Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Three Dimensional God

I went to Wheaton College, one of the centers of Evangelical Christian scholarship. I liked the fact that my professors were not afraid to say, on really tricky questions, “I don’t know.” They would present the arguments for different sides of a controversy, like evolution or the tribulation and let you decide for yourself. Part of this may have come from the fact that the college had professors and students from a wide range of denominations:  Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Plymouth Brethren, Reformed, Congregational, Mennonite, Assemblies of God, Church of the Nazarene, Eastern Orthodox, etc. We all agreed on the essentials of the faith but each had distinctive doctrines within our traditions. Thus it was that I had a professor who would not affirm the Trinity. He said that we know from the Bible that the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God and that there is one God. But the Trinity, he said, is a hypothesis for reconciling these facts. The word itself was not found in scripture and he would not go beyond what the Bible said.
I personally think the Trinity is a good hypothesis which affirms what the Bible says about God being one while preserving the paradox of there being 3 divine persons. It is an excellent working hypothesis that has served the church well for 2 millennia. All of the objections to it tend to be attempts to simplify it and remove the paradox. “It hard to understand so let’s chuck it.” Most scientists would not treat, say, light this way. Light appears to be both a wave of radiation on the electromagnetic spectrum and also a particle, a photon. The only way to eliminate the paradox is to ignore part of the data. They can’t do that so they have come to approach the problem this way: when you examine light as a wave, it does in fact yield data consistent with it being a wave; when you examine it as a particle, it yields data consistent with it being a particle. While hard to reconcile, the two approaches are each scientifically useful and more importantly yield true results.

The Trinity works much the same way. Now most people see God as out there, above us, creating the universe around us. They have trouble seeing the intricate organization of the universe on every level, macro and micro, as the result of random forces. In fact, there are cosmologists and mathematicians who point out that the 13 billion years that the universe has been around is not enough time for the estimated 10 to the 78th power atoms to have gone through  all the combinations to have arrived at the present configuration by random chance. Especially when we factor in the anthropic principle, that is, that there are several features to this universe that seem fine-tuned for the emergence and sustaining of life. If any of those constants were altered, even slightly, life would be impossible.

That the evidence points to a creator is the basic position of the theist. But little more can been deduced from this. We do not know if the creator is favorably disposed to us, hostile to us or indifferent. We really can’t know without the creator speaking up.

We Christians believe he has done that in the Bible. As many as 40 people wrote of their encounters and conversations with God over a period of thousands of years and these were collected in 66 books. Based on its evidence, God is anything but indifferent. He loves us. And in order that we may love him back, he has given us the power to choose. But we have chosen badly.
At this point, God would be justified in washing his hands of us. But he has not. Starting with one man, Abraham, God has worked very hard to teach him and his descendants what he is like and what he expects from us. He has done this by not only speaking to and appearing to certain individuals but in regards to some extremely receptive persons, by entering into them through his Holy Spirit.

Those religions which do not see God as someone or something out there often see him as in everything and in the believer as well. Christianity sees God as both outside of creation and yet inside us. The Spirit, depicted in our passage from Proverbs as God’s Wisdom, works with God in creating the universe and sustaining it. He gives life and renews it. And to those receptive to him, he speaks and encourages and strengthens and equips us to do God’s work, as we said last week.
His being in us is crucial because in our present rebellious and damaged state, we are incapable of following his instructions for making ourselves better. Some do better than others but none of us gets it exactly right.
C. S. Lewis uses the picture of how a parent or teacher will put their hand around that of a child to help him or her form letters with a pencil. You could think of the Spirit as God putting his hand around ours to help us shape our lives properly.   

So, as with light, we have a paradox. God is both out there, our originator, and he is in us, sustaining, renewing and shaping us. But into what is the Spirit shaping us? We need a model, rather like the handwriting examples posted above the blackboard in the classroom, showing us what a proper Q looks like. So, too, God provides us an exemplar, a model, a goal to work towards. But, as we see in the Bible, even a very good human being can stray. A mere human could not be the perfect model of how we should live. So God will have to do this himself as well.
Jesus is God in a form we can understand and relate to. He is, as J. B. Philips put it, that vague creator God, that vague Spirit we feel within us, focused in terms of time and space and human personality. The Bible tells us that we are created in the image of God. Well, in Jesus we see that image unmarred by arrogance, lust, laziness, greed, rage, envy, gluttony and other sins even saints are afflicted with. Jesus shows us what God is like and also what we, in his hands, can become.

In addition, because Jesus is God made man, he understands from personal experience our problems and pains. He understands loss of a loved one, family troubles, financial troubles, being misunderstood, being tempted, being persecuted, being lied about, being betrayed, being abandoned by friends, physical suffering, dying and death. When we go to him in prayer, he knows where we are coming from. It’s always better talking to someone who knows from firsthand experience what you are going through. And the help of someone who been there and done that is invaluable.
Seeing God as a Trinity, as three divine persons who are yet one, also helps us understand how God is love. Love is something a person has for someone else. If God were a single person, then before the creation of anything else, he could not be love. And creation could then be seen as the act of a lonely God.

But if, from eternity, God is the Father loving the Son loving the Father in the unity of the Spirit of that love, then creation could be the result of the overflow of that love, as children should be the result of the overflow of the love of the parents.
We experience God in different ways: as utterly other than us, as a voice and power within us, as Jesus, fully human as well as fully divine. Christianity acknowledges all 3 to be real and encourages believers to experience God in all 3 persons. At the same time, it discourages trying to see the three as separate entities because God is profoundly one.

And the real takeaway from all this goes back to what Jesus prayed on the night before he went to the cross. In John 17, in regards to his followers, Jesus asks his Father “…that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one…” Historically, Christians have talked a lot about unity but put much more effort on being distinct, especially because we are convinced that we are right and other Christians are not right or not quite. The unity of the Trinity, 3 distinct persons so united that they act as one, is what we should be shooting for, however. The rest of that quote from Jesus goes”…so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Think about the reasons so many have left the church or do not even consider joining it or believing it. Prominent is the persistent lack of love we have shown for each other. We preach God’s love but we don’t display it consistently, especially love towards Christians of other churches, much less those within our own denominations who disagree with us on a hot button issue.
The world will not believe us, our ministry of reconciliation will come to naught, if we cannot find it within ourselves to love other Christians with whom we disagree. The whole world is torn by people who disagree with one another and therefore cannot get along with each other, not even to deal with problems which threaten both sides. Few people say, “Wow, I really want to be a part of Congress” because Congress is a dysfunctional group that cannot agree on the most basic issues and seems to relish fighting over problems rather than fixing them. A few years ago, I heard a report on NPR that certain congressmen sabotaged funding for fighting cancer in kids so as not to let a political opponent have any victories to take back to his constituents. They believe Vince Lombardi’s motto that winning isn’t the most important thing; it’s the only thing. And if you can’t win, make sure no one does.  

If the Church appears to be a group, or a collection of groups, who similarly appear to prefer squabbling over issues rather than solving them, how attractive do you think it will be to outsiders? If we emphasize the condemnation of sinners rather than proclaiming the good news of God’s forgiveness and renewal through Christ, who will find that an inviting environment?  If we are defined more by what we are against than by what we are for—namely, serving the God of love who commands us to love everyone else, whether neighbor or enemy—who will see that as a compelling call to action? When people tried to draw Jesus into pronouncing on hot button issues like taxes and whether adulterers should be stoned, he shifted the focus onto more central issues, like how much we owe God and who is fit to condemn sinners. When asked if a man’s disability was due to sin, he said it was an opportunity to glorify God by helping and healing the sufferer. Jesus did not let himself get sidetracked by unnecessarily divisive issues. He remained focused on God’s priorities and people’s needs.
And unity is both a major priority of God’s and a real need for human beings. Not only has God managed it in the Trinity (though that is not really a fix on his part but the fundamental nature of God) but he has made us in the image of that unity in love. God intends us, whether couple or family or church or community or kingdom, to mirror that unity in love of individual persons. The Trinity is a slap in the face of the contention that unity requires uniformity or that diversity precludes unity. Not only can many be one but being one doesn’t negate our existence as unique individuals. In fact, true love would not be possible if we could not become one yet continue to be individuals.

Of course, all analogies break down, especially when we use them to explain God. God’s unity is more organic than that of humans coming together as a couple or a group. And the persons or the Trinity are not 3 masks or roles God appears in. Each divine person is distinct: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer; God, God made human, God in humans; Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Like the facets of a diamond, each is true but none is comprehensive, each is valid but none is exhaustive. Each is a window into the heart of the love that created and powers the universe, but it takes many more facets to make up the whole, so many that you can never take in all of them at once, but even a partial view of our ginormous and gracious God dazzles and overwhelms us. 'Cause if he didn’t he wouldn’t be God.

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