As I mentioned last month, I've been thinking a lot about the Trinity. Apparently my two-year old has tuned into the same wavelength. Last week she brought me a book to read, Goldilocks and the Three Bears. I was busy at the time so I asked if she could read it herself. Excited by the prospect of doing something so grown-up, she sat down and began confidently. "Once upon a time there were three bears - the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." I laughed in surprise and delight. Later that night I realized that there is an illustration of the three beasts in Clara's book which bears a certain resemblance to the famous Rublev icon.
We are all children playing at theology when we stand before the Trinity. This cannot be helped for the reality we Christians profess is something far beyond human experience. Our words are doomed to fall short, but that does not mean we should say nothing. Contemplating the Trinity is necessary for the growth of a Christian. I am glad that Clara is starting early!
Our hearts and minds stretch as we meditate on our Creator. If we believe that humans are made in the image of God, our perception of God should direct our desires, our goals, our formation. Is God a joyful God, or an angry God, or a God without emotion as we understand? Does He enjoy the fellowship of persons fully capable of returning His love, or is He entirely alone and transcendent? Within the Godhead, do the persons of the Trinity submit to one another, honor one another, delight in one another; or is submission only for humans? Our beliefs about these questions have a huge impact on our worship, on our affections, on our relationship with others.
From the time I was very young, I understood that theologians could go only so far in their attempts to describe God. It has taken me much longer to realize that the Law has the same limitations for exactly the same reasons. I find this thought about the Law both unsettling and reassuring. I'll try to explain what I mean.
If theology attempts to tell us what God is like, then moral law attempts to tell us what God likes, what pleases Him. Because we believe God is good, we also believe that all He wills is good. Religious law instructs men in God's will by regulating, prescribing and forbidding certain practices. Clearly moral law is of great benefit to society. It is a practical expression of God's justice, His truth, His care for the poor. The Old Testament also offers some fascinating rules regarding the treatment of land and animals. As Paul so accurately described the Law, it is a tutor given to train us in the ways of God.
In order for the Law to achieve its purpose, it must be obeyed. Submission is a spiritual practice which forms us and blesses society. When individuals or societies throw off the yoke of the law, chaos follows. Jesus himself obeyed the Law. In fact, he is the only one who ever kept it perfectly; yet the Pharisees accused Jesus of flaunting sacred tradition. The Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Word made Flesh was not strict enough in the eyes of the Pharisees.
I love what Adrienne von Speyer writes about the obedience of Jesus.
"The Lord is obedient in a double sense. First of all, he is obedient to the Father and to his task.....As a man, however, he remains obedient with regard to his fellow men. Mary and Joseph have in him an obedient son who learns human ways from them as any (other) person in the world. Indeed, he does this in such a way that he never measures the distance between his human parents and His Father in heaven so as to discover a discrepancy."
But there did come a time for the twleve-year-old Jesus when obedience to the Father caused distress to his earthly parents. Von Speyer continues...
"Jesus could not spare his parents the search for him. Even in the obedience of the most obedient, gaps, holes, missing links come to light for which God alone is responsible. Those who obey must, for this reason, lay their obedience bare in order that God might fill up the the empty spaces. They must render their obedience without strings attached, so that it will no longer be their possession, fully transparent in every detail. The transparency lies in God. And when the human eye is no longer capable of figuring things out, the obeyer knows that God sees everything and administers obedience precisely as his possession. "
If we understand that our words necessarily fall short in describing God's nature, it follows that we can never perfectly capture his will in our laws. God's will is too great to fit neatly into a written code. As von Speyer says, there will always be gaps; there will always be contradictions where we must lean on the direction of the Holy Spirit.
When I think of the gaps, I think of Cardinal Ratzinger serving communion to Brother Roger at the funeral of John Paul II. (See my post on John Paul II if this reference is unfamiliar.) Surely those two men understood that act as obedience even though it violated some rules. I can remember times in my own life when obedience took me into uncomfortable territory. I have felt the raised eyebrows of my brothers and sisters looking at my actions from the sidelines, and I could sympathize with their perspective. However, I knew that obedience in those situations was demanded of me and no other. God would be my judge rather than a jury of peers.
I can also remember times in my life when I clearly sinned, when I failed to do what I knew was right. Even in that place, I felt the comfort of my transparency before God. I knew that He could look straight into my heart and see when "my spirit was willing, but my flesh was weak." I knew that He could discern the difference between my immaturity and my rebellion more easily than I can see the difference in my two-year old. And I have always hoped that He would carry me to maturity as long as that was my desire.
During WWII many Christians disobeyed German civil authority by hiding Jews in their homes. Some of these individuals lied about their activities without compunction. Others felt that lying was always wrong, even when lives were at stake, because lying was contrary to moral law. Corrie ten Boom recounts this difference of opinion as the only serious rift in their family. But in their case, God covered both decisions. The obedience these families offered to God was offered to Him alone, and was received by Him. Thinking about this example, and the example of Cardinal Ratzinger and Brother Roger, I more easily understand Paul's exhortation to refrain from judging one another. Obedience is offered to God from children who see in a mirror dimly. My understanding of the law is incomplete, just as Clara's perception of the Trinity is still in formation. But I believe that God receives every gift of obedience with great delight, just as Clara's meditation delighted me.