SERMON FOR TRINITY SUNDAY 2013
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”
Last week I attended a lecture in memory of Cardinal Bea, one of the great figures of Vatican II. It was given by a Jesuit scholar, Michael Barnes, and it was about how the Roman Catholic Church has begun to rethink the relationship of Christianity and Judaism. A response to the lecture was then given by a Jewish scholar, Jonathan Gorsky. The evening was thought-provoking on many levels, but there is one particular phrase that I have taken from it to ponder more deeply.
Dr Gorsky was talking about the challenge to interfaith dialogue of taking divine revelation seriously. For instance, if you believe that the Torah is God’s revelation of God’s self, what do you make of the New Testament? And if you are a Jewish or Christian believer, in what sense can you consider the Qur’an as revelation? How can we be true to our own belief about what God has revealed, and yet be genuinely open to what we might learn from a different religion?
Dr Gorsky says that if we think of faith as based on a series of propositions, we have no way of doing this. If I believe X is true and you believe X is false, then we have no common ground. Now he doesn’t deny that propositions are useful – creeds and catechisms are needed to explain our core beliefs. But divine revelation is not just the sum total of the propositions that we believe in.
And now here comes the phrase that I found so helpful. Dr Gorsky spoke of the “infinity of divine utterance”. Revelation is what God shows us about the nature of God. But as soon as we put it into human language we have limited and distorted what God is showing us. God’s self-revelation will always be much more than we can put into language and propositions.
Interestingly, I heard the same point of view from a Muslim academic, Dilwar Hussain, just a few days earlier at a seminar on urban theology. We all know that Muslims understand the Qur’an to be a direct revelation from God. But Dilwar asserts that as soon as God’s revelation is put into human language, it becomes limited by its particular context. So rules that applied, for instance, to the relationship between men and women in the seventh century Arabian desert might be understood very differently in a 21st century European city.
Hearing the same note of caution from both a Jewish and a Muslim scholar in the course of a week made me think quite hard about what I want to say on Trinity Sunday. This is the day of all days when Christians tie themselves up in knots with theological propositions. I wonder how many of you have looked lately at the Athanasian Creed, which the Book of Common Prayer directs we should recite on this day?
It goes on for several pages, and the gist of it is that if we wish to be saved, we must hold the doctrine of the Trinity in all its fullness. This includes asserting that the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are uncreated, eternal and infinite. The modern version says infinite where the Prayerbook actually says incomprehensible. Through the centuries many Christians have been more than willing to state with confidence that they find the Trinity incomprehensible!
Jonathan Gorsky and Dilwar Hussain give a helping hand here from their respective Jewish and Muslim traditions. What we are trying to say about God is deeply important. But what we end up saying in human language is bound to fall very far short of what we believe that God has shown us. What we must not do is let the propositions lead our faith: they are, rather, in the service of it.
And here I must mention once again the book I have been quoting ever since Mark got me to read it, Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary, about how the human brain operates based on its two hemispheres. The right hemisphere, which should be in control, sees the bigger picture, the whole rather than the parts. The left hemisphere, in the service of the right, breaks things down and uses human powers, notably language, to explain and control and stick back together the various parts. But ultimately it must hand all its knowledge back to the right hemisphere and its provisional view of the bigger picture, which is infinitely more complex than all our reductionist certainties.
When I heard Jonathan Gorsky speak about propositions vs the infinity of divine utterance, I thought at once, left brain vs right brain! The propositions are helpful. Without language and logic we would be able to say nothing at all. But ultimately they must be offered up humbly to a far deeper reality which is beyond our human comprehension and description. Ultimate reality would be a poor affair if our context-limited human language were able to describe it adequately.
In this light we can truly hear our Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters speak about God as God has been revealed to them, and we can be open to learning from that encounter. But we can also be bold enough to speak with them about the God of Jesus Christ, who sends the Spirit to lead us into all truth, in the hope that our dialogue partners may be open to hearing what we believe we have learned about the nature of God from the Christian revelation.
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now,” says Jesus to his disciples before his departure from them. There are many things we still cannot bear. We are novices in the ways of God, and will continue to be so while we are limited by our human bounds.
The propositions of the Christian faith may tie us up in mathematical knots. It is nonsense to say that God is three rather than two or four. Threeness is the nearest we can get to speaking about a dynamic and eternal relationship. The key Christian proposition is that God is love. Love must have a source and an object, and there must be a betweenness between the two. I believe that is at least an approximation of what the doctrine of the Trinity is about.
There is no point in talking about the Trinity unless it makes some kind of difference to our lives. And the difference it makes is that we are drawn into that dynamic relationship. So our life of faith is not a matter of talking about God, in human propositions. It is a matter of being swept up into that constant flow of love. In Christian language we are united with the Son in receiving the love of the Father through the power of the Spirit. Or as St Paul writes to the Romans, God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Much more than that, perhaps, it is pointless to say. The beautiful reading from Proverbs reminds us that wisdom calls to us from before the foundation of the earth, and that true wisdom means rejoicing before God always. God delights in us and we delight in God.
Delight, rather than talk, is the best response to the revelation of God. We may not be able to bear all the truth, but as St Paul writes we can hope to share in the glory of God. The left hemisphere of our human brains must ultimately give up on the attempt to define God, and let the right hemisphere expose us to the loving gaze of One who is beyond our imagining. God’s self-utterance is infinite and our human power of comprehension is decidedly limited. So the many things God wants to say to us are too much for us to bear here and now. But what we cannot fully understand, we can receive with thanks and joy.