Trinity Sunday - a few thoughts on a sixteen-hundred year old mistake over what we can achieve with religious language

Today is Trinity Sunday and what this means - or might mean - remains worth considering because, in terms of our cultural inheritance, it is intimately related to the reason why we are called a Unitarian congregation and, therefore, our self-identity and understanding. Given the title and context of this address you might be forgiven for thinking I am going to claim that the answer that is "the Trinity" is the unquestioned answer that I am going to question. Well, I guess I could, but I'm not. "Ahah!" you might then think, the unquestioned answer he is going to question is one about the unity of God. Well, I guess I could do that too, but I'm not. The unquestioned answer I really want to address today is the whole paradigm that caused the question of the unity or tri-unity of God to arise in the first place and I do it because I think it has important consequences with regard to our self-identity and future as an effective religious community. Although much of what I say today could also be presented from a Trinitarian stand-point I will confine my remarks to the Unitarian context.

The early Trinitarian/Unitarian debate centred around the basic question of how God related to 'his' creation. That there was a creator God was, of course, to our Jewish and Christian forebears (and up until recently) a piece of inevitable knowledge. Consequently, understanding God's relationship with this world and, therefore, with us, was of paramount importance; by better understanding this relationship it was believed that we would be enabled do the right things with confidence and so come into right relationship with each other and with God. Our salvation (whether considered in terms of this or some future world) would better be secured.

Though the Trinitarian conception of God clearly developed in countless subtle and complex ways - which I am brutally simplifying because of time and space constraints - in outline the earliest followers of Jesus saw in him something that spoke to them meaningfully of their inevitable knowledge (i.e. their understanding and experience of the creator God) such that they felt Jesus was in some real way this same God. Although his crucifixion and death took him from them they continued to have a strong sense of the creator God's presence among them and gave that sense the name of the Holy Spirit. As a result they began to understand God not as simply a transcendent unified reality but as a dynamic tri-unity that was, is and always would be amongst them as much as it was above them. (I have to say - when used as a non-theoretical and non-dogmatic gesture towards a person's or community's experience of the divine it has some attraction. Perhaps I'll talk about that some other time but in my mind at the moment it relates to some of Zizek's post-Hegelian thinking in "The Monstrosity of Christ").

Anyway this understanding angered and offended many people - including our forebears - because it seemed to them to be dividing the absolute unity of the creator God up into what looked like three quasi-autonomous divine beings - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. By the fourth century the often bitter arguments had began in earnest - arguments that were not without important political as well as and life and death consequences. The complex and tragic history of this debate I leave aside today and note simply but importantly that they are all played out as competing *theories about the world and the nature of reality.*

Now, at this point, I can begin to move us from these historical points back into an area I have been trying to walk us through over the past couple of years, namely, that since the 1920s onwards, particularly in continental Europe, many have felt (including me) that it is increasingly unlikely that religious and philosophical languages can, in fact, describe reality in the ways our forebears once thought they could. As I have tried to show in some earlier addresses (cf. particularly the five "fallacy" sermons after Maurice O'Connor Drury) it seems that religious and philosophical language seems best understood as part of how we understand ourselves to be *in* the world rather than as quasi-scientific theories *about* the external, objective physical world and its nature.

But the trouble is that one of the *absolutely* key historical defining characteristics of our Unitarian church tradition was the belief that, in this quasi-scientific way, we would eventually be able to show or prove to the world that Trinitarians were wrong and Unitarians were right; that Unitarianism was true and that Trintarianism was, if not wholly false, then at least a very corrupt form of what we thought was pure, simple and true Christianity. (It is important to know that our tradition extended this to the belief that Unitarianism was capable of attracting converts from other religions particularly Judaism, Islam and Hinduism.)

It was sincerely believed by our forebears that if we could just describe matters simply and clearly enough people would slap their foreheads, a la Homer Simpson, and say "D'oh!, of course, how right you are - now I see it clearly too". In its strong theological form, at least amongst Unitarians in Europe and North America, this belief has significantly dwindled (perhaps even totally disappeared) but it remains with us in a more spectral, shadowy form in the vague feeling amongst many modern Unitarian congregations that we somehow *deserve* to grow and flourish (by some natural right) rather than, as they are, dwindling and dying. We have all heard thrown about - perhaps we have even done it ourselves - the easy and sloppy rhetoric that the Unitarian approach to religion is inherently more reasonable and tolerant than other religious approaches even as this is often accompanied by an often unspoken puzzlement about why so few people actually join Unitarian congregations.

I introduce this negative thought in order to reveal something that is, overall, positive (even though it is not easy or comfortable).

It is an ancient belief that philosophy begins in an experience of wonder. Much philosophy does so begin and I don't want to, nor need I, deny this. But another vital source of philosophy begins, to cite Simon Critchley, "with the indeterminate but palpable sense that something desired has not been fulfilled, that a fantastic effort has failed" (Infinitely Demanding p. 1).

What our Unitarian forebears desired was, as I have implied above, a clear, self-evident, humanised, rational religion capable of being accepted as true and freely adopted by all which would, in turn, lead to the creation of an increasingly tolerant, well-ordered and good society. I particularly stress here the word "clear" because I want to return in a moment to the important historic Unitarian desire for clarity in religion believing that this is one thing we can maintain from our past (even as we find we can only do this at some considerable cost to our former self-identity).

However, whichever way we look at it, our overall desire has not been fulfilled. We genuinely thought that our supposed rational religious language could deliver our desire to found such a clear rational religion but our fantastic effort in this endeavour has failed - not because we didn't try hard enough but because we simply didn't realise religious language is utterly incapable of the task. The upside of this is the startling, liberating and clarifying realisation that our old theological/philosophical problems were pseudo-problems and those of us who have realised this have (with some relief) began the process of dissolving those same problems. In her work on Wittgenstein's philosophy Judith Genova observes that the dissolving of something in the fashion I have just outlined "is a special kind of destruction and she notes that, "like images fading on a screen, problems lose their contours and intensities when illuminated by the right light. They fade, leaving only the faintest ghosts." (Wittgenstein: a way of seeing p. 38)

Recognising that our language didn't work the way we thought it did was such a light, and many of our old theological problems - such as whether God is three or one or can even be said to exist at all - have started to become for many of us only the faintest of ghosts. Where there was once theory (and belief) there is now available to us a clearing, an open creative space of which I have recently spoken. Of course it still leaves other problems intact and real but, to repeat, not the philosophical and theological ones that were once the sources for all our zeal and activity.

The loss of these former sources can - and indeed does in many cases - threaten to leave us with a profound loss of meaning and direction. (I have spoken of this elsewhere and offered an alternative source). It helps us see that whole history of our Unitarian distinctiveness (and Trinitarian distinctiveness for that matter) was, in part, based on a profound misunderstanding of what language is and what it can and cannot do. The realisation that centuries of history which has defined us and brought us to this moment with our stories of heroes and sacrifices (some of which we sung about in our opening hymn) was based on a mistake is liable to make some of us despair. I mean, I can despair when I loose only a whole day writing a single sermon that I come realise is based on a misconception, but sixteen-hundred years of work lost, man that's heavy.

However I can now conclude to what I think is an additional gleam of real hope. Judith Genova also notes the word 'dissolve' has other deeper resonances and she points to the chemical sense where "to clarify" means "to purify".

Recognising that religious language doesn't work the way we thought it once did can help to purify us and our language. Genova thinks we can, if we begin to act as philosopher-alchemists, distill our words and produce not theories about the world but refine them into pure actions (ibid. p. 38).

Hopefully what will then matter is not our particular theories about the world (whether we call ourselves Unitarians or something else) but rather, how we can distill the words of these theories into actions.

We may, with luck, be forced by our current understanding to make our religion much more practical and theraputically orientated. It may help free us from the temptation to indulge in complex metaphysics (because we know they don't work even as they remain oh so tempting) and also free us to concentrate on the practical task of the creation of what our tradition has called the Kingdom of God.

As one of our more farsighted forebears, R. Travers Herford said in 1929 (you'll have to make your own emendations to inclusive language but you'll see the spirit remains spot on):

"The Kingdom of God, as the rule of God in the heart, the love and service of him, and the consequent love and service of all men as children of the one Father, that is not limited by any doctrinal definitions. No one but a Christian ever did, or ever could, work for the Church. But all can work for the Kingdom of God, not Christians only but all who consciously own God, whether Christian or Jew, Mohammedan [sic] or Brahmin, or any other of those to whom God has revealed himself “by diverse portions and in diverse manners" (The Idea of the Kingdom of God, R. Travers Herford, Lindsey Press 1929 p. 13).

I trust these (very incomplete and sketchy) reflections might encourage more of us to begin, finally, to dissolve for good the old religious theories which have for so long divided so many of us one from another.


Yewtree said…
Ah, good old Travers-Herford. I like him. Nice to see him mentioned.

Yes, theology is divisive when taken literally as if it was anything more than a metaphor or an elaborate game of symbols. It takes a lot of the arguments away if we recognise that we are just talking about symbol systems. But some symbols are more helpful than others.