Do Christians Really Have Three Gods?

The other day a friend wondered why we Christians have three gods, yet have the audacity to claim they’re one.  Years ago I was in an ecumenical group that included reform and conservative Jews who knew they could get us going in rhetorical circles by asking the same question.  I think they started the merry-go-round for the fun of it, especially if they were on the losing side of another argument.

Christianity is anchored in the Trinity: God known to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We may speak of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but there is only one God, not three.  It’s not a concept that fits any rational model most people would accept as valid.  God’s trinitarian existence can be inferred from scripture, but it’s not proclaimed in an overt way.  Many theologians over many centuries have done their best to explain it.  As brilliant as their work has been, circumstantial evidence is the best they’ve come up with.  The insurmountable obstacle has always been the impossibility of feeble human minds to dissect the inner workings of God, although that’s exactly what’s been tried time and again.

One might wonder where the concept of Trinity came from in the first place.  My take is this: the oneness of God was never in doubt for the first generations of Christians.  What they knew for certain was that God was truly and fully present in Jesus, and through him the fullness of God’s intentions for creation were made known.  As the faith spread to lands where the god of the Jews, Jewish history and Jewish ways were unknown, the whole thing had to be explained from the beginning making sense to Greek and Roman ways of thinking.  And it had to be explained in ways that exposed their pantheons of gods as not only false, but having no existence at all.  

That meant explaining who God is and how Jesus is related to God by using terms and reasoning understood by Greek and Roman philosophers, which is more or less what Christianity’s central creed, The Nicene Creed, tries to do.  Developed in the 4th century over more than fifty years, it can never be said to anticipate a 21st century audience, but it remains the pivot around which Christian theology rotates.  Explaining God and Jesus was not enough.  Christians have always been aware that God’s imminent and intimate presence is still with us, even if Jesus isn’t.  Drawing from abundant biblical evidence of God’s spirit active in the affairs of humans, the Holy Spirit was included in the Creed.

God’s own self revelation has come to us through prophets, in Jesus, and with the here but not seen power of God for us.  For lack of better words, we call them Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It creates a few problems for modern ears.  Father, for instance.  It does not and cannot mean that God is a male, much less and bearded old man somewhere in the heavens.  All the painted images we’re so familiar with are imitations of the Greek Zeus and Roman Jupiter.  I’m sorry they ever got used because they implanted a misleading image we can’t seem to get rid of.  Jesus called God his father to describe a relationship that today we would call genetic – Jesus is of God.  No one else ever was.  No one else ever will be.  Again, for lack of a better word, he is God’s son.  The word doesn’t really work, but it’s the best we’ve got.  

He called God father, so we do too, but God is neither male nor female.  It’s not God’s problem.  Our language isn’t up to the task, and our heritage of relationships dominated by patriarchy doesn’t help.  Humans are created in God’s image, male, female and everything between, so there is something about the godly image in us that has nothing to do with sex.  What could it be?  I think it has to do with our ability to create, to think things never before thought, and bring them into existence: art, literature, scientific theory, inventions, etc.  But I digress.

Trying to define the internal life of God, the mechanics of God’s existence as it were, is impossible.  It hasn’t stopped generations of theologians from trying, but it’s a fool’s errand.  It’s better to accept God as presented, and allow the mystery to be a part of it.  As a trinitarian Christian, I’m content to know that God has been made known to us as God, God in Jesus, and God’s Spirit with us.  Calling God Father, as Jesus did, helps illuminate God’s generative, loving relationship with creation.  God as Holy Spirit acknowledges that God remains actively engaged in the life of this world.  And, for me, God as Son is, as John the Evangelist proclaimed, the Word of God made flesh.  He is, therefore, not a prophet or sage but the living presence of God in earthly life.  As John reports Jesus to have said to Phillip, one of his followers, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14)  I’m content with that.

How Can You Believe That Stuff?

Sometimes I get questions from two sides on the same subject.  From non-believing friends it’s: “How can you, as a reasonably intelligent, well educated person, be a Christian.  I mean, do you really believe all that stuff?”  From certain conservative evangelical and fundamentalist friends it’s: “How can you claim to be Christian and buy into intellectual secularism that denies the authority of God’s Word?”

My usual response is to say this will take a while, how much time do you have?  

One thing needs to be dismissed at the outset. Being a Christian doesn’t require an emotional conversion experience where one accepts Jesus as one’s personal lord and savior. I find it a facile formula of low validity. On the other hand a personal experience of exposure to God’s imminent presence in the blinding light of pure love leaves little doubt about God’s reality. Those who have experienced it seldom talk about it. There are a lot of imitators out there. Too many believers are rooted in magical thinking, and juvenile understandings of their religion. There’s no point in getting mixed up with them.

So moving on, for a long time it seemed that God was used to explain mysteries that couldn’t be explained in other ways.  As human knowledge grew through advances in math and science, mysteries became well understood facts that pushed the need for God farther toward the edge until there was no more need for God at all.  At least that’s how the story often goes.  I think it’s wrong.  As human knowledge has probed ever deeper into the way things are, the mystery has deepened, and God appears not at the edges, but in the center.  It’s not the same thing as arguing for intelligent design.  It’s more an argument in favor of processes set into motion by divine intention.  The universe, it turns out, is bursting with fecundity and chance, full of possibilities, successes and failures, with God free to engage or not as God chooses.  It’s not offered as a proof for God, because I have none, but it is offered as proof that human knowledge is in its infancy and utterly incapable of disproving God.  

My denomination, Episcopalian (Anglican), finds no inconsistency between science and faith, and delights in all that we are able to discover.  What is more difficult for the modern mind is the idea of spiritual reality existing with material reality.  It’s a recent phenomenon dating from the expulsion of ignorant superstitions from the rational mind of the Enlightenment.  They needed to be expelled, but they’ve never been erased.  People hang onto them for reasons deeper than ignorance or naivety.  For as long as humans have existed, they have had an awareness of spiritual reality as a part of daily life.  Spiritual reality is a form of being that is present in living things, souls for instance, but just as present in inanimate things, and on its own apart from things.  American Indians have a strong sense of the spiritual that is present in nature.  In Hawaii it’s rude to enter certain places without first honoring the spirit that is part of it.  Some of us are aware of thin places, places that can come into and go out of existence where the separation between the spiritual and material worlds is thin.  One way or another, every culture has an idea of the holy, the spiritual reality that has a special interest in humanity.  To be sure, there is an enormous variety of ways in which the idea has been manifested in religions, gods, and epic mythologies.  The point is that for millennia in every culture, spiritual reality was taken for granted because it was experienced in daily life.  Enlightenment rationality undermined superstitions that needed to go, but the popularity of fantasy entertainment and fads demonstrates that even the most adamant  rationalist can’t avoid having an awareness of the spiritual.  

The Judeo-Christian tradition, of which I am a part, believes God has revealed God’s self through prophets and sages, which for Christians, reached its climax in Jesus, whom we know to be the full presence of God revealed in human form.  For us, it banishes all superstition and fantasy.  Curiously, revelation of divine presence in Jesus had nothing to do with explaining away the mysteries of the world that science can explain through verifiable reasoning, and everything to do with guiding us toward justice, harmony, healing, reconciliation, peace, and a fuller more blessed life for us and for all of creation.  It may be, as the ancient Greek poet Aratus wrote, “in him we live and move and have our being,” but God is not simply the source of being; God is the source of loving care for all creation, you and me included.  

Theology, the philosophical discipline of understanding the relationship between God and creation, seeks to discover first the meaning of truth, and more particularly the truth about good, evil, and all that lies between. And second, if such and such is what we say is true about God, how can human minds find a way to understand it. As St. Anselm said, it’s faith seeking understanding. It can never find the end because what we are able to know is always changing, exposing us to exponential growth in what we don’t know. Speaking for myself, I know that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh; everything else is provisional.

There are Christian leaders who assert they know the absolute truth, and reject any deviation from it.  They’re wrong, and frequently so foolishly wrong they become objects of ridicule who bring disrepute on Christianity as a whole.  Not all of them are conservative fundamentalists.  Some are liberal thinkers who wander off in strange directions pursuing a god they’ve invented for themselves.   But I digress.

The point is that, as a reasonably intelligent and well educated person who has been willing to dig into history, philosophy, theology and the sciences, I am convinced of God’s being, and believe that God is most fully revealed in Jesus, whom I try to follow.  Moreover, I believe that what is spiritual and what is material are part of a whole that is the fabric of the universe.  How other religions may fit into God’s work is unknown to me, but I reject whatever in them is unable to accommodate God’s love for all of creation.

“But,” say my interlocutors, “how could you, how could you?  Can’t you see the injustice and inhuman violence done in Christ’s name throughout the ages?”  Yes, I can see them.  They have been, and continue to be, sinful outrages against everything revealed to us about God through Jesus.  They are outrages humans have and continue to commit against one another in the name of many gods and beliefs because we are arrogant, selfish, greedy, fearful creatures who choose not to listen to God.  Don’t blame God for who we have made ourselves to be.  Pay attention to God as revealed in Jesus.  Undertake the work of divine healing, as best you can, in the part of the world where you are.  You aren’t perfect, so don’t expect to be.  

Donne, Trump & Truth

John Donne (1572-1631) has a way of sneaking up on me from time to time.  I was using a portion of his Satire #3 for another article, a portion that has often counseled me through times of doubt as I struggle to understand the world around me.  Doubt is something we all deal with about nearly everything in our fast paced world.  Anyway, the other article was about religion, but as I reread Donne it occurred to me that he spoke directly to our contemporary political culture as clearly as he spoke to his own.  And that’s where this article came from.

Donne’s English is enough different from ours that some years ago I reworded this part to make it more palatable to the modern ear, and more useful in adult Christian education classes.  You should read Donne yourself in his own words, but here is my updated version intended to spark more conversation about American politics. 

Truth and falsehood are near twins, yet truth is the elder.  Work hard to seek her.  Believe me this, you are not nothing or worse to seek the best.  To adore, or scorn an image (statues and paintings in church), or protest.  All may be bad, but doubt wisely.  In a strange way to stand inquiring is not to stray. To sleep, or run wrong, is.  

On a huge hill, cragged and steep, truth stands, and if you will reach her you must take a twisting trail.  What the hill makes difficult must be overcome.  Strive hard before age, death’s twilight, deprives you of your strength.  Do not delay. Do it now.  Hard deeds, bodily pains, difficult study, are the work that needs to be done.  

The mysteries of truth are like the sun, dazzling, blinding, yet plain to all the eyes.  When you have found truth, keep it.  Ordinary men are not so ill served by God that he has signed blank charters for kings to kill whom they hate.  They are not vicars of Christ but hangmen of fate.  Don’t be a fool, a wretch, and let your soul be tied to their laws, a slave to kings’ powers.  You will not be tried by them on the last day.

On judgement day will it do you any good to say that Phillip (King of Spain), Gregory (pope), Harry (Henry VIII), or Martin (Luther) taught you this or that? Before God their disputes are mere contraries, maybe equally wrong. Isn’t that what they claim – that each of the others is wrong? Maybe they all are.

So that you may obey kings rightly, know their bounds, their history, their nature, and their names.  Know how they’ve changed.  Humbling yourself before them is idolatry.  A king’s power is like a stream, and those who prosper in its gentle backwaters lose their roots in the greater law of God. When the tyrant rages, alas, they are driven through mills, and rocks, and woods, and at last, almost consumed, going into the sea where all is lost.  And thus also perish the souls who choose for themselves unjust power, who claim to have it from God.  Trust in God himself, not them. 

Consider that last part, “So that you may obey kings rightly, know their bounds, their history, their nature, and their names.  Know how they’ve changed”  

When I watch the crowds at Trump rallies, I don’t see people interested in obeying Trump rightly, knowing his bounds, believing his history, understanding his nature, or from whence he came.  I see people who have become idolators worshiping at the feet of a despotic man who basks in their adulation, yet cares nothing for them.  It’s all he wants from them.  He feeds on their homage like a vampire feeds on his victim’s blood.  His ego demands it.  He can’t live without it.  As long as they humble themselves before him, he’s content until his gnawing hunger for more leads him to another rally.  

Promising everything and delivering nothing, yet they remain loyal for reasons that dismay me.  Believing he will make them free and prosperous, they surrender their freedom and their prosperity to his authoritarian ways.  What’s worse, certain leaders claiming to be Christian have assumed for themselves unjust power, claiming to have it from God, and presume to confer it on Trump.

Are rallies for others any different?  I think they are.  It isn’t simply that the candidates themselves speak in full sentences with considerable knowledge about the issues.  Those attending may express passionate support for Joe, Bernie, Elizabeth, Pete, or Amy, but no two rallies are the same for any candidate.  The mood at each is unique; participants freely express widely differing thoughts on important matters.  Unquestioned loyalty is neither demanded nor expected.  Of course the candidates have sizable egos or they wouldn’t be running, but they sublimate them to earn the peoples’ trust, and in the interest of the greater good.  

In the end will it do you any good to say that Donald, or Mitch, or Bernie, or Elizabeth taught you this or that?  Before God their disputes are mere contraries, maybe equally wrong.  Isn’t that what they claim – that each of the others is wrong?  Maybe they all are.

This year brings many doubts, and Donne’s good counsel helps.  But about one matter I have no doubt.  I have no doubt that Trump is a bumbling authoritarian narcissist who, claiming to know more about everything than anybody, knows little and is unable to anticipate the consequences of his gut inspired actions.  For that reason alone he’s dangerous, and needs to be defeated.  As for Mitch, I have no doubt that he’s sold his soul in a faustian deal, and using his considerable skills works to manipulate government toward the plutocracy he favors.  

How to best evaluate the others continues to be a search for truth on a twisting trail.  Any of them  would be an improvement, but one of them will be the right one for our time.  Which?

Trying To Make Sense of Suleimani

As with many, I’m struggling to make sense of Suleimani’s assassination.  It’s not a simple matter, even for those of us who try to follow world affairs as well as we’re able.  It wasn’t an assassination because that’s against the law, so says the administration.  But it sure looks like one.  

Yes, but he’s responsible for the deaths of many Americans, says the administration.  

We all agree that’s true, but we’ve been engaged in war like conflict in the region since 1990, that’s thirty years during which we also have been responsible for uncounted deaths, including a few too many “Oops, terribly sorry, didn’t mean to bomb that wedding” incidents.

Yes, but we’re the good guys, says the administration.

I would like to think so, and Iran has tried hard to live up to its bad boy reputation.  But a quick look at a map of U.S. military installations surrounding Iran, and they do surround it, suggests Iranians may not agree that we’re the good guys.  Nations dislike being surrounded by military bases of an imperial power.  Who’s the enemy among enemies depends on whose side one is on, and let’s face it, we’re the occupying army.  There has never been a beloved occupying army, never in the history of empires. 

Well, he had it coming because he fought dirty with diabolical IEDs, ragtag militias, and alliances with any disaffected terrorist he could find.  

It’s pretty much the same thing British commanders said about American revolutionaries in 1776.  It’s the way small countries fight big ones.  Consider what the Roman tribune said to Paul when he was arrested in Jerusalem: “Are you not the Egyptian, then, who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness?” (Acts 21) 

None of that makes Suleimani an honorable man, and there is some evidence his public relations staff had burnished his reputation far beyond credulity, leaving some Iranian leaders suspicious of his political intentions.

Trump says he ordered the killing because of an imminent threat that has now been stopped.  I wonder.  In 2012 he tweeted up a storm predicting Obama would go to war with Iran to boost his chances of wining reelection.  It didn’t happen then, but in 2020 Trump appears to be following the script he wrote to boost his own chances at reelection.  Some of my right wing friends love it.  It’s the kind of “We’ll show them, and they’ll learn not to mess with us” bravado that demonstrates American toughness.  No more of this namby-pamby diplomacy that Pompeo labeled as Obama “trying to buy them off.”  

Where does that kind of thinking come from?  I said to a few others that Trump chose the Dirty Harry option, believing it would make him look like a Clint Eastwood character full of virtue and violence acting as judge, jury and executioner.  But as Harry said, “A man’s got to know his limitations,” which it appears Trump doesn’t.  It’s not just Dirty Harry, it’s the macho imagery of every action and super hero movie where virtuous, lethal revenge is equated with justice, and in the end all is well.  Revenge, lethal or not, is neither virtuous nor just, and it never ends well.  Tough guy swagger from politicians is cover for a lack of courage and wisdom.

Four years ago Iran was adhering to the terms of a nuclear agreement it had made with an alliance of Western nations.  They were being eased back into the community of nations.  Their economy was prospering as it hadn’t for years.  Ordinary Iranians were experiencing political and economic freedom in new ways.  The government was still sponsoring terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, but the West held all the economic cards that could force them in another direction.  Trump ended the agreement, reimposed sanctions, and alienated our Western allies.  So here we are. Now what?

I have no idea.  The ideal of Iranian self respect may demand an eye for an eye: the assassination of some top American.  A cable news commentator listed a dozen other options involving attacks on various installations, oil fields, etc.  Cooler heads in Tehran may prevail as they consider the consequences.  I hope so.  

In the meantime, maybe, at long last, Republican leaders will show some backbone, and take a firm stand against escalation of armed conflict we can’t win, can’t get out of with dignity, and don’t know what victory means.  Maybe, at long last, conventional conservatives will wake up to recognize this president is not a conservative and not worthy of their support.  Maybe, at long last, some who looked to Trump to save the white middle class will realize he never intended to, and doesn’t really care about them.  Maybe, at long last, some conservative evangelicals will realize he’s not one of them, not even a Christian in any recognizable way.

What about Trump’s hard core base?  They bought into his dream world, and they’ll stick with it.  Remember Hillary’s basket of deplorables?  They’re in it. 

God-Sent-Signs

The New Year is always a time for signs, but what kind?

Farmers read signs in soil and sky.  Sailors read signs in wind and water.   I wonder, do city dwellers have a harder time reading signs because there is so much competition among them for the limited attention one can give at a glance?  The next week or two will be filled with articles in the media offering signs about the year ahead, with politics and the economy dominating prognostications. 

Humans have always wanted signs that predict the future, or validate plans of action.  What will the winter bring, who will win the battle, will my plan work, what is the right thing for me to do?  What are the signs to show the way?  I suppose our signs are more sophisticated than our ancestors’ bones, clouds, chicken guts, and oracles.  After all, to conjure up our signs we have computers, algorithms, and data sets, all very rational in a Spock like way.  Whether they’re more accurate is another question.  My guess is one’s as good as the other.  

We’re coming to the Feast of the Epiphany, the day on which we remember the wise men arriving in Bethlehem with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the new born king.  They had seen a sign in the sky, a star said to be that of a newborn king of the Jews.  What could it mean?  Where would it lead?  What would they find?  It took both curiosity and courage to follow it into the unknown.  

Signs from God are like that.  They’re unexpected, unusual, and call those who see them to follow where they lead into the unknown.  But they have several things in common.  They’re always in the direction of greater love, greater inclusion, and for building up that which is good.  God’s signs come to those to whom they’re sent.  One can’t just wander into the local sign store to cast lots, read tea leaves, or see what the latest computer projection has to say.  Abraham heard an unknown voice, and followed where it led.  Moses saw a burning bush, and went to see what it was all about.  The Shepherds saw angels in the sky, and went to see this thing that had happened.  The wise men saw a star, and followed it.  None of them asked for it.  The signs came to them, and they had the courage to follow where they led.

Signs from God are like that, but it doesn’t stop us from demanding more easily understood signs to guide decisions we already know we have to make.   Gideon laid out his fleece, priests and prophets cast lots to guide kings into battle, and the apostles cast lots to see who would replace Judas.  Were any of them genuine godly signs?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Who knows?  Either way, we have not given up asking for signs to guide us in our own day.  Asking for signs, and thinking about godly signs in that way, obscures our ability to see the more important signs, the ones God initiates, that are unexpected, that demand to be followed into the unknown.  Religious leaders in Jesus’ day demanded that he show them a sign, one of the usual expected signs they might recognize.  He didn’t because he was the sign.  He came unexpectedly, he invited others to come and see this thing that had happened, and to follow him.  Follow him where?  To the cross and beyond?  How crazy was that? 

I wonder how observant we are of the signs about us that call us to come, see and follow.  They’ll be unexpected.  We can’t anticipate a replay of the burning bush, angels in the sky, or a new star.  But they’ll be unusual, a curiosity out of place attracting our attention, if.  If we’re willing to see them, which I suspect we’re not much inclined to do.  We’re more inclined to like predictability, a little excitement but not too much.  Even chaotic, out of control lives can feel normal compared to following a God sent sign that probably no one else can see. 

The common assumption is that God-sent-signs call people into an intensely religious life.  They certainly call people into a life of greater intimacy with God, but Abraham kept on being a herder of livestock, the shepherds went on keeping sheep, and the wise men went back home to continue being wise.  David became a king, Isaiah a prophet, and Nehemiah a governor.  Who’s to say the greater number of God-sent-signs don’t call people to be teachers, executives, politicians, firefighters, cops, farmers or fishermen?  But always for an unexpected God-sent-purpose plunging one into the unknown with no guarantee other than “Trust me, do not be afraid, go where I send you.”

When we look for signs, and we do look for them, we tend to scan the environment, watch body language, read horoscopes, watch the Dow Jones, and dive into the latest polls.  We ask our friends, seek therapy, and hire personal coaches.  We interpret the usual signs from our experience, learning, prejudices, gut feelings, and public pressure.

When God sends a sign, it comes out of the nowhere, unbidden, and odd.  It may be why it can go unseen.  It’s the old problem of the Black Swan that couldn’t be seen because everyone knew there were no such things as  Black Swans.  I wonder how many signs there have been that we have not seen.  I wonder whether there are ways for us to be better at seeing them, and having seen to go where they lead, remembering that they are always in the direction of greater love, greater inclusion, and for building up that which is good.