Unanswered questions are far less dangerous than unquestioned answers - A Unitarian reconsideration of the Trinity


At the start of my ministry in this church in 2000 I found myself putting up a poster in our noticeboard which read: 'Unanswered questions are far less dangerous than unquestioned answers.' But if you take this piece of advice seriously, and I do, then it is vital to remember, not only to speak it to others - asking them to review their own unquestioned answers, but also to speak it to yourself. One of our own church tradition's unquestioned answers relates to our historic foundation as a Unitarian Church. As most of you will know, from the earliest days of the Reformation, our forbears began openly to challenge certain negative consequences that they felt came from the doctrine of the Trinity which, from the fourth-century onwards, had become central to most Christian self-definitions. Not least of all they wanted to preserve the humanity of Christ. In 325 the First Council of Nicaea established the doctrine of the Trinity as orthodoxy and the classic statement of it was produced at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

It has to be said that the doctrine uses complex and abstract language that many of us here find, not only unattractive, but also unhelpful and irrelevant and I'll return to this thought in a moment (I want to add that this is not to deny that in other Christian contexts the language still feels attractive, helpful and relevant - it is just not the case here). Here is Samuel Well's mercifully short summary of the doctrine:

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is that there is one God, who exists in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These three persons together share the one divine nature. They are equal, co-eternal and omnipotent. They are distinct from one another: the Father has no source, the son is born of the substance of the Father, the Spirit proceeds from the Father (or from the Father and the Son). Though distinct, the three persons cannot be divided from one another in being or operation (Samuel Wells in Bowden, John ed., 'The Encyclopedia of Christianity', Oxford: Oxford University Press 2005 p. 1207).

Firstly, I want to observe that once we'd become labelled - willingly or not - as a Unitarian Church, a tendency quickly developed and entrenched itself in which its members unthinkingly accepted the idea that we are definitively not Trinitarian - not like 'them over there'. In consequence, a dangerously impenetrable barrier goes up, Berlin Wall like, between ourselves and our other Christian brothers and sisters. But, perhaps more importantly it also stopped us from re-examining the human experience out of which the idea first arose and, therefore, to loose touch with an important human experience about the world and our comminglement in it.

To help you see what I mean I turn to some words by the anthropologist Tim Ingold found in the introduction to his new book of essays entitled: "Being Alive - Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description". Ingold asks:

'Why do we acknowledge only our textural sources [in our work/books] but not the ground we walk, the ever-changing skies, mountains and rivers, rocks and trees, the houses we inhabit and the tools we use, not to mention the innumerable companions, both non-human animals and fellow humans, with which and with whom we share our lives? They are constantly inspiring us, challenging us, telling us things. If our aim is to read the world, as I believe it ought to be, then the purpose of written texts should be to enrich our reading so that we might be better advised by , and responsive to, what the world is telling us.'

This strongly resonated with my own understanding of the way Jesus seemed to express his own way of being-in-the-world. Despite the fact that he seems to have known the written texts of his faith exceptionally well, and was not above citing them from time to time, the weight of his teaching primarily fell upon an encouragement to look closely at the world - to see what it was telling him. Perhaps most memorable is the moment when he spoke of the birds of the air and the flowers of the field (see Matthew 6:26-34).

One purpose of his teaching was to help us see in a very direct way that we cannot lengthen our lives by even one hour. This was not, it must be stressed, merely a piece of fatalistic teaching but instead one deeply tied into a way of creatively acknowledging that we are not all-powerful *independent* beings but creatures who are *interdependently related* to each other and the world and, importantly, to the very source of life itself - that which, each of us with our own different understandings, give the name God.

Here we find on display an expression of a basic human experience in which we constantly find ourselves switching between experiencing the world as an incredibly diverse collection of individual things - birds and flowers - but which, through them, in certain sublime moments, we also suddenly experience the world as a unified, interdependent whole. A classic expression of this is found in William Blake's notebook, known as the 'Pickering Manuscript' in a poem entitled 'Auguries of Innocence':

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

This very human experience is why, week by week, we begin all our services with an acknowledgement of this comminglement by lighting the candle on our communion table with the words: 'Divinity is present everywhere, the whole world is filled with God, but in certain places and at certain times we feel a specialty of presence. May this be such a place and such a time.'

What I want to get you to see at this point is that Jesus was a man who modelled for us way of looking at the world and, in order to be better advised by, and responsive to, what the world was telling him, to try to read it well by using judiciously the texts of his own age. The texts did not define for him the experience but did help him find the language to talk about what he felt it might be saying to him and those around him. I want us to see at this point the *process* he employed more than any particular answers he came to.

It seems not unreasonable to suggest that the Gospels were made by people who simply wanted to pass on a record of this process in action. To create for themselves and their communities a startling reminder of how to be in the world, of how to look at and respond to the world such that we could hear it speak to us. Alas, as the centuries unfolded and these reminders became written down and turned into Holy Scripture (a terrible fate to overcome any text) we began to listen only to the texts and we forgot to listen to the world and our culture (especially in its theological/philosophical thinking) slowly moved in the problematic direction alluded to by Timothy Ingold, i.e. away from experience, away from what the world might be telling us and towards abstract texts.

Of course, from time to time, there have been many who have baulked at this move and who have encouraged us to return to a consideration of direct human experience of the world, especially important here were the mystics of both Catholic and Protestant varieties. One of our own tradition's ministers, Sidney Spencer, who was a fine and well-respected writer on the mystical traditions of the world's faiths, published an essay in 1955 entitled 'Unitarians and the Trinity' in which he tried to bring us (i.e. those in Unitarian contexts) back to the world of experience which led to the use by the first Christians of the language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Here is how he concludes that essay and, remember, he is talking to us:

'Like the early Christians, we are led to experience God in three different ways. To us, as to them, God is, first, the Source of being, everlasting, transcendent, yet close to our hearts, the universal Father in whom we live and move and have our being. To us, as to Jesus, God is Father in the sense that we share His Life and seek to do His Will. Jesus leads us to see God as the eternal Love who has made us for Himself. But, secondly, we see that Love, not only as a besetting Presence above and beyond us: we see it coming to dwell among us, entering into human life, revealing itself in human souls. The Church has emphasised the revelation of God in the life and death of Jesus. And it is true that, because of the fullness of his love, Jesus is the great revealer 'the Son in whom we see the Father's glory'. Yet that sonship is not a thing apart. Wherever life is enriched and redeemed by the spirit of self-giving love, there we see God dwelling among us, revealing Himself to our eyes. We experience God as Father in His eternal Presence: we experience Him as Son in His revelation in human souls; and, finally, we experience Him as Spirit in His indwelling Life in our hearts 'as the sustaining, quickening Energy underlying and inspiring all our efforts after goodness and truth and beauty. 

The Trinity has its real value, not as a literal truth, not as a definition of the eternal nature of God, but as a symbol, suggesting the quality 'manifold, yet unified' of our experience. The traditional doctrine serves today to darken counsel rather than to bring us light. It implies a clear-cut distinction, which cannot be sustained, between the different aspects of the divine. It is well that we should think of God as transcendent, as incarnate, as indwelling. But it is essential, if we are to lay hold of the vital meaning of these truths, to bring them closely together. It is God, the Father of our spirits, the Height and Depth of being, who is within us, whose glory shines through the life of Christ-like souls. It is the infinite Power and Love of God which is nearer to us than we are to ourselves, ever waiting to penetrate and possess us and to lift us into union with Himself'

(Sidney Spencer, The Deep Things of God, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1955, p. 44-45).

Because I hope we can see the truth of this experience, that is to say, we *know* in a deeply embodied way that individual things and people can bring with them a specialty of presence that speaks powerfully of an underlying unity, I also hope we can see the truth that is being gestured towards in the language of the Trinity. In our community's central paradigmatic figure, Jesus of Nazareth, we did not and *do not* see an abstract theological doctrine drawn from written texts but only the world speaking to us about how an individual human can express a specialty of God's presence. But that's not where it must end, in a mere theory, for having seen this specialty of presence, we are called by it to live likewise. As the Catholic mystic Teresa of Avila (1515–1582) is reputed to have said:

Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no feet but yours, no hands but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which the compassion
of Christ is to look out on a hurting world.
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless all now.

May we do likewise.


Yewtree said…
I think the Trinity or any other picture of God is best seen as a metaphor. It's when it gets taken literally that it becomes a problem.

Thanks for linking to my Sidney Spencer page :) I am reading his magnum opus, Mysticism in World Religion, at the moment.

I also really like what James Martineau said about the Incarnation - that it is true of all humanity.

I think the problem of the Trinity for many people is not the three-in-one business, but the alleged uniqueness of the Incarnation which to many Christians means that Jesus is the only way to God, and that other religions are therefore not valid. That's certainly my main issue with it; though I also think that there are lots of other metaphors for the Divine which are equally useful.
Anonymous said…
I was trying to find the exact wording (and hopefully an attribution) to that quote, and came across your post.

It was lovely and thought provoking. I wish there were ministers out here like that.

Unitarian Universalism in the USA is rather divorced from our Unitarian Christian roots. I'm not a Christian, per se, but our heritage fascinates me and I think if there was any god I could believe in, it'd be the Unitarian Christian one.
Dear Anonymous,

Thanks for your comment. Very kind of you to take the time to post it and I'm glad it spoke usefully to you.

You note that you were looking for and attribution for the quote - alas, I don't know of any. Sorry about that.

I'll just add here in connection with your concluding sentence that I think it is possible to reconnect meaningfully and wholeheartedly with the Christian tradition without maintaining a belief in any traditional understanding of God. I've tried to speak of what this entails in a number of posts on this blog but, should you be interested, the following isn't a bad place to begin. Whether you agree with the basic thrust of what I say is, of course, another matter!

Someone has just asked how can I, reasonably and conscientiously, remain a self-avowed Christian and Unitarian minister when I have basically embraced atheism? - An answer . . .

Anyway, thanks again for dropping by and I wish you well in your search.

Warmest wishes,