Last revised: July 22, 2022
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TRINITY SUNDAY — YEAR C
RCL: Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15
RoCa: Proverbs 8:22-31; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15
On the most unusual day in the church year, a day in which we focus on a non-narrative doctrine of the Christian faith (though I’m essentially going to argue that we need to bring this doctrine into closer connection with narrative once again), I’m going to do things a bit differently. I’m going to begin with resources and reflections on the doctrine itself, in light of mimetic theory, and then make very brief comments on the lessons.
Doctrine of the Trinity
1. James Alison. Alison sees the doctrine of the Trinity as intimately related to the doctrine of original sin, which is the central topic of The Joy of Being Wrong. For example, from the introduction to ch. 7, entitled “The Trinity, Creation, and Original Sin,” he writes:
The revealing of the Trinity is both the making clear who God really is, breaking through distorted notions of God, and the making clear what are the mechanisms which produce the distorted perception of God, thus making clear who humans are. It is the being locked in these latter mechanisms that is the content of Original Sin. (p. 186)
I think it would be worthwhile to share a bit lengthier elaboration of this point from earlier in the work (pp. 108-109):
What we have then is a gradual process of the re-casting of God in the light of the resurrection of Jesus, such that it becomes seen that the previous discourse, within which Jesus had operated, and within which his victimary self-understanding was forged, was in fact a provisional discourse. In the light of the resurrection it gradually becomes possible to see that it was not that God was previously violent, now blessing, now cursing (Deut. 32:39), but had now brought all that ambivalence to an end. Rather, it became possible to see that that was all a human violence, with various degrees of projection onto God. God had been from the beginning, always, immutably, love, and that this love was made manifest in sending his Son into the midst of the violent humans, even into the midst of their persecutory projections of God, so that they might treat him as a human victim, and thus reveal the depth of the love of God, who was prepared to be a human victim simultaneously to show the depth of his love for humanity, and to reveal humanity as having been locked into the realm of the Father of lies [John 8:44].The process we have seen in the Pauline writings and in the Johannine epistles is then the definitive demystification of God and human beings, such that it becomes possible to look again at the crucifixion and the resurrection and develop a perception of God only as derived from that event. So it becomes possible to see the crucifixion as the meeting point between, on the one hand, a human act of violence, and, on the other hand, the love of the Father, who sends his Son into humanity as an act of love, the Son who gives himself freely to being victimized by human beings as part of his imitative love of the Father, and the Holy Spirit, who is the inner dynamic of the relationship between the two of them. Jesus on the Cross gives up his Spirit to the Father. The Father at the resurrection gives back the Spirit to the Son, and the two of them are then able to give this same Spirit, the Spirit of the crucified-and-risen victim to humans as induction into a new way of being human — becoming children of God (John 1:11-12), quite outside the violence of the “world.”
The understanding of God as Trinity then is the understanding that the Cross of Christ, made alive in the resurrection, was in fact a relational reality — a reality of giving and of self-giving that was saving as revealing, and revealing as saving. The Trinity is revealed as the salvific density of the Cross. It is the understanding of God made available by the intelligence of the victim, which can thus be seen as the dynamic which produced a huge change in the discourse about God. (pp. 108-109)
2. Brian McLaren, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, ch. 15, “How the Doctrine of the Trinity Can Foment Harmony and Unity,” pages 125-32. In 2022, I shaped my entire sermon from this chapter, portions of it word-for-word. It also borrowed some of its ethos and its title from the contemporary hymn by Richard Leach — see the sermon “Come, Join the Dance of Trinity.”
3. René Girard, Things Hidden, pp. 215-223, regarding the Divinity of Christ and the Virgin Birth. These sections move toward a doctrine of the Trinity with an emphasis on Christ’s divinity and incarnation. He also comments briefly on the Trinity in I See Satan, pages 121-22.
4. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, “The Revelation of the Holy Spirit and the Trinity,” pp. 209-217.
5. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” made these reflections on the Trinity in 2013, “The Infinite Round Dance; and in 2016, “The Breath of the Trinity.”
6. Brian Robinette, Grammars of Resurrection, pages 346-51.
7. Anthony Bartlett, Virtually Christian, pages 135-38, 142-44, 158-63.
8. Michael Hardin, The Jesus Driven Life, touches on the Trinity on pages 91, 142, and 253-54.
1. The fact that this doctrine has become non-narrative in quality is perhaps its drawback with many modern people. Its being abstracted from the narrative of the New Testament has perhaps led to its current disfavor or neglect in non-academic circles of the church. It has little meaning for the average layperson, having become little more than a curious logical puzzle that doesn’t seem to relate to the narratives of their lives.
This is where the Girardian anthropology can perhaps be of help once again. For mimetic theory is based in a Trinitarian psychology of relationships that Girard read out of the narratives of human literature. Personhood, we are told, is formed in the trinity of relationships between a desiring subject, his or her model/rival, and the object of their mutual desire. This Trinitarian psychology, within the narratives of our lives, can take either of two basic directions: a path of rivalistic mimesis into conflict and the scapegoating mechanism, or a path of non-rivalistic (or “pacifistic,” to use James Alison’s term) mimesis into mutual up-building, creativity, and agape.
The doctrine of original sin suggests that, from the very first man and woman, we have fallen hopelessly into the former path of rivalistic mimesis, even though we were created in the image of the Trinitarian God, whose internal life and very creativity is shaped in the latter pacifistic mimesis. God’s intentions in creating us were for us to follow in the power and spirit of this loving desire. Instead, we have since the beginning chosen to follow in the desires of each other, and so have fallen into conflict and the scapegoating solution. Our very culture and psychological identities are formed in this fallen desire.
The narratives of Gen. 2-4 do a good job of capturing this movement. Eve’s desire for the forbidden fruit doesn’t spontaneously arise in her. It is suggested to her by the serpent; and then she suggests it to Adam. They have modeled the desires of each other, fellow creatures, rather than the desire of their Creator. The result is rivalry — chiefly with God. In what is a beautifully condensed narrative, the story-teller cuts right to the chase of rivalry: the serpent convinces them that God is holding out on them and that they can know what God knows. This rivalry quickly descends into violence: their oldest son kills the younger in a rivalry over the already instituted ritual of scapegoating violence, i.e., sacrifice. Again, there is a real parsimony of narrating in all the details of humanity founded in mimetic rivalry and scapegoating violence.
Even after the story of salvation begins with the covenant to Abraham and Sarah, the rivalry continues: Abraham and Pharoah, Sarah and Hagar, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. But there is a new resource for the way of salvation. Esau forgives Jacob (Gen. 33); Joseph forgives his brothers (Gen. 45, 50).
The path of salvation: God the Father sent Jesus his Son into the world to make real in human history the love triangle of the Triune God. The conclusion of our love triangles gone bad is death; we are perishing. But the end of Jesus’ love triangle with God the Father is life, eternal life. The Holy Spirit is the one who brings us out of our love triangles gone bad and into God’s love triangle; the Spirit is the power of God’s love to bring us into the same love of the Trinitarian Godhead.
A sermon on Trinity Sunday, then, might bring the congregation into a narrative experience of the Trinity in terms of love triangles. It could begin with the notion of original sin as being hopelessly caught up in love triangles gone awry. No matter how hard we try to have them be simply love triangles, they always end up going bad on us. All our relationships go sour, especially since they end in death. That is why the Christian faith came to see the necessity of the doctrines of both original sin and the Trinity. Original sin describes the mess we are in, hopeless for us to get out of on our own. The Trinity describes the shape of God’s salvation: the only hope for us was for the Father to send the Son in order to establish a love triangle within human history that doesn’t go bad. The Son comes to do nothing but the Father’s desire, and the Holy Spirit empowers us to, in faith, choose the Son as our model for desiring. The uniqueness of the Christian faith lies in the necessity of the incarnation. It took God’s love incarnate as a human being to establish this divine love triangle in history; and it takes the Spirit to gather us up into it.
2. Link to my 1998 effort at such a sermon, entitled “‘Looking for Love in All the Right Places.'” It provides a decent outline for a sermon on the Trinity using the themes we’ve talked about here. I might, when preaching these texts again, bring in other human stories from the Bible, literature, etc., that illustrate how our love triangles go awry through jealousy and rivalry. What sets the Holy Love Triangle apart is the absence of such envy. Jesus comes to do his Father’s will.
3. A new angle I’m thinking about in 2007 might go by the title, ‘It Takes Three to Get One from Two.’ The idea of bivalent gods in Mimetic Theory presents the true challenge for monotheism. The Hebrew insight in moving from polytheism to monotheism is truly a radical event in human anthropology and history, and in divine revelation. But because human beings are inclined to a bivalence, i.e., gods of disorder and order, it is very difficult to truly get down to one god. And it is probably more difficult than that. Because as we move to monotheism, the most necessary god for the community’s sake is a god of order who is a god of wrath, a god who must punish in order to establish order. So if we are to ever get to a god of love, is that on the side of order or disorder? In polytheism, gods of love were more often linked to disorder because the gods’ love mirrored our human love mired in mimetic rivalry. So another aspect of the Hebrew revelation was not only the move toward monotheism but to the notion of a god whose covenant love, steadfast love (hesed) can bring order because it is not like our human love. The mantra which became increasingly common in the Hebrew canon is, “The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
But we still have anger, wrath. God is slow to anger, perhaps, but still resorts to anger in order to punish and put things to right. The Hebrew revelation is stretching toward that one god but not quite making it. We still have a god of wrath and love — two gods, I think, according to mimetic theory. The Christian revelation of the Trinity (a Messianic strain of revelation in the Hebrew tradition of revelation) finally trims our gods down to one: God is Love. Period. It takes being able to know the Father through the Son and in the Spirit for us to finally realize that God is always love and never wrath. In short, it takes three to get one from two. The history of monotheism — including Christianity! (which puts Christians in the category of Luke 10:13 as those who should know better: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes”) — is still plagued with the dualism of a god who is both wrathful and loving. It is only through the Trinitarian revelation of God that we can finally come to the One True God: God is Love.
Link to a Bible Study sheet used to extemporize a sermon on the theme “It Takes Three to Get One from Two.” For Lutherans in the group, my extemporizing included a challenge to Martin Luther‘s still splitting God into the God Revealed and the God Hidden. The strength of the Lutheran insight was to call us to focus on the God Revealed in Jesus Christ as a God wholly and completely about Grace. But why leave the God Hidden in reserve? Can we finally see the latter as a holdover from the human anthropology of needing a god of wrath? Let’s finish the Reformation by letting go of that second god and finally letting the Three get us to One from the Two. God is Love. Period. (For more on Luther’s dualistic god from the perspective of Mimetic Theory, see Anthony Bartlett‘s Cross Purposes: The Violent Grammar of Christian Atonement, pp. 89-94, a section entitled “A God in Crisis,” 206, 225.)
4. Eric Gans, a student of Girard’s who has adapted mimetic theory in his own directions, speaks favorably of the market economy as “peaceful exchange.” Isn’t God’s economy, rooted in the trinitarian relations of self-giving, the true “peaceful exchange”?
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
1. On the pre-existence of Christ (as it may relate to Proverbs 8), see James Alison‘s section on “Creation in Christ,” The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 94-102; and a parallel section in Raising Abel, “Alison on Creation in Christ.”
1. James Alison has a fine section on “The Pauline Understanding of Desire” in The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 147-156. The high point of his discussion gives the last word to Romans 5:1:
It is the same understanding that underlies the metaphor of the indwelling of sin to be found in 7:13-25. Sin is a force which moves all persons so that they cannot obey the law they know to be true (the fundamental prohibition against envy and its positive counterpart, love of neighbor as self). Thus the existential condition of every person is that of a conflictual self moved from without. The “I” is not something which controls, but which is controlled by sin which has reached within (7:20). The only force capable of undoing this constitution of the self by the violent other of sin is God as revealed and made available by Jesus Christ (7:25). Exactly what this change might consist in can be shown by reference to Galatians 2:19-21, part of a passage dealing with many of the same themes as Romans. The other in question, God working through Jesus Christ, is able to re-form the “I” of Paul so completely that his “I” is actually replaced by Christ: “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me (Gal 2:20).” There could be no clearer indication of a mimetic psychology than the de-possession of the “I” formed by the world, and the constitution of an “I” that is possession by Christ.We can therefore talk about Paul’s understanding of the human subject in terms of triangular desire, whether a beneficent or a maleficent triangle. This can be seen in three steps: Initially the subject lived in a relationship of pacific imitation of (obedience towards) the model (God) and was able to love Eve and creation (the object designated by the model) in a non-rivalistic fashion. This constituted the first Adam. Then, when free desire distorted itself to envy, the model became a rival, and its will (the prohibition) an obstacle, the object became conflictual (nakedness, work, strife), and the subject was constituted by the sinful other. Now, with the coming of Christ, and by producing an imitation of Christ, the Holy Spirit forms a new “I” that is at peace with God (Rm 5:1). [p. 151]
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, ch. 7, “Sacred Violence and the Reformation of Desire,” especially a section entitled “The True Triangle of Desire: Faith, Hope, and Love,” pp. 171-173. (Alison, in the above cited section, gives credit to Hamerton-Kelly for his reading of St. Paul, though disagreeing on a couple small issues)
3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from June 6, 2004 (Woodside Village Church).
4. J. Christiaan Beker, Paul the Apostle (a classic on Paul; oft quoted, for example, in Girardian Anthony Bartlett‘s book Cross Purposes) and a wonderful little book called Suffering and Hope. Beker argues for reading Romans in light of its well-worked out structure. He sees 1:16-4:25 as primarily an argument against the Jewish sin of boasting in the Torah. Boast is a key word in 5:3. What can they boast in, if not the Law? Suffering! And the theme of hope in the face of suffering is addressed more fully in Romans 8. So it helps to read these verses in context.
5. Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul. Nothing will ever be quite same in Pauline scholarship after Campbell’s dismantling of justification, showing it to be a secondary way of speaking for Paul when in debate with a version of Christianity that is conditional in its grace — and because we misread Romans 1-4, Protestantism has often lapsed into the conditional grace that Paul is trying to undo. Paul’s primary language of unconditional grace is a language of deliverance centered in Romans 5-8. This pericope provides the transition from Paul’s debate in Romans 1-4 to the more pure statement of Paul’s Gospel in Romans 5-8 (see pp. 822-825). See my “Customer Review” on the Amazon.com page.
1. In 2013 another natural disaster had struck during the week, the huge tornadoes to the Oklahoma City area. We were once again pondering the mystery of suffering, so I chose not to add pondering the mystery of the Trinity to it — not directly, anyway. The set-up involved the amazing video of Barbara Garcia, being interviewed in the wreckage of what had been her home. While recounting the story of sheltering herself and her dog in an inner room, little Bowser, whom she presumed dead, stuck his head out from under the rubble. With shock and joy, she said, “I thought that God answered only one prayer, to bring me through alright. But God answered both prayers.” But this raises thorny questions about answered vs. unanswered prayer.
I used Rob Bell‘s latest book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, in combination with Romans 5 to address questions about suffering and prayer. My little innovation was to connect Bell’s three main words for God — with, for, ahead — with Paul’s crucial words — faith, love, hope. The result is the sermon “Hearts Broken Open for God’s Love.”
2. Exegetically, kauchaomai is the word for boast. It appears in Rom. 2:17, 2:23, 5:2, 5:3, and 5:11. In Rom. 2, Paul is confronting his Jewish audience in boasting in their relation to God and the law. In Rom. 5, he is positively suggesting that we might alternatively boast in “our hope of sharing the glory of God,” “our sufferings,” and “in God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The noun form kauchesis is used in Rom. 3:27, where he asks and answers, “Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded”; and 15:17, where he says, “In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to boast of my work for God.”
3. There is some difference between feeling the passive receiver of suffering (e.g., the onset of illness, natural disaster, etc.) and a suffering that comes about from actively living Christ’s love in a yet-sinful world. Are we to boast in both kinds, or more of the latter?
4. One way of fleshing out the suffering of Christians might be to continue the theme I borrowed last week (from colleague Steve Samuelson) around “Spirit-Ministry of the Weakest Link.” My Girardian take on the “weakest link” is that our age-old way of keeping a community together is by choosing a “weakest link” and expelling them, i.e., the scapegoat. The current TV show by that name dramatizes this for us. And “The Weakest Link” is almost like game show meets “Survivor,” so the latter hit show is another example, selecting the scapegoat each week as the basic premise of the show. But Christian love turns this premise around. It exemplifies the proverb, “We’re only as strong as our weakest link.” In other words, we stay together in community by attending to the weakest links, rather than expelling them. If the weakest links among us are often those who are in the midst of suffering, then Christian love is about going to be with those who are suffering. Is this the kind of suffering we might boast in? One that looks forward in hope to God’s ending of all suffering?
1. See references in recent weeks on John’s Farewell Discourse, for example, Easter 6C
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from June 3, 2007 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
Reflections and Questions
1. The 2013 sermon, “Hearts Broken Open for God’s Love,” also made brief use John 16 to raise these questions:
Jesus says to his disciples on the night before his death, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” Did you notice the future tense? “Will guide you”? Two thousand years later, has the Spirit guided us into all the truth even yet? Or are there truths we still haven’t been able to bear that the Spirit is waiting to guide us into? And what constitutes the truths that the spirit guides us into? Religious truths only? Or all kinds of truth? Scientific and historical truths, too, for example?
2. Remember that these verses follow on one of the most important passages for Girard and Girardians, John 16:7-11:
Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate [Paraclete] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.
For more on these verses, see the page for Pentecost B.
3. In several accounts (especially Gen. 3 and John 9), the “original sin” is substituting our judgment for God’s judgment while mistakenly presenting it as God’s judgment. In John 9 the judgment on us is thinking we see when we are actually blind. It is a judgement on our judgment. But it finally takes God the Son to show forth the glory, the true judgemnt, of the Father. It takes God’s Word of love in the flesh being judged in a human court of judgment, plus the Father’s “not guilty” verdict on Easter morning, to expose our idolatrous judging.