A Raid on the Inarticulate
The Rev. Dr. Andrew R. Guffey
Trinity Sunday 2019
In the name of the Triune God: Author, Only-Begotten, and Gift. + AMEN.
It is Trinity Sunday, the one Sunday of the year many priests and preachers hope they have a seminarian in their ranks, so that they can have someone else—really, any one else—preach on the Trinity. In his essay, “Is There a Christian Sexual Ethic?” Rowan Williams says he is tempted to say, “Yes, many,” and leave it at that. I think most preachers feel the same way about approaching the Trinity: “Is there a good way to talk about the Trinity?” No, not really, and leave it at that.
And so, it is customary to dispense well-intentioned little analogies for the Trinity. God is one and three like: a three-leaf clover; the sun, with its light, and heat; an egg: shell, white, yolk; Water: as liquid, solid, and gas; really gooey cherry pie, sliced in three: three pieces of pie, but one gooey substance. But of course, all of these analogies break down, some sooner than others. And the heresy police are always ready to point out exactly why and how each breaks down. Christians have, since the beginning, been quick to identify God as One in Three, and just as quick to say, “But not like that.”
There are also the condescending views of the rationalists. Thomas Jefferson, for instance. In 1813, Jefferson wrote to John Adams:
“It is too late in the day for men of sincerity to pretend they believe in the Platonic mysticisms that three are one, and one is three; and yet that the one is not three, and the three are not one . . . But this constitutes the craft, the power and the profit of the priests. Sweep away their gossamer fabrics of factitious religion, and they would catch no more flies.”
And Adams wrote back: “[It is] certain that two and one make three, and that one is not three nor can three be one. …Had you and I been forty days with Moses on Mount Sinai, and been admitted to behold the divine Shekinah, and there told that one was three and three one, we might not have had courage to deny it, but we could not have believed it.”
Both of these reactions—well-meaning defense of the doctrine of the Trinity, and rationalist dismissal—are exercises in missing the point. They’re both trying to work out some illogical math problem. So, let me just point out what should be obvious: God is not a math problem. Theology is not algebra: God’s love is not poured into our hearts by solving for x. That’s just not what any of this is about.
So then why the doctrine of the Trinity? Why a whole Sunday devoted to celebrating the Trinity? Why do we talk about three in one and one in three? If it just leads to so much confusion, shouldn’t we just chuck it?
Let me suggest the doctrine of the Trinity is something like poetry: it is a raid on inarticulate, a line I’ve picked up from T. S. Eliot:
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
…Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business. (East Coker, V)
For us, there is only the trying. Naming God, naming our experience of God, is trying to learn to use words, and finding that every attempt is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure. To name God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a kind of short-hand. To describe God as One in Three is a similar kind of short-hand. But the reality of the Trinity is not an idea, but the Living God, whom we find in the general mess of imprecision of feeling, undisciplined squads of emotion. Or, if you like, in prayer.
I almost want to say the doctrine of the Trinity is not about God at all, but about a Christian experience of prayer, but of course, prayer IS all about God. I’m tempted to say that our Trinitarian formulas tell us less about who God is in the absolute and more about the unspeakable Something that we awaken to in our praying, and the shock at finding that the Divine has a structure, of sorts.
It is fitting that Trinity Sunday follows Pentecost (actually, constitutes the Octave of Pentecost), because in prayer it is the Spirit that draws us deeper into the heart of God, which is what I think Jesus means in John’s Gospel when he says the Spirit will lead us into all truth. Prayer is not just a few words strung together or even the words in the prayer book. (I know, I know, that’s blasphemy.) Prayer is, fundamentally, an encounter with God, which may be in words, or may not.
There’s a story I love to tell. Mother Teresa was giving an interview once—60 minutes or something—and the interviewer said, “So you pray for an hour every morning. What do you say to God for an hour?” Mother Teresa thought for a moment and said, “Well, mostly, when I am praying, I am just listening.” The interviewer perked up, “Oh, ok. So, if you’re praying for an hour, what do you hear God saying? What is it that you hear when you’re listening.” To which Mother Teresa replied, “Well, mostly, when I am praying, God is just listening.”
Whatever else happens in prayer, whatever words are spoken or not spoken, that is, I think, the most succinct summary of its essence. Prayer is a kind of attentiveness between God and us, a loving attention. It is, to be a bit provocative, ecstatic. It is erotic, if you will. It is a yearning between God and us. In Romans 8, Paul says, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” And did you catch that line from Proverbs: Then I was beside him, Wisdom says, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.
The early Christians understood Wisdom here to refer to Christ. Christ as the Wisdom of God who was with the Eternal God from the beginning, and who was daily the delight of the Source of all that is. And that delight is not closed, but opens toward the world, delighting in the human race. That is the beginning of our reflection the Trinity: God does not love us because God needs something from us, but simply because that is who God is within the very life of God. Prayer is what happens when we are caught up into that delight and regard, that yearning within God and from God for us.
We have devised this way of talking about God almost precisely because it doesn’t make sense. We talk about the Trinity because we’ve been caught up in the Grace of God; the Shekinah, as Adams put it, the Glory of God has shone in our hearts through Christ and in the Spirit, has pulled on the deepest of our desires to be, to live. And beholding the depths we have found the foundation of your being and my being and all that is, and it is Beauty, and it is Love. And Love has a structure that is One and it is Three, and we try to use words. It is not It. It is Mother, Father, Lover, Friend. No, the Name for that Love is beyond our capacity to speak. Mother is not quite right. Father is not quite right. Lover and Friend and Savior and Redeemer and Sister and Brother and Fount and Tower and Most Glorious cannot contain what we have found. All of these are another attempt at trying to use words, and a different kind of failure. But for us, there is only the trying. For us, there is only the praying.
Trying to describe how God is Three in One and One in Three is a little like trying to explain the mathematical properties of my children’s smiles. Sure I could probably do it, and it might even be fun, but that’s not the point. Trying to explain how God is one God in three persons, whom we traditionally name Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, might be fun, but that point is not to explain, but to love and to enjoy the love God bears toward us.
So let us learn to live in that love. Let us pray our way into the Trinity.
And if it helps to think of God as really gooey cherry pie, well, maybe there’s not much harm in that, too.