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UNITY IN DIVERSITY

In my youth in England, Trinity Sunday was one of the days on which the Creed called “Athanasian” was read. Reciting it seemed to be an introduction to Eternity: it went on and on!  Every year the vicar  reminded us of words attributed to George Bernard Shaw: “Father incomprehensible, Son incomprehensible, Holy Ghost incomprehensible: it’s all incomprehensible.”

Nowadays the fact that we may only know that element of the Divinity which God has revealed to us, is often used as an introduction to the idea that as God is unknowable, what we articulate as belief is a glorious free for all. But oddly while this ecclesiastical agnosticism is often applied to the essential matters of Christian belief, we are invited to receive what are claimed to be new revelations from God, or “developments” of teachings now vouchsafed to Synods and Conventions on the grounds of the Holy Spirit’s authorship.

Note the use of the word “essential”.  At the time of the Reformation, theologians struggled with the matter of what was essential to belief, “matters necessary unto salvation”, and what were matters which were in the area of “pious belief” ot practice. These were termed “matters indifferent.”  In the first category were grouped the doctrines enumerated in the Creeds. Matters “indifferent” or less essential, were subjected to a simple test. Did they promote edification or spiritual growth, or did they tend to superstition, or in some manner undermine or misapply essential teachings?

Local churches, we would term them Provinces, were left to assess whether a popular practice or devotion deepened holiness or might prove harmful. Thus certain devotions might at one “moment” be aids to spiritual growth and at another draw us away from essential teachings. Local Provinces might exercise authority by determining whether, for instance, holy water deepened faith in God’s grace among us, or became a sort of magical charm. A statue of a saint with votive candles might deepen belief in the Communion of saints or become a form of idolatry elevating devotion to that saint in a manner which replaced our devotion to Jesus.

Trinity Sunday reminds the Church that we are to give our worship to God and to the Persons of the Trinity, each distinct and fully “personal” in a manner which magnifies the “wholeness” of the Godhead. “Personality” is obviously a human attribute, and is used merely because mortals can envision nothing higher than personality. And yet, while in our fallenness personality may lead to individuality over against another individual, in God personality is so perfect that it draws into perfect unity.

In some way we see this when we fall in love and want nothing more than to merge ourselves into the other without domination or subservience. Falling out of love often entails a struggle for personality in distinction from the other to whom we have given ourselves and  IN many and often complicated ways.

Christian devotion to the Trinity often goes through a similar struggle. For instance we may well be living in a moment when popular devotion to the Holy Spirit draws away from or lessens a devotion to Jesus as he is revealed in Scripture, or to the Father on the grounds that His very title has about it experiences of male domination. Tinkering with biblical titles for God, the first “Person” may indeed obscure the Father rather than magnify him. Or concerns that the Jesus of the Bible is not always “gentle” or all-accepting may lead to a veneration of the Spirit about whom the Scriptures perhaps say much less about judgement!

In this sense the troubles Anglicanism faces at this moment are very much a quarrel about the very nature of God. Mutuality which is at the heart of Trinitarian belief draws us into self-giving resignation of personal “rights” which may offend or divide “communion”. The Holy Spirit is the author of unity, that which draws “personality”, whether individual or corporate into unity, a unity which informs the world that God IS.

The rub is seeking to understand what areas of united belief are “essential” and what are permissive or as wonks term it “adiaphora” or “matters indifferent” or non-essential.  Anglicanism, often without great success, has sought to unite its adherents in matters of essential belief, Credal teachings; and the Creeds are tables of contents to the necessary beliefs revealed in Scripture; and what matters may differ from Province to Province and even parish church to parish church.  This has never been a static matter. Throughout Anglican history movements have arisen, from bottom up, which have proposed the resurrection of abandoned practices or emphasies and proposed that which should be laid aside because they obscure true religion and virtue. Anglicans have received such insights, rejected them or amended them over time, often in the midst of conflict and disunity. Gradually some form of consensus or tolerance emerges.

During the last century and a half this essential liberality has strayed from a debate about “matters indifferent” into the realm of revealed essential belief.  As God is incomprehensible, it is suggested, perhaps what matters is whether this or that doctrine works “for us” or “for me”.  At least in the West, where the idea that faith and culture are entwined, the test has been whether this or that doctrine works for “us” in our cultural experience. If our culture, or “my ideas” collide with Christian core belief, then we propose the idea that the Holy Spirit works through “my” culture” and thus essential belief must be interpreted in the light of cultural experience or “my” experience. A brief conjecture about what the Gospel would look like if Jesus had succumbed to the culture of first century Israel, or Paul to the cultures of the Roman Empire might give one pause. Indeed the decision of the Council of Jerusalem to admit Gentiles to the Church without circumcision, instead of being magnified as the triumph of faith over culture is extolled as a triumph of cultural inclusion over exclusivity!

How then is God’s justice to be advanced if we are called not to offend our sister or brother by imposing true justice?  In short hand this is a question about the use of power. Do we dominate our sister or brother by the use of legitimate power in the name of justice?  Or do we believe that in mutual submission to God and neighbor, God advances justice (and mercy) in an exercise of transforming love?  Our Trinitarian belief challenges us to allow our mutual independence to be the vehicle of God’s will. The risk is that we may lose. The glory is that in what seems to be loss there is gain, but a gain which in human terms is incomprehensible. And for us the agony of a loss involving the Three Persons, the “loss” of the Cross is the prelude to Resurrection, to something beyond that which we “desire or deserve”.

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