Yesterday being Holy Trinity Sunday in the liturgical calendar, my mind couldn’t help but take up the question of what it means for Christians to believe in one God who is three persons. Now, I may play one from time to time on this blog, but I’m no theologian. In fact, I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have got more than two pages into a dissertation on the Trinity without someone on my committee uncapping their biggest, reddest pen and scrawling “Heresy!” in the margin. (Let alone one on Christology, on which it seems like no Christian theologian can possibly dash off more than a few words without starting to go astray of the Council of Chalcedon, one way or the other.)
So when I sing words like “Glory be to God, Creator, glory be to God the Son, / glory be to God the Spirit, known as Three, yet God the One” (as we did after the offertory) or speak the words of the Apostles’ Creed (as we did before Communion) and profess that I believe in God the Father, his only Son, and the Holy Spirit, a small, nagging part of my conscience keeps asking me if my mouth is making promises that my intellect can’t keep.
It talks theological smack like, “Be real, Gehrz. You know God as Three, yet One? You truly believe in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Please! You’re just relieved you didn’t have to say the Nicene Creed and deal with ‘begotten not made’ and ‘proceeds from the Father and the Son.'” (It is a truth universally acknowledged that I’m a lousy trash talker, but anyway…)
It even turns my head to look at the rest of the congregation and makes me wonder if I’m the only one with such doubts, or (worse) if I’m surrounded by people having similar internal monologues. Like when, as I listened to the postlude, I glanced at the title of the Bach piece our organist Cindy had selected: “We All Believe in One True God” (BWV 680). Um…
So that part of me would have struggled had we sung the text of the ancient hymn that served as Cindy’s prelude, since it starts…
Holy Father, holy Son, Holy Spirit, three we name thee,
Though in essence only one; undivided God we claim thee…
But — God be thanked! — it ends:
…and adoring, bend the knee, while we own the mystery.
For as true as the Trinity is — and as rich as the Christian theological tradition dedicated to explaining it is — my historian’s mind can no more than own its mystery while I bend my knee to the Triune Lord I adore without fully understanding.
All of this brought to mind the story Lauren Winner tells, of a friend about to be confirmed yet wracked by doubt:
She is terrified. She thinks she may run away. She says that she would be less scared if she were getting married or being crowned the queen of England.
She says that she is not having new doubts, just the same ones she has every Sunday, only magnified. “Every time I stand up to say the Creed, I wonder if I can say I believe these things,” she says….
I tell her there is a Hasidic story. [This is from Winner’s account of converting from Orthodox Judaism to Christianity.] A student goes to his teacher and says, “Rabbi, how can I say ‘I believe’ when I pray, if I am not sure that I believe?”
His rabbi has an answer: “‘I believe’ is a prayer meaning, ‘Oh that I may believe!'” (Girl Meets God, p. 271)
While I trust in Christian orthodoxies like “Three, yet One,” I tend to think that Winner is right that “I believe” is not a statement of fact or a status update, but a prayer — and a pledge.
Earlier in that chapter Winner quotes from Diana Eck, who points out that the Latin term from which we take the word “creed” actually means “I give my heart.” Continues Eck, “Faith… is not about propositions, but about commitment. It does not mean that I intellectually subscribe to the following list of statements, but that I give my heart to this reality.”
So whatever theological doubts were swirling about my mind, my heart swelled to sing the words of Kathleen Thomerson’s great hymn:
I want to walk as a child of the light.
I want to follow Jesus.
God set the stars to give light to the world.
The star of my life is Jesus.
In him there is no darkness at all.
The night and the day are both alike.
The Lamb is the light of the city of God.
Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.