Trinitarian Finger Pointing

The doctrine of the Trinity is one of the queerest things about Christianity, and I honestly don’t know exactly what or how to think about it. As many Christians will celebrate Trinity Sunday tomorrow, I do think it’s important to remember what Buddhists like to say about doctrine: “the finger is not the moon.” The best we can hope for from any doctrine is that it will point us toward something important, but it can never capture it.

Liberal Protestants tend to shy away from Trinitarian doctrine, but I have at least three reasons (appropriately enough) why I queerly love the Trinity: you can’t sell it on Wall Street; it irritates politicians; and it won’t fit on a Hallmark greeting card. Here’s what I mean:

1. You Can’t Sell it on Wall Street

We live in a world of nearly total commodification. There’s hardly anything left on this planet that can’t be packaged, advertised, and sold. Big banks even made billions from packaging and selling something that didn’t exist and no one understood: the future value of debt.

The Holy Trinity, by contrast, resists every attempt to package it – even by theologians. Every attempt to say exactly what the Trinity means never quite works, sending the theologian back to the drawing board. And that’s how it should be.

As Augustine once noted many centuries ago, “si comprehendis, non est Deus” (if you understand something, it’s not God). To put this in another way, Trinitarian perplexities can help guard against idolatry. Or to paraphrase Augustine, if you can sell it in the gift shop, it may not be an idol, but it’s not God, either.

2. It Irritates Politicians

Fortunately, not every politician needs to be irritated, but more than a few do. In an era of dissolving social safety nets and in a society where the top 1% of the population controls 40% of the wealth, more than a few politicians need to be reminded about the corrosive legacy of modern western individualism.

That reminder will irritate them, especially if they believe that every man (or rather, every rich, white man) should live for himself. Respecting the rights and dignity of every individual is good, but not at the expense of destroying any notion of the common good. It’s even more irritating to these politicians to talk about this with theological language. The Holy Trinity can work really well for that.

Trinitarian doctrine developed, in part, as a way to describe the very heart of reality itself as social. Some theologians find the language of choreography helpful for this. In the dynamic interrelations of the Trinity, we cannot distinguish the divine dancers from the divine dance; indeed the dancers are the dance and vice versa, and the dance itself is endless, deathless love.

As social creatures created by a social, dancing God, we are bound together, inextricably interwoven with each other – friend and stranger, lover and enemy – and all of us need each other to hear the music, learn the steps, and dance our way into the abundant life that God intends for all. That’s both a hopeful and a challenging view of reality, regardless of political party or income bracket.

3. It Won’t Fit on a Greeting Card

Actually, there’s not much I can think of worth saying that does fit on a greeting card – unless the card is really big. Take love, for instance. If love is more than a feeling or a sentiment, I don’t see how we’ll ever squeeze it into an envelope – and I think that’s a good thing.

I’ve been learning a lot about love just recently from working with my colleagues in the Episcopal Church on developing resources for the blessing of same-gender relationships. We’ve been trying to craft liturgical language about how relationships of any kind can become a blessing to the wider community when committed love brims over into lives of hospitality, generosity, and service.

There’s something Trinitarian going on there. Augustine, for example, experimented with several ways of talking about the Trinity, including this one: “The Lover, the Beloved, and the Love Itself.” I like that, especially when other theologians expanded on it by suggesting that the Love itself was uncontainable, welling up and spilling over from the Lover and Beloved into the act of creation – and that includes all of us, as we are caught up more and more into the great dance of divine love.

No, the finger is not the moon. But I do find Trinitarian finger pointing not only hopeful and challenging but also inspiring, enticing, and inviting. So, shall we dance?


Sacred Scandal

I don’t care very much about Anthony Weiner’s, um, wiener. But the “flame-stream” media can’t seem to get enough of it. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, count your blessings.) What a tragedy that a congressman can get far more media attention with his genitals than he ever could with his passionate work to end poverty, provide access to health care, and rein in the military-industrial complex.

I am so tired of media flare-ups over the sex lives of our politicians. Sure, those lives are riddled with stupidity, but have you peered over the fence into your neighbor’s life lately? Tracked your teenager’s texting trail? Watched nearly any Hollywood movie? Read any issue of People magazine? American culture is simultaneously enthralled and repulsed by sex, and that surely contributes to the unending appetite for scandalous news.

In a bloated world of 24/7 instant media, there’s no better way to secure market share than fanning the flames of outrage; and sex scandals are the best fuel for the fire. But where’s all the outrage over the scandal of a dissolving social safety net, or the scandal of wasted lives in an endless war on terror, or the scandal of treating women’s bodies as pawns in a game of political brinkmanship, or the scandal of decimating the environment on which all of us depend for life itself?

That’s just a short list of the scandals that everyone, but certainly Christians ought to find outrageous. Sadly, the only time most people read the words “scandal” and “church” in the same sentence is when they’re reading about the latest case of clergy sex abuse.

If flame-stream media want religious scandal, let’s give them Pentecost, which many Christians will celebrate tomorrow, June 12. I mean something more than a neat and tidy liturgy done decently and in order (though there’s nothing wrong with that).

In the biblical account of Pentecost, previously fearful disciples of the risen Jesus are dramatically empowered by the Holy Spirit to preach good news to a whole bunch of diverse people who may not have known they needed to hear it. The disciples were so outrageous about this that some observers thought they were drunk (Acts 2:13).

The courage to be outrageous came from the Spirit, who rested on the disciples’ heads like tongues of fire (Acts 2:3). And these fired-up disciples did more than preach. They rearranged their households, disrupted local economies, challenged both religious and civil authorities, and shattered social and cultural taboos. Read all twenty-eight chapters of Acts – it’s not a story of respectable, law-abiding, church-going folk. Propelled by the Spirit’s queer energy, they “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).

That’s what I call a queerly Pentecostal agenda, which is still fueling world-changing work. The project currently underway for the blessing of same-gender relationships in the Episcopal Church is one example. So is the Fellowship, a multi-denominational network of congregations and clergy devoted to the radical inclusivity of the Gospel, linking amazing worship with transformative social ministries. The Bay Area Coalition of Welcoming Congregations is yet another. But that queerly energizing Spirit also shows up in less “churchy” locales too — among the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in San Francisco, for instance, or in theatrical performance artists like Peterson Toscano.

Those are just a few among many examples – and all of them are certainly more newsworthy than a lusty congressman.

If flame-stream media won’t cover the sacred scandal of Pentecost, then it’s up to us. Let’s make sure the queerly Pentecostal agenda goes viral. Facebook it, tweet it, blog it. And if you’re going to church tomorrow, wear something red, not just to commemorate an event of the past. Wear red as a sign of your commitment to turn the world upside down today.