Knowing and Not Knowing: The Holy Trinity

Tomorrow is Holy Trinity Sunday.

I believe the best thing about the doctrine of the Trinity is its nod to unknowing. The early church beat back several attempts to make the knowledge of God manageable. Gnostics wanted to  have a spiritual god who was above the blood and sweat and nagging ambiguities of the material world. Arians picked up that same theme and tried to keep Christ understandable and the holy, transcendent god insulated from the taint of incarnation. Several of the Christological formulations rejected by what came to be known as orthodox churches were attempts to unscrew the inscrutable in regards to the nature of Jesus Christ.

I value Trinitarian double speak. There are three distinct persons, but one Godhead. One and one and one make one. It is a Zen-like way of saying that, when it comes to God, there is a surplus that we will never get our heads around. God is a Truth that apprehends us, and not the other way around. It is more important that God understands and believes in us than that we understand and believe in God.

In the end, knowledge of God is something that happens to us and changes us—it is never something we can have in our back pockets to whip out to win arguments or get us into heaven.

Isn’t this expressed in an elegant way in this Sunday’s gospel reading, John 3:1-17.

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

 

Fundamentally John is teasing out of us a recognition of what it means to know and not know at the same time. Like all religious scholars of all time, Nicodemus is in the darkness of night. He knows. He sees. But this amounts first of all to being easily impressed by “signs” while at the same time remaining blind to the fundamentals that would illumine those signs.

Jesus and Nicodemus are on completely different planes of understanding. For Nicodemus or any putative religious teacher to advance in understanding beyond darkness they must undergo complete spiritual transformation through the agency of God: i.e. through water and the Spirit (Baptism? Perhaps, but better understood as the powers of God that work in our persons through the agency of God. When we think by mumbling some words and dunking or splashing, we automatically affect this rebirth, we should hear Jesus say, you still require birth from above). To be illumined and understand the fundamentals of faith we must be given new birth. This cannot be packaged or managed, because it comes from God in a sovereign, surprising way.

Then John directs us to that surest way of all toward the unpredictable wind of God: to meditate on the good news of Jesus Christ. When Moses lifted the serpent, the Hebrew people were in a valley of biting serpents. The common sense way to make it through such a valley would be by looking down and trying your best to do some fancy footwork. Of course you will fail, but you tried the only rational thing.

But, as Luther said, God in Christ takes reason by the throat and strangles it. God says, “look up toward Moses and the bronze serpent he holds aloft.”

And in the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, God says, “Look to the Son of Man lifted up.” Of course to do that we have to be pretty desperate. We must be so convinced that we are in need of something new and transforming that we are willing to let go of all our common sense, street smarts, and settled doctrine, and risk being radically changed by God’s infinite love. We have to put our trust in God’s mercy alone.

That singular, necessary and sufficient love of God is what we see when we look up to God’s thing and not down to our own fancy footwork.

 

I’m now reading a long, 14th century allegorical poem called “Piers Plowman” that can be seen as an extended meditation on what it means to know and yet not know doctrinal or theological truth. The poet takes us through a series of visions in which he gets to ask Holy Church and other actors about both Absolute Truth and practical, intermediate truths. Each easy answer, however, must be thought and rethought. Experimentation with Truth in real life is a complex and even treacherous thing. There are no short cuts. It is a very old and somewhat obscure poem that is well worth studying.

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