it gets a bit messy. And this begins the creeping of increasing tension between the churches in the East and the West (the Greek, and the Latin), that a little after the year 1000 will result in an official split between East and West that remains to this day. (You have the churches of My Big Fat Greek Wedding on one side, and the churches of The Godfather on the other.) And all these years after that, in our own languages and experiences, words like “person” and “substance” have their own particular baggage. When I think of person I think of, well, a person. When I hear “substance” I think of the green goo from Ghostbusters.

It’s unfortunate that textbooks and creeds and formulas and words still seem to leave us in this situation of confusion, or boredom, when it comes to this doctrine, and this special day. Our interfaith relations and even our interchurch relations (and some would even say, our everyday faith-lives) would be easier if these creeds hadn’t come along and made everything so complicated.

The thing is, the irony here is that the doctrine of the Trinity comes about largely as an effort to maintain the monotheism (the belief in one God) that Christianity inherited from Judaism. Things might seem easier if consensus had said that Jesus was just a schmo, or even that he were a lesser god. Not “true God from true God,” but “demigod from true God.” The human mind can wrap its head around that a little easier. But the thing is, the Jewish monotheism of Jesus of Nazareth can’t… This grasping at God with trinitarian language was never meant to be perfect, but it was meant to be less worse than some alternatives. It wasn’t cobbled together primarily from proof-texts, but instead, arose from the first believers’ experience of Jesus. Jesus who did and claimed all these things that they knew was from their Lord YHWH’s portfolio, and yet he was somehow distinct. And Jesus speaks of both this unity and this distinctness, which we might call relationship: analogous to a parent and child. “All that the Father has is mine,” we heard today.

So we might say that God in God’s fullness will remain a mystery, but our doctrine, our idea of God that we call Trinitarianism, it isn’t unknowable in the same way. Maybe just confusing, and more than a little messy. But that’s OK. It’s not an exact science so much as an art. Similar to how we might stand before a piece of art, and know that we couldn’t make something like that ourselves, and we might not understand the technique, or the motivation and inspiration of the artist, or the historical background in which this piece of art was painted. But beholding that piece of art we might find ourselves brought to a new and deeper experience of life. In a way that it seems that painters, and actors, and poets, and dancers, and artists of all kinds are able to do.

And so I’m reminded of a story, from Greenwich Village in its most bohemian era. A story about a painter and this painter’s muse. Who befriend a young art student. And ask this student to come over, day after day, after classes had ended. And document the life and the process of this artist, and muse, and of course, the art that came out of this relationship.

The first weeks the student came by and watched and researched as the artist was in a classicist phase. The painting looked like real life. The artist produced realistic paintings of the muse, alongside bowls of fruit.

And as time went on to an impressionist phase, like Monet. And there was the muse depicted, though now alongside glimmers of movement and light.

And this gave way to an expressionist period for the artist. Where subtle anxieties of the model were perceived by the artist — perceivable, perhaps, only by the artist — and exaggerated, to create a fantastical, even horrific image.

And after this came a cubist phase. Where, like Picasso, the artist put the image of the muse through a filter that fractured reality in a confusing though intriguing way. And ears and legs and eyes were placed seemingly at random on the canvas, pointing in every which way.

This went on and on, and the art student began to wonder why these daily visits persisted. School was getting busier, and time was at a premium. And the artist and muse seemed fine on their own. And so the question was asked if these visits might be concluded. Because after all these weeks and months, the art student had indeed been able to learn about pretty much every movement and style of painting, and their knowledge of technique was unparalleled among the classmates.

But this bohemian couple wouldn’t hear it. They were actually bewildered by the whole thing. “You came as an intern,” the artist said, “but you very soon you became our friend. I haven’t been trying to show you the techniques I employ in my paintings, but to invite you into the relationship I have with my partner who is the focus of my art. We’ve kept inviting you, not to mimic my brush strokes, but for the conversation and sharing that occur while we work. That is what brings us joy, to open this circle of creativity and inspiration to another.”

And honoured beyond what could be imagined, the art student learned that they weren’t a mere spectator or intern or documentarian. But a partner brought into the creative act. Even if undeserving.

Some thinkers of the Church have spoken of the Trinity as Lover, and the Beloved, and the Love that flows between them. That story might tweak that analogy, by speaking of Artist, and Muse, and the Art that results. And what this story teaches us is that the Trinity is not abstract and closed off from us, only accessible through dry textbooks. But God as Trinity is a series of loving relationships, distinguished but not divided. And it’s through our beholding of the Art — through the movement of the Holy Spirit in our hearts — that we’re drawn into that eternal relationship. “When the Spirit of truth comes, you will be guided into all truth.” The Wisdom of God calls, beside God in the act of creation, like a master worker; daily God’s delight. And delighting in the human race.” Amen.

© 2019 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter