Sunday, June 15, 2014

Preaching on Trinity Sunday

This is definitely NOT my favourite Sunday for preaching but ...

Trinity Sunday 2014

‘I don’t believe in God.’

That’s a fairly common thing for me to hear from all sorts of people I have the privilege of meeting. 

There are any number of responses I might make when someone says that to me but, assuming time and place are right, one I might make to it goes something like this: ‘Tell me about the God you don’t believe in; the odds are that I don’t believe either.’

Well, it’s a way of developing what might be a great conversation but not everyone is very clear about the kind of God they don’t believe in - sometimes they haven’t thought  about God all that much and their ‘unbelief’ is more a flag of indifference or laziness than conviction.  

For many however the problem is the image they associate with God.  Their latent image of God seems to approximate the comic-strip divinity that cartoonists have devised for us – an old man in the clouds! That seems to be the central image, starting point or icon for many so-called unbelievers’ mind-map of God – they start from an image of a God that we don’t believe in either.  (You only have to Google ‘God cartoons’ and you’ll see what I mean.)

But where did that comic-strip caricature come from?  The concept has a great ancestry. For instance, Michelangelo’s panel of the Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel where God is imaged as an elderly white-bearded man wrapped in a swirling cloak!  We understand that Michelangelo was not saying that God is like that but every ‘image’ of God carries the potential to limit or slant the way we think about God.

With that in mind one can see the wisdom in the common tradition of the Abrahamic faiths, especially Judaism and Islam, where there is an absolute prohibition against visual images of God.  The early church shared the Jewish inhibitions of its roots and images were slow to emerge. (The unease about images of God has surfaced from time to time: one thinks of the attacks on holy images in the Eastern Church by successive Emperors in the 8th Century, and in the Western Church the ruthless iconoclasm of some Protestant reformers and Cromwell’s Roundheads.)

Yet Christianity is full of images!  Think of the icons of the Coptic and Orthodox churches in the East and West; our crosses and crucifixes; and the whole story of Western art – it is saturated with images of the Christian story. The Christian argument for all such art builds upon the theology of the incarnation and argues that such imagery stirs the imagination and the mind and so stimulates faith.  I think that is absolutely true. 

But all the language we have for God, every image that religious art may offer, is constrained by the theological ‘grammar’ that the doctrine of the Trinity imposes.  In the seminaries the Trinity is always a difficult and unsettling doctrine: the reformer Martin Luther said ‘to try to comprehend the Trinity endangers your sanity.’ Yet that difficulty is also our gain. The Trinity defies our mental images, eludes our mind-maps and constructs: it forces us beyond facile images and concepts of God. 

All theological and liturgical styles, however they may be slanted, can be disciplined by the doctrine of the Trinity: one reason why it is so important that our collects typically conclude with the prayer being offered to the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. 

The consistent and rigorous awareness of God as Trinity in our liturgy and in our prayers checks us not just theologically but also trains us spiritually.  The Trinity shapes how we pray: – we become more relational in our style and see the world differently, as the theologian Thomas Barry (1914-2009) reminds us‘The universe is not a collection of objects, but a communion of subjects.’)  

My hunch is that trinitarian thinking trains us to think of God in more open, fluid and dynamic ways, more open to making connections with the activity of God in the arts, the creation, and such speculations of theoretical physics as hyperspace, string theory, multiple dimensions, multi-universes.

Tell me about this God you don't believe in. ...

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