Making Things Up Again – May 22, 2016
Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.
In my first semester of seminary, I was required to take Patristics, a course focusing on the first four hundred and fifty years of Christian theology and history. As a result, I spent much of fall 2012 slogging through pages and pages of early theologians’ attempts to define the emerging religion of Christianity, and then, twice a week, I had the immense pleasure of suffering through 75 minutes of lecture about what was true Christianity and what was not. My conservative, self-assured professor outlined in great detail how various orthodoxies were established, and seemed to take great delight in pointing out to us all the possible ways in which we, by thinking about God in just the wrong way, could become heretics ourselves.
But as I persevered through the central texts of early Christianity and endured my professor’s long rationalizations of why Origen was incorrect or why Athanasius deserved to triumph over Arius, it occurred to me that the lesson of early Christianity was not that the line between right belief and wrong belief was a fine and precarious one. Instead, for me, the story of early Christianity demonstrated that religious truth was constructed over time—that Christianity was not some pure entity handed down from heaven by God, but a complex collection of contradictions discovered, slowly and circuitously, by earnest but imperfect human beings.
One morning after Patristics class, some of my friends and I waited for a shuttle to take us to lunch downtown. That morning we had spent an entire period on some ridiculously specific topic related to the Trinity, such as whether the Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son or just the Father, and as I processed yet another trudge through such seemingly irrelevant minuta, I made the mistake of blurting out, “so this whole Trinity thing is basically made up, right?”
My peers were understandably scandalized by my flippant remark, but in truth there isn’t much in the Bible that would counter the perspective I then articulated. The word “Trinity,” in fact, does not appear in the Bible at all, and the concepts of “Father,” “Son” and “Holy Spirit” are far more nebulous in the books of the Bible than the most ardent believers in the Trinity might like them to be. Only once, at the end of the Gospel according to Matthew, in a passage whose historical legitimacy has been doubted by scholars, do the three persons of the Trinity actually appear together in the Bible in a clear fashion—and even in the rare moments in which the three persons of the Trinity do show up, such as in the passages we read this morning, you can palpably sense the confusion that the authors of the Bible felt they had to work through. In the letter of Paul to the Romans, in the Gospel according to John and in several other books, the Biblical writers struggled to determine how distinct and how united the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit really were. If a Christian only had the Bible to rely on, it would be quite difficult, I think, for that person to come independently to the conclusion that the three Persons of the Trinity existed as dictated by the traditional doctrine of the Church—all equal, all separate persons, all one God.
That doctrine would take hundreds of years to establish conclusively, and even more to flesh out. It would be the product of many human minds striving over time to communicate directly with God, to study and interpret Scripture with intensity, and to apply the full force of reason and logic. It would even involve a few fights and quarrels across a changing religious and political landscape. The Trinity was no easily arrived at, impeccable, divinely ordained solution; it was the gradual outcome of faithful people doing the best they could with their own creative resources as they mudded through a mess of uncertainty and obscurity.
And in that sense, the doctrine of the Trinity reflects well the God it attempts to define—a creative God who out of chaos constructs the wonders of the world, a trusting God who bestows to human beings a place of honor, power and responsibility within that marvelous creation, and a never-finished God who always has more left to say to us. To say that the Trinity is made up is not to declare that the Trinity is a false fabrication or an inadequate human stab at understanding a completely distant and unfathomable God. Rather, to describe the Trinity as made up is to acknowledge that the instinct to create and the zeal for discovery—characteristics that are so central to humanity—are also essential ingredients to properly understanding God’s identity. The Trinity as a concept may indeed capture the reality of God correctly, but it is nonetheless the result of a very human process.
On the Broadway stage now, Hamilton is all the rage, but before there was Hamilton there was The Book of Mormon. Though The Book of Mormon was an irreverent and offensive and even problematic work, it contained within it what I believe was a profound meditation on the nature of religion. One of the show’s main characters, a Mormon elder named Arnold Cunningham, is often criticized at the beginning of the show for his tendency to make things up. And despite his best efforts to reign in this undesirable propensity, Arnold finds himself—partway through the show—making up new details about Mormonism in order to successfully attract and win over a group of non-Americans who had never before heard the message he had been sent to proclaim. What Arnold ends up teaching them deviates quite a bit from established Mormon thinking, and yet Arnold comes to realize that in “making things up again” he can actually strike a chord with and help others. By the end of the show, Arnold’s teachings, having been rejected by the Mormon hierarchy, become a vibrant religious movement of their own.
I mention this subplot of The Book of Mormon not to suggest that religion’s only purpose is to help people, or that victorious religious movements are by definition closer to the truth, but to wonder aloud if the impulse to make things up is intrinsically all that bad. After all, God has sanctified creativity in his own act of creating the world; God has trusted our capacities so much that he has made us “a little lower than the angels”; God has told us in Jesus that he still has “many things to say” to us, when the time is right. Why should we not use our creative abilities to imagine our own ideas about God? Why should we not open up ourselves to the possibility that there is more about God yet to be revealed?
This Trinity Sunday, my prayer for you is that—whatever you think of the Trinity, whether you think it is true or false or simply irrelevant—the Trinity will cease to remain an abstract, staid and timeless doctrine for you, unchangeably and unmoveably fixed in the long lost past of Christian history, and instead gain currency as a guidepost in the ongoing, neverceasing journey of humanity to know and comprehend the great mystery we call God. Perhaps reconsidering the Trinity will allow you to reconceive of Christianity as exciting and significant for your life today. Perhaps reconsidering the Trinity will help you find the freedom to make things up again.