Tuesday, June 2, 2009

6-3-2007: Trinity (C)

Proverbs 8:22-31/Psalm 8/Romans 5:1-5/John 16:12-15
In grammar school religion class, whenever a question about the Trinity surfaced the reply inevitably was: It’s a mystery. The implication being it was impossible to understand, so why bother questioning. Frank Sheed (of Catholic publishing fame) took exception to that line of thought, saying that a mystery wasn’t something you could know nothing about; it was just something you couldn’t know everything about.

Jehovah Witnesses will tell you that there’s no mention of the Trinity in the scripture. And, apart from a few forced interpretations, they’re quite right. The theology of the Trinity couldn’t possibly have arisen within a Hebraic world-view. It would take centuries until that initial Jewish experience of Jesus translated itself through Greek philosophy and concluded that the one true God could indeed be three persons in one divine nature.

In Pope Benedict’s just-published book, Jesus of Nazareth, he attempts to unravel some of the mystery surrounding the two great truths of Christian revelation: Incarnation and Trinity. The pope makes solid arguments for the traditional understanding that Jesus’ unique impact on others did not stem from his political stance but rather on his claim to divinity. What the pope doesn’t fully address, however, is the how of perceiving that truth. Without the philosophy of Greece how could Jesus’ Jewish followers have understood Jesus’ unique identity without forsaking their Judaism? How could monotheism survive while still acknowledging the divine identity of Jesus?

There is a reticence in Catholic circles to acknowledge the development of doctrine. On the one hand, truth is eternal; on the other, how we translate that truth from generation to generation and from culture to culture can and must change. The Trinity is a case in point. The apostles’ experience of the uniqueness of Jesus’ identity could only be expressed within the framework of their language and culture. It wasn’t until that faith found a new language that perceptions could shift. And that’s why the scriptures are open to various interpretations – they are bound by history. If they were not – if, for example, an evangelist recorded that Jesus declared, I am the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity – then we would rightly be suspicious of the authenticity of such a claim. But the ways by which Jesus is identified in the gospels – even when the term son of god is used – remain ambiguous precisely because they are a part of Jesus’ Hebraic culture and not a product of a later interpretation based on Greek philosophy.

Truth may indeed be eternal, but the ways in which we perceive those eternal truths and express them change with time -- they develop, they evolve, they translate. Accepting things on faith shouldn’t keep us from questioning the mysteries we encounter. Rather, genuine faith demands we continuously seek to unravel those mysteries even if we cannot now, at this moment in time, know the whole story.

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