DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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TRINITY SUNDAY
The Trinity

Matthew 28.19
... Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples: baptise them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

I have yet to meet a preacher who enjoys preaching on Trinity Sunday. The Trinity remains, to the last, a theological conundrum - yet we Christians are married, buried, confirmed and baptised all in the name of the Trinity. What, really, are we to make of "in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit"?

I remember how as theological students we tried to explain the Trinity by variously coming up with such aids as a three-coloured national flag, a triangle, or a three-leafed clover. The idea behind these images was to point out that the whole wasn't a whole if any part was taken away. Obviously, a triangle isn't a triangle without three sides, and likewise the Godhead isn't God with any part of the Trinity missing.

Such mundane arguments may be helpful with the material world, but when it comes to concepts of God they are woefully inadequate. The problem with trying to explain the Trinity is that we are attempting to explain what God actually is, as if God as a trinity truly exists. That might be true, but I believe it is beyond our knowledge. What we should concentrate on is why the concept came about in the first place.

The stepping-stones to the concept of the Trinity are reasonably clear. Jesus undoubtedly thought of God as one might regard a (loving) father, and thus himself as a son. Equally probable is that he saw his relationship to God as special, but no more so than that available to anyone else, depending on their depth of faith. In Jesus' eyes, trust God completely and you too could have a father/son relationship.

There can be little doubt from the gospels that Jesus had a gift of outstanding charisma as well as that of healing - gifts which took him way over the normal boundary of being "one of the crowd". Jesus must have been very different, but then, people occasionally are. Just occasionally someone does appear who can move hearts and minds as no other, can infuse their followers with confidence and a zest for life which raises their expectations onto another plane. 

Combine such a quality of leadership with the complex metaphysics of the first four centuries, and it is little wonder that a god is born, especially when such a god so tantalisingly tests the hopes and aspirations of both an ancient religious people, and the philosophical ideas of the Greek speaking world.

The real turning point for theology about Jesus came when the previously persecuted faith gained respectability with Rome. The philosophy of the Greek-speaking world took over. Jesus moves decisively from man to God. The verses of scripture where Jesus is seen as man and prophet are subsumed by the (fewer) verses where he is worshipped.

It is a point of interest that even today, Christians will defend the Trinity with the Thomas confession of "my Lord and my God" at the expense of Acts 2.22, a "man chosen by God". Most will use Jesus' title of Son of God rather than Son of Man, even though the latter has greater prominence in the synoptic gospels. We all tend to choose the verses of scripture that support our particular stance.

Of course, the Trinity didn't come about purely because it fitted the Greek worldview of the time. The church found itself with a real theological dilemma. How could those first disciples have a god amongst them and a God in heaven? How, after Jesus died and returned to heaven, could they explain the intense sense they had of Jesus still walking with them - the road to Emmaus experience?

It may sound cynical, but one could almost say that if the Trinity did not exist, the early church would have had to invent it. The doctrine of the Trinity developed to overcome the problem of God being not just everywhere, but tangibly everywhere, a God who is controlling the universe and at the same time walking alongside of us. Jesus is gone, but surely he is still with us.

In short, an incarnational God makes for complex theology. Other major faiths get around the problem - or rather, don't see it as a problem, but as a blasphemy - because

  • God is in everything anyway (pantheism, Hinduism);
  • God is not personal (Buddhism) so the problem doesn't arise;
  • God is remote (Islam);
  • God has never been truly incarnate (Judaism).

The final irony of this is that there is little in the New Testament to suggest a trinity to start with. Even when Jesus is worshipped it suggests it is the power of God within the man being honoured. It is difficult to directly equate Jesus with God through scripture, even though he may be "the image of the invisible God", the "first born of creation", and other accolades.

And yet�.

Given the mystery of God and his, presumably, complete otherness, even I find Trinitarian talk helpful. I often say the Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner") because it is easier to picture the merciful God as a priest-type figure dispensing his forgiveness. This is also why the two denominations most able to attract new converts are the Mormons and the Jehovah's Witnesses. Both in their literature see Jesus as an easily imagined, gentle yet authoritative, heir apparent. Their God is very human.

If there is any sense in the idea of a multifaceted God at all, it is in that each of us has something of God in us. Panentheism (as opposed to pantheism) probably speaks truer of the nature of God than does Trinitarian theology, but such thought would rob Jesus of his particularity, and that is difficult for most Christians.

The Trinity helps people to picture God and to be reassured that he is indeed concerned for us and able to leave his heavenly realms to help us. That is a matter of faith and no bad thing. And that is why we go forward: with faith in God, encouraged by the gospel stories of Jesus, and guided by the spirit of truth and hope.

Or to put it another way - in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

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