Monday, May 27, 2013

God is not god: A Sermon for Trinity Sunday

Holy Trinity Icon of the Written Stone

One of the most important guiding principles of Christian theology was referred to in the medieval period as the maior dissimilitudo or “greater dissimilarity.”  The fourth Lateran Council stated it nicely in 1215 when it decreed:  “Between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying a greater dissimilitude.”[1]

What this means is that all language about God is inadequate, because God is not an object within our universe.  Our language about God is at best analogical:  we speak of God as being like a “rock,” a “firm foundation,” or a “mighty fortress,” understanding that whatever similarities these descriptions reveal between God and creation, God is, nevertheless, more unlike these things than he is like them. 

James Alison points out that this is true even of the word “god,” which is a perfectly good pagan word – theos derived from Zeus – connoting the rivalry, violence, and decadence of the cult of divinities.  As Alison observes, “what we mean when we apply that word to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is much more unlike ‘god’ than it is like it.  Or it you like, the word ‘god’ is a deeply misleading starting place for us with which to begin to talk about God, but the one we have which is least inadequate.”[2]  God is not “god,” anymore than God is “he” or “she” or “it.”

Alison goes on to argue that the principle of “greater dissimilarity” presupposes that it is only by God’s grace that we are able to speak of God at all.  That is to say, God has made himself available to us at our level in such a way as to subvert our ways of understanding “god.” “God takes us starting from where we are, with our words to do with god, and worship, and sacrifice, and love and enables us to turn them into something quite else, something which is not full of the fear, ambivalence, violence and frenzy which characterize those words in their ordinary usage.” And what is more, God must really like us to have made this possible. [3]

So before we talk about God as Trinity, we have to remember the “greater dissimilarity” principle that governs all language about God.  With that caveat in mind, we can begin to see that the language of the Triune God is a way of speaking about God that tries to account for God’s “making himself available at our level” while still being God.  It is a way of speaking about God without denying the Mystery of God. 

The language of God as Triune is more intuitive than rational.  It is, as Fr. Greg Mayers notes, an Arcanum – a densely coded image, the meaning of which is unavailable to the discursive mind.[4]  It communicates to us at the level of the heart, and cannot be grasped; rather, the meaning of the Triune God grasps us as we learn to imitate God by embracing the pattern of life revealed in Jesus the Christ. 

Jesus the Christ is the “place” where God comes to meet us on our level as a real human being, while remaining fully God.  In Jesus we are given to know something of what God is like, and what we human beings are created to be like in God’s image.  And what we are given is not an idea or concept about God, but rather a life.  The reality of God is known by becoming willing to allow that life to give shape to our lives.

What does that life, the life of Jesus, look like?  It is a process of self-emptying, of pouring one’s self out in love without reservation.  This outpouring creates resistance, tension, even conflict giving rise to suffering, but Jesus embraces suffering in complete trust that love wins.  Jesus does not resist resistance, but rather embraces it in a reconciling love that births a new creation.  This love conquers sin and death, giving rise to new life.

Jesus is the manifestation of the very life of God.   God as Father is absolute love poured out into creation.  God as Son is absolute receptivity to this outpouring in reciprocity rather than resistance.  God the Holy Spirit is absolute creative energy overflowing from this exchange of love at the heart of the divine life.   Richard Leach gives poetic expression to this reality in his hymn, Come Join the Dance of the Trinity:  “Come, join the dance of the Trinity, before all worlds begun – the interweaving of the Three, the Father, Spirit, Son.  The universe of space and time did not arise by chance, but as the Three, in love and hope, made room within their dance.”

We come to experience the creative dynamism of the divine dance, come to know God as Triune, as we let go of our resistance to love in imitation of Jesus.  It is in the act of letting go, of entrusting ourselves to the dance, that the barriers to love are broken down and we discover ourselves becoming part of a new creation, a way of understanding God that is radically different from our usual ways of speaking of god. 

Yesterday morning I was returning home from the farmer’s market only to discover that, yet again, someone was parked in front of my driveway.  This has gotten to be a real pet peeve of mine, and I was not happy.  I got of out my car and pointed out to the driver that she was blocking my driveway despite the clearly posted sign and told her not to park there again.  This was said, of course, in the nicest way possible: with barely concealed contempt.

Now, it so happens that Auntie Fe was out in front of the church next door as part of her regular Saturday gardening gig.  She observed this exchange and came up to me afterwards, threw her arms wide around me and said, “You need a hug.”  She laughed as she embraced me, sighing, “Ahh, city living!”  Her reconciling embrace cut right through my resistance to love in that moment.  I was able to let go of my resentment, entitlement, and self-centeredness and rejoin the dance because Auntie Fe saw someone who needed a hug, rather than a priest being a jerk. 

Jesus meets our resistance to love with a great big hug, and invites us to let go of everything the keeps us from participating in the divine dance.  Like Auntie Fe, we imitate Jesus when we create space for others to let go into the dance.  This “act of letting go” is what St. Paul calls “faith”:

Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.[5]

The act of letting go, of entrusting ourselves to the dance in imitation of Jesus, makes available a peace and a grace that is a sharing in the very life of God.  It sweeps us up into the dynamic outpouring of love that embraces suffering willingly because of our trust that love wins: a trust born of our experience of love overcoming our own resistance to love and making us new.  We come to know the Triune God as we do that which God does, from before all time, world without end: pour out love.

St. Paul rightly observes that our faith in God – our entrusting ourselves to the divine dance – is a gift, a function of willingness rather than willfulness.  God’s love has been poured into our hearts.  We initiate nothing and secure nothing by our self-will.  The issue is our response: resistance or receptivity.

As we come to imitate Jesus more fully, becoming more and more transparent to love, we pour ourselves out more and more.  We become “selfless” because we know that we have nothing to secure or defend.  We can then choose suffering for the sake of love in confidence that nothing can finally separate us from love; not even death. 

The Cross is a symbol of love for Jesus’ followers because it was chosen freely.  It is the image of God’s continual pouring out of love in the face of all that resists love.   But here we must be careful.  Suffering is not chosen as an end in itself or even as a means to and end, as if God required it.  Rather it is embraced as a byproduct of the resistance to love that we experience as disciples of Jesus.  As Jon Sobrino notes,

Spirituality based on the cross does not mean merely the acceptance of sadness, pain, and sorrow; it does not mean simply passivity and resignation . . . rather it is a spirituality focused on the following of Jesus.  Not all suffering is specifically Christian; only that which flows from following Jesus is.[6]

Suffering in imitation of Jesus results from opposition to suffering that comes from resistance to love.  It is suffering that comes from refusing to resist resistance with anything other than love. 

Elizabeth Johnson captures the relationship of suffering to the imitation of Jesus, which opens us to sharing in the life of the Triune God, when she writes that

. . . God intends to put an end to the all the crosses of history.  If so, soteriology [the understanding of salvation] shifts from the model of God as perpetrator of the disaster of the cross to the model of God as participant in the pain of the world.  In Jesus the Holy One enters into solidarity with suffering people in order to release hope and bring new life.[7]

We might even go so far as Hilary of Potiers, who said, “It is not inaccurate to say that God became weak and powerless and suffered and died on the Cross.”

With Hilary of Potiers, we have indeed come a long way from understanding God as one of the gods.  God is not god.  The Triune is an abyss of love continually poured out into creation, a dynamic exchange of love that overcomes the otherness of the other without destroying it.  Nothing finally can separate us from this love; not even our resistance to it.  The Triune suffers with us because God refuses to coerce us in any way; otherwise, love would cease to be love and nothing could be reconciled.

God’s love has been poured into us through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.  To accept this love, to imitate it, is to realize the Triune in our own lives.   We can pour ourselves out in love, because love never ends.  The Trinity is an invitation to join the dance.

[1] James Alison, Worship in a Violent World, p. 1.
[2] Alison, p. 1.
[3] Alison, p. 2. 
[4] Arcanum, talk by Fr. Greg Mayers recorded at
[5] Romans 5:1-5
[6] Quoted in Terrance Rynne, Gandhi & Jesus: The Saving Power of Nonviolence (New York:  Orbis Books, 2008) p. 147.
[7] Quoted in Rynne, p. 147.

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