Like many people, I love a good mystery. In fact, kick it up a few notches from ‘mystery,’ to ‘conundrum,’ or ‘paradox,’ or even ‘oxymoron,’ and I’m really in my glory. In the realm of theology, though some prefer order and logic, I am quite comfortable with the astonishing and the incomprehensible: anything I can easily and comfortably wrap my mind around is probably not God. I have always been drawn to the saying attributed to the 2nd-century North African theologian Tertullian, ‘Credo quia absurdum est’ — “I believe because it is absurd.”
Coincidentally, Tertullian is also the thinker who first used the word “Trinity” in theological discourse This greatest of all mysteries, which we celebrate this Sunday, is at the core of our Christian faith — and this centrality itself gives rise to a number of other mysteries that today’s Solemnity has inspired me to contemplate.
I like to think that Tertullian, as a fan of absurdity, would share my bemusement with a mystery nearly as baffling as that of the Trinity itself. The very church that grew out of a shared faith in this logic-obliterating idea of God as both One and Three, pretty quickly evolved into an institution obsessed with fitting everything and everyone into neat little boxes, and ruling out any chance of gray areas that don’t fit into these neat little boxes.
While I sometimes chuckle at internet memes, I don’t usually pass them on (and never for anything but humorous purposes), and I certainly never mistake them for logical arguments or evidence. However, I’ve seen one that, snarky though it is, pretty well captures the bizarre paradox I’m talking about. In dialogue form, it says:
Jesus: I am the Son of God, but also I am God, and we are the same thing but different people, and also there is a ghost who is me and is God, but is different, too.
Christians: Yes, good.
Me: I was assigned male at birth, but actually I’m a woman.
This example is meant primarily as criticism of the double-standards practiced by many who share our faith, most certainly including the most rigid defenders of Catechism-of-the-Catholic-Church ideas about sexuality and gender. Yet, I don’t find anything inaccurate in how it characterizes our understanding of the Trinity (three different persons, check; yet one identical substance or identity, check; Father, Son, and Spirit are all distinct from each other, while simultaneously the same as each other, check …).
Actually, I do find ONE thing inaccurate about it: Jesus Himself never (at least as far as we know from anything recorded in the New Testament) spelled out so explicitly what the Trinity is, let alone his own place in it. That’s why today’s lectionary contains no single locus classicus, “explains it all for us,” pronouncement about the Trinity: no such thing exists. Instead, Scripture provides many passages that hint at the Trinity. The evidence is clear that no later than the second century, most Christian teachers had gathered these hints into the now-familiar three-and-yet-only-one understanding of the nature of God — and soon established this enigma as absolute orthodoxy, anathematizing multiple attempts to make it less oxymoronic and hence more comprehensible. (A friend and fellow theology teacher once said, “If any Christology or explanation of the Trinity seems perfectly logical, that guarantees it’s heresy.”)
We are a church built on a faith in a God defined in a way that embarrasses any efforts to explain said God by means of ordinary logic. Yet somehow, this church developed into one quite comfortable with establishing all kinds of parameters and restrictions on what is possible not only for humans, but astonishingly, even for God Herself.
Among the many incomprehensibilities of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s recent ruling against blessings for same-sex couples, perhaps the most appalling is the alleged argument offered for it, namely that “God cannot bless sin.” Forgetting for a second (if we can) the cruelty of insisting on the ham-fisted use of “sin,” I wonder if the unnamed author of this document paused for even an instant to ask himself (you know it had to be a “him”), “Am I ok with telling God what God can do?” Not likely, since a great deal of dogma and canon law has involved precisely this paradox of we mere mortals giving or denying our permission to God.
Even more baffling than the Church’s addiction to categorizing and pigeonholing is the flabbergasting extent to which this addiction seems utterly obsessed with sex and gender. Search your gospels and you will find a handful of occasions where Jesus mentions anything to do with sexual relations, and they generally take the form of ‘don’t treat other human beings as objects for your lust, rather than as humans,’ or condemnation of his culture’s allowing wives to be cast aside the moment a husband got bored (without, of course, extending the same permission to the wives). Yet today, it’s hard to count the number of people excluded from full participation in the Church of their baptism because they don’t fit the incredibly narrow definitions of what types of sexual identity or activity are permitted.
Now, count the number of people excluded because they don’t practice the corporal works of mercy spelled out clearly in Matthew 25:31-46, and repeatedly taught by Jesus as the real criteria for membership in the kingdom.
Found any yet?
I don’t expect that, in this lifetime, I will ever fully understand the mystery of how the Church founded on mystery became obsessed with stamping out mystery. Rather than waiting vainly for that, I will rejoice in the truth of a God whose very nature is loving relationship– a relationship that utterly rejects all attempts to describe it by our poor human standards.
For the artist’s explanation of the painting depicted in this post, please click here.
—Michaelangelo Allocca, May 30, 2021