Trinity Sunday Sermon 2012
Exodus 3:1-6 THE SERMON
Psalm 93 Trinity Sunday
Romans 8:12-17 3 June 2012
John 3:1-16 All Saints’ Church
This morning, this Trinity Sunday morning, I’d like to talk to you a little about epistemology. You know: epistemology, just like what you discuss at the dinner table most every evening … or not.
Epistemology is a branch of philosophy concerned with ways of knowing. It asks a set of difficult questions like: What is knowledge? How is knowledge acquired? To what extent is it possible for a given subject or thing to be known? How do we know what we think we know?
Epistemologists argue with one another about the nature of knowledge, and about how knowledge relates to ideas like truth and belief.
If you like, you may blame a Scottish philosopher named James Frederick Ferrier for all of this, because he is the one who coined the word in the middle 19th Century but philosophers were arguing about epistemology two thousand years before Ferrier was a wee bairn.
It is considered good form to begin a sermon with a joke, if the preacher can find one which suits the subject matter, and I know only one joke about epistemology, so you’re going to get it.
An engineer, an experimental physicist, a theoretical physicist, and a philosopher were hiking together through the hills of Scotland. They reached a hilltop. Looking over to the next hilltop, they saw a black sheep.
In delight, the engineer cried, “What do you know? The sheep in Scotland are black!”
“Well, some of the sheep in Scotland are black,” replied the experimental physicist.
The theoretical physicist considered this a minute, then said, “Well, at least one of the sheep in Scotland is black.”
The philosopher thought for a second, then responded, “Well, it’s black on one side, anyway.”
Today is Trinity Sunday, the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity, the only major feast dedicated to a doctrine rather than a person or an event. So all over the Episcopal Church – and most of the other churches which use the Revised Common Lectionary – preachers are spelling out the mystical doctrine of the Trinity in terms which they hope their congregations will grasp. You know them all by heart:
The Trinity is like a shamrock with three leaves corresponding to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, but it is one thing, which thingness the leaves all share in common. Saint Patrick allegedly came up with that one.
The Trinity is like water: sometimes it exists in the form of a vapor, like steam, and sometimes as a liquid, like water in a glass, and sometimes as a solid, like ice, but no matter which form it is in, it is still water. I don’t know who came up with that one but my old Lutheran pastor used to preach it yearly.
The Trinity is like a man who is a son to his parents, a father to his children and a husband to his wife but is the same man, despite these different roles. I don’t know who came up with this one, either, but I do know that it is a perfect example of the heresy of modalism so don’t think any more about it because it is not good for you to think heretical thoughts.
The illustrations go on and on: The Trinity is like an egg: the shell, the yolk and the albumin. The Trinity is like a tree: the roots, the trunk and the branches. The Trinity is like a fire: heat, fuel and oxygen.
And all of these classic illustrations are in some way flawed, partially in error, incomplete or imperfect parallels.
The reason for this is that, when thinking about the nature of God, we get damnably literal. And it is not entirely our fault.
Like everyone born into Western Culture since about 1650 or 1700, we are the children of the Enlightenment. If you want to blame somebody for this, blame Baruch Spinoza, and John Locke, and Pierre Bayle, and Isaac Newton and Voltaire and René Descartes and, closer to home, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.
But it is too late to change it so you’d better just get used to the idea.
Some people consider the Enlightenment to be a very good thing. Immanuel Kant wrote: “The Enlightenment was Mankind’s final coming of age, the emancipation of the human consciousness from an immature state of ignorance and error.”
And it was certainly the philosophical underpinning for both great advances in science and in the founding of the world’s great democracies.
But, in its peeling away of ignorant superstition and its elevation of the role of reason above all other ways of knowing, it lost too much, tossed out too much, and created too narrow a way of looking at the world. And one of the silliest things it did was to insist that everything knowable can be reduced to its elements and fully apprehended by man.
And the problem with this is that it doesn’t work when it comes to knowing God. What is God’s specific gravity? What is the atomic formula for the stuff of which God is made? How much water does God displace in the heavenly bath tub? And what colour is God, anyway?
And how can God possibly be three persons without also being three gods? It is irrational, the Enlightenment says. Therefore, because God does fit within the confines of our reason and logic, God cannot exist.
Many aeons ago, when I suffered through confirmation classes – first as a Lutheran and then again as an Episcopalian – I was exposed to the selfsame graphic description of the Holy Trinity. It is called the Shield of the Trinity and looks a great deal like a simplified diagram of the female reproductive anatomy. There are three circles arranged like the points of a triangle. The two at the top are the Father and the Son; the one at the bottom is the Holy Spirit. Then there is another circle in the middle of the triangle and it is labeled God. The three outer circles are connected by ribbons which say either “non est” in Latin or “is not” in English. Thus, the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Holy Spirit and so on. But each of the outer circles is connected to the one in the middle with a ribbon which says either “est” in Latin or “is” in English. Thus, the Father is God, the son is God and the Holy Spirit is God.
It is a lovely illustration, except that it gives away too much of the mystery of the Holy Trinity by trying to diagram it like an molecule or a newt’s eye or the relationship between stars in a constellation.
All attempts to rationally define God are doomed to failure from the start because God is not subject to that kind of knowing. It is a question of epistemology.
Even the classic creeds, as good as they are and as complete as they attempt to be, are insufficient to contain the knowledge of God. The Apostle’s Creed said it simply. The Nicene Creed said it more completely. The Athanasian Creed says it rather exhaustively. But none of these are able to embrace the fullness of God’s being because they use only logic and reason to express it.
This is probably why, late in his career, Thomas Aquinas stopped writing philosophical theology and began to compose hymns. He actually left the third and final part of his master work – the Summa Theologica – unwritten. Four of the Eucharistic hymns in The Hymnal 1982 are by Thomas Aquinas. Notice that the next time you sing “Humbly I adore thee, verity unseen” or “Now my tongue the mystery telling.” How many of you can quote anything from Aqiuinas’ Summa Theologica? Not many, I’d guess. But how many of you are familiar with these hymns? Most of you, I’d wager. So which was the better thing? Through which thing are you more likely to find a true knowledge of God? Which is the better epistemology?
When I was a young priestling, serving at Trinity Parish Church in Seattle, we had a black lay reader with a huge bass voice and an English accent. I can vividly recall him reading the Old Testament lesson which was appointed for our hearing this morning.
“In the year that king Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.”
That is the stuff of which goosebumps are made, vastly superior to comparing God to a shamrock or to water, to a man or to an egg, to a tree or even to fire … although I think the fire metaphor may be coming close.
If it hurts your brain to think of God in philosophical terms, change your epistemology. Finding God in art, in music and in poetry will likely lead you closer to a true knowledge of God than ration and logic are capable of producing.