Trinity in a time of of trouble

How shall society be healed? In the midst of lock down protest erupts as the coronavirus searingly exposes the dis-ease of our society. At the first meeting of the London Recovery Board last week voice after voice called for us to 'rebuild better' and to seek at last to address the inequalities which have been made more manifest then ever. What then does the church have to say about all of this? Many now squirm on a hook about what and how to say anything. For on the one hand we are reminded the very ability and platform to speak is itself the product of privilege, but on the other hand we are told not to use one's voice is, like the unfaithful servant of the Lord's parable, to bury the talent in the ground.

Hagia Sophia Nicea (Iznik) - Synthronon of the church where the Council of Nicea met 325; 
The 4c building was replaced in the 5c after a fire and then extensively rebuilt in the 10c after an earthquake.
It is now a Mosque and a museum. The Trinity was defined here. Picture taken in 2017.

What does the church have to say - where does she lead her children in these times? She leads to the Feast of the Holy and Blessed Trinity. That may seem at first the least useful of themes; but it is Grace, for in looking again at the nature of the Godhead we find the lessons we need just now.

The invocation of the Holy and Blessed Trinity is at the heart of our faith. Jesus sent them out to baptise in it, Sermons begin with it, so do many services and prayers; “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The Trinity runs through all of Scripture as the description of Godhead. In the opening verses of Genesis we read of the Holy Spirit hovering over the waters of primaeval chaos as by His Word the Father forms creation. The Gospel culminates in Christ’s great commission to baptise all nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The last sentences of the book of the Apocalypse give us a vision of the Glorified Church calling upon the Father with the voice of the Spirit for the coming of the Son.

To say that God is three and one is more than a scriptural assertion of a paradox which you can form in words, but has no real meaning. It is the only way to make sense of the idea of God which works theologically or philosophically. Moreover the Trinity is fundamental to how we relate to one another and how societies should be formed. It is the key to understanding how we are at last to break down the inequalities of our fallen humanity and find the glorious liberty of the children of God.

I used to be a vicar in Tottenham. There was a Muslim bus driver on the localroute. My heart would sink when I got on his bus. He would spend the whole of my ride regaling me with the ridiculous fallacy that Christians have that there can be a Trinity. His argument began with the simple point that God, by definition, is the one than whom nothing is greater. There is only space for one supreme God at the top. Therefore God must be one. He was right, my bus driver. As Isaiah says,

Who can fathom the Spirit of the Lord,
or instruct the Lord as his counselor?
Whom did the Lord consult to enlighten him,
and who taught him the right way?
Who was it that taught him knowledge,
or showed him the path of understanding?

Who can do this? No one and nothing, because for God to be God there can be no one greater. Ancient and modern polytheism falls apart in the face of this simple point.

So you can’t have many gods – not at least with any kind of philosophical credibility. The bus driver was right; but this is a bit of a loss. Because if God is solely One, then God cannot be love. There was a 12th century theologian called Richard of S Victor. Richard noted what S John says that God is love in Himself; love is not something we have given God by giving Him the chance to love us. God is Love before all creation.

So He must be in Himself the lover and the beloved. But if you have ever seen a couple at a party who have eyes, and hands, only for each other, then you have seen what a selfish thing love is when it is a closed circle. Not love at all, but a form of narcissism. So to be true, love must be a community: lover, and beloved and the community which shares: three.

So God must be One to be God. And He must be three to be Love.

Hagia Irene - where the Council of Constantinople met to define the Trinity in the 
Niceo-Constantinoplitan Creed 381

Are we back to paradox; or have we have reached a contradiction such that God must disappear in a puff of logic?

SaturdayMifune or Mthiyane was a child who lived with animals. He was found in rural South Africa. It seems he was abandoned very young. Aged about five or six Saturday visited human habitations along with his troop of monkeys in order to steal food, which is how he came to be noticed and observed. When eventually brought into human society he was taken to a school for the disabled, and named Saturday, the day on which he was found. There was nothing of the romance of Mowgli from the Jungle Book about this child. "He was very violent during his first days here. He used to break things in the kitchen, get in and out through windows. He didn't play with other kids and instead he used to beat them. He liked uncooked red meat. He didn't like blankets. He wanted to sleep naked and he hated clothing." Saturday never learned to talk and died tragically while still a child in a fire at the school.

Here is another paradox: our individuality only forms when we are in a society. Contact with other human beings is necessary for our development as persons. Insofar as I am united with others and I and they are more and more one, I grow to become more myself, and I and they are more and more distinct. We are made in the image and likeness of God. The persons of the Holy Trinity love one another perfectly and infinitely and so their union is infinite and complete; but the very union is what makes those persons perfectly, infinitely, themselves and distinct.

Apart from winning my argument with my bus driver friend, this matters because the church is being called, always, but explicitly now, to be part of forging a better and a good society. Lots of people have much which is good to bring to the table. Economic actions; social policy; educational theory. What a Christian brings is an account of the fundamental nature of society, that to be good it must be Trinitarian.

A good society tends towards unity. But a good society will make the individual thrive, let the personality flourish and allow the constituent members be most themselves and individual.

In the issues of the moment this is the antidote at last to racism and exclusion. The divine society of the Trinity shows us how to order all our relationships. We are not all the same. In the ordering of households and nations, of churches and communities, the contemplation of the nature of God shows us how to be both unified and diverse. I cannot be you: I was not given the gifts that you have; you do not have mine; we are not the same. In that sense we are not equal and never will be. But my society with you unifies us together while helping me to be better at being me, and making you more fully who you are. This is the gift we have to bring to the discussions about the future of society and how it should be ordered. Something more important and profound than ‘celebrating diversity’ or ‘being inclusive' or chasing for an equivalence we will never attain, while missing the opportunity for equality and unity which we are offered in Christ.

The church needs always to re learn this; for while the Body is of many Members all of whom are unified and equal, the institution fails repeatedly in so many ways, as do those of us who are part of it and are members and leaders within it. To contemplate the perfection of the Trinity is to be moved almost at once to deep penitence and repeated confession. To gaze in prayer on the Trinity, and to see the Godhead revealed on the cross is the antidote of privilege. It is from our confessions, especially of the sins we name as those those 'I cannot now remember or do not know,' that hope emerges, change comes and we are able to speak Good News to a world which so needs it.

Jesus told His disciples to go out into all the world and call all to repent and be baptised in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The commandment is to make the world better by remaking it in the Image of God who is both utterly one and entirely distinctively Three: If you would change the world, go, baptise all nations in all their difference in the Name of the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit, three Persons; One God. That way lies not equivalence, but at last true self determination; true unity; true love.

Hagia Irene - 8c cross of the iconoclastic period in the apse


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