Not diminishing God: a reflection for the Trinity season from our Canon Theologian

I have just heard, on the radio, the Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, tell me that “events happen all the time.” Indeed they do and as humans we find that very difficult to cope with. Events make us insecure. We want there to be a system, a way of organizing events to make them manageable and understandable, to collate them to make them useful, and essentially to give us a kind of mastery over them. We refuse to be overwhelmed by events and so we combat them by reducing them to something we can get our heads around. The history of religion is littered with such attempts. In the Old Testament book of Lamentations for example, we simply hear the random cries of people, not unlike those in any modern war zone, or at some modern demonstration. If it were a TV documentary. It would be called something like “Witness.” On the one hand there are voices simply describing how awful it all is. Others complain to God for what they perceive him to have allowed, some for what they perceive him to have done. Others want to hang on to the hope that he might still intervene. We just watch, and listen to this hopeless cacophony.

What we are actually seeing is the end of a system. A system that gave everyone security said that good people do well and bad people do not. What we might now call a binary system. This experience in a war zone shatters that idea. But still, people are desperate for a system.  The book of Job, in the mouths of the so-called comforters, offer their views of Job’s plight. It turns out to be a fight between Job, who wants witnesses to his faithful incomprehension, and the friends who are desperate to hang on to a system. They know how God works. They want Job to acknowledge that and submit to it, even when his experience warns against it. He says that their views amount to “bringing their God in their hands” (Job 12:6 – a notoriously difficult verse to translate). In other words, organizing God diminishes God. Claiming to understand God’s work through systemizing it, diminishes God. Reducing God to manageable proportions diminishes God.

There is a danger of seeing the Trinity in that way. The weeks between Easter and Pentecost give us, liturgically, a confusing series of snapshots: first responses to the unimaginable fact that God was crucified. To people who had formerly believed that God was very distant, though still interested and involved; to have to regard Jesus not just as his messenger but actually as God, and then to try to make sense of what it means to have with us a Comforter who will be with us always, is almost too much to take. And so the Trinity doctrine can be our way of managing and systemizing it. To some extent that is inevitable, but what we must make sure that what we do not do, is diminish God in the process. The Trinity is not a divinely sanctioned means of reducing God to the manageable, even when it is one human aid to making our idea of God more organised. It was conceived, and given the place it has in our theology, to filter out even more naive and simplistic views of a one-dimensional God.

There are churches which appear to approach their mission in an almost industrial way. You feed in people at one end and through a series of processes you get your Christian out at the other. That is the ultimate expression of having God under our control; and belongs to an age of mechanisation and systems. Our church retains the sense of God’s holiness, ineffability, and mystery. It also accepts that the Church of God is a diverse Church, perhaps the most important message of Pentecost. We are many as God is many. Yet we are one as God is one. That is the mystery.

In times of uncertainty such as those in which we live, systems offer security of a kind, until they break and show their limits. Faithful incomprehension is a more sustainable way of discipleship. In the midst of competing claims for truth, we are witnesses; seeing, noticing, paying attention; and showing that we have noticed, in our prayers. It is God who redeems these fragments in ways we cannot imagine when our systems fail. And indeed, that is quite a task because as we know, events happen all the time.

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