Jesus said, Whom do men say that I am? And his disciples answered and said, Some say you are John the Baptist returned from the dead; others say Elijah, or other of the old prophets. And Jesus answered and said, But whom do you say that I am? Peter answered and said, “Thou art the Logos, existing in the Father as His rationality and then, by an act of His will, being generated, in consideration of the various functions by which God is related to his creation, but only on the fact that Scripture speaks of a Father, and a Son, and a Holy Spirit, each member of the Trinity being coequal with every other member, and each acting inseparably with and interpenetrating every other member, with only an economic subordination within God, but causing no division which would make the substance no longer simple. “And Jesus answering, said, “What?”

Curious memory

Memories of Trinity Sunday 2014 come to mind as I sit to write about the Trinity for tomorrow’s sermon. It was my first Sunday in the parish having accepted the call to come to St Martin’s just before Easter that year. Trinity Sunday will be forever associated in my memories with the anxieties of new beginnings. Through the haze of half memory, I can still recall my first day at Harewood Primary School, sitting on ‘the mat’ – a large carpet, where in those days children gathered to listen to the teacher, with all the other little kids in Miss Lamb’s primer one (first grade) class. I remember someone pinched my back. I turned round to see the impish grin of one Mark Bradley, beaming back at me.

Jumping forward in time, I remember my university chaplain exclaiming Trinity Sunday – ridiculous! How can you celebrate a doctrine as if it’s an event? Although most of us would not put it like this, most of us feel at best ambivalent about the Trinity. As the tongue-in-cheek parody I quoted at the beginning  captures, the Trinity while understood as something of a doctrinal necessity, is not particularly relevant to the increasingly difficult task of believing in the modern world.

Are we not all monotheists now?

Therefore, the gobbledygook of three distinct persons in one God seems to be just that – gobbledygook to the modern mind. So we moderns like to pick and choose in a process of mental slight of hand. One says: for me it’s Jesus, he’s my pal. Another exclaims: for me it’s God the Father, this feels more respectful. And yet another contests: No, no , it’s definitely the Holy Spirit for me, I feel the power.

For the Bishops and theologians of the first four centuries of the Christian era, the wrangling and frequent bloodshed that accompanied their gathering in the great Ecumenical Councils, and which at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 The_Council_of_Nicaeaproduced the doctrine of the Trinity, the task was not to try to explain God’s nature, but to protect it. You see, the first Christians had had this overwhelming experience of God in three distinct contexts. As Jews, they believed in God the creator of the world, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Moses, and the Israelites. Yet, through the man Jesus and the events of Easter they had come to experience God in the here and now, first as a human being living among them and then after his death, through an experience of spiritual empowerment, which they associated with the spirit of Jesus returned to earth and active among them, empowering them to continue the work he had begun.

Less is not always more

The Trinity emerges from a bloody period which one writer has referred to as the Jesus Wars. as a way of protecting the relationship between Jesus and God from being streamlined, forced along one of two directions. The first was to say that Jesus was God masquerading in human form – a distinct godman, come down from heaven to live for a while among mortals, much as the classical Gods of antiquity had done. This idea was embraced by the monophysite faction – God as one nature party. The second direction was to say that Jesus was what today we would call an avatar – an exceptionally spiritual human being, but only a human being. God remains God and Jesus, like Mohammed was simply his messenger. This faction became known as the Arians, named after their chief proponent, Arius. An astonishing amount of blood was shed in pitched street battles and backroom assassinations before the official position emerged in the form of the doctrine of God as three persons in one God. Thus the evolution of the experience of God among the first Christians, an adherence to the Jewish concept of God as one, not many, became reconciled, well sort of.

Perspective from the 21st Century

The demand in each generation is to interpret the Christian Tradition, handed on to us from previous generations so that it empowers us to engage with life as it’s lived, not as it was lived in an imagined previous golden age. For the Christians of the first four centuries, the currency of intellectual thought was Aristotle’s logic. Now the reality today is that few of us use Aristotelian logic to navigate our way through the complexities of life and faith in action. I know some who regret this, but it is as it is. The modern mind has been profoundly shaped by the advance of a psychological worldview.

There is a recognized psychological theory for how our individual identities are also the product of our relationships with others. Our individual identity i.e. who I am is constructed out of a complex dynamic of being in relationship with others. The person I experience myself being is as much a function of how I perceive others viewing me. I catch a glimpse of myself in the face of the other, looking back at me.


Rublev’s famous depiction of the Trinity as three identical persons, lovingly gazing upon one another offers a pictorial metaphor. In Rublev’s depiction of God the Holy Trinity we catch the echo of the conversation we hear God having in Genesis, let us make humanity in our own image. God is not a singular entity, but a relational one.

When we put together the ancient echo in the Genesis record of God’s internal conversation with our current psychologically shaped experience of the fluidity of identity, we arrive at the realization that for us, in our period of history God’s nature takes on a poignantly, relational quality.

Gender distractions

The Tradition of the Trinity ascribed masculine identities to the relational elements – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as he, he. In our own period, it’s important to know that God is not gendered. The importance of the traditional male ascriptions to God lies not in being gendered but relational.  One way to avoid the gendered terms and still retain the relational elements is to see God as Lover, God as also Beloved, and God as Love-Sharer. It’s common to hear Father, Son, and Holy Spirit referred to as creator, redeemer, and sanctifier. The problem here is that these terms denote functions, not relationships. It is the relational quality within the community of God that commends itself so powerfully to people living increasingly in a world where relationality, its presence or absence, is the measure of meaning and an indicator of quality of life.

Three folds of the cloth, yet only one napkin is there,
Three joints in the finger, but still only one finger fair,
Three leaves of the shamrock, yet no more than one shamrock to wear,
Frost, snowflakes and ice, all in water their origin share,
Three Persons in God: to one God alone we make our prayer.                                
Celtic prayer to the Trinity.

With Warm Breast and Ah! Bright Wings


I. The first chapter of Genesis opens upon a huge panorama: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

The Hebrew word used for Spirit is the feminine noun Ruach. The Spirit of God carries the pronoun – she.

II. In the 22nd verse in the 8th chapter of his letter to the Romans, Paul offer us the intensely intimate image of the Creation in the travail of giving birth: for we know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now. 

Paul hones this image down even further as he tells us that as we too, continue in labor’s grip, we groan, we pant, and we push, driven by the hope of imminent new birth. In this state of travail, the Holy Spirit, like a midwife comes to our aid, supplying the strength we need to give birth to a new world.

III. For the Evangelist John, as Jesus bids farewell to those he has loved he tells them that: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you. The Advocate provides the energy of truth by which John means the empowerment to live more and more deeply, to grow day-by-day into the profound realization of God’s love for us.

IV. The most popular image for the Day of Pentecost, the 50th day after the Resurrection is given by the Evangelist Luke. Luke constructs a chronology of unfolding events. Incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension, all leading to the climactic moment in history when the Holy Spirit descends upon the world. For Luke, the coming of the Holy Spirit marks the point of transition between the ministry of Jesus and its continuance in the life of the Church now impregnated with God’s Holy Spirit.

The 2nd chapter of Luke-Acts opens upon another panorama, this time of Ruach the Spirit of God descending rather than brooding. As in Genesis, the action of the Holy Spirit is depicted through powerful elemental forces of nature, this time of wind and fire.  As modern moviegoers, addicted as we are to special effects, we wonder, some with amazement, others with incredulity, at how this could be?

Luke’s purpose is not to awe us with the pyrotechnics of the latest blockbuster special effects. He wants to draw our attention to the effect upon humanity of the descent of the Spirit. The heat of fire and the noise and rush of wind are metaphors for a new birth, one marked by something very significant – difference no longer a source of division but enrichment.

There is an echo here to the 11th chapter of Genesis that records an example of humanity’s hubris. The people of that day thought they could build a tower tall enough to reach heaven. God frustrated the builders through destroying their ability to communicate in a common language. God says: Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other. On the day of Pentecost, the disciples praise God and all who witness the descent of the Holy Spirit upon them hears them speaking in their own language. The curse of Babel is lifted -difference no longer a source of division but enrichment.

Luke’s theological message is that for human society – born anew as the Church, it is no longer the business as usual of the old order.

Hope and Hopkins

In his poem God’s Grandeur the 19th century English Jesuit and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins proclaims that:

The World is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil – Crushed.

Yet, against the background of this optimistic proclamation Hopkins questions why humanity is so reckless of God’s gift of creation: 

Why do men then now not reck his rod? Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;  And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil and wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: The soil is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

Extending Hopkins’ inquiry I would ask why are we as human beings so fearful of the differences the lie between us?  Our labor pains are marked by the futility of war and the injustice of oppression in which generations have trod, have trod, have trod. We have become insensible to the feel of the earth, increasingly  made barren beneath our shod feetOur social relations are mired: seared with trade, bleared, smeared, with toil sharing man’s smudge. 

We notice that we are not all the same. We notice the obvious differences between us expressed through gender, sexuality, race, culture, and class difference. Such difference becomes emblematic of the differentials of power, privilege, and access to the protection that difference affords to some and denies to others.

The birth of the new Spirit-filled order comes as a challenge to the human propensity to distribute power, unequally. Luke’s vision of the Holy Spirit is of the anima – the feminine energy of new birth, embracing and celebrating the rich diversity of being human. Difference, no longer the source of division becomes the celebration of diversity as the Holy Spirit calms our fear.

God as Holy Spirit is powerfully present in our various communities, but particularly so in the community of the baptized. Each week as spiritually searching people, we negotiate the complexities and pressures of our daily lives. This experience reminds us of something intangible that seems to be lacking in our lives. Our search leads us through a Church door. Initially, we may be somewhat bewildered to find ourselves sitting in the pew of this church; a church for God’s sake, and an Episcopal Church at that, whose liturgy and welcome seem both unfamiliar and wonderful at the same time. This mysterious turn in our lives brings us to return through those doors a second, and a third time. We don’t have to know why we return. Those of us who are seeking God as a source of meaning in our lives intuit that we can be nowhere else.

Luke’s vision of God embracing all kinds of diversity is continually coming true in Church communities of bewildering variety. Genesis presents us with an image of God as Spirit brooding over the abyss of the world calling forth order from chaos, out of which creation is born. Pentecost presents us with an image of God as Spirit now impregnated deep within the human DNA as that longed for God shaped space, or as Hopkins more poignantly says it:

And for all this, nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;        Rose Window

St Paul phrases it like this: in hope we are saved, but the trick of hope is to have the courage to hope for that as yet unseen. Into the space of the yet to become known, the Holy Spirit pours her power and spreads her balm.

And though the last lights off the black West went   Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

God’s Grandeur  Gerard Manley Hopkins S.J.

Vada Roseberry’s Creation Window, Trinity Cathedral, Phoenix

Worlds Apart?

I am very interested in the relationship between worlds. What do I mean by worlds? The imageslanguage of Christian faith traditionally talks about this world and the next. I do believe there is a next world, although the mental picture of a world to come that is in every way a perfect solution to the ills of the present world in which I am confined until the happy event of my death, is not the way I tend to think about this. My imagination is more energized by the notion of parallel dimensions. I don’t know how many there are, and quantum physicists suggest there may be many, but I know there are at least two dimensions, one spiritual and the other temporal.

Temporal is an interesting word. The dictionary basically defines temporal as referring to everything that is not spiritual. This strikes me as being the opposite way round to popular thinking that views the spiritual as everything that can’t be explained within the parameters of the temporal, which suggests to me that our conventional stressing of the temporal as if this is all there is, is to place the proverbial cart before the horse.

My background as a psychotherapist increases my curiosity about the complex relationship between the worlds of inner and outer experience. I think my fascination for the notion of parallel dimensions is deeply rooted in years of exploring the interface between inner and outer experience, firstly in myself, and then through my relations with others.

What this has shown me is that the interface is hardly a solid line, a neat line of demarcation between separate spheres. The problem I have encountered is that the inner and outer worlds are bewilderingly intertwined. They interpenetrate each other so as to make it difficult at times to distinguish between them. They mirror each other.

Imagine the experience of looking in a mirror and not knowing which image of you is doing the looking and which is being the reflection? Further, imagine how much more complicated it all becomes when we consider how my inner world is projected upon or through your outer world and vice versa. Trying to clarify the complex dynamic of such distortions is the central work of psychotherapy.

To the Text

The Hardest Question is a weekly commentary blog that I like to follow. Writing about John 17:6-19, the gospel for the Sunday after Ascension, Danielle Shroyer [1] in What in the World? says: John’s gospel is what nowadays we’d call “New Age-y” because it’s always talking about “the world” as if it’s this thing outside of us, as if we could decide whether to be t/here or not. 

So, much of the way we have been conditioned to see the world leads us to separate things into this or that. This is what philosophers and theologians refer to as dualism. So we have heaven or hell, this world or the next, inner or outer experience, up or down, or as Jesus says in John 17: in the world but not of the world.

A little background

John 17 is a section that spans several chapters and is known as the Farewell Discourses. These are those passages in John’s gospel where Jesus talks endlessly, or so it seems, about his relationship with the father as a mirror for his relationship with the disciples. Now, this idea that Christians are in the world but not of the world has throughout history created enormous problems. It caused huge problems for the Johannine community, which after the death of John fragments into orthodox and gnostic factions. John’s view of Jesus becomes, on the one hand, the high Christology of the growing Church, and on the other, fuels the secret-otherworldly-conspiracy-laden-esoteric preoccupations of the Gnostics. For a flavor of Gnosticism read Dan Brown’s The De Vinci Code and other works in this genre.

Conformity or paranoia, take your pick

Too much emphasis on being in the world and the result is 1950’s conformist Christianity when the churches were full because at the height of a post-war boom of Pax Americana there was no discernable distinction between the Church and World. At St Martin’s in Providence where I work, this period is remembered as when St Martin’s was the Agawam Hunt Club at prayer. This time period, is one of many throughout history when Christianity became confined to the outer world as a reflection of the values and norms of human society.

This strong trajectory towards Christians as citizens of this world has only fuelled a counter-desire to create an Iron Curtain separating this world and the next. Here, Christian attention becomes firmly focused on being separate from the world. There is a strong element of paranoia – the dark feature of the American psyche, in the response of Christians to retreat into the inner world with the result that Christians absent themselves from the outer world by turning a blind eye to what I call business as usual. It’s not good for Christians to retreat from active engagement with the values and norms of human society for fear of becoming contaminated. This kind of ascensionism robs the gospel of its power to critique the World.

This coming Sunday is known as the Sunday after the Ascension. Rather like in a play one actor leaves the stage to make way for the next to enter, the Ascension – 40 days after Easter, is Luke’s way of removing the earthly Jesus from the stage to make way for the entry of the Holy Spirit. Note the symmetry, Jesus (the second member of the Trinity) ascends so that the Holy Spirit (the third member of the Trinity) can descend at the Day of Pentecost, – 50 days after Easter.

The theme of being in and yet not of the world is reflected in the fact that there are two collects for the Ascension. It’s as if the Episcopal Church wants to hedge its bets and present both sides of life in the tension between outer-temporal and inner spiritual experience.  In the first the emphasis is on the presence of Christ who abides in his Church on earth. In the second the emphasis reminds us that Jesus has ascended into heaven so we may also in heart and mind there ascend and with him continually dwell. Can you spot the difference in emphasis between Christians being fully engaged in the world and Christians absenting themselves from the world?

The hardest question

Being in the world and not being of the world is the way Jesus speaks of life in the tension of interpenetrating worlds. This world and the world to come are not chronologically sequential but interpenetrating spirals, each mirroring the other. For example, the Kingdom of God – the age-old hope for justice and peace is not a future hope but an expectation of the now. The joy of relationships that characterize what is essential in our temporal lives is a foretaste of a future communion with God.

So my version of the Hardest Question is this: living in the tension, which side do you tend towards? Two areas for fruitful reflection on this question might be:

  • how do you feel when politics and money are talked about in church?
  • does your Christian faith lead you to join with others in speaking truth to power in issues of human dignity, equality and economics, and the protection of the environment?

The tension for me is not how do I keep my faith free from being contaminated by the values of the world or from what I call business as usual? It’s how do I use my faith to protect me from facing an uncomfortable confrontation with the values of the world – the world of business as usual?


Radical Inclusion

Samantha: “isn’t religion just a set of man-made rules?” Me: “Yes”, at one level that’s true.” Samantha: “So God is a man-made creation then?” Me: “No. Religion is the man-made pointer to the divine. I wonder if you think religion and God are the same?” Samantha: “Aren’t they?”  Me: “Is the Geiger counter the same as radiation”?

What I wanted to help Samantha to see was a more complex and nuanced picture. Religion is quite literally man-made. I normally try to avoid the traditional use of the male pronoun in matters of religion. But in my talk with Samantha I was happy to stay with using the male pronoun man, because religion is indeed an expression of that which Freud would have referred to as the law of the father or the patriarchal order. It’s also more complex than this simple anthropological analysis reveals.

Religion is a system for organizing the human encounter with the divine dimension – or the numinous, or the sense of greater otherness. This process of organising the experience of the divine is shaped by the particularity of culture and philosophy. This goes some way to accounting for the differences between the great religions, ie. they are the fruit of the way very different cultures, with differing philosophical systems organise the human encounter with the divine.

The great religions as we know them today have deep roots in that phase of human social development anthropologists characterise as the transition from matriarchal to patriarchal forms of social organisation. We see this process so clearly in the transition from the matriarchy of Mycenean culture as represented in Minoan Crete to the patriarchy of Classical Greece.

Patriarchy is a system of values for ordering society that privileges the male experience of the world. Anthropologists date this transition to around 3000BCE. The epics that recount the complex history of the Trojan Wars echo this period of transition to leadership models exclusively embodied in male kingship. Because, patriarchy emerges as a system based upon the male experience of the world, it is male attitudes and more importantly, male anxieties that come to characterise the construction of both gender and gendered relations. 

Gender relations construct and police the relations between men and women. While gendered relations construct and police relations within the genders, ie.most significantly between men. Relations between women are also constructed and policed, but these are of lesser concern in the patriarchal order.

The two key concerns in patriarchy are to ensure control over procreation and to regulate competition. Procreation is controlled through the subordination of women to men ensuring clearly defined blood lines of inheritance. Competition between men is regulated through hierarchies of power and privilege.

As our conversation proceeded, Samantha began to identify more clearly the sources of her difficult relationship with organized religion, much of which lay in her experience of religion as man-made. As such religion was for her an expression of the patriarchal order, which in her experience she wanted to challenge. It’s easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater. So the temptation for Samantha was to see the rejection of patriarchal religion with its view of God through the lens of male attributes, attitudes and especially male anxieties, as a rejection of the divine dimension.

images-2Memories of my conversation with Samantha are triggered by the story about that remarkable encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch recorded by Luke in Acts 8. For me, the eunuch has three key characteristics: he is black, he’s a foreigner, and he’s a eunuch. We are told he is a high official of the Queen of Sheba and is on his way back to Ethiopia from visiting the Temple in Jerusalem.

It’s not clear why he would have been visiting the center of a religion that would have denied him any possibility of being anything other than an observer, an outsider.

In our society where race is such a volatile issue, we note his blackness. Yet, it’s not his race that denies him the right to participate in the rituals of the Temple. Skin colour was not the issue in the 1st-century world that is now is in ours. We see racial tensions exploding throughout America, Baltimore being only the latest outburst.  These racial tensions have the particular characteristic of being tensions between communities defined by race and the patriarchal forces of law and order. It’s important to note that it is not only white police officers who come into sharp confrontation with black men, and the communities they live in. The police ranks are filled with many black officers who are caught-up alongside their white colleagues in the increasingly violent confrontation. Law and order and especially the police increasingly find themselves as agents for our patriarchal system’s entrenched institutional racism.

The eunuch is a foreigner. This might have been a greater impediment to his participation in the rituals of a religion that was intensely xenophobic. Yet, Judaism had a place for foreigners who were interested in Jewish teaching and practice. By the 1st-century, many gentiles regularly attended the synagogues and kept many of the ritual customs, while not being technically regarded as Jews. In the New Testament, it is this group who form the audience for much of the apostles, especially Paul’s teaching.

The eunuch was a eunuch. Eunuchs were castrated males appointed to administrative roles within ancient societies. Because they no longer qualified as male within the culture of patriarchy, they posed no threat to patriarchal versions of masculinity. In fact, patriarchy needed eunuchs to occupy the sensitive positions of trust, such as the management and protection of communities of women in the harem. They occupied powerful administrative posts because unlike intact men, they could not supplant the alpha male. Castration removed them as a source for the two principle patriarchal anxieties: the need to control procreation through the subordination of women, and the management of intermale rivalry through strict hierarchies of power. A slight twist in this story is that Ethiopia at this time is still a society ruled by a queen. Having a eunuch as her chief minister is an interesting way for a queen to control the ever-present threat of male power.

Consequently, being a eunuch was the fundamental impediment to this man’s participation in the Temple rituals. Yet, despite this, he was powerfully attracted to the prophetic teaching of the Jewish religion. Within all systems of organised religion, the encounter with the divine is something that despite attempts to domesticate it, remains always beyond control and operates as a prophetic voice continually challenging the structures of patriarchal religion. For while the Temple rituals excluded him on the basis of his sexual orientation, the prophetic call of the divine included him as when Isaiah speaks in 56:3-5:

 Neither let the son of the stranger, that hath joined himself to the Lord, speak, saying, The Lord hath utterly separated me from his people: neither let the eunuch say, Behold, I am a dry tree.  For thus saith the Lord unto the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant;  Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off.

In the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, we see the hidden subversion of the patriarchal systems of organised religion by the energy of the divine. This divine energy operates to undermine and challenge attempts to organise religion as an instrument the control of anxiety through policing the dynamics of inclusion and exclususion. In Acts 8  we see the Holy Spirit operating as an instrument of inclusion. Philip willingly baptises this man and having accomplished this major act of inclusion of one hitherto excluded makes clear that the expectations of God’s kingdom contrast to the tyranny of man-made religion.

Today, many believe that the age of patriarchy has, or is passing away. Patriarchy is not necessarily the evil system of oppression as portrayed in much feminist critique. It hurts men as much as it hurts women. I believe we need to see patriarchy and its expression in organised religion as a historical phase in attempting to manage the universal tensions and anxieties around difference. These remain tensions that still distort our world through systemic entrenchment of racism, xenophoia, and homophobia. Today gay men stand in the place of exclusion represented by the eunuch in the ancient world because being gay and male offers a varient on bieng male that confronts the violence of the patriarchal order.

Firstly, women challendged their position of subordination in the male perspective of the world. Then gay men amd women challenged the patriarchal defintion of gendered relationships. A new confrontation looms as transgendered men and women challeneg the patriarchal notion of the very immutability (unchanging nature) of gender.

Isn’t the message  of Acts 8 clear, at least for those of us who have ears to hear?

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