Sunday, 3 June 2012

If only I knew

For me I think that the biggest problem of having a day called Trinity Sunday is this;
It encourages us to try and define intellectually what is essentially the divine mystery in which we live and move and have our being and the danger is that God is then  reduced to being a conundrum to be solved or pinned down instead of a mystery to rest in and relate to.
The older I get, the more I read and learn, it is becoming more and more apparent to me just how little I know.  The more I read the less I know. Over the years I have been increasingly drawn to another way of doing theology, much more prevalent in Eastern Orthodoxy than here in the West called apophatic theology. In the west it is called, in Latin, the via negativa. This way is allied to Christian mysticism and it maintains that you can only ever actually say what God is not.
This way focuses on either a spontaneous or a cultivated individual experience of God  who lies beyond our ordinary perception and defies all labels and concepts including those that try to label God as three. This is nowadays my default position regarding God but in deference to the Church of England’s liturgical calendar I will try and address the idea of God as Trinity.
And although the doctrine of the Trinity in the church came about from a felt need to prove Jesus’ divinity it is a mistake to think that the eternal being of God is entirely dependent on that.  If God is three God would still be three even if you don’t believe that Jesus is an incarnation of God’s wisdom. And  I am quite happy to conceptualise God that as being defined as having three different constituent parts of course so long as we also remember that God is ONE and is the principle of universal unity.
Paradoxically the most important lesson I’d like everyone to take from Trinity Sunday is that God is ONE.  Interestingly though, other religions, also intuitively see a threefold nature in God. In Hebrew numerology the number for God is three not one, and although hotly disputed, the word Elohim, the first word used for God in the Bible as in “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” is a plural form of the singular El. Also the Hindus have a word describing the oneness of God as having three core aspects which I love called saccidananda – Being, Wisdom and creative joy.  It is that second one, wisdom, (or Logos in Greek) that Christians sensed that Jesus manifested on earth.
The account of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus we heard today, Jesus is clearly pointing to the deficiencies of a purely intellectual understanding of God and encouraging Nicodemus to find the mystical experiential way that lies beyond intellectual understanding
Becauset there is another kind of knowing other than just intellectual knowing. It’s an intuition, a deeper knowing beyond words that leads us to direct communion. I think that is just what Jesus was talking about to Nicodemus in the gospel.
Nicodemus wasn’t a religious novice. He was a man of some stature and learning, a very religious man who would have known the scriptures inside out – a Pharisee – a devout strict religious Jew.  Intellectual debate and Biblical interpretation would have been meat and drink to him.
Yet it didn’t satisfy him. Something was missing and he knew it, which is why under cover of darkness to avoid his friends seeing him he went to see Jesus. Jesus told him what he needed – exactly what he was looking for - a true experience of the Spirit of God, independent of all his vast religious knowledge he had. An experience that would prove to be such a revelation to him that it would alter his consciousness so much that it would feel as if he had been born again.
He needed to know God in a different way – a way that a lifetime of intellectual wrangling could never approach. It was the same experience that Jesus had when he was baptised in the river Jordan when his apprehension of God’s Spirit led him to his profound intuitive knowing that he was a child of God.  It was an experience of enlightenment that propelled him into his short earthly ministry.
I don’t want to deride an intellectual appreciation of God – I’ve spent a dozen years doing little else – but without that deeper knowing, head knowledge is not enough to sustain a personal faith in my lived experience. 
 “What, you are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know about these things?” Jesus asks Nicodemus.
As Paul put it in his letter to the Romans “It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our Spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”
We are one with Christ our friend and brother when we perceive and experience our direct relationship with God, the one in whom all things live and move and have our being.
In the final analysis, as Jesus himself is saying to Nicodemus, knowing about God is no substitute for knowing  God.

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