The Athanasian Creed and an Unholy Trinity – a sermon for Trinity Sunday

Beyond the Beyond - Dawn Hutchings

I don’t remember the first time I ever saw him. I was barely 17 months old when my brother Alan arrived. Despite the fact that he ruined my gig as an only child, Alan and I grew close over the years. We moved around a lot so we became one another’s best friends. But we went our separate ways when we became teenagers. When I tell the stories, I say that we went our separate ways because Alan became preoccupied with sports.  I suspect that when Alan tells the stories, he says that we went our separate ways because I became preoccupied with the church. Either way you tell it, family and friends used to say that it was hard to believe that we grew up in the same household. Alan developed a reputation for being a bit of a redneck. I developed a reputation for being a bit of a radical. Alan drove four-wheel-drives and went hunting. I drove old beat up cars and lived at an ecumenical retreat centre.  Alan learned a trade, settled down and raised a family. I travelled the world and didn’t get around to figuring out what I was going to be when I grew up, I went back to school at the age of 30.

Alan and I didn’t get around to understanding one another until we were in our mid-40’s. When I grew to appreciate the gentle man that he has become and Alan began to respect the person I’ve become. We still love to talk politics, but these days we tend to agree more than we disagree, I’m not sure who mellowed, the redneck or the radical. We don’t talk much about religion, though. Growing up, Alan would claim to be an atheist, and scoffed at my involvement with the church. These days, Alan, suggests he is an agnostic, and although he’s come to respect my life in the church, he still scoffs at the hypocrisy of the church.

I still remember the very first time that I saw Manjit. Her face was the colour of pure milk chocolate. Her jet-black hair was long and wavy. She sat at the very back of the classroom. When the teacher introduced me to Manjit, her toothy grin welcomed me. We were twelve years old. I was the new kid in town and Manjit was the only East Indian in the class. We were to share a double-desk for the remainder of the school year. I remember my first trip to Manjit’s home. A science project needed our attention. I can still smell the aroma of Manjit’s home where exotic curries released their pungency into the air. Over several meals at Manjit’s, I learned to like my food hot and spicy. Manjit’s mother would blend her own spices and she never forgot to send a package or two of her specially blended curries home with me.

Manjit is a gentle soul who introduced me to the wonders of her faith. Manjit is a Hindu. Manjit never tried to encourage me to become a Hindu.  Although over the years she would remind me of the Hindu saying that admonishes Hindus to be better Hindus, Muslims to be better Muslims, Jews to be better Jews, Buddhists to be better Buddhists, and Christians to be better Christians.  Manjit grew into a kind and gentle woman. She works as a social worker in Vancouver’s rough east-end neighborhoods. The last time I saw Manjit she was patiently guiding the students of a confirmation class that I taught, around her Temple. Later that evening Manjit and I talked a long time about Jesus. Manjit told me that she’d always been fascinated with Jesus’ teachings and that she had no problem believing that Jesus is God, but then she explained that Hindus have a thousand god’s.

I can still remember the very first time that Henry walked into my office. A long black beard together with the yarmulke that he wore on his head gave Henry away. So, from the very beginning I knew that Henry was Jewish. But it took a few years of working together before I discovered that in addition to being a graphic artist, Henry is also a rabbi. Henry became a dear friend of mine and over the years he shared so much of his wisdom with me. Many a night Henry and I sat up to the wee hours discussing the Scriptures. Henry even arranged for me to study Hebrew at his Yeshiva. I learned a great deal from Henry. We often talked about Jesus. We rarely agreed about Jesus, but we often talked about him.

Alan, Manjit and Henry, some would call them an unholy Trinity. But to me they are, each of them, sacred. Trinity Sunday is my least favorite Sunday of the Church year. It’s the only festival of the church year that is designed to celebrate not God, nor Jesus, not even the Holy Spirit, but rather a doctrine of the church. The notion that God is One in Three; a doctrine that was created by theologians to explain the inexpressible, a doctrine the church “fathers” began to cast in stone in the words of the Apostle’s, Nicene and Athanasian Creeds.  Three Creeds that make up an unholy trinity in and of themselves. Three Creeds that the Lutheran Church continues to hold as articles of the faith. Three Creeds that continue to hold sway in our church.Three Creeds that in my humble opinion make up an unholy trinity. Three Creeds upon which the doctrine of the Trinity rests.

The Apostles’ and Nicene creeds are familiar to most people who’ve spent time in the churches of Christendom. But it’s the 3rd creed of this unholy Trinity that makes Trinity Sunday my least favorite Sunday of the Church year and for me calls into question the entire doctrine of the Trinity. I still remember the first time I actually heard the third creed. I was about 20. I’d been attending church for about five years and I’d already learned to recite the Apostles creed which we used almost every Sunday and the Nicene Creed which we used on the high holy days like Easter, Pentecost and Christmas. But somehow in those five years I never came across the Athanasian Creed. I must have missed a few Trinity Sundays because in the Lutheran Church tradition dictates that on Trinity Sunday the Athanasian Creed be used. So, on this particular Sunday after the Hymn of the Day the pastor instructed us to turn to page 54 in our Lutheran Book of Worship.   

Now those of you who are Lutherans will remember that in the old LBW the most commonly used setting of the liturgy began with the brief order for confession and forgiveness found on page 56 at the front of the hymnal. Well after 5 years in the church, I had no idea what lay on pages 54 and 56 and boy was I in for a rude awakening.  Most of the Athanasian Creed is totally incomprehensible. But there was one part of the creed that stuck in my throat in a way that has made it impossible for me to ever recite. Now I know that it has been a long time for most of you and indeed there are many of you who have never recited it. So, I’m going to do something that I never thought that I would do. I’m going to read the Athanasian Creed to you.

(Read the whole thing. Slowly and deliberately. Try not to gag)                                 a copy can be found here

Upon hearing this creed recited by my home congregation I heard my dear brother, my friend Manjit and my dear friend Henry excluded from God’s grace. Suddenly the God that I thought I knew looked very small indeed. I felt like I was standing at the edge of a precipice.  The ground ahead of me disappeared into a fathomless void. “One cannot be saved without believing firmly and faithfully that God is Trinity.” Indeed in the words of the Athanasian Creed “Whoever does not guard it whole and inviolable will doubtless perish eternally.” Visions of my entire family and all those I hold dear perishing eternally quickly disappeared as I began to fear for my own salvation. Believe this or risk perishing for all eternity. The fires of hell were sure to capture me!

Up to that point I actually thought my biggest problem with the creeds was the virgin birth. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the doctrine of the Trinity is wrong. God may indeed be a Trinity.  And I can say with absolute certainty that I have experienced God in three persons. But then, I cannot even begin to count the number of persons in whom I have experienced God.

Try as I might, I cannot wrap my brain around the doctrine of the Trinity. I must confess to you that I’ve actually stopped trying to reconcile myself to this ancient doctrine.  Any doctrine or notion about the nature of the creator that is set up as an absolute requires a kind of fundamentalism that I don’t have the stomach for. I cannot tell you, nor can I believe that anyone can tell you what God is. But I can tell you that when people start insisting that they know what God is, you should begin to worry. And when someone insists that if you don’t believe what they believe about the nature of God that you are dammed to “perish eternally”, well that’s precisely the kind of fundamentalism that I believe Jesus warned us against.

If the doctrine of the Trinity helps you to understand or articulate some of the aspects of God that you have experienced, then by all means celebrate the doctrine of the Trinity. But if the doctrine of the Trinity gets in the way, then move beyond it. If the doctrine of the Trinity causes you to damn a fellow creature or to look upon someone who is seeking wisdom by another way, then take another look.

Re-think your notions about God and do so without fear. For if I’ve learned anything about the nature of God it is that our God is beyond our abilities to describe. Our attempts at describing God are only as good as the effect they have on the way we live in communion with God and with all that God loves. 

So, I don’t recite the Athanasian Creed and as for the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, well I don’t recite them anymore either.  I know them well and I studied them intensely and I will continue to study them. But not as boundaries that mark who is in and who as out, rather, as testaments to the faith of our “fathers.” “Fathers in the faith” upon whose shoulders I stand. But the thing about standing upon someone’s shoulders is that it’s far from the most comfortable place to be. Sooner or later you’re going to topple over.  When one person falls over, we all fall down. So, all though I’m willing to crawl up there on those shoulders from time to time to see what the view is like from that vantage point, I’m not prepared to stay up there for long. I prefer to stand upon the ground: the Ground of Being. For the God that I know, and I say know with all humility, the God that I know, if ever so slightly, is in the words of Paul Tillich,  the God who is the Ground of our Being. The God who I have seen in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the God who lives and breathes in with and through creation, and in the presence of the Ground of Being, there is no creed or doctrine that will suffice and so, all I can offer up is silence.  Holy and blessed sacred silence in the presence of the, One who is was and ever more shall be in the words of Augustine: LOVER, BELOVED and LOVE itself. And were LOVE is concerned, no one will perish eternally, for the power of LOVE is grace and in all things God’s grace is sufficient. And that changes everything. I can no longer divide God into your, God and my God, his God or her God, Alan’s God, Sam’s God, or Henry’s God.  

As my Hindu friend Manjit taught me, “God is beyond the beyond and beyond that also. Or as Bonheoffer said, “God is the beyond in our midst.”  God is beyond Trinity and that must change everything. That calls us beyond our own form of fundamentalism.

Now, to those of you who would say, “Why worry about this stuff?  Nobody out there in the “real world” really cares about theology. Let me tell you a story that illustrates why I believe this stuff really matters out there.

A while ago, before I knew that I too suffer from fundamentalism, I realized that in a very tangible way that we need to travel beyond our creeds. It was September 14th 2001. Barely 3 days had passed since that fateful day when our world was blown apart by religious fundamentalists. I was late.  Once again, my inability to navigate the streets of Toronto had led to too many wrong turns and the need to backtrack. Being lost in the city is something that I’ve gotten used to.  It doesn’t usually bother me.  But I didn’t want to be late.  I was unsure about just where I was going and just what was going to happen when I arrived.

The meeting had been hastily called.  Clerics from various faiths were meeting together to discuss how to go forward in these troubled times. I was too busy to be attending one more meeting.  But like the prophet Jeremiah, my eyes had been a fountain of tears and I had been weeping night and day.  I hoped that this particular meeting would help me to spring into action so that in doing something I could find my bearings once again. I spent the early part of the week trying to figure out just what to do.  How do you mourn for so many?  How long do we mourn for so many? I found myself lost in the images of terror.  Lost somewhere between the rubble and the war that would surely come. Lost in front of the TV set, hoping against hope that someone, anyone would find a solution that would not mean more violence, more terror, more death, more innocent lives lost. Lost somewhere between the patriotic declarations of American cousins and my own desire to cry out for peace. Lost somewhere between a desire to bear witness to the historic events of those days, and the desire to block it out and return to normal. Lost between knowing that so much had changed, and wanting to pretend that everything would be fine if everyone just went about their business.

When I finally made it out of the depths of the subway, the sun was shining. The very same sun that shone down upon the rubble where so much was lost. The very same sun that shone in the mountains of Afghanistan. I wandered, in a daze, consumed with thoughts about what might happen next.

Trying to figure out what a war on terrorism would look like on the streets of Toronto. I wandered into the skyscraper that bore the same number as the hastily written note that I held in my hand.

I made my way into the elevator and pushed the button that would let me out on the twenty-second floor. Lost in thought, I couldn’t help thinking what it would be like to descend from a tower by way of the stairwell.

I was not alone.  A woman was riding up with me. She wore the hijab. She was staring down at her feet. Two women standing in close quarters.  One wearing the hijab, a traditional head-scarf of a Muslim woman.  The other wearing a black shirt and white collar, the traditional uniform of a Christian cleric.

Two women standing in close quarters. One, staring down at her feet.  The other, struggling for some words. She didn’t look up. 

I said, “Hello.” She just stared at her feet.

I said, “I’m so sorry.”

Her head nodded up and down.

Again, I said, “I’m sorry.”

She looked up, a tear ran down her cheek. And as she spoke, my own tears returned. “Thank-you” she said.

I extended my hand in greeting.  And from deep in the recesses of my memory came the only words of Arabic I have ever learned.  “Salam a lakem”. She clasped my hand in both of hers and said, ‘Salam a lakem, Peace be with.”

We got off on the same floor, and said nothing to one another as we made our way into the same meeting room. There we listened as the leaders of various faiths tried to deal with the madness that had struck our homeland. We listened as several Imams told us that they were advising the members of their mosques to stay inside there homes whenever possible. We listened to the stories of hatred and ignorance. We listened as Muslim clerics and lay people expressed their fears. A Hindu priest explained how he had narrowly escaped the wrath of several adolescent boys who insisted that he was responsible for all the terror.  The Hindu priest declared that under normal circumstances he would have been somewhat annoyed to be mistaken for a Muslim, but on that day he was tempted to masquerade as one, so that he might stand in solidarity with his sisters and brothers.

We listened as anxious parents desperately asked how they were to protect their children from their neighbors.  We listened as a Jewish rabbi suggested that perhaps the Christians among us would consider sitting vigil on the parameters of Mosques and Synagogues. We listened as a Christian professor asked how long it would be before it was safe for his Muslim students to return to their classes. We listened as a young man told of an encounter in the streets. He was on his way to work his two-year-old daughter at his side, when two men in a pick-up truck pulled up on the sidewalk and called out in their hatred, words that I will not repeat in this sanctuary.

The woman from the elevator stood up, and told us that she had been chased in the subway by a gang of young men who warned her that she had better keep on running until she made it back to the desert where she belonged. Each story made my heartsick.  For the first time in my life I felt lost; really lost; lost in the land that I love. It hardly seems possible that almost a dozen years have past since those first horrible days of the War on terror. Canada may have escaped the war on Iraq, but Canada did join in the war in Afghanistan, and still there is no end in sight to the war against terror. We should have known that you cannot defeat terror. If Jesus stood for anything he stood for achieving peace through Justice and yet in the name of peace we have allowed our own notions of justice to take a back seat to fear. And so we are left longing for the Shalom that Jesus spoke of and yet will to use any means necessary to preserve a way of life that puts it’s faith in power and might to ensure that we have the freedom to believe what we choose to believe. And so there is no peace. There is only the status quo, which we struggle to preserve. The status quo that at any moment can be laid to waste by the wildness by religious fanatics who are convinced that their God is mightier than our God.

As we continue to point the finger at our enemies and suggest that all would be well if they would only give up their religious fundamentalism, we continue to cling to our own version of fundamentalism as if by virtue of being ours it is somehow a kinder and gentler fundamentalism and so is beyond the need for change. Humanity has evolved a great deal since the 4th century when our Christian creeds were first developed with their carefully held notions about the nature of the Trinity. There is so much that we know that the Fathers of Christianity did not know and yet Christianity refuses to allow our conversations about the nature of God to grow beyond the feeble attempts of our ancient forbearers to describe the indescribable. So, one form of fundamentalism continues to battle another form of fundamentalism.

Trinity Sunday will continue to be my least favourite Sunday of the church year because our carefully held notions about the nature of the Mystery that lies at the heart of all creation continues to keep us bound to the status quo, and the status quo is simply not good enough for a world that is desperate for the kind of Shalom that Jesus pointed to.

As creation continues to evolve, we can continue to evolve alone the lines that the old Roman Empire held to be true and we can continue to seek peace by way of the sword in a feeble effort to hold onto our carefully held beliefs about our Creator and creation. Or we can follow the path of Jesus which threatens to open up our tightly held grip on what we believe to be true and open us to a realm of possibilities that holds the promise of shalom. Shalom the kind of peace that surpasses understanding. The kind of peace where wisdom is prized above power and might and where questions and not doctrines lead us into a fuller and deeper relationship with our Creator who is beyond our abilities to imagine and who calls us into a deeper relationship with our fellow creatures. A kind of peace that lies far beyond the limitations of the doctrine of the trinity. The kind of peace where the peoples of God have the wisdom to stand in the presence of the Creator of all that is in humble awesome silence.

In the presence of the Mystery that lies at the heart of all that is, perhaps we can achieve the wisdom to utter not doctrine but the rather the desires of all that is for:  Shalom, Irene, Salam, Shanti, Hewa, Ahimsa, Peace. Let it be so dear God.  Let it be so. 


3 thoughts on “The Athanasian Creed and an Unholy Trinity – a sermon for Trinity Sunday

  1. This is so great on a couple of levels. First, the past shelf life of the creeds. But also as an example of the intra-faith issues that arise when we have inter-faith encounters. The story of Manjit and Henry is a wonderful illustration of why the intra-faith conversation is so necessary in our churches.

  2. Pingback: The Athanasian Creed and an Unholy Trinity – a sermon for Trinity Sunday — pastordawn | INTRAfaithconversation

  3. Thank you for your thoughts on the trinity. I walked away from a Baptist Sunday School when I was 13 after rejecting what I had been taught about the trinity. Years later I asked an Anglican priest and theologian to explain the trinity to me. His reply was along the lines of, “greater minds than mine have wrestled with this question for hundreds of years and I just have to accept what they say”. I accepted what he said at the time, but a few months later he was appointed as an Anglican Bishop – and I was left with a church leader who couldn’t explain the trinity! I was disillusioned and walked away. I couldn’t understand how people could attend church for Christmas and Easter and not be seen at any other times, and I couldn’t get answers to some of my questions – but I never doubted the existence of God.

    Several years later I became a member of a Sabbath-keeping Christian church that rejected the teaching of the trinity; considered Christmas and Easter to be pagan festivals to be avoided; and also rejected the traditional teachings of hell. Nearly 20 years later the leadership of that church announced that much of their theology was misguided – and were welcomed by several member churches of the National Association of Evangelicals in America. And that was itself over 20 years ago now.

    I’ve never had any formal theological training – but the teaching of the trinity has had an enormous impact over the years. It was in 2007 that I read an early copy of ‘The Shack’ (before its worldwide success). After I had read it a second time I found myself wondering why it had taken 57 years for someone to give me a picture of the trinity that just began to make sense.

    And that’s just scratching the surface of what must be a unique experience.

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