26 May 2013
Trinity C (RCL)
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
The joke goes that the curate always gets to preach Trinity Sunday, not because the rector wants to test his or her orthodoxy, but because the rector doesn’t want to have to preach the Trinity. Having no curate . . . In fact, however, I enjoy preaching the Trinity. Not sure if parishioners enjoy hearing, however.
The difficulty is that we modern western Europeans tend to identify person and individual. We have no definition of person that takes account of relational context. We define person, for purposes of economic and social theory, as the self-interested individual. Governments are formed by social contract, that is, by agreement of all the individuals governed. Each individual, in recognition of his or her own self-interest, determines that it is better to cooperate with other individuals to accomplish certain functions on our behalf. We have no way of conceiving of a “nation” other than a collection of discrete individuals.
With that beginning point, discussing the Trinity, which consists in unity of being and variety of persons, becomes impossible. In order to conceive an equality among the persons, we end up having to think of three distinct beings or individuals. We become tri-theists, which is an ancient heresy.
All of the stuff we have been reading out of John’s Gospel the last few weeks lays the ground work for thinking more clearly about the Trinity. The relationship between the persons of the Trinity (and us, according to John) is a relationship of mutual coinherence. But this requires us to rethink our understanding of person. The traditional Christian language about the Trinity is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This language is unfortunately sexist, but considering the period that gave rise to it, we should not be surprised. Fortunately, however, it is relational. There can be no Father (or Parent) except in relationship to a child. The one implies the other. [An interesting side bar here might be the relational aspect of gender in our society — we tend to think of gender as a biological given, but in fact masculinity and femininity are social constructs, so even gendered-ness does not exist apart from relationship to some larger reality].
In the ancient Greek world, the true God had to exist (yes, was constrained) in majestic isolation from the cosmos. Absence of relationship was the signal attribute of the divine. The gods, on the other hand, necessarily existed within the necessarily existing cosmos. The gods were not God. There was no freedom in such a universe. Greek tragedy (the highest expression of Greek theology) concerned the hero who tried to live counter to his own fate, only to be finally crushed by the gods, or by fate, or necessity. We have come full circle. The individual is constrained by his or her own self-interest, and no freedom to love remains.
The Christian theologians posited freedom first before existence. God the Father freely begets (a relational term, sexy even) the Son as the first act of love which underlies all the rest of the cosmos. In their mutual delight, they freely create the cosmos, the Spirit being the gift they freely give to one another. Descartes famously said, “Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am).” I always wondered who taught him to think in Latin. His parents loved, therefore he is. The Trinity says, “We love, therefore we are.” We do not exist in splendid isolation, as self-interested individuals. We exist (even biologically) only by virtue of a larger context, a web of relationships. We think only because we learned language along the way. Reality is a gift to us.
We need the Trinity to rescue us from our solipsism. Even God does not exist in splendid isolation, but in delightful relationship. Maximos the Confessor says that the creatures are the gifts the Trinity give to one another out of the sheer delight of love. As humans, God has given us freedom, and so we can respond in kind, or arrogate our own interests to ourselves. What would it look like for us to begin to take the same delight in creation that God takes? We would offer the creation back to God in pure delight, as our gift of love.