Monday, May 26, 2014

The Nagging Question of God: Farewell Sermon at Trinity College

From one point of view, this College is named Trinity for the sentimental attachments that certain of our founders had with similarly-named institutions in Cambridge and Dublin. From another perspective however, the name Trinity reflects the nagging question of God, and specifically the Christian response to that answer.

Over eleven years I have had the privilege of speaking here to congregations diverse in age, faith, and otherwise about the Bible, the problem of evil, social justice, sustainability, about the very possibility of religion, and about that nagging question of God. And this last question is my topic this evening, not merely because it seems apt for a theologian to name it on a significant occasion like a farewell, but because it has something to do with why we are all here, sceptics and believers alike, and with why those other questions matter too.

The God issue has not become an easier one to handle over those eleven years. Popular discourse about God and religion is often characterised by superficiality and sound-bite-ism, whether the case is being made for or against. Religion’s popular despisers rarely seem to have read any actual theology, but are often able to identify faith with fundamentalism, partly because faith has too few intellectually and indeed morally credible champions.

Let it be admitted - or indeed proclaimed - that what often passes for God in popular discourse does not really deserve to be believed in. “God” merely as a sort of being larger than other beings, whose existence can be invoked to explain that shrinking pool of phenomena not otherwise yet explained, is not a necessary or impressive proposal. What might be more surprising is that this was not the God of classical theology in any case; theologians worth reading always affirm that the word “God” is a convention that points to a mystery, not a sign with an obvious or easy referent.

The real religious question that will not stop nagging us is not whether there is such a large being or anything left to explain, but whether there is a mystery to encounter at the heart of life, which has little to do with explanation and evidence, but much to do with awe and wonder. If you can answer no to that question I will grant your status as officially irreligious without argument. But if there is indeed a mystery at the heart of being and the universe, it is that, and not anyone’s imaginary friend or hypothetical intelligent designer, that we people of faith call “God”. For all the complex edifices of story and ritual built on it, religion and spirituality have that awe as their foundation, and build on it because this is what human beings do; we create art and music, reflection and argument, in hope of catching and conveying glimpses thereby of truths that lie beyond and beneath.

This is of course not quite enough to get us as far as speaking of God as a Trinity, even though that doctrine is famously referred to as a mystery too. But the language of Trinity does stem from a very different and specific set of affirmations about God, which are again very different from those of contemporary fundamentalism.

Christianity does indeed claim some more specific and potentially implausible things about the character of the universal mystery, most particularly and audaciously that the life of Jesus of Nazareth sheds light on it in a definitive way. The essence of this claim is not that his teaching or miracle stories identify him as that large being aforesaid, and hence that we had better follow him or watch out. It is that the character of his life, and above all the willingness of this man to die for his friends, tells us something about the mystery of our lives;
not that God is to be sought after and served because powerful or even just plausible, but that God has sought after and served us, and that our hope centres not in some divine manipulation of events in our favour but in the willingness of the divine to be subject to the vicissitudes of human life. This is why the most fundamental affirmation Christians make about the reality of God is not to do with power, but love.

The necessity of speaking of a Trinity emerges from early Christian reflection on this same story. God, the followers of Jesus believed, was simultaneously the transcendent mystery beyond thought or knowledge, but also encountered in the man Jesus, and also immediately present as the Holy Spirit. Unwilling to jettison any of these affirmations while affirming traditional Jewish monotheism, they confessed God as Trinity. 

More than that, they saw the relation between these three aspects of divinity as social; just as the relationship between God and the world was characterised as love, so too the inner reality of the Trinity was one of love, between a parent, a child, and Spirit. Thus in turn human relatedness, and the reality of love as the character of human community, is not merely an accident of our being or a defensible moral choice, but lies at the heart of our existence, and our experiences of love constitute a window onto the mystery that sustains all.

When our founders chose this name they were referencing those ancient reflections. We still teach them here in our Theological School, we celebrate them in this Chapel, and some of you might also be surprised by how many of our Foundation Studies students affirm them. 

All this has at least two consequences for all of us, diverse as our positions on the God question may be:

First, by calling this place Trinity, the founders affirmed then and we do now that the character of human community is itself not merely historical accident or pragmatic necessity; community is something we honour and celebrate, something that reveals what is at the heart of our lives. This means that here we work and study and play and dine, believing that these things are inherently good; and for some of us they even come close to what Christian theological language calls “sacraments” because they reveal or allude to deeper mysteries even than themselves. It also means - as that somewhat opaque collegiate motto pro ecclesia, pro patria suggests - that we do this work together as a small community with a sense of the wider implications for the whole of human society. We seek to be compassionate and just, because now as much as ever Australia and other nations need compassionate and just societies.

Second, and more fundamentally if perhaps also more problematically, “Trinity” amounts to a statement not just about who we are, but about what the world is, and what it is for. For almost one hundred years, members of the College have come to this Chapel to encounter, through a veil, a truth and a love deeper and older than any number of centuries. It is as mysterious as time and the universe, or more so; but it is as immediate as you and I are to each other as community, as friends. May this place continue to provide its members, and the wider world, with glimpses of this mystery for which it is named. 

2 comments:

  1. Anonymous8:41 pm

    This is brilliant, as is everything you write. You will be sorely missed here in Melbourne.

    ReplyDelete