Feast of the Most Holy Trinity
Oneness, Otherness and Love
The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:16-20
There is wisdom in highlighting our similarities and minimizing our differences whenever possible. There are more things that unite Christians, Jews and Muslims than divide us. A heartfelt recognition by each of these faith communities that as children of one God, we are brothers and sisters to each other, coupled with an acknowledgement of the bonds of our common humanity, can make it so much easier to breath the same air, walk the same earth and share life in its joys and sorrows with each other.
When it comes to our experience, understanding and attempts to articulate the mystery of God, all three Peoples of the Book do share a great deal more with each other than they, by way of contrast, share with the pantheistic religious traditions of the East where there is only the Oneness of Being and all individuation is illusion, and the polytheistic religious traditions of more primitive societies where the natural world is seen to be populated by a host of divine spirits.
So, it is true, that for Peoples of the Book, religion can more readily be put at the service of our coming together, even if, historically and to our collective shame, this has not been the case.
But there is also great wisdom in appreciating significant differences. These differences become a place and an opportunity for dialogue and conversation. We do not have to turn our differences into weapons with which to beat each other up or to arrogantly use our particular metaphor, for holding the truth, to lord it over others who think or believe differently.
Differences used as springboards for open, honest and respectful communication transform them into vehicles for engaging each other at a level of meaning. This can lead to a deepening of respect, understanding, new learning for all and maybe even a greater measure of compassion and love for each other.
To be resisted is any shallow effort to homogenize significant differences. To say or pretend that they do not exist or that they do not matter. To do so simply represents an ignorant and dysfunctional, even if well meaning, attempt to avoid potential conflict. We have all heard glib statements like “We all worship the same God and nothing else matters”.
This solution, while it may appear to avoid conflict, also eliminates any stimulus for conversation. Real unity happens, minds and hearts become one, when we speak and listen to each other. This is the work of love. Flip comments about our all being alike are born of a fear or reluctance to engage the work of loving, informed and information-seeking conversation.
While there is but one God, Christians, Muslims and Jews do not apprehend the mystery of God in the same way and do not relate to God in the same way. For example, Christians, at their best, do not worship a God who sanctions ”an eye for an eye” justice. We Christians own a very different experience of God.
Sadly, Christians can naively understand and present themselves as “mere monotheists”. When we do so, we reveal just how out of touch we are with the central mystery of Christian faith and its significance for our lives, both in terms of understanding, appreciating and reveling in the mystery of God as revealed to the saints, and living our peculiar Trinitarian spirituality so that it serves us and serves our engagement with others, Christian and non-Christian alike.
Yes, Christians are Trinitarian. To be a Trinitarian monotheist is quite different than being a Jewish or Islamic monotheist. If you have not noticed, our whole life of public prayer and worship bodies forth Trinitarian faith. Our central act of worship, the Holy Eucharist, is a sacramental prayer and action thru which we offer thanks to the Father, through the Son, in the power and presence of the Spirit.
All faith is borne from experience. Christian faith was borne from a very unexpected, peculiar and profound experience of God. It was an experience of God that blew the religious minds and challenged the religious assumptions and convictions of the first believers.
We must remind ourselves that Peter, Paul and company were deeply observant Jews. The core defining statement of Israel’s faith that distinguished it from the faith of the people out of which Abraham was called and the faith of all the other nations was the Shema Israel -“Know, O Israel, that the Lord your God is One.” Also core to Israel’s faith was that this one God was absolutely transcendent. That God would become flesh, was nowhere within the range of possibility. That God would manifest himself in weakness was absolutely unthinkable.
But these observant Jews had an experience of God in Jesus and in the outpouring of the Spirit that led them to articulate the mystery of God beyond the framework of Orthodox Judaism. After his resurrection, and based on their experience of the risen Jesus they began to call Jesus – Lord. In the Pentecost event they also came to experience the Spirit as distinct from the Father to whom Jesus had introduced them and from Jesus Himself, and they came to call the Sprit – Lord.
It took those first believers nearly three hundred years to find the words to articulate their experience. At the Council of Nicea, in 325, they professed and confessed a faith in One God in three Divine Persons in a way that acknowledged both the transcendence or “beyondness” of God as well as God’s immanence or “nearness”, in a way that held the Oneness of God in dynamic tension with the experience of three distinct persons.
Trinitarians, like Jewish and Islamic monotheists believe that the one God is a personal being. Attributing personhood to God is a gift of the Peoples of the Book to all the religious traditions of the world. There is no more generous, affirming and validating language available to us than the language of personhood. Is there something more important that we can say about ourselves than, “I am a person”? It is personhood that confers identity, dignity and rights.
Until we develop a more generous language then it makes the greatest sense to speak about God using personal terminology. Speaking about God as an impersonal energy or force, while it has become the fashion of the day for some, falls very short of the invitational possibilities inherent in personal language and metaphors. Wind and fire are impersonal forces but these do not invite relationships of loving mutuality.
Unlike Jewish and Islamic monotheists Christians also believe that God is a relationship or communion of persons. This faith enables Christians to state on the basis of their experience of God, that God is Love. It is simply not possible to legitimately make this claim within the parameters of non-trinitarian monotheism. If God were a Oneness without distinction them this statement could not be made. Before the creation, God is, and unless God is eternally a community of persons then God is not love. For Love requires Otherness.
In our Trinitarian faith we witness to an experience of God that becomes the saving possibility of a world of persons that needs to know a oneness that embraces real difference. Those who hold to a Trinitarian faith hold the key for inviting a unity in diversity, a Oneness that embraces Otherness. This is exactly who our God is and this is precisely the mystery into which we are invited to grow.
The energy, if you will, that brings us home into this eternal loving that has always been going on and into loving communion with each other is nothing other than the kind of loving that goes down among the Father, the Son and the Spirit. It is that loving that embraces a dying to oneself. We believe that before the cross became visible on Calvary, it existed for all eternity within the Divine Mystery. The Divine persons love each other with a cruciform love. Now let us go and do likewise that we may become one with each other as God is one and that together we might lovingly return whence we came.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
June 11, 2017