Trinity Sunday 2010 (evensong)
This morning, we focussed on three simple things that the Holy Trinity means: (1) God has revealed who he is in his inmost self; (2) in his inmost self God is loving relationship; (3) and therefore my purpose in life is to love like God does.
And I hope I at least made a start in explaining why Trinity Sunday is my second favourite Sunday after Easter and the best possible Sunday on which to begin our journey together and for me to lay out my vision of the sort of community we can be as a church. And this morning I set before us a vision that we might relate to each other with the sort of sacrificial love with which God himself relates in his inmost self, so that we, though we might be six congregations, might yet be one church - a double trinity, so to speak: three pairs of congregations, yet one church.
But this afternoon, I want to focus more clearly on the underlying principles behind the Holy Trinity and explain why they must be at the heart of all we do. I happen to believe that one of the principle reasons that the church has declined in Western Europe is that it has become hazy in its understanding of God as Holy Trinity. I've sat through so many sermons explaining that the Trinity is just some great impenetrable mystery that no-one understands and by the time they've finished I've lost the will to live. It gives the impression that we Christians are all rather bonkers and are expected to believe the frankly unbelievable.
We do specialise, in the church, in taking the most majestic, life-enhancing and beautiful gifts from God and presenting them in the most dull, unintelligible and uninspiring ways don't we? And it leaves us confused and lacking in conviction.
And it's no surprise that as the church's understanding of the Trinity declined into a dusty torpor, the dynamic thinkers, from the age of enlightenment onwards, began to convince people of other ways of thinking about God - to the point where many now think that God is simply an irrational figment of our imagination.
Michael Buckley in his book, The roots of modern Atheism, identified that much of the reason the church has failed to connect with people in the past 50-100 years lies in the fact that we have abandoned an understanding of God as the Trinitarian God revealed in Jesus Christ and allowed non-Christian philosophical views of God to become the default God we have in our minds and speak about to him to others.
And opens the door for the Atheist thinkers to gain the upper hand and convince so many, as they have done, that God is just an illusion. And they have managed to do that because so much of their thinking was actually right and so much of our thinking has actually been wrong - wrong because we have abandoned the understanding of God upon which the church was built.
This morning I explained that the only way we can understand God is if he reveals himself to us. The trouble is that most of us prefer to speculate about God rather than to seek his revelation and those speculations are profoundly irrational. We are getting way, way above ourselves if we think that we can understand anything about God through our own cognitive powers. God is a being far, far above our ability to comprehend or imagine and any theory we might come up with for who God is and what he thinks can only be very far wide of the mark. And for too long the church has pandered to that sort of speculation.
And it is speculation of that nature that has given an open goal to the atheists. The so-called father of humanistic atheism was a German philosopher called Ludwig Feuerbach. And his theory was that God is simply a figment of our imagination. What happens, he says, is that human beings have evolved to the point where they have developed a degree of control over our own existence and that has given us ideas about what it is to be spiritual, powerful, rational beings. And we cannot bear to think that those ideas have no existence outside of our own minds. So we project those ideas onto some ultimate reality we call God. In other words, God is simply the product of our own consciousness. Far from us being made in the image of God, we have made God in our own image.
And do you know what? Feuerbach was absolutely right. That is exactly what far too many religious believers do. We believe in a God that we ourselves have invented. And we have cultivated that belief to such a point that God is almost entirely subjective. I have my beliefs and you have yours and if it works for you, that's fine. But don't ever try to tell me that I should believe anything different, because ultimate reality is what I make it.
But that's barmy isn't it? It's a complete figment of our imagination. If that's all God is, then Feuerbach and his atheist associates are completely right. That sort of god is an illusion that can do nothing to help us and we must either free ourselves from its power or suffer a debilitating disillusionment. We cannot believe in a God that we have created by our own minds, any more than we can believe in a flat earth.
So Feuerbach was on to something and he found disciples too - notable among them was Karl Marx. He developed the idea in social and political terms - an oppressed people who could not experience justice, created a god who gave them the justice they longed for, but could not experience. He was an illusion created by severe hunger and fed to us by a manipulative ruling class that was quite happy for us to believe in justice in the next life, so long as they could keep the riches in this life. So for Marx, the answer was to create a classless society that would remove the forces that had created the God-illusion and the illusion would disappear. History has proved him wrong, but he was right about the folly of believing in a god based upon our own ideas - not least because that was exactly what he himself did. He spoke about a god he didn't understand and based all his thinking on a misunderstanding about who or what god was.
But are we in danger of doing the same? How careful are we in our understanding of who and what God is? If we are going to laugh at Marx, we must take care for ourselves.
And then there is the other great thinker who swung much of the world down atheist paths of thinking - Sigmund Freud. He also developed Feuerbach's theory, but he applied its insights to psychology and probably no-one has had more influence over our modern understanding of personal identity than Freud. And for Freud, God is the product of a father complex. Freud said that awareness of God was not the result of an experience of something beyond ourselves, but the projection of the deepest longing within ourselves. He said that psychologically, we never overcome the infantile experience of being helpless and totally dependent on another - a person who is stronger than we are, but who is to be feared and placated because they hold our destiny in their hands. And because we subconsciously carry the trauma of those memories into adulthood, they become a projected illusion of some being who still holds our destiny in his hands - again Freud's god is a god created in our image, not the other way round.
So Feuerbach, Marx and Freud infected philosophy, sociology and psychology with these ideas that god is simply a figment of our own projected imagination. And quite rightly, they showed the folly of believing in such a god. A god who is a lame-duck - a mallard imaginaire!
And even today, Richard Dawkins, the great militant atheist, spends most of his time attacking the sort of god that most people believe in, which is a god they have invented through their own thinking. But it's not the God revealed to us in holy scripture.
And this presents us with a challenge. We can continue to speculate and theorise about the nature of god - creating him in our own image and continue therefore to make fools of ourselves and to attract only fools as followers. Or we can countenance another possibility - that though it is impossible for us to imagine or theorise about God with any accuracy, it is possible that God has actually revealed himself to us and that we can know who he is by having the humility to listen to him, to watch for his action in the world and to follow him obediently.
As Christians, we believe that God has revealed himself to us in the form of a person - Jesus - a person we can know as completely and clearly as we know any other person. A person who has lived the same life as we live; a person who spoke our language; a person who is God revealed to us.
We might be wrong about who Jesus is, but I want to put the proposition to you that Jesus is, at the very least, the only way we could know God. If we're wrong about Jesus, then we might as well shut up about God, because in truth we know nothing about him and it's perfectly possible he doesn't exist. But if we're right about Jesus, then we're also right that we can know God intimately and interact with him because he has revealed himself to us. And if he has revealed himself to us, hadn't we better listen to him? And doesn't it compel a response from us?
Because if it's folly (and it certainly is) to make up a god based upon our own theories and imaginings, then it's just as grave a folly to ignore a God who has come to us and who has gone to such extraordinary lengths to get our attention and to tell us what, presumably, we really need to know.
Now for us, as Christians, Trinity Sunday comes at the end of the Easter season. In other words, it comes after we have met Jesus at Christmas, followed his life on earth, watched him die on Good Friday and witnessed his extraordinary resurrection. And it comes after Pentecost when we met the Holy Spirit and found that all the fullness of Jesus' life was poured into our own lives. So, God has become revealed to us through Jesus, the son and the Holy Spirit. And that is why it is impossible for us to believe in any God other than the Trinitarian God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit and it's folly for us to speak about any other god that this God - because there is almost no evidence to support belief in any God, but this one.
And belief in that God compels us to humility, to adoration and to change.
Belief in that God confirms to us just how wide of the mark all human thinking about God is. For example, Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament, but in such a surprising way that none but those who had directly experienced his ministry could understand, because it was so far removed from their expectations - yet Jesus makes perfect sense of the Old Testament in a way that no other "theory" probably ever could. So we in turn can do nothing but sit at his feet and hang on his every word, in complete humility and adoration.
And belief in that God also confirms how wide of the mark philosophical atheism is. It's very easy (and indeed quite right) to shoot down irrational belief in a God we've never experienced - I'm with Dawkins on that one. It's even quite easy to shoot down a god that we might believe we've experienced, but that no-one but us has seen or experienced. But to shoot down a God who existed in time and space - who is recorded in human history and whose life only seems to make more sense the more we uncover through historical and archaeological research, a God whose teachings have inspired many of the greatest minds in human history and whom countless millions throughout history claim to know personally - that God is impossible to disprove. Indeed, that God is terrifyingly likely to exist. And that's why the great atheist thinkers, even today, rarely talk about that God.
And yet, that is the God we're so coy about. Why?
That's why humility towards ourselves and adoration of the God who has revealed himself to us is the only way to understand. And that is why, central to our lives as Christians, must be a dedication to studying scripture. Only in the Christian scriptures can we find this revelation of God. I know that raises all sorts of contentious issues about people of other faiths and people of no faiths and what happens to them, but I'll let God worry about that. He's big enough to handle that, but we cannot use that as a pretext to duck out of our responsibility to listen very carefully to this God who has revealed himself to us.
But commitment to studying scripture is a dangerous thing. Because once we have experienced that God, we will never be the same. This morning I spoke about the fact that the God revealed to us through Jesus and the Holy Spirit is a God of relationship - a God who in his inmost self is a loving relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He isn't just a God who relates. He is a relationship. He isn't just a God who loves. He is love.
And if God is relationship, there is only one way to understand about relationship - to enter into it. If someone wants to understand about marriage, there is only one way - to get married. You'll never know what marriage is by studying anthropology or psychology or sociology, however illuminating they might be. You can only know what marriage is, by being married. So, equally, you can only know this God, this relational God, by entering into relationship with him.
I always find it sad when I come across people who have been in church all their lives - attending divine worship, singing the hymns, thinking about the sermons and doing practical jobs in the church, but who have never entered into a relationship with God.
Perhaps they're suffering from Freud's father-complex and see God just as someone to placate, in whose hands their destiny lies, but who is remote and absent - to be feared. Or maybe it's just that they suffer from that old human affliction of indifference. Or maybe they just haven't quite got the courage to make themselves vulnerable again in a relationship they can't quite bring themselves to trust. Or maybe they just can't quite convince themselves intellectually that it's all really true.
But whatever the reason, the God revealed to us through Jesus, the Trinitarian God of the Holy Spirit, is one who only operates through relationship, so we cannot know him in any other way. But be of good cheer. Because whether we're afraid of God or hurt by relationship or intellectually sceptical, we will find, in this God, that we are truly at home. Entering into relationship with the Trinitarian God is like a profound home-coming, because that God is the God in whose image we are made. Every other god is made in our image, but this God made us in his image. So whatever our hurts or fears or disbelief, we will only ever understand ourselves in relationship to him. And so prayer - talking to him - and obedience - casting aside our old priorities and living his life instead are of fundamental importance to us, not just as Christians, but as human beings.
And so our starting point for our way forward together I want us to recognise, with humility, that we cannot know God, except through what he reveals himself to be and that compels us to a careful study of his word. But because that word reveals him to be loving relationship, we can only study his word from within the context of that loving relationship. As my old doctrine professor used to say, too much theology lately has been done as though God is not in the room. Prayer, study of scripture, applying our minds, thoughtfully, but humbly and relationship (with God and each other) are the cornerstones of our Christian life.
And I guarantee you that however you are - whether you consider yourself a right-on evangelical, or a defender of catholic orthodoxy, or a radical liberal or a defender of tradition or just a good old fashioned Anglican who likes to keep your head down and your dignity up - whoever you are, you will be blown away by what you discover when you allow God to reveal himself to you through scripture in relationship.
Christian orthodoxy was not developed to tell us all what to think or to preserve a status quo or to turn us into something we're not. It was a response to an authentic experience of the living God and I guarantee it will surprise you all - and delight you too, because it is the most delightful, majestic, inspiring, mischievous, subversive, comforting, life-giving and liberating way to live that you will ever encounter.
Preached: Morland (united evensong) 30 May 2010