Friday, May 16, 2008

Getting Ready for Trinity Sunday

With Trinity Sunday just up ahead I cannot resist quoting this from Dr Eric Mascall (1905-1993):

"The fact that God is Trinity - that in a divine and mysterious way there are three Divine Persons eternally united in one life of complete perfection and beatitude - is not a piece of gratuitous mystification thrust by dictatorial clergymen down the throats of an unwilling but helpless laity, and therefore to be accepted, if at all, with reluctance and discontent. It is the secret of God’s most intimate life and being, into which, in his infinite love and generosity, he has admitted us; and it is therefore to be accepted with amazed and exultant gratitude."
Whatever Happened to the Human Mind?
page 118

[Actually, for some years I have bemoaned the fact that amidst all the available online theological resources no-one has put together an "E.M. Mascall Megasite"! The Doctor is often overlooked in theological circles today, especially in Anglican Colleges whose faculties should know better. He hardly ever turns up on the reading lists students have shown me over the last decade. In fact, a few years ago a previously notable Australian theological college of my acquaintance had a heap of Mascall books on the table near the door ("to be taken by anyone who wants them") as part of the purging of their library! So . . . Mascall fans out there (recently retired or otherwise with time on your hands) . . . there must be ONE of you who could work away at such a project. How wonderful it would be if today's seminarians, writing essays with the help of Google and other search engines, frequently came face to face with Dr Mascall's wisdom on this or that subject.]

I have always found mildly blasphemous the reaction of some clergy when asked to preach on Trinity Sunday. Their hearts sink and they squirm in their seats. A newly ordained curate once said to me, "I'd rather you preach on Sunday, Father; I wasn't very good at Systematic Theology in college"!

One of the good things happening today is the revival of Trinitarian theology. Even among otherwise liberal theologians. (Presumably their re-jigged belief in the Trinity will eventually have a positive impact on their Christology . . . but that's another discussion!) And it's just as well, because the growing number of Muslim people around us means each one of us will sooner or later be asked to justify the Christian understanding of the Trinity. So - yet again - it's homework time for ordinary run-of-the-mill Christians! Otherwise we will continue to act as if the doctrine of the Trinity is indeed an unnecessary complication, cringing on the inside when Muslim friends ask out of genuine curiosity if we could explain to them why we believe such a thing.

Of course, the question boils down to "What - for you - is at the heart of the universe?" Is it a megalomaniac who just wants to have things running smoothly, whatever it takes; or maybe an abstract "force" or "intelligence"? Timothy George comments, "Thomas Hardy once referred to God as 'the dreaming, dark, dumb Thing that turns the handle of this idle show.' (The Dynasts) Again we are back to the Silas Marner type of stingy God, hoarding the glory to himself, keeping the show running but not getting very involved in it: the God of deism. Thomas Hardy's God is devoid of relationship. It is stark, speechless, obscure, remote, a hideous caricature of the real God. This is why the true alternative to Christian Trinitarian theology today is not competing monotheisms such as Islam or something else, but atheism."
The Trinity and the Challenge of Islam
in God the Holy Trinity - Reflections on Christian Faith and Practice, pages 126-127. (Actually, this small volume is a very useful resource for clergy and laypeople alike, with essays from across the ecumenical spectrum, by Alister McGrath, Gerald Bray, James Earl Massey, Avery Cardinal Dulles S.J., Frederica Mathewes-Green, J.I. Packer, Ellen T Charry and Cornelius Plantinga Jr. It is available through AMAZON.COM.)

Christianity says that at the heart of the universe is relationality, personality, a communion of love . . . community. An earlier generation of Anglo-Catholic socialists, in fact, anchored their social and political theory in the Trinitarian theology of the Athanasian Creed! I know that sounds mildly bizarre to us, but only because writers on all sides today have a diminished ability for true integration of thought, perhaps (reflecting western society as a whole) not even seeing the need for it. Nevertheless, in Jesus the Heretic Fr Conrad Noel was able to write of the Holy Trinity as the basis of a new world order.

A similar notion is found in the words of Bishop Kallistos Ware, quoting Vladimir Lossky: "Our private lives, our personal relations, and all our plans of forming a Christian society depend upon a right theology of the Holy Trinity. ‘Between the Trinity and Hell there lies no other choice.’" See The Orthodox Church, page 216.

Our view of God determines our view of everything else as well as our way of dealing with the problems we face from day to day. The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity impacts on our understanding of prayer, the sacraments, redemption, the Church and community. And it informs our theology of suffering.

Cardinal Walter Kasper spoke about this last Monday in his John Henry Newman Lecture (sponsored by The Catholic Herald and organized by the Catholic Halls of Oxford University):

"In their commitment to human rights, justice, solidarity and sustaining creation, Christians can and should work together with representatives of other religions and with all people of good will. They also owe it to the others to testify to the God of Jesus Christ, that is, the Trinitarian God who is love. This brings us to a further aspect of discourse about God which has been neglected for a long time. After a period resembling the sleep of Sleeping Beauty, the doctrine of the Trinity has regained actuality once more, in regard to historical research and systematic analysis alike.

"Self-evidently the doctrine of the Trinity is not a matter of a numerical problem or a kind of higher mathematics attempting to show how one and the same reality can be one and three at the same time. The Trinity can only be made comprehensible on the basis of the nature of love. Love wants to be one with the other without dissolving into the other. Love does not absorb the other; it means being one while maintaining its own identity as well as the identity of the other and finding its ultimate fulfilment. Love means being one while acknowledging the otherness of the other. But it does not stop at intimate duality but instead progresses beyond its own boundaries into a shared third entity in which it represents and fully realises itself. In this sense the doctrine of the Trinity is a precise explication of the sentence “God is love” (1 John 4,8.16). God is not a solitary God, he is in himself communion (koinonia, communio), and only thus can he bring us into his communion.

"In this context I can only hint at this aspect in order to show that the doctrine of the Trinity
enables a new approach to the most difficult existential question of the doctrine of God, the problem of theodicy. I mean the question: Why is there so much innocent suffering? How can God, if he is omnipotent and loving, permit such suffering? Why does he not intervene? If he is loving but not almighty, then he is not God; if he is almighty but not loving, then he is an evil demon.

"Obviously the doctrine of the Trinity cannot solve these questions, but it can shine a light in the darkness, and it can help us to survive the darkness of suffering and dying. It can show that love – as great literature has always known – always means renunciation, indeed that love and death belong together. That is also true of Trinitarian love. The divine persons are of course, like everything in God, infinite; they must therefore make room for one another; they must as it were relinquish themselves to make space for the other person. This kenotic, self-relinquishing mode of existence enables God on the cross to identify himself with that which is most alien to him, the sinner who has deserved death, and to enter into his opposite, into the night of death. God can take this death upon himself without being conquered by it, but instead thereby vanquish it and establish the foundation of a new life. Thus the cross is the utmost that is possible to God in his self-relinquishing love, it is the id quo maius cogitari nequit.
("that than which nothing greater can be thought or conceived" DC)

"The doctrine of the Trinity does not thereby give a direct answer to the question of innocent
suffering. How could it?! But it is able to be light in the darkness, that helps us not to despair of God in our utmost need and distress, but to know that in our extreme helplessness the crucified God stands by us, so that in all our cries and despair “de profundis ” we are able to bear all in faith. The doctrine of the Trinity is the form of monotheism which permits existential survival in the face of the enormous extent of suffering in the world.

"But can God suffer? Can he suffer with us? The mainstream of traditional theology has always denied this. It has understood suffering as a deficit and therefore excluded the possibility that God could suffer. On this point a shift has occurred in the case of a large part of more modern theology. Self-evidently, if God suffers he does not suffer in a human but in a divine manner. For God suffering cannot be something external which befalls him. God’s suffering cannot be a passive accident, nor can it be the expression of a deficiency, but only the expression of sovereign self-determination. God is not passively affected by the suffering of his creatures, he allows himself in freedom and love to be affected by the suffering of his creatures, he allows himself to be moved by sympathy (Ex 34,6); indeed, his heart recoils in the face of the misery of his creatures (Hos 11,8). He is not an apathetic but a sympathetic God, a God who suffers with us. God does not glorify or deify suffering, nor does he simply eliminate it, he redeems and transforms it. The cross is the passage to resurrection and transfiguration. The theology of the cross and kenosis conceptualised in the doctrine of the Trinity becomes an Easter theology of exaltation and transfiguration, it becomes a hope against hope in the living God who gives life (Rom 4,18). “Spe salvi ”, (Rom 8,20.24; 1 Pet 1,3) we are, so Scripture says, redeemed in hope. “Saved in hope” is the title of the second encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI."

The whole of Cardinal Kasper's lecture (with footnotes) can be downloaded as a pdf file from the Catholic Herald site HERE.

The Cardinal's last point reminds me of Bishop Kallistos Ware's remarks about the way in which . . .

"God identifies himself with his creation in its anguish.

"It has truly been said that there was a cross in the heart of God before there was one planted outside Jerusalem; and though the cross of wood has been taken down, the cross in God's heart still remains. It is the cross of pain and triumph - both together. And those who can believe this will find that joy is mingled with their cup of bitterness. They will share on a human level in the divine experience of victorious suffering.
" The Orthodox Way, page 64

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee;
Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons, blessèd Trinity!

Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore thee,
Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
Cherubim and seraphim falling down before thee,
Which wert, and art, and evermore shall be.

Holy, holy, holy! though the darkness hide thee,
Though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see;
Only thou art holy; there is none beside thee,
Perfect in power, in love, and purity.

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
All thy works shall praise thy Name, in earth, and sky, and sea;
Holy, holy, holy; merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons, blessèd Trinity!

(Reginald Heber, 1826)

Hubert van Eyck, The Ghent Altarpiece “The Adoration of the Lamb”, painted 1432. Size: 11 by 15 feet (3.5 by 4.6 metres). Cathedral of Saint Bavo, Ghent, Belgium.


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