December 17, 2017

Thoughts on the Godhead — Part Two

Darwin_mountain_range“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate Deity …”

—Charles Wesley

 

On the surface, my last essay was a vacation narrative. Metaphorically, it was a picture (albeit inadequate) of what it is like to diligently seek after Holy God and to try to know him. Every foray, however purposeful and strenuous it seems to us, is as nothing. It’s no better than examining a pebble that has fallen off a mountain that stands in a vast range of mountains that span the length of a continent in the middle of a planet that hangs in a solar system in a galaxy of numberless galaxies in all of Space. And then, there is another pebble … and another. It is exhilarating and exhausting and dangerous and never ending. It is impossible.

I don’t come to this subject as a theologian. In fact, I probably shouldn’t have come to it all as I have written and thrown out, written and thrown out, three times over and decided to share only one real conclusion with you. Besides, two thousand words is a pittance and I’m very likely to make a fool of myself whether with two thousand or twenty thousand. I lack letters and periods behind my name and the years of formal education they would indicate. But I have loved God for thirty-eight years and I love to try to think about God … who he is and what he is like … a subject higher and deeper than my frail humanity will allow. Perhaps it is this frailness or a shaky spiritual formation (if one could call it that) that has put emphasis on separating Father, Son and Spirit and categorizing the qualities of each rather than on the Godhead’s divine communion and indivisible proceeding.

I can’t really blame my background or myself. I’ve come to the conclusion that, like trying to explore every square inch of the great and vast and dangerous American West (see Part One) in one vacation or in many vacations over a whole lifetime, the Godhead is not to be discerned or explained by one mind or by the cumulative mind of man, in one moment or in all the moments of time and history. Every time we open our mouths to speak on it or put pen to paper to write about it, no matter the inspiration God breathes into us, we will leave something out. We cannot describe the fullness and mystery and speech-defying indivisibility of the Godhead in a few succinct sentences. We are left to dribble it out on page after page of Scripture and in spiritual writings and hymns and psalms and in creations of art and expressions of love and acts of compassion and mercy and goodness over lifetimes and generations and centuries and eons of history. And still it is not enough.

After all, we can only look at one pebble at a time. As finite beings with finite understandings and finite tools for communicating, we stop well short of complete understanding, let alone expression. It’s a problem that may be responsible for most of the ruckus in the history of the Church. Whatever our brothers fail to perceive or express (in our opinion) is cause for us to pounce, or for them to pounce where we fail.

Forgive me if I step on any Orthodox, Protestant or Roman toes. I don’t mean to. In fact, I mean quite the opposite, but it was a flap about the filioque on this blog a while back that got me thinking about the subject and coming to the conclusion there must be some misunderstanding. (Pardon me, but I have a vague notion here of Roseanne Roseannadanna and her confusion between violence and violins.) It surprises me how we parse words as a means to divide ourselves into camps rather than welcome all the parsing as a vehicle to a deeper understanding of the Godhead … recognizing all the while our common futility, our common humility and our common plight of lostness apart from a Grace that is willing to gather us up in spite of our various deficiencies.

I confess my guilt in this. I have approached the Triune God as a museum exhibit … seemingly well explored, categorized and labeled … Eastern or Western or, in my case, Protestant and denominational. But I’m trying to venture out. Now, I’m thinking more in terms of Yellowstone Park’s caldera, an unpredictable super volcano on the verge of an Earth-changing eruption or in terms of space and all the things about it I can’t begin to know. I might study and know a little. I might even impress someone who knows less. But in any case, I won’t be writing a scientific paper in the epicenter of a volcanic eruption or describing first hand the interior nothingness of an imploding black hole. I’ll never have the Godhead figured out or even a little of the Godhead figured out.

Nevertheless, it’s stretching, both to mind and soul, to say when I encounter a point of view that isn’t in my theological museum, “Ah, now there is an interesting thought. I can’t say I agree with it, but as God has given you a mind to think it and as I recognize the narrowness of my self, I will gladly ponder on that.”

I, a Protestant, have been studying the Catechism of the Catholic Church because I have a daughter who is in the process of converting. We are having a good conversation and I don’t view her conversion as a threat, but as enlightenment. For me, the subject is like an iceberg, the part above the water representing the history of Protestantism and the part below the history of the whole Church. It’s all stuck together, but until my little boat crashed into it I didn’t realize just how much others have given thought to the Godhead and described it in ways that teach me and challenge my preconceptions.

I probably wouldn’t have taken note of it before, but now I was suddenly curious. Does the Spirit’s “proceeding” at the root of the filioque fracus and which divided East and West indicate a less than infinite existence or a lesser Godness in the Godhead? Or does the Spirit’s “proceeding” refer to the order of appearance in history so that small and somewhat senseless humans can have a remote chance of grasping the revelation? St. Gregory wrote, “It was not prudent, when the divinity of the Father had not yet been confessed, to proclaim the Son openly and, when the divinity of the Son was not yet admitted, to add the Holy Spirit as an extra burden, to speak somewhat daringly …” Anyway, I have found it just one of many things to think about.

I’ve read through the Bible a number of times and studied smaller passages on the Godhead in more depth. I’ve read quotes from the church fathers and now I’m wading through the Catechism. We could talk about the Father, Son and Spirit and the missions they have, but that would be returning to that dividing default in me and I don’t want to do that. I have learned a new word regarding the Godhead and it is a word I like and a thought I want to think about for a while. It is “consubstantial,” meaning having the same substance or essential nature.

St. Cyril of Alexandria said, “All of us who have received one and the same Spirit, that is, the Holy Spirit, are in a sense blended together with one another and with God. For if Christ, together with the Father’s and his own Spirit, comes to dwell in each of us, though we are many, still the Spirit is one and undivided. He binds together the spirits of each and every one of us, …and makes all appear as one in him. For just as the power of Christ’s sacred flesh unites those in whom it dwells into one body, I think that in the same way the one and undivided Spirit of God, who dwells in all, leads all into spiritual unity.” God, as Father, Son and Spirit, is an unbreakable cord of three, perfect in power because of perfect authority … perfect in love because of perfect submission … perfect in grace because of the perfect sharing of all virtue. These are bound up together in him and we are invited to dwell there.

It is our missional, relational and incarnational God at work to accomplish his desire … having us as his children and making us a family. It is the Holy Spirit who whispers, “Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light” (Ephesians 5:14). It is Jesus, wrapped in human flesh, who saves us, the Father who adopts us and the Spirit who gathers us into the divine communion. Thomas Merton is so bold as to say that we are taken up into the Godhead and that we are flames dancing in his fire.

I venture to think about this with fear and trembling and with all the longing that is in me. Really? Could he so desire me that he would do such a thing? How does it happen?

One night, not long ago, I was called upon to care for my grandchildren. The usual bedtime activities were underway. Everyone was more tired and wrought than usual. A new baby sister had been born and now there were four. I was giving my three-year-old granddaughter a bath and she was weepy and uncooperative. As I tried to rinse her hair, she started to cry hard and pull away from me. Now, mind you, I am the mother of three girls. I am very good at washing hair without the threat of soap in the eyes, but Annabelle was having none of it. She backed as far away from me as she could and hugged herself against the side of the tub. I got a good look at her face … at her eyes and it dawned on me. This wasn’t contentiousness. This was misery and uncertainty about her place in the family. She was no longer the baby. She was a middle child. Oh my. I cupped her face in my hands and said, “I will never hurt you. I love you, Annabelle. You are precious to me.”

The expression on her face changed ever so subtly. I saw her lips quiver as she pressed them together to stifle the immense emotion in her little body. It was a look I have felt on my face in God’s presence when I have been taken up into him. It was a holy moment of revelation … for her to know her unwavering place in the heart of her family and for me to have the privilege of loving her into the communion of it.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it” (John 1:1-5). The darkness has not understood it. It is the darkness of limitation … of being created … of only being able to see pebbles. This is what I’m trying to say. Our darkness of understanding rests in the fact we are created, but there is a remedy.  God has made a way. It is communion. Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see. Hail the incarnate deity. The infinite, wild, unsearchable God poured himself into a tiny babe and dwelt among us. We are awake now and Christ is giving us light.

 

Comments

  1. This is wonderfully insightful, Lisa. I find it remarkable how little moments between frail humans can illuminate something about God/Jesus/the Holy Spirit. And one need not be a great theologian to discover and share insights such as what you’ve done here. Bravo!

  2. Amen.

    Beautifully written, Lisa. Thank you.

    Dana

  3. /quote It surprises me how we parse words as a means to divide ourselves into camps rather than welcome all the parsing as a vehicle to a deeper understanding of the Godhead … recognizing all the while our common futility, our common humility and our common plight of lostness apart from a Grace that is willing to gather us up in spite of our various deficiencies. /quote

    several +1 for this. Even more for the rest of the post.

    I haven’t been to any church in years. I’m sick of the fighting. Here’s someone who isn’t trying to fight, but understand. Thanks so much for writing this.

    • @Bird…..I hope that you will find a place to worship and a family of believers to worship with in 2014. Burdens are lighter when there is someone with you on the road. Blessings with you on your journey…

    • Not everything we argue about is trivial or unimportant. But there is no excuse for the way we disagree sometimes. The problem is not that we see things differently and are passionately convinced so much as how we deal with that. Theological argument that isn’t rooted in a humility coming from a glimpse of the vastness of God is an exercise in missing the point.

      I hope you can find a place of faith and peace.

      • flatrocker says:

        Miguel,
        Reminds me of the two rules in theological argument –

        1. Jesus is right.
        2. I am not.

        Best to start here and proceed with fear and trembling I think.

  4. David Cornwell says:

    Lisa, first, this is a very beautifully written essay. I salute you for your bravery in tackling a subject far too complex for me to often contemplate! Truthfully I am glad you do not come to this subject as a theologian. After all these years they mostly have muddied the waters, and little has become clearer. The rationalism of much modern theology, either from the fundamentalist or liberal side of the Church has failed to add to understanding of a subject that is essentially of the Spirit and full of mystery. They spend too much time staring at and describing the one dimensional flatness of a position that has them frozen in place. They have been tricked by God.

    So it takes a story teller. a person who lived with the truth of this mystery to do it any kind of justice. Thus we have people like Merton and Augustine through whom the tales of lives lived reveal also the deepness of God. The truth becomes real incarnationally.

    I am glad you are reading Catechism of the Catholic Church. We Protestants remain so much in protest mode that negativity has become a defining characteristic of the American pulpit.

    Keep telling your stories.

  5. Thank you, David. I always enjoy reading what you have to say. You have a sensitive spirit and a pleasantly direct way of expressing your thoughts. Yes, I agree about the “protest mode.” We have a lot to learn from each other. It is very difficult to overcome what’s been ingrained and maybe it’s not always right to throw it over for something else. But we need to listen and learn and yield when God is teaching us a new thing. Peter comes to mind. The vision of the unclean animals that he was told to kill and eat defied core beliefs, but he humbled himself so ministry could go forth.

    • Often, in all directions, we Christians lob zingers (and worse) at each other over what we “think we know” about the other guy and his church and theology!! Part of what draws me here to I-Monk (in addition to wonderful writers such as yourself) is a chance to hear how others understand and believe in this Man-God, Jesus the Christ.

      I wonder what the Lord will have to say to me about being more concerned ( sometimes) about theology in lieu of being concerned that others can recognize the Lord and His love for them, wherever and whoever they are in this world!

  6. Beautiful, Lisa. Thank you for reminding us of the wonder of the Incarnation.

  7. “We are celebrating the feast of the Eternal Birth which God the Father has borne and never ceases to bear in all eternity…. But if it takes not place in me, what avails it? Everything lies in this, that it should take place in me.”
    Meister Eckhart

    Does our participation create a fourth leg, turning the triangle into a square? Does human entry somehow change the Godhead or have we somehow always been a participant in eternity? We are discussing something that squarely falls into the categories of eternal and mysterious so maybe nothing changes by incorporating humans as we have always somehow been there. I don’t know. At any rate, it is only our partication and union with God that births it anew in flesh. It is this very thing that gives humanity critical mass. It gives us our dignity and humbles us to no end. Mary is the prototype of this complete surrender to mystery, to agony and to love. All walls fall down and El Elyon,the most high God, is all and in all.

  8. Thank you each for your kind words. I am blessed.

  9. So beautifully written. Thank you, Lisa!

  10. What a beautiful, wise writing, Lisa. What a wonderful scene with your granddaughter, which shows us “the holy moment of revelation” that we are all beloved by God. Thank you.

  11. I like the style of constrasting this essay with the last where you painted the scenic background. It gives me a lot of mental imagery to compare your comments to. And it gives the sense of awe and wonder needed when thinking about the Godhead. That you are reading from different sources I applaud; over the years I have been reading from from different traditions, both east and west, so that I can look at the diamond of our faith from different angles, to help me get a more complete picture. Enjoyable reading, nice break from all the doctrinal or cultural/moral/political stuff I have been seeing lately.