Trinity Sunday - for Unitarians
Einstein said that the most important question a human being can ask is: Is the universe a friendly place? This is indeed the ultimate existential question, and while we may not ask it every day, and while we may not ask it in precisely this form, there can be few of us who, in those troubled and sleepless early morning hours, have not striven to find answers to this, the deepest of life’s perplexing riddles. Is there some point to my life, or is it, in the end, just ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’? And, as I can most certainly testify, when faced with the prospect of imminent death, the question is asked with a great deal more urgency than formerly, and the answers one considers are of more than passing intellectual interest. Those student posturings in late-night conversations over endless cups of coffee now seem vacuous and irrelevant: what one demands from oneself at times of crisis is honesty; the evasions and rhetoric of point-scoring debate on the meaning of life’s brief candle are no longer satisfying when that candle is on the point of being snuffed out.
While we have our health and strength we can often approach this question in a slightly dishonest way. It is common for men particularly to deny that life has any ultimate meaning. All that God stuff is for wimps, we say. Life just is, and, unfortunately, it’s tragic. There’s even a kind of sophisticated nihilism that some try to cultivate, a kind of coffee-and-absinthe existentialism, which, for some reason, seems to be very appealing to women, and is more of a strategy for getting laid (as the children say nowadays) than a genuine attempt to answer the big questions. But our actions often belie our rhetoric; our words (particularly in argument) do not always tell the truth about how we really feel. Woody Allen captured this perfectly when he said, ‘Life is painful, tragic, and burdensome, and, unfortunately, it is all over far too quickly!’ I was once arguing about the meaning of life with a man who took the pessimistic line. He said that to abort a child was actually to do it a favour since to bring it into the world was to burden it with unbearable existence. His reasoning was very similar to that of John Paul Sartre – a real coffee-and-absinthe existentialist – in his novel The Age of Reason. About an embryo, he has one of the characters say: ‘A child; another consciousness, a little-centre point of light that would flutter round and round, dashing against the walls, and never be able to escape.’ Unfortunately for my friend’s argument, his wife, who was sitting by his side at the time, was actually six months pregnant! What price consistency? Philip Larkin, in the last line of his most quoted poem, has it right: if you really find life terrible – as he apparently did – then ‘don’t have any kids yourself.’ And, as Mr. Micawber declared, life need never be burdensome to a man who has access to shaving equipment.
It might be supposed that having a religious approach to life would indicate that one perceived the universe as friendly, but this supposition would be wrong. There are types of Christianity which are decidedly pessimistic, but Buddhism is perhaps the clearest example of a world religion which actually starts from the premise that life is tragic. The Four Noble Truths teach that all life involves suffering; that suffering is caused by desire; and that suffering will cease when desire has been suppressed. The object of Buddhist practice is to attain Nirvana, a state in which all desire ceases, no more karma is generated, and rebirth is no longer necessary. For all it is the most compassionate of philosophies (I have never met an unkind Buddhist, nor, strangely, an unhappy one), it is, as far as I can discover from my (not very extensive) study of it, essentially a method of escape from the cruelties and sufferings that are inherent in life itself. Christianity and Buddhism have many things in common, and it seems likely that early Christian thought was, to some extent, influenced by Buddhist teachings, which, remember, were already five hundred years old at the time of Christ, but the two religions are essentially very different. Christianity seeks to transform the world and to ameliorate its suffering: Buddhism seeks to transcend the world and to avoid its suffering. The hope of the Christian life is the resurrection of the body, the continuance in some form or another of the conscious self: the aim of Buddhist striving is the annihilation of the conscious self, the extinction of all separateness. Buddhism purports to have a method whereby that isolated fragment of consciousness which so troubled John Paul Sartre may be released from its prison: Christianity contends that the atom of consciousness is an embryonic child of God with a glorious eternal destiny.
In most of its forms Buddhism is atheistic, and so the question of purpose in creation is really a redundant one. Is belief in God, then, a prerequisite to a belief that the universe is friendly and purposeful? Perhaps it is, but even this needs qualifying. Not all conceptions of God are benevolent. Many people profess a belief in a God who simply wound up the world at the beginning of time and then left it to its own devices. This was summed up rather neatly in the piece of graffiti that appeared here and there in the sixties: ‘God is not dead. He just doesn’t want to get involved!’ This, substantially, is Deism, the influential religious philosophy of the 18th century which denied revelation, miracles, supernaturalism, and, of course, life after death. God was kept as a kind of philosophical First Cause, but God had no more involvement in the world than a clockmaker has in the continuing life of one of his clocks. Deism was very appealing to Unitarians like Thomas Jefferson, and is still around in Unitarian circles, although one would like to ask the difference between an indifferent God who has hung a ‘gone fishing’ notice on his door, and no God at all. I, for one, wouldn’t cross the street to worship such a God.
In addition to the absent God of Buddhism, and the indifferent God of Deism there is also the evil God of certain strands of Gnostic thought. Now, Gnosticism is a very appealing philosophy to me, at least it is in so far as it stresses knowledge of God through direct experience, but there were Gnostic thinkers in the ancient world – in the second and third centuries of the Christian era particularly – who proposed that the creator of the world was actually less than good. If you think about it you will realise that this is a very neat way of explaining the evil we find around us in the world; if one believes that God is good, then the presence of evil is an almost insuperable problem, as generations of Christian thinkers have found. But, if one believes that the creator is less than good, then the problem ceases to be a problem; evil is just the natural result of a world created by an incompetent or malicious deity.
What these thinkers proposed was, in essence, as follows. There is an Eternal God who is so pure, holy, good, and self-contained that It cannot possibly sully Itself by involvement with matter, but from this God – or Godhead – has proceeded a series of ‘emanations’, each one less perfect and less holy than the one before it. These were called ‘archons’, or powers, the last of these is, in Yossarian’s words in Catch 22, ‘the bungling hayseed’ of a creator who thought it a good idea to create a world ‘containing tooth decay and phlegm’. Fortunately, however, each human being contains a spark of the true Godhead, and the object of religious practice is to free this spark from the matter which imprisons it, to let it escape from the evil creation and be united with the Godhead once more. Shades of Buddhism here, and it is more than likely that the same perception of the world as a hostile place lay behind both Buddhism and pessimistic Gnosticism.
It was against this sort of background that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity came to be forged. It is true that the Bible contains no unequivocal statement about the Trinity, and, to Jewish sensibilities, it would have been completely anathema. Our Unitarian forebears found the doctrine incomprehensible and logically nonsensical which, of course, from a purely rational point of view, it is. But religious statements in general will crumble when subjected to rational assessment. All religion is poetry, and the rules of poetry are not the rules of logic. As a non-logical, poetic insight, the paradoxical doctrine of the Trinity leads to an acknowledgement that God is beyond the comprehension of the feeble human mind. God is, and will always remain, a mystery. But, more significant than this, at least from the point of view of our present concerns, is what the doctrine of the Trinity tells us about the world. It answers Einstein’s question in the affirmative. The world, the universe, is a friendly place, it says. In mythological language (I cannot stress this enough), it affirms not just the creation of the world by God, but God’s continuing, loving, involvement with it. Jesus is not just Mary’s son, he is, according to Matthew’s Gospel, Emmanuel – ‘God with us’, and John’s Gospel tells us that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son’ to die on its behalf. The story of Jesus’s death on the cross expresses the conviction that God is present even in the most tragic and inexplicable and painful of events. This is not a picture of an uninvolved deity, but of one who shares our suffering. Jesus, in continuing Christian tradition, is ‘fully God and fully man’, another logical absurdity, granted, but a poetic statement of the intimate connection between human beings and the deity; in the words of the Catholic mass, ‘Christ humbled himself to share in our humanity, so that we may share in his divinity.’ And the Holy Spirit, who, by the way, is often depicted as feminine, is called the Comforter, the ever-present guiding hand of God, the source of grace and healing and consolation.
There is no God in Buddhism and no grace; just the unaided efforts of the individual to extricate himself from a pitiless universe. Deism’s God has gone to sleep and left us to clear up the mess. Gnosticism’s God is a monster who has to be outwitted. But the Christian Trinitarian God is a God of mystery, of involvement, of relationship, a God who created the world, loves the world, and is intimately involved with the salvation of the world. Strange as it may seem for a Unitarian to say this, but I think the idea of the Trinity is one of the most significant contributions that Christianity has made to religious thought. The Trinity doctrine has brought the Jewish God closer to us; He has left his home in the skies and pitched his tent among the inhabitants of the earth.
But these images are only valuable in so far as they are viewed poetically. The great mistake – made by Trinitarian and Unitarian apologists alike – is to insist that the Trinity doctrine is a mathematical statement about the very nature of God, rather than a poetic expression of a conviction about the nature of the world, and God’s relationship with the world. What repels our reason can enormously excite our imagination.
Unitarians have ever been suspicious of, perhaps even contemptuous of, the Trinitarian God of orthodox Christianity, preferring instead a simple and comprehensible God. But, a God we can understand is a God we can ignore; a God without mystery is a God without meaning. Is it any wonder then that the very notion of God seems to have gradually disappeared from the Unitarian consciousness? The step from Deism to Atheism is a short one.
But we Unitarians are, in the main, a life-affirming people. We regularly sing our thanks for the world and our gratitude for the gift of life. We perceive the universe as a friendly place, and in doing so we are more in harmony with the Trinitarian God than we may have previously been inclined to think.