Above, Within and Among
posted on December 18, 2016
We are Unitarian Universalists. Our Universalist heritage teaches us that whatever happens to us – our souls, spirits, whatever – if anything – happens to all of us. If when we die we are met with a Supreme Being who sits in judgment over us, that being will save all of us. No one is consigned to the flames of hell. As a matter of fact, Universalists believe that there is no hell to which we might be consigned. God, the Universalists taught, is too good to damn his creation. We will spend eternity in the presence of god.
Our Unitarian heritage teaches that God is one, whole, indivisible being or entity – not, as the early church fathers held, a three-fold god: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
These fine theological points are the substance of conversation and controversy among people who enjoy parsing the invisible. Many modern Unitarian Universalists don’t think there’s any such thing as god, as god has been described to us. So we don’t spend much time thinking about god’s nature, be it a three-fold nature, a unified nature, or whatever. Generally, if we do believe in the existence of a divine being, we agree we don’t know anything about it. All the descriptions of god fall far short of what god would have to be, given what we know now about the universe. We tend to be agnostic – and that word comes from the word gnosis, or knowledge, with the prefix “a-”, which in this case signifies a negative, an absence – thus, agnostic means not-knowing. There’s a great bumper sticker that reads “MILITANT AGNOSTIC! I don’t know and you don’t, either.”
But at this time of year we sing the old songs and celebrate the birth of god – or perhaps the birth of a child who points us to god. There is no theologizing in a Unitarian Universalist church in December. So, I go out on a limb today a little to offer an interpretation of a doctrine we long ago abandoned, because we are talking this month about presence.
The Christian doctrine of the Trinity (Latin: Trinitas, lit. ‘triad’, from trinus, “threefold”) holds that God is three consubstantial persons or hypostases—the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit—as “one God in three Divine Persons”.
On the very practical level, this doctrine helped defend the idea that god became a human being, dwelt with us, died for our sins and rose again. We’ll leave that for another day. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but then the folks who devised that doctrine didn’t have the information we have today.
I’m going to share what one folk who did have a lot of the information we have – although he died before our wonderful space craft showed us the rings of Saturn, and the surface of Pluto, and the moons of Jupiter – and before the Hubble Space Telescope began to send back photographs of the star nurseries and nebula of deep space. The folk was my mentor Dr. Roland Stahl, professor of religion and philosophy and Methodist minister. Along with Pascal’s wager and the impossibility of a universal ethical rule, Dr. Stahl explained the Trinity to me as a way of understanding aspects of the divine. It goes like this:
The Father – God – represents our experience of the transcendent god – the unknowable, inexpressible, mysterious power of all that is — the aspect that is completely outside the material world. This is the philosopher and theologian Rudolf Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans — a mystery before which we both tremble and are fascinated, by which we are both repelled and attracted. This is the god above. This is the invisible being to whom we raise our voices in supplication — yes, even those of us who do not believe in god use this idea of god, or the universe, or the fates, or dumb luck. This is the imagined actor in human history who maketh the sun shine and the rain fall on the just and the unjust alike — the god we can’t bargain with but we try anyway. This might be the god of the Deists who believe that God created the universe but remains apart from it and permits his creation to administer itself through natural laws. This aspect of god is a cool and distant presence —transcendent, unreachable.
Then there is the aspect of the divine known by Trinitarians as the Holy Spirit. This is the immanent, wholly present aspect – that sense that we are not alone, that there is moving among us a spirit that can be variously described as love, or energy, compassion, empathy – “Emmanuel: god-with-us.” Wikipedia says, “The Holy Spirit is stated to be ‘a realm beyond the ability of words to properly convey. It must be experienced, realized, kindled within like a holy fire.’ Immanence refers to those philosophical and metaphysical theories of divine presence in which the divine encompasses or is manifested in the material world. Immanence is usually applied to suggest that the spiritual world permeates the mundane.
The Holy Spirit would be like that shiver you get when something eerie happens, or perhaps when you perceive the presence of a loved one after they have died. The Holy Spirit, unlike the Father, can be represented and often is in the form of a dove. A dove was said to appear when Jesus was baptized by his cousin John. The Spirit came to the Apostles and other followers of Jesus fifty days after Easter, in tongues of fire. Called “the unveiled epiphany of God”, the Holy Spirit is the aspect of god who enabled the proclamation of Jesus Christ, and the power that brought conviction of faith.
These events are of dubious historical veracity – but we can all identify with that sense of immanence, of something special, whatever it is. Maybe it’s just a shot of dopamine!
So, we have the Father — the Transcendent aspect of the divine, above us and the Holy Spirit — the Immanent aspect of the divine, within us.
What’s left? The Son. This baby over which we make a fuss at Christmas time. This baby who was never born in a stable nor laid in a manger, about whom no angels heralded his birth to shepherds, to whom no star led wise men —the Son.
What aspect of divinity does The Son represent? Dr. Stahl called it the Kinetic aspect – The aspect of the Divine that moves, acts, and has agency, is prophetic and powerful and works among and between us. It is the constantly creative and creating aspect of the divine, like when you get one of those supercharged moments and something becomes clear to you, and your way is made plain, and you know just what to do and how to do it. The Son of the Trinity takes upon itself completely human characteristics, validating our experience as human beings. It lives and moves and has its being among us, as the Father is above and the Holy Spirit is within.
And so today, the Sunday before Christmas, in a month when we are looking at the theme of presence, I want to translate that Trinity — that concept of the divine —with you. Because while we may not agree that the divine is externally or objectively real — there is no god as has been described or wrestled with over the millennia — we must agree that the impulses that led to the invention of these theories are real. Very real. We long for the god that does not exist (or at least I think it does not exist.) We long for the Father Jesus talked about, who knows what we need before we ask. We long for a name for what we experience in our apprehensions of the mysteries. It takes a certain strength to do as the singer Iris Dement suggests, and “just let the mystery be.” If we are paying attention at all, the human experiences that gave rise to all mythology are very real.
And so we talk about presence – our own. Our own presence above our lives, the metacognitive state, the name of which is sometimes “god” and sometimes “Jiminy Cricket” – our conscience. Those moral rudders that steer our course, and – keeping the sailing metaphor – cause us to be doused with cold water when we disregard their warnings. Conscience, the presence of our own self-knowing…
And within us, our presence to ourselves and each other as “children of god” — a phrase I love, even as I dismiss the “god” part as not objectively real. The spirit of loving kindness that washes over us from who-knows-where, especially at this most vulnerable and poignant time of year. A holy spirit, say.
And among us — that presence of compassion, empathy, sympathy, activity that strengthens our own self-worth and reinforces our conviction that each person — yes, even those who have behaved in vile ways — has a “streak of god” within, something redeemable and good.
Can something that doesn’t exist in objective reality still have a presence in our lives? Isn’t there a sense that there is something above us, even as our reason tells us it’s stars and gasses and planets and empty space? Isn’t there a sense of holiness within us, even as our reason tells us that most of what we perceive as real is just the result of electrical activity in our brains? And isn’t there an energy, real and palpable, among us when we are together?
And doesn’t this all militate that we be aware at all times and in all places that our presence has a power to affect the quality of the day, and the quality of our own experiences and the quality of the experiences we have with others?
Walk into a room. Be cheerful, and you elevate the mood. Be sad, and you soften it and make it wary. Be angry, and you put everyone in the room on high alert. Your presence — your awareness of your presence — is the thing that is sacred, holy, divine — if anything is. And here at this season especially, your awareness of your presence is most important. As a mode of being, consider that you walk among people on whom you can have a very powerful impact. You can’t save everyone from suffering. You can’t bring Santa Claus to all the children. You can’t fix all the brokenness of the world. But you can, as the poet says, “be an activist.
Bless global, act
Local. Think small.
One’s home, one street, one road, one neighborhood,
a village, a county, a town, city, state, province.
Start anywhere. I know you know how.
Holy questions are, When? How often? For how long?
I suggest today, tonight, every day, forever.”