"Send out Your light and Your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling." Psalm 43:3

Monday, May 27, 2013

Trinity, Gender, and the Oneness of God

And the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the Substance.
For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost.
But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.  
Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost.
~ from the Creed of Saint Athanasius

Yesterday was Trinity Sunday, one of the principal feasts of the Church year, in which the Church gives thanks to God for the grace to hold to "the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of the Divine Majesty to worship the Unity" (from the collect for Trinity Sunday, BCP).  The doctrine of the Trinity is truly foundational to the way the Church understands the nature of God; it is also truly difficult to understand (indeed, it is actually not something that can be understood rationally, but is a divine mystery), and can therefore sometimes be a source of controversy.

Another, not entirely unrelated, source of potential controversy has to do with the way the Church understands and speaks of God in relation to human concepts of gender.  In the Christian tradition, God has generally (though not absolutely) been spoken of using masculine terminology, even as most would acknowledge that God is neither male nor female (though, of course, God was incarnate in the man Jesus, who is truly God).  Both sexes have their origin in God, and both reflect the Divine Image, as the Genesis account asserts, "And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them."  Throughout the Scriptures (and the Christian tradition) one can find images of God that are decidedly masculine, others that are decidedly feminine, and others that transcend gender; note the response to Moses' question about God's identity: "And God said to Moses, 'I AM WHO I AM'" - God cannot be contained within our human categorizations.  In light of this, it is understandable that the Church has in recent years been exploring ways to understand and speak about God that are more gender inclusive.  I think this is a conversation that the Church can and should have, reasonably and prayerfully.  Which is to say the conversation should be within the Church, working from the Scriptures and tradition as they have been revealed to us, out of a desire for truth in our ever seeking for a greater understanding of God (i.e. the motivation should not be from a secular pressure to 'get with the program and join the 21st century', and all the sexual politics and tensions that entails).

Much could be said on this topic, of course, but I would simply offer one brief thought at a point where this discussion intersects with Trinitarian doctrine.  The doctrine of the Trinity is, admittedly, quite masculine.  And for a host of theological reasons, which I won't go into right now, the matter is not so easy as simply 'switching genders' and speaking interchangeably of God as Mother, Daughter, and Spirit.  One seemingly less controversial approach which seems to have gained some traction has been to speak of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier (or some similar language).  This is fine in one sense, as God is indeed all of these.  The problem lies with identifying God in Trinity as defined by what God does, rather than who God is.  In other words, using such language specifically as an expression of the Trinity does precisely what the Church in the first few centuries went to such great lengths to prevent - it results in 'dividing the Substance' of God, implying that 'this part' or person of God creates, and another redeems, and another sanctifies.  But God, as the creeds and traditions assert, is 'one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity', Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; this mystery is lost in such a formulation as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, which is functional, rather than relational.  And at the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity is the revelation that God is Love, a continuous and perfect outpouring of love in the relationship of the Father, Son, and Spirit.  And this is indeed a truth and a mystery that we do not want to lose sight of through an attempt, however well intentioned, to speak more inclusively about God.

A few apropos thoughts from minds far greater than yours truly.

Saint Athanasius, from his Epistle I to Serapion:
"And so the Trinity, which is recognized in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, is holy and perfect, and has no adulteration of that which is foreign or external.  Nor is it compounded of creator and created matter, but it is endowed with the complete power of creating and energizing; its nature also is consistent with itself and undivided, and its energy and activity is one."       
Rowan Williams, reflecting over the Rublev Trinity icon (the Hospitality of Abraham); from his The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ:
"But it is, as I have already hinted, very important in the interpretation of the story that it shows three agents acting as one - not a sort of divine drama with different characters.  At a time when the theology of the Trinity sometimes sounds as though we are talking about three 'personalities' collaborating in a project, it is good to be reminded forcefully that all that God does is done by the whole Trinity equally, and that to talk of three divine persons must not mislead us into thinking of human patterns of relationship and cooperation."
Williams continues with a thought about how sound doctrine does not hinder, but rather facilitates inclusivity and welcome:
  "The doctrines of Christ and of the Trinity can seem remarkably remote and theoretical to most people these days; what we seem to forget is that they were designed in order not only to tell us the truth about God but to make us live that truth.  They are invitations, ways of passing on Jesus' invitation to be changed, to repent and trust him, to walk with him ... Accepting the invitation, going through the gate into the new territory of Jesus' life (and it is worth noting how often we come back to open doors of one kind and another in thinking about icons of Christ), is the essence of orthodoxy; the teachings of classical theology are there to reinforce and expound the divine welcome."


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