The Elusive Trinity

KatrinaCrossAbraham1The Trinity is a fundamental doctrine for Christianity but Christianity is a story of salvation before it is a set of doctrines. The Trinity is no exception. If we get the story right, we might get the doctrine right, but if we get the story wrong, then we get the doctrine wrong for sure.

John 3 tells of Nicodemus coming to see Jesus at night, suggesting he is in the dark. Jesus’ words to Nicodemus: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” (Jn. 3:3) don’t seem to follow from what Nicodemus has just said. It sounds like the answer to a question that was not asked. Is there an implied question to what Nicodemus did say? The only implied question I can pick up is: “How do I do the signs that you do?” If so, Jesus is saying that Nicodemus is asking the wrong question. Jesus says first that Nicodemus must be born again, or born from above, most likely both. Jesus “clarifies” the matter by saying that Nicodemus must be “born of the Spirit,” which is a problem since, like the wind, nobody knows “where it comes from or where it goes..” (Jn. 3: 8) Here, one Person of the Trinity enters into this story.

So far, Nicodemus is showing difficulty in knowing what he really wants, further indicating that he is in the dark. We are tempted to laugh at him for his obtuseness, but we would do well to ask ourselves if we really know what we want? So asking ourselves inserts us into the story where all of us are in the same pickle as Nicodemus, which is to say, we are all in the dark. René Girard is helpful here when he suggests that all of us don’t know what we want and so we all look to other people to show us what we want. That is, if we see (rightly or wrongly) other people wanting something, we tend to want it too. Girard also gives us the insight that since none of us knows what we really want, we end up in a social muddle that is fraught with conflict. In Romans, Paul tells us that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” (Rom. 8: 14) So, even though we don’t know what we want we can be born anew, from above, into the Kingdom if we let this Spirit, whom we can’t understand or grasp, lead us.

Then, in another non sequitur, Jesus tells us a mini-story: “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” (Jn. 3: 13) While Nicodemus and the rest of us have been thinking of rising above our humanity, Jesus has come down to take on our humanity and only then did he rise back up to heaven. So, trying to do the signs that Jesus did by some human technique is bound to fail and will keep us in the dark. But Jesus then retells a mysterious story in Numbers as a variant of the first story. During a medical and social crisis of plague in the wilderness, the sort of crisis Girard warns us will happen when we don’t know what we want, Moses was instructed to raise a bronze serpent so that any who look upon it are healed. Jesus is now claiming that he is the “bronze serpent” raised up on the cross. Raising Jesus on the cross is the result of our muddle over not knowing what we want and falling into violence as did the Jews in the desert. Yet looking at Jesus on the cross to the point of really seeing what we have done offers us a cure of our violence. Not only that, but so looking at Jesus will give us eternal life. In John, this phrase does not refer primarily to life after death but to the quality of life here and now (and presumably after death as well.) Being cured of our violence certainly is a way to an improved quality of life. This is the way of being born again, from above, of being children of God. Once born from above, our desires become much clearer and they are focused on the well-being of other people. More important, after coming down from heaven, Jesus did not return there until after he was raised up on the cross. What is above and what is below has gotten thoroughly turned around. We now have two members of the Trinity in our story.

Then Jesus briefly tells the same story in a different way: “For 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.” (Jn. 3: 16) Jesus was not sent to condemn the world, although there was much to condemn, but Jesus was sent so that the world might be saved through him. Paul says that the Holy Spirit cries out within us: “Abba! Father!” This exclamation makes us joint heirs with Christ if we allow our desires to be formed by the Desire that flows through all three persons of the Trinity.

When presented as just a doctrine, the Trinity looks like an mutual admiration society of three. When presented as a story, the Trinity is a union of three persons dedicated to creating and re-creating humanity and all creation.

Rising to a New Humanity

crosswButterfliesSt. Paul proclaims the Resurrection of Jesus as a radical game changer. It is a passage from death to ourselves to a new life in Christ. This proclamation is often understood as an individual conversion. It is that but it is much more. During his life, Jesus proclaimed the kingship of God. A kingship, of course is social, not individual, much as we like to fancy ourselves kings and queens of our little castles. The kingship of God looked like a lost cause when Jesus died, but after being raised from the dead, Jesus leads us into the kingship that we rejected when we crucified him. It is important to note that Paul was not writing to an individual but to a community, indeed, the community that at the time represented all humanity as Paul knew it. St. Paul proclaims the Resurrection of Jesus as a radical game changer. It is a passage from death to ourselves to a new life in Christ. This proclamation is often understood as an individual conversion. It is that but it is much more. During his life, Jesus proclaimed the kingship of God. A kingship, of course is social, not individual, much as we like to fancy ourselves kings and queens of our little castles. The kingship of God looked like a lost cause when Jesus died, but after being raised from the dead, Jesus leads us into the kingship that we rejected when we crucified him. It is important to note that Paul was not writing to an individual but to a community, indeed, the community that at the time represented all humanity as Paul knew it.
In the first chapter of Romans, Paul makes it clear that what seem to be personal sins are embroiled in the matrix of human desires where what is disordered within us spurs on what is disordered in other people and vice versa. It isn’t personal sin but the interpersonal sin of basing culture on the rejection of God that has us in thrall. In the grip of social sin, we choose a foundation of persecution that culminates in the crucifixion of Jesus. Persecution is based on lies, lies that are woven into our deepest being. The great Afro-American writer W.E.B. Du Bois knew what it is like to be among a people caught in a system of lies. He described the “double life” of being both black and American when he wrote: “Such a double life, with double thoughts, double duties and double social classes, must give rise to double words and double ideals, and tempt the mind to pretense or to revolt, to hypocrisy or to radicalism.” After developing these thoughts further, Du Bois says bluntly: “The price of culture is a lie.” (W.E.B. Du Bois and the Sociology of the Black Church and Religion, 1897–1914, p. 156–157) Here we can see how the culture of persecution defines us so that this shared desire feels like the natural order of things. At this point, it becomes clear that there is no such thing as personal sin. What seems personal is too caught up in our social matrix to be personal in an individualistic sense. We are not lone sinners, we are social sinners.
The Eucharist with its background in the Passover is fundamental to St. Paul’s understanding of the death and Resurrection of Christ. (See A New Passover—A New Life) As the Jews were delivered from a persecutory culture and given the chance to begin culture anew, Christians, in the renewed covenant, are offered the same chance to base culture on the forgiving victim rather than the unforgiving persecutory crowd. As the Passover was a repudiation of enslaving other humans in any way, the renewed covenant also repudiates enslavement. The failures to make such a new start have been painfully obvious for centuries. The cryptic and disturbing narrative of Jesus’ Resurrection in Mark prophesies this frustrating failure. It seems highly unlikely that the fear on the part of the woman who went to the tomb was consciously a fear of being thrust suddenly into the beginning of a radically new culture. But fear based on the weirdness that a man should have been raised from the dead does not seem to account for all of their fear either. In any case, such an unprecedented event with so much power must have been seen as the game changer Paul took it to be. It was perhaps all the more frightening that they could have had no idea at the time how the game of life was being changed.
This seems like a lot of doom and gloom when we are supposed to be celebrating the Resurrection of our Lord, but we really can’t begin to understand and appreciate what the Good News of the Resurrection is all about, let alone truly celebrate it,  until we know the bad news about death from which we are being delivered. In the Paschal Troparion of the Greek Orthodox Church, worshipers sing:
Christ is risen from the dead, Trampling down death by death, And upon those in the tombs Bestowing life!
The persecutory society requires death as its foundation and maintenance. Jesus’ Resurrection tramples this death and tells us to go to Galilee where Jesus is always waiting for us to make a new beginning in building the kingship of God. (Mk. 16: 7) This is what it means to say that death is conquered and we are free.


These thoughts are developed in more detail in my book Moving and Resting in God’s Desire

A New Passover — A New Life

AndrewMassThe Passover is the formative event for Jews, the event that constitutes them as a culture. The Last Supper, the Eucharist, is as formative for Christians. Although there is debate as to whether the Last Supper was a Passover meal, the association with that feast is clear enough for Jesus’ supper to have incorporated and redefined Passover. The big question is: What is the culture that these events are intended to form?

The Passover brought freedom for the Israelites as they were lead out (or driven out) of Egypt where they had been slaves. The violence of the plagues, especially the deaths of the first born of Egypt are disturbing, particularly if God directly inflicted the vengeance. The plagues, though, are the types of events that could have happened in Egypt by natural causes. Although pharaoh resists releasing his Hebrew slaves many times, he and his fellow Egyptians don’t seem able to rid of them fast enough after blaming them for the deaths of their first born children. (Ex. 12: 29–34) The drowning in the Red Sea can easily be seen as self-inflicted violence. The Egyptians drowned not only in the water but in their own violence. In any case, Egypt is portrayed as a violent and tyrannous society, a society that the Israelites were well rid of. Their escape was an opportunity for the formation of a new culture anchored in God’s covenant with the people. Because of the covenant, Israel became the first known culture to attempt to live differently from the other nations, most notably by not making human sacrifices and not having a king who would institutionalize violence. In the end, Israel failed on both counts. Among the more telling failures was Solomon’s use of slave labor from the ten northern tribes of Israel to build the temple. (1 Kings 13–18) The prophets constantly denounced the social injustices perpetrated in Israel. The Passover itself fell into oblivion until it was revived by King Josiah. (2 Kings 23: 23)

The context of Passover tells us that the Eucharist, an event Jesus wanted his followers to repeat, is also a transition to a new culture. The greatest difference is that, while the Passover was accompanied by violence inflicted on the persecutors, in the new Passover, it is Jesus who suffers violence at the hands of violent humans. This difference is the foundation of what is perhaps best called the Renewed Covenant, since it renews and redeems the first covenant that failed. As with the first Passover, the second is a movement out of a violent culture into a whole new way of being human. This time, the rejection of violence is clear and decisive. This rejection of violence entails a rejection of the social injustices that had undermined the old covenant.

Paul’s need to remind the Corinthians of the institution of the Eucharist shows us that failure set in very soon after Jesus’ dying breath. Paul is berating the Corinthians for their insensitivity to the poorer and more vulnerable members of the congregation at the celebration of the Eucharist itself. The social inclusiveness of the renewed covenant, including economic inclusiveness, has already been forgotten. The many failures of the Church are too innumerable to name but it is important to note that countless Christians have followed Solomon’s example and enslaved other people, a practice that is still rampant today under the name of “trafficking.”

The Passover and Eucharist are calls to renounce these social vices, but they are not easily renounced by those in power, although William Wilberforce’s crusade is a rare example to the contrary. More often, it is those who are enslaved who have to reject it. This is difficult since those in power try to render their victims helpless, but it happened in the Exodus and it happened when King Rehoboam threatened to intensify the enslavement of the northern Israelites beyond what Solomon had done. (1 Kings 12: 16) Speaking of slavery, Jesus himself acted the part of a slave by washing the feet of his disciples. In the present moment, there is a peaceful rebellion against the enslavement of this country by a gun culture where the prodigal availability of powerful weapons costs many human lives, most tragically in the school shootings that have become routine. It is when we reject slavery in all its forms that we pass over from the old lives we have lived as social beings into the kingship of God.


These thoughts are explored in much more detail in my book Moving and Resting in God’s Desire

On Being a Blessing for All

BenedictChurchStatue1Abraham’s call to leave his country and kindred has been a monastic trope ever since there was a monastic presence in Christianity. Entering the monastic life does entail leaving behind the life one had been leading up to that time. It is also a venture into the unknown. Reading books on monasticism or even visiting monasteries do not fully prepare one for life after actually entering. The author of Hebrews said that Abraham did not know where he was going and lived “as in a foreign land.” (Heb. 11: 9) The author of Hebrews was not writing for monastics but for a Christian community under pressure. For this author, all Christians have “no lasting city. (Heb. 13: 14) Abraham did not simply turn his back on his family and his culture. God told him that he would “be a blessing” and through whom all families would be blest. (Gen. 12: 3) This would include being a blessing for the family he had left behind. Monks, for that matter remain involved with their families of origin and offer help when it is needed. Benedict himself had left the Roman culture of his time in which we was well-placed socially to enter a new life in which he became a pioneer for many sons and daughters in the millennium and a half since his life.

St. Paul’s prayer that we “may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth” (Eph. 3: 18) is fitting for the monastic quest as we seek to know God deeply through prayer in the Divine Office, in the Eucharist, and in our hearts. It is significant that this deep prayer, even when done individually, is communal as Paul is praying that the whole Ephesian congregation will seek this depth in prayer. Benedict wanted his monastics to prefer nothing to the Work of God. He also wanted his monastics to “run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.”

The closeness to God gained in prayer is imaged in the vine and the branches in John 15. As a branch clings to the vine, so should we cling to Jesus, keep the Abba’s commandments, and “abide in his love.” (Jn. 15: 10) This image of the vine and the branches is communal as the vine connects us deeply to each of the branches. Indeed, Jesus goes on to admonish us to love each other as we have been loved by Jesus and His heavenly Abba. It is through this love and not from intellectual study, that everything made known to Jesus by his Abba is also made known to us. The comprehending of the breadth and length and height and depth of God is a comprehension, partial to be sure, that comes from the same love that would lead us to lay down our lives for our friends if that should be required of us. In his Rule, Benedict would have his monastics serve one another. This applies to serving at tables, serving the sick, and in general tending to the needs of others.

Although we may be pilgrims and wanderers we, like Abraham, remain rooted in the hope for the city “whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11: 10) even as, like St. Benedict, we tend to the community we are called to serve in this life so that we may be blessings for all people.

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My reflections on the Rule of St. Benedict are available in my books Tools for Peace

 

On Being Lifted up for Us

crosswButterfliesAs we draw near to Holy Week, the lections focus on Jesus’ anticipation of his Passion. Jesus’ famous response to the Greeks about the grain dying in the ground in order to bear fruit suggests a good deal of serenity on Jesus’ part. But one can imagine personifying a grain suddenly experiencing the pain of being ripped apart from within and panicking that it is dying before blossoming out into a new life beyond imagining. If somebody had quoted Jesus’ words to the grain before it happened, would the grain have been serene about what was to come? A brief reflection on our own nervous state about such an occurrence probably gives us the answer to that question.

Jesus seems less serene when he says that his soul is troubled and raises the question if he should ask his Father to save him from this hour. But Jesus’ resolution returns in the very next verse: “No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. “ (Jn. 12: 27) The clear echo of Jesus’ anguished prayer at Gethsemane in the synoptic Gospels comes to mind here. Luke is particularly dramatic with the drops of blood dropping to the ground. The Epistle to the Hebrews stresses Jesus’ anxiety more than the Gospels: “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” (Heb. 5: 7) It is significant that, although Jesus was not saved from death, his prayer was heard. Or was Jesus saved from death?

After his Gethsemane-like words in John, Jesus says: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” John goes on to say: “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. (Jn. 12: 32-33) I agree with the many scholars who take this verse and similar ones in John as conflating the cross and resurrection. John abounds in word plays and here John gives us a double meaning to “lifted up.” Jesus was lifted up on the cross and he was lifted up in the resurrection. This conflation has the danger of minimizing the reality of Jesus’ death, making it a quick and easy passage to the resurrected life. However, I see a strong tension in the way that John makes the expression “lifted up” do double duty. After being lifted up on the cross, the crucifixion remains an enduring reality even after Jesus is lifted in the resurrection. That is, it is not only the Resurrection but the crucifixion that draws people to Jesus. John gives a powerful stress on the victimization of Jesus as the focal point when Jesus says: “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” (Jn. 12: 31) The crucifixion judges the persecutors and the resurrection drives out the persecutory mechanism that has ruled the world. It is because, as the author of Hebrews said, Jesus ‘learned obedience through what he suffered,” (Heb. 5: 8) that he has the power to draw us to him. That is the say, the conflation can work both ways. It seems to dilute the experience of Jesus’ death but it also retains the painful death in the glory of the resurrection. This conflation shows how vital both elements are. Jesus was raised up on the cross as a victim of grave social injustice. God raised Jesus to vindicate Jesus and to demonstrate that the crucifixion, a disgrace in the eyes of the persecutors, was in truth the glory of God. (The Greek word doxa is another double entendre as it means both disgrace and honor.)

We can speculate on how Jesus himself actually experienced his approaching death but can arrive at no definitive answers. Even the New Testament writers who dealt with it give us varying portrayals. It stands to reason that Jesus’ own emotions were at least as complex as the sum of depictions in the New Testament. But, as the author of Hebrews said many times, Jesus is the forerunner into persecution and death to give us the courage to face both ourselves.

How Jesus Was Tempted as We Are

field1Mark tells us that immediately after his baptism, the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness where he was tempted, or tested, by Satan.

Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark tells us nothing else about the testing so we do not get a set of three drawn-out temptations to analyze. We are left with the bare fact of testing. What night the testing have consisted of in addition to, or underlying, the longer accounts?

René Girard has given us a new and profound way to understand “Satan” in scripture by noting that the word skandalon (the Satan) literally means a stumbling block. Girard has demonstrated the ways humans become stumbling blocks to one another when they become conflicted. (Satan is well known to be a sower of discord.) In this model, it takes at least two to have a stumbling block, so how could Jesus, alone in the wilderness, have dealt with conflict unless he was fighting a supernatural creature? I, for one, know that when I am alone, many other people are still with me, particularly anybody with whom I happen to have a conflictual relationship. In fact, being alone during a time of conflict is a great way to become obsessed with a rival—OR—to let go and listen to a deeper voice free of scandal, such as Jesus’ heavenly Abba.

As soon as Jesus began his public ministry, it was immediately clear that he knew scripture and the tradition of his people very deeply. Many biblical scholars suggest that Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness recapitulates the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land. Surely Jesus would have been deeply mindful of that journey: his people’s gratitude for the escape from slavery, their hopes for the future, but also their violent social conflicts and rebellions. These events in the journey would have given him much to reflect on as to how humans make themselves stumbling blocks to others.

Jesus also demonstrated from the start an acute awareness of what many of the Jewish leaders were like, surely enough to give him strong premonitions of how they might react to the religious vision inspired by the heavenly voice at his baptism and strengthened in the silence of the wilderness. He was most likely tempted to rehearse his arguments with the elders and think of ways to get the better of them. To overcome this challenge, he would need to find a way to interact with these leaders in a non-rivalrous way so as to embody the non-rivalrous character of his heavenly Abba. More important, he would have to begin facing possible outcomes of his ministry in the face of the Jewish and Roman leadership in Palestine. Since all of us have to deal with the small and great conflicts that tempt us to become stumbling blocks to others, Jesus was himself, as the author of Hebrews said, tempted in every way as we are. The uncanny way Jesus managed to deflect conflicts with the Jewish leaders away from escalations and, at the end, his willingness to die rather than use violence to save himself, show us that the Spirit, after driving Jesus into the wilderness, had indeed strengthened him to absorb the nonviolent ways of his heavenly Abba for the sake of our salvation.

For an introduction to René Girard, see my essay Violence and the Kingdom of God.

A Sign of our Mortality

CrossofashesThe custom of imposing ashes on our foreheads as a sign of our mortality on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the penitential season of Lent, has the potential to encourage us to think that mortality is something we should repent of. The opposite is the case. We are not asked to repent of our mortality, we are asked to remember our mortality. Remembering our mortality is an important way to repent and to amend our lives. Since God made us mortal, mortality is not the problem. The problem, a huge problem, is the tendency to deny our mortality, to think that death should not apply to us. Clinical studies inspired by Ernest Becker show that denial of mortality leads to violent and insensitive behavior while some measure of acceptance leads to a much more humane way of relating to others, of connecting to others. I can’t help but reflect that in a great many fantasy novels, the villain tries to gain immortality which can only be achieved by stealing the life substance of others; an extreme example of how denial of mortality inevitably leads to victimization of other people. Such villains are always so deeply isolated as to be living deaths, no matter how many years they survive in this world. But if we accept our mortality, we put our trust in the crucified and Risen Lord, the true giver of life. When we accept our mortality, the time we have to repent becomes precious and we are ready to spend this precious gift wisely in the way we live so that others, too, may live.