Sunday, May 31, 2015

Heresy Hunting on Trinity Sunday

I have been preaching regularly for nearly 30 years. Never have I made a last-minute decision to scrap a prepared homily and go a different direction. Even on the Sunday after 9/11, I stayed with what I'd planned, just inserting a couple of sentences to take note of what had happened. It's my nature to stay the course.

Until today.

I placed this text in the pulpit of Trinity Church in Mattoon when I arrived there this morning about 20 minutes before the start of the liturgy. Then, just before the Gospel, the congregation was asked to sing a hymn with the following lines:

Most loving Parent, Child of joys and pains
creative Spirit, life force that sustains,
in bone and flesh, we touch your gentle hand,
your face we see in water, air, and land. 
In ev’ry making, each creative dream
and in the flow of life’s great healing stream,
when love is born or people reconciled,
we share your life, O Parent, Spirit, Child.
These are the third and fourth stanzas of #743 from the collection Wonder, Love, and Praise, an officially authorized supplement to the Episcopal Church's Hymnal 1982. The text is by W. L. Wallace (b. 1933). 
I was distracted during the first two verses by the process of loading the thurible with incense for the gospel procession. Then I rose to join the singing and encountered these words. 
First, let me say that I absolve both the priest-in-charge and the organist (who chooses the hymns) from any culpability. They can be forgiven for assuming that a hymn text in an authorized collection is "good to go." But I knew immediately that I couldn't just let it slide, and that I would need to avail myself of the impending opportunity to set the record straight. I needed to exercise my proper role as a teacher of the faith. Homiletics and catechesis are two distinct enterprises, and I normally endeavor to maintain that distinction. Today, however, I let the line get blurry, and I told the congregation exactly why I was doing so. What follows is a more carefully organized digest of what I said. It is intended to be more pastoral than academic, so it is neither comprehensive nor precise.
No language about God is adequate to denote the actual reality of God. There is only more and less inadequate language. Theological orthodoxy is about adhering to the least inadequate language available. The doctrine of the Trinity evolved over a nearly 500 year period, with an abundance of tears, sweat, and--who knows?--maybe even some blood along the way. The "least inadequate" language to emerge from that process was "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." Words matter, and those words are the foundational, non-negotiable standard of trinitarian orthodoxy. The reality of the Holy Trinity is vastly more expansive than those words. But the path to that vast expanse lies through "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." There is no shortcut. There is no bypass. There is no alternate route.
Many who are motivated by ideological concerns rooted in feminism have expended a good bit of energy in recent decades trying to find that elusive alternate route. They have argued that words like "Father" and "Son" are metaphors, and that the Church should be free to find other metaphors that point to the same underlying truth. One widely-used alternative to the traditional trinitarian formula is Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Another is that which we encounter in the hymn that roused my ire: Parent, Child, and Spirit. 
The central problem with this argument, as I (and many others) see it, is that it fails to recognize the distinction between the categories of metaphor and analogy. A metaphor is a poetic device. Its function is to be evocative, to stimulate imagination further in the direction toward which it points. A metaphor is, for that reason, open-ended and inductive. An analogy is a linguistic and pedagogical device. Its function is to serve as a sort of model, a mechanism that provides access to a reality that is not inherently accessible (such as the reality of God). An analogy is, for that reason, constrained and deductive. 
To call God "Father" is not merely to employ a metaphor. God is not merely like a Father. An an analogical predicate, "Father" is God's proper name. "Parent" is a clinical abstraction; we conveniently group mothers and fathers together and label them "parents" for social and legal and other purposes, but in actual fact, there are no (presumably interchangable) "parents," but only mothers and fathers. So we can say that God is mother-like, or evinces maternal qualities, and to do so would be to speak metaphorically in an entirely appropriate manner. We may or may not experience God as father-like, but God is, nonetheless, properly denoted as Father. And however mother-like our experience of God may be, God is never Mother. We cannot name God as Mother.
Similarly, "child" is a genre abstracted from the concrete reality of daughters and sons. Jesus was born as a male human being--a boy who became a man--the son of Mary and, for purposes of public consumption at the time, Joseph. That much is fairly non-controversial (save among those who question the historicity of Jesus to begin with). But I will, in the boldness of the moment, push further, and suggest that, even before becoming incarnate in the womb of his human mother, the Eternal Word, the logos who was present and instrumental at the moment the universe was created (spoken into existence), was and has ever been the Son of the Father, and not the Child of the Parent. To employ an analogy is to acknowledge a layer of separation from the reality that the analogy predicates. But it is not to create an abstraction that can be divorced from that reality. 
So ... I got a little more technically wonky here than I did in my actual sermon. And if there are any professional academic theologians reading this, there are probably some faces in palms. The safest thing to do on Trinity Sunday is not to say anything about the Trinity. That was my intention. Do read my originally-planned sermon! I regret the necessity of the detour. But I don't regret doing it. I would have been derelict otherwise.


Charlie Clauss said...

Find the entire hymn here:

Tom Sramek, Jr. said...

So, I'm wondering--if "God the Mother" is a cultural construct based upon perhaps flawed or incomplete experiences of God, why isn't God the Father? If we used "God the Mother" for 500 years of blood, sweat, and tears, would that make it orthodox? In other words, just because all of the men (and they were ALL men) leading the church came up with God the Father, does that make it true? Using the word Father for God makes God inaccessible to many people for home fatherhood connotes domination and oppression. How would you suggest we deal with that, save an extended period of therapy or other intervention unavailable in a church setting?

Bishop Daniel Martins said...

Tom, you raise good questions, and I am happy to further engage them. But I would first need to know from you how you view the notion of *revelation.* How do we know what we know about God? What did you mean at your diaconal and priesthood ordinations when you affirmed your belief that the Holy Scriptures are "the word of God"? I'm not trying to pick at you. I just need to probe and find out what assumptions we might share, because that's the only fruitful way to have a conversation.

Jesse Zink said...

Another hymn in the world of approved Episcopal hymnary is the one we now translate as "Of the Father's Heart Begotten." It's based on a 4th c. Latin text. The actual Latin is "Corde natus ex parentis," that is, what we translate as "Father" is actually "parent" in the original. Does this shine any light on the points you are trying to make?

donbullockjr said...

Wow! Thank you Bishop. A priest friend posted Athanasius Creed which emphasizes the Trinity and the connection of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Many things to think about on this Trinity Sunday.

Anonymous said...

ok, so, God is woman. you mean to tell me any woman wants to blame post-partum depression, menstrual cycle, labor pains, iron blood deficiency, headaches, worry that makes up a woman, on a woman? you mean to tell me a sister would impose such things on another sister? I think they better just leave God as a man upon whom you can blame the negative side of your existence on; some patriarchal idiot who has inflicted womanhood with such problems. seems quite inconsistent to me and contrary to the intelligence of such a seeminly highly intelligent woman to do otherwise. but, you know, the desire for power sometimes brings out a weakness in us. I know my argument is not highly theological, but I am not so sure sound theology does not stray too far away from reality. unsound theology begins to try and twist and shape and fiddle and finagle reality to make it fit some preconceived concept. leave God as a male so you have someone to get angry at. he can handle it. but I know it's worth a try to have a transgender deity. that's a thought that should spark some thought for a doctoral thesis in sexual theology. by the way, I am not that degreed academically. please excuse my street wise approach.

Bishop Daniel Martins said...

To Anonymous: First, please don't be anonymous on my blog. I'm never anonymous on anyone else's. We should all be ready stand behind whatever we say or write. Second, even allowing for your "street-wise approach," please don't confuse sex with gender, masculinity with maleness (or femininity with femaleness). To assign God masculine gender, as traditional theological language does, is not the same as assigning God male sex, which, to my knowledge, no strand of Christian tradition does.

RJ Johnson said...

Good words, Bishop Martins. I always bristle when someone changes the traditional Trinitarian formulation, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer (or Sanctifier). Such a change moves from God as three persons to God as three functions.

Jon said...

My first thought was that your reflection takes the whole discipline of translation, spits on it, and throws it in the trash bin.

My problem with insisting on Father as uniquely appropriate for that person of the Trinity is that the context is profoundly different, so different that almost the only overlap between "Father" in modern America and the word agreed to by the Church Fathers is that both indicate a male parent, neither of which are particularly significant on their own. Perhaps the biggest thing one gained by using male words for God, even as recently as a few hundred years ago, was the way it emphasized and conveyed the sense of God's authority, a degree of authority not shared by any modern American authority figure.

If you want to complain about Parent, Child, Spirit being bad poetry, on the other hand ....

Master Michael said...

Geez, you're taking a lot of heat, Bp. To take the most irenic approach that I can, Jesus as The Son of God the Father is our story as Christians, the story that constitutes us as a community. We can't get around it. Nor is it a story that is of motherhood, for God the Father shows us a mother's love in giving to us the mother of his Son to be our mother.