June 11, 2017

Triune What?

"We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire."

These are the words of the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell.

"We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire."

Maria lived from 1818 to 1889 and paved the way for women in science. She was the first recognized female astronomer in the United States, and she was the first woman ever inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. A champion of women’s education and civil rights, she reached worldwide celebrity status by the time she was forty. What catapulted her into scientific fame, however, was her discovery of the comet C/1847 T1, known today as Miss Mitchell’s Comet.

A brilliant scientist, Maria had an ongoing, nuanced interest in religion. She often was quite skeptical and critical of religion, even though she saw the value in it.

On the one hand, she would declare, "I am more and more disgusted with the preaching that I hear .... He chanted a sermon. His description of the journey of Moses towards Canaan had some interesting points, but his manner was affected; he cried, or pretended to cry, at the pathetic points. I hope he really cried, for a weakness is better than an affectation of weakness."

As a scientist, one who was deeply committed to logic, what may be her foundational critique of a sermon she heard was this: "The sermon was wholly without logic, and yet he said, near its close, that those who had followed him must be convinced that this was true."

Her critique is valid. To pit faith and logic against each other in some false dichotomy is the wrong approach. Scientist Carl Sagan famously said, "The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both." This is true of all forms of intellectual thought or rationality.  Faith and intellect are not mortal enemies.

The desire to know and to understand has been infused into our beings. Einstein pointed out that "there exists a passion for comprehension, just as there exists a passion for music. That passion is rather common in children, but gets lost in most people later on."

According to one of the great theologians of the Christian tradition, Anselm of Canterbury, intellectual talk about God is "faith seeking understanding," "faith seeking understanding."

"Christian faith invariably prompts questions, sets an inquiry in motion, fights the inclination to accept things as they are, continually calls in question unexamined assumptions about God, ourselves, and our world. Consequently, faith has nothing in common with indifference to the search for truth, or fear of it, or the arrogant claim to possess it fully." True faith refuses to accept the idea that there comes "a point where we must stop our inquiry and simply believe; faith keeps on seeking and asking" (Migliore).

This does not mean that all things relating to faith can be explained. One of the central affirmations of our faith is that God is beyond humanity; God is not human; God is not constrained by our thought or our comprehension. There is a wonderful mystery to the holy love of God, there is an overwhelming mystery in the renewal and transformation of human lives and the entire world that is brought into reality through the power of the Holy Spirit and the grace of Jesus Christ. The mystery of God is inexhaustible.

It is what our Psalm from this morning reminds us: "When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established."

The mystery of God is inexhaustible. But it is the very nature of this mystery to make us think.

"We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire."

Today is Trinity Sunday, a day in the life of the church when we are encouraged to reflect on this important aspect of God: that God is three in one, one God yet three distinct persons: Father, Son, Holy Spirit.

The early church councils debated this topic for hundreds of years, but finally settled on the language of one being with three persons. The word person is a technical word, taken from the Roman theatre where one actor, one being, would wear a different mask for each role they were playing in the performance. Thus, by wearing three different masks, one actor could play the role of three persons. In this understanding, there is one God who plays three related yet distinct roles in human history: God the creator, Jesus the redeemer, the Holy Spirit the Sustainer. One God, three personas.

But if we limit our reflection on this day to the doctrine of the trinity and how we might explain it and understand it, we will miss out on its importance.

For the work of faith is not simply to be able to put words to what it is we believe. The work of faith is to transform us and our world; to let these words and ideas and beliefs make us into something new, reborn, renewed, redeemed.

Trinity Sunday, beyond understanding the doctrine, invites us to remember the mystery of God and the importance of questions. "When faith no longer fees people to ask the hard questions, it becomes inhuman and dangerous. Unquestioning faith soon slips into ideology, superstition, fanaticism, self-indulgence, and idolatry. Faith seeks understanding passionately and relentlessly, or it languishes and eventually dies ... Human life ceases to be human [when we pretend that we know all the answers and we] no longer have the courage to ask the really important questions" (Migliore).

Of course, our faith causes us to do more than think. The knowledge we gain is to illumine our life and our practice. Thoughtful faith will always return us to the call to serve God and to serve our neighbor, to love God with our whole heart, soul and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourself.

We believe that the God who created this world and everything in it continues to create, energize, and animate the world with the breath of life. That same God is wondrously, mysteriously present in the ordinariness of our lives.

Let us not miss that truth--that mystery--in our hurry to the next appointment in the day.

Bill Moyers spoke at Hamilton College graduation in 2006. He said this:

I would like to be told that there is more to this life than I can see, earn, or learn in my time. That beyond the day-to-day spectacle are cosmic mysteries we don’t understand. That in the meantime—and the meantime is where we live—we infinitesimal particles of creation carry on the miracle of loving, laughing, and being here now by giving, sharing, and growing new.

Jesus, the Gospel says, came that we, you and I, might not perish but that we might have eternal life, that we might live fully, every moment of this precious gift of life we have been given.

Let us marvel in the mystery of God in whom we live and move and have our being.