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Isaiah 6:1-8, John 3:1-17
Today, the first Sunday after Pentecost, is Trinity Sunday: the holiday in our church calendar when we’re supposed to talk about the Trinity. Trinity is our name for the traditional Christian idea that we worship one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is three. God is one. That’s the textbook Sunday school answer. Are you confused yet? Is your head hurting? Good.
I had lunch this week with my friend, Mother Linda Logan, the priest at Trinity Episcopal Church, and she joked that Trinity Sunday is typically the Sunday when most clergy try to schedule their vacations. Who can blame them? The idea of the Trinity is so bizarre and abstract, it’s hard to preach about in a way that feels relevant to everyday life. Alas, I seem to have miscalculated this year because my vacation doesn’t start until next week. Don’t worry though, I’ve given it some serious thought this week and I think I’ve found a way to spice it up.
You see, people didn’t always think of the Trinity as an academic theological concept. There was a time when people would literally start riots in the streets about it. They said that, during the early 4th century, you couldn’t even ask a baker about the price of bread without getting into an argument about theology.
The debate got so heated that the Roman emperor, Constantine (himself only a recent convert to Christianity), convened a conference of bishops at his lake house in a town called Nicaea. They argued back and forth ad nauseum until the emperor decided that enough was enough and promptly put his foot down in favor of the position that we now refer to as the Trinity. Shortly thereafter, the Nicene Creed was adopted as a trophy for those who had won the debate. Needless to say, it’s not a very noble beginning for this idea that most orthodox theologians now regard as central to the Christian religion.
Obviously, you won’t find the Trinity mentioned anywhere in our scripture readings for today (because it hadn’t been invented yet). The idea of the Trinity, as such, does not appear anywhere in the Bible. Nevertheless, most Christians for the last 1,700 years have kept the Trinity as their main idea about who God is and how God works. Something about the mystery in this incomprehensible puzzle has compelled Christians to hold onto the Trinity for almost two millennia.
Mystery is a troubling word for folks in the modern era. We’re not so good at mystery. Modern people much prefer concrete facts and figures. We like being able to find the answers and solve the problems. To the modern mind, then, the Trinity is infuriating. By its very definition, it can’t be figured out.
Ever since the Enlightenment in the 18th century, our species has learned how look farther and deeper into the nature of the universe than our ancestors ever dreamed of. We have accomplished feats of strength and intelligence that boggle the imagination. Looking through his telescope at the moons of Jupiter, could Galileo ever have imagined that we would one day send spacecraft to see them up close? Yet, in spite of all our achievements, human beings have also managed to discover new ways to systematically inflict death and destruction on each other with ruthless efficiency. Hitler’s holocaust, two world wars, and the nuclear arms race have opened our eyes to that reality. Reason has not purged the animal from our collective being as we had hoped. Indeed, if it weren’t for the baffling presence of mystery, our species would have given up hope long ago.
Thankfully, there remains something within our subconscious minds that spurs us on toward an encounter with that which is unknown and unknowable. We get the sense that, in the darkness of ignorance and uncertainty, we are not alone. Our scripture readings from this morning, while they mention nothing of the Trinity, have quite a bit to tell us about mystery. In each passage, someone comes face-to-face with the infinite mystery of the divine and is permanently transformed by it.
In the first reading, the Jewish prophet Isaiah has an ecstatic vision of God’s glory. The prophet tells his readers how his senses were overwhelmed,
I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.
I love the dramatic imagery in this story. It reminds me of a similar passage in a classic Indian poem called the Bhagavad Gita or “Song of the Lord”. In this poem, a prince named Arjuna is having a philosophical chat with his chariot driver named Krishna. Slowly, it dawns on the prince that there is more to this chariot driver than meets the eye. Krishna, it turns out, is actually a divine messenger who was sent to teach the prince eternal wisdom. At one point in the story, Krishna allows Prince Arjuna to see his true form:
with many mouths and eyes, and many visions of marvel, with numerous divine ornaments, and holding divine weapons. Wearing divine garlands and apparel, anointed with celestial perfumes and ointments, full of all wonders, the limitless God with faces on all sides. If the splendor of thousands of suns were to blaze forth all at once in the sky, even that would not resemble the splendor of that exalted being. Arjuna saw the entire universe, divided in many ways, but standing as One in the body of Krishna, the God of gods. Then Arjuna, filled with wonder and his hairs standing on end, bowed his head to the Lord and prayed with folded hands. (Bhagavad Gita 11.10-14)
I love how similar these visionary experiences are, even though they come from very different cultures and religions. In both stories, human beings are left standing in awe before the eternal mystery. In Isaiah’s story, the one that Christians are more familiar with, even the angels cover their eyes and sing, “Holy, holy, holy”. That word, holy, is one that we use in church a lot. People use it outside of church too, sometimes combined with an expletive, in order to express amazement. No one is more famous for doing this than Burt Ward, who played Batman’s sidekick Robin in the 1960s TV series. Robin had all kinds of unique exclamations: “Holy Hallelujah, Batman! Holy Fruit Salad, Batman! Holy Uncanny Photographic Mental Processes!” Holy was Robin’s catchphrase. Given the startling nature of what Isaiah and Arjuna were experiencing in their respective visions, I can just imagine Robin standing beside them, shouting, “Holy, holy, holy, Batman!” But, in Isaiah’s case, it was the angels who were saying it.
The word holy, as we tend to use it, typically means sacred or blessed. However, on a more general level, it literally means special or different. Something is holy when it is other than what one would expect. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate for Robin to use it as an exclamation when he is caught off guard (which seems to happen a lot). In the Isaiah passage, it seems that even the angels are amazed at the appearance of God’s glory in the temple. They repeat “holy” three times as a way of communicating ultimate emphasis: it’s not just holy, it’s not just holy holy, it’s holy holy holy! Special, special, special! Different, different, different! Amazing, amazing, amazing! If we’re not caught off-guard by God’s presence like Isaiah, if we aren’t filled with wonder with our hairs standing on end like Arjuna’s, then we’re not really paying attention.
In our New Testament reading this morning, Jesus intentionally confuses a religious scholar named Nicodemus. The latter comes to Jesus in private with an honest question: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” And what does Jesus do? Does he take this opportunity to clarify himself and maybe even start a theology class? No, he alienates Nicodemus and leaves him with even more questions than he started with. Beginning with a cryptic statement, “You must be born from above” (or “born again” as some translations say), Jesus finishes with an outright insult: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” The philosopher in me feels indignant on Nicodemus’ behalf! Can’t Jesus see that this is an honest and intelligent person who is simply trying to make sense of things in his own mind? But rational understanding is not what Jesus is after in his conversation with Nicodemus.
Instead, Jesus seems to be giving Nicodemus a koan. For those who are unfamiliar with that term, a koan is a Zen Buddhist riddle that cannot be solved by rational thinking. Zen masters will often give their students a koan to fuel the students’ meditation and spur them toward enlightenment. The most famous Zen koan is one we’ve probably all heard before: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” If you immediately started thinking about your hand just now, then you don’t get it. When it comes to the koan, if you can answer the question, then you haven’t answered the question. Why? Because the question is the answer. The question itself is the point of the exercise. Let it take you beyond the realm of what you think of as normal reason. Sit with it a while. Let it free your mind and expand your consciousness. Only then will you be able to appreciate the mystery.
Neither Isaiah nor Nicodemus knew anything of the Trinity. That wasn’t yet part of their culture or religion. The Trinity is a human idea that tries to express the mystery of God as we have experienced it. Like a Zen koan, the Trinity is a riddle that cannot be solved by rational thinking. But if we sit with it and meditate on the mystery, we might just find ourselves in the state of holy confusion that some might call enlightened.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says to Arjuna, “You are not able to see Me with your physical eye; therefore, I give you the divine eye to see My majestic power and glory.” With that “divine eye”, it says that the prince “saw the entire universe, divided in many ways, but standing as One in the body of Krishna, the God of gods.” This is not all that far off from Isaiah’s vision, wherein the prophet realized that “the whole earth is full of [God’s] glory.”
If you’re confused about the Trinity, that’s a good thing. It means that you’re paying attention. Confusion is the first step on the path toward a free and enlightened mind.
I see confusion as a virtue at this point in the modern age where absolute certainty has become an idol. We find ourselves these days surrounded by the cacophonous voices of politicians and advertisers, all of whom claim to possess the secret that will bring peace, security, and a successful end to our “pursuit of happiness”. Vote for this candidate! Buy that product! That’s the key to lasting joy!
In this environment, even religion and spirituality themselves become products for consumption. Fundamentalist preachers and cult leaders assure us that, if you simply sign on their dotted line and accept their dogmas without question, you too can secure your place in heaven for eternity. In spite of their claims to possess “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” as revealed in ancient times, the fundamentalist commitments to absolute certainty and biblical literalism are very recent and modern ideas. They only came about during the last one hundred years or so as a reaction to developments in science and philosophy that led some to question and/or reinterpret parts of their faith. Their fear is understandable, but we don’t have to look hard to find the dark side of that kind of religion. The September 11th attacks and the Jonestown massacre, where almost a thousand people died after willingly drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid at their pastor’s insistence, demonstrate what can happen when religious fanaticism goes unquestioned.
Under circumstances such as these, confusion is a virtue that provides us with humility and reverence for the mystery of it all. The spiritually enlightened mind is one that can comfortably say, “I don’t know!” Zen masters call this “beginner’s mind”. Taoist sages call it “the uncarved block”. Jesus called it “faith like a child”.
When it comes to the koan of the Trinity, there is no answer because the question is the answer. The question leads us to confusion, confusion leads us to humility, humility leads us to reverence, and reverence leads us into a deeper experience of that great eternal mystery wherein we begin to see “the entire universe, divided in many ways, but standing as One” and “the whole earth… full of [God’s] glory.” Only then can we truly join with prophets, angels, and saints from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation under heaven who forever sing: Holy, holy, holy! Amazing, amazing, amazing!
One thought on “The Question is the Answer”
The doctrine of the Trinity is definitely a mystery, and you have put it well, Barrett, that the way to respond is first confusion, then humility, and finally reverent worship.
I do think, though, that you might want to reconsider how you present the history of the doctrine. To say that the doctrine was invented at Nicea is very, very misleading. Proto-Trinitarian belief actually is in Scripture, in that both Jesus and the Spirit are called God and described in ways that a Jew would only describe God. (For example, Phil. 2:6-11 ends with Christ given “the name above all names” and having every knee bow and tongue confess that he is Lord—a direct reference to Isa. 43, where exactly that is done, except to YHWH, as a powerful statement of absolute monotheism!) That Jesus and the Holy Spirit were divine personal beings distinct from the Father, and that nevertheless there was but one God, was well established as Christian belief centuries before that—indeed, already by the end of the first century, as the letters of Ignatius of Antioch demonstrate. Nicea merely gave a formal, clarifying articulation of the doctrine in order to preserve its mystery without reduction.
What took place over the first few centuries was that objections were raised against the belief that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were distinct persons and yet one God. Some of these objections were by non-Christians looking for a good reason to reject Christianity, but the more important ones were by Christians who wanted to resolve the mystery and reduce it to something “reasonable” and easily comprehended. In order to protect the divine mystery against these well-meaning but misguided folks, the rest of the church was forced to more carefully articulate how “three persons, one God” was supposed to work. The idea of unity of essence between the divine persons was already introduced by the mid-second century to help explain “three persons, one God,” and the word “trinity” was in use before the end of the second century. And so, when the first really serious attempt to resolve the mystery of the Trinity into something neat and tidy (i.e. modalism) came along at the dawn of the third century, folks like Tertullian, Hippolytus of Rome, and Origen were well equipped to give very thorough articulations of Trinitarian doctrine that sounded almost exactly like the statements put forward a hundred years later by the Council of Nicea in the face of another, different attempt to resolve the mystery (i.e. Arianism).
Thus, Nicea did not invent the doctrine of the Trinity, but defended it against those who wanted to “solve” it in order to have a nice, neat, mystery-free picture of God. Let’s be glad they did, because the mystery is so much better!