What is the Trinity? The Difference between knowledge and Wisdom
There is a bit of a joke in the practice of many Episcopal Churches around preaching and Trinity Sunday. The rector assigns this Sunday to some unsuspecting seminarian or assistant. Then the seasoned clergy and congregation get to listen while the new preacher tries to share all their seminary knowledge about the Trinity. We get to sit back and quietly chuckle as expound on dubious math or three leaf clovers. That’s all to say I’m really looking forward to Julie being here next week. I could have assigned Marc, but I’m pretty sure he’s preached Trinity Sunday the last several years, and he’s not exactly junior. Neither is Julie. If you know any good seminarians, let me know.
I’m not going to try to expound upon the Trinitarian doctrine this morning. I don’t have any new metaphors for you, or math formulas, and I didn’t bring any three leaf clovers. I do, however, want to talk about categories. I want to be a bit meta. I want to ask: How do we sort the conversation about Trinity? The great early African theologian Augustine made a distinction between sapientia, wisdom, and scientia, knowledge.
Now this is a year when we have made great investments in scientia. We’ve needed the science. Scientia (knowledge) is what has allowed a few of us to actually be back in this building this morning. Science is saving lives. But science has its limits. And when you reach the limits, you tend to find yourself out in the realm of wisdom.
When you speak of the Trinity, in the mind of the great theologians, you are on the sacred ground of wisdom. The math will never add up. We claim that God is one, and we claim God is three persons. The three in one and one in three. We say that God is both a unity and a diversity. The Trinity has been represented in art: interlocking circles and, again, three leaf clovers. The Trinity has been compared to a dance, or in one of my favorite metaphors by Meister Eckhardt, as three friends sharing laughter. But what do the metaphors teach us? Today I want to talk about Trinity as wisdom.
The early church theologians, like Augustine, were convinced that teaching God as Trinity belonged out beyond the limits of human knowledge. They believed that by uncovering this seeming contradiction, the church had found one of the deep rules of the cosmos, the deep magic. The kind of knowing, they understood you needed for the Trinity, wasn’t the kind of knowing that you could test in a double-blind study. Trinity wasn’t an easily measurable hypothesis, and yet, and yet, they believed that something about this truth of God was woven into the fabric of all that is.
The Trinity as Wisdom
I love the story of Nicodemus and Jesus that we read to day, in part, because those of us who struggle with this “wisdom” talk can identify. Our presiding bishop likes to call this episode “Nick at Night,” because the teacher comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness. He finds Jesus speaking mystically, “you must be born again. You must be born from above.” Nicodemus is literal, “Jesus, how is that possible?” Jesus laughs. Eckhardt had something. There’s a certain laughter that comes with wisdom. You have to hold wisdom lightly.
Jesus’ discussion about “Being born again” is exactly the kind of wisdom that we speak about when we speak about Trinity. It may seem contradictory. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I might push back on Fitzgerald and say, it’s not just intellect. Holding two contradictory ideas takes wisdom. And this kind of wisdom help us to continue to function. Three in one, one in three.
So how does the Trinity make us wise? By defying dualisms…
The theologian and Dean of Episcopal Divinity School Kelly Brown Douglas talks about the Trinity as a doctrine which “by definition defies dualisms.” We live in a dualistic world. We are used to opposites opposing: Black/White, Woman/Man, Gay/Straight, Trans/Cis, Republican/Democrat. Our world is oriented toward binary oppositions, toward dualisms. Science loves either/or questions. Ones and zeroes bring comfort. But such binaries have their limits. We have come up on the limits of science.
Through the pandemic masks have functioned not just as Personal Protective Equipment, but as a signifier. People have made decisions about masking not just because of the science. Masking or not masking has signified allegiance. There is a reason Jesus says to his followers, “Beware those who practice their piety before others for the sake of being seen.”
We have spent so much time arguing about masks that now there are folks who are defiantly going maskless to prove a point. There are also folks who are defiantly wearing their masks when they don’t need them. Masks have become a signifier of political ideology, and that’s dangerous. It muddies the science. We can’t have a discussion about masks without all sorts of triggered layers of meaning. We have been divided into dualisms: this or that, Republican or Democrat, Pro-Vaccine anti-Vaccine.
But these kind of binaries don’t serve us well. Since the CDC ruling, I’ve been noticing more people without masks on, in public spaces. In all honesty, I’ve been missing the binary. A few weeks ago people going maskless made me easily angry. How could they defy the bans? If you were maskless in a public space, I was quick to judge. It helped me to feel righteous. And now, now, my convenient judgement is so much more complicated. Is someone maskless because they are making a point, or because they are vaccinated? It’s not so easy.
Here at church we made a decision to stick with masks indoors. It’s not because we don’t believe the science or the CDC. It’s not about allegiance to a party. This Church is a space we call a welcoming and diverse community. We seek to follow the wisdom of Jesus, wisdom like standing together in unity amidst our diversity. Wisdom like loving our neighbor, including our immunocompromised neighbor, our neighbor under 12, our unvaccinated neighbor. As I said a few weeks ago, I am okay with church being one of the last spaces we get to take our masks off. Making sacrifices for others seems Christian to me. But making a decision about masks has been fraught with all these layers of divisive meaning.
God permeates and moves fluidly past our divisions.
The Trinity, Dean Kelly Brown Douglas says, blows open our divisions, our dualisms. The Trinity tells us that God is not found in either/or equations. God is found in a deep diverse interplay. God’s inner life is dynamic. There aren’t just two poles. It’s not an either/or, a black or white. God permeates and moves fluidly past all our divisions.
The church, at its worst, has treated the Trinity as a piece of knowledge, as a trivia response, as a test of orthodoxy. As if God only belonged to those with the right answers. Do you believe in the Trinity? I would argue isn’t about having the right answer, the right idea. It’s not.
The Trinity asks us not simply to believe with our heads. It’s deeper than that. The Trinity is wisdom which allows us to listen, to pause, to hold together two seemingly opposite ideas. If we can believe that God is one and God is three, we are willing to be humble. We are saying God is beyond our knowing. God is deeper and wider than we will be able to know on our own in this lifetime. Knowing God isn’t about having all the right answers. It’s deeper than that. God chooses to share life, to share laughter, to share love in ways we can’t fully comprehend.
Belief in the Trinity, living the wisdom of this teaching, means recognizing the gift of diversity and looking to stand together in unity. This Trinity Sunday, could we slow down our either/or judgements? Could reach beneath the lines which divide? Could we go deeper?
“Be born from above” Jesus tells a perplexed Nicodemus. Don’t rely only on the science, only on the knowledge. You will encounter limits. There is a deeper way of knowing, a way of wisdom that teaches us sorting everything into binary responses, this or that, can cut us off from loving one another. Loving your neighbor takes wisdom. Following Jesus, it takes wisdom.
Be patient in the days ahead, with others, with yourself. Wisdom usually doesn’t come quickly. Coming back together is going to feel alien at first. Take the time, especially if you have felt alienated. If someone close to you made decisions in the pandemic with which you disagreed, I would invite you to move slowly. Be slow to judge. Make room for grace.
Our human binaries ask us to sort people into insiders and outsiders. But friends, we aren’t going to make it to the finish line of this strange and awful year just by getting all the right answers. No one gets a 100% on the pandemic. That isn’t the point. In human community we have to make room for difference, for diversity. In human community we have to make room for disagreements and mistakes. We have to have patience enough to see one another as more than an easy category. Thankfully there is help.
The Trinity is a different kind of wisdom which asks us to work beneath the surfaces we can easily observe. Thank God the science has gotten us this far. Now the deeper work can continue. Listen to one another. Laugh together. Weep together. Take the time to do the deeper work of love.
Well, I hope I managed to make you think and chuckle this Trinity Sunday. Hopefully next year some unsuspecting young seminarian is up here, surprising us all by sharing some wisdom.