If liberal Quakers sometimes stumble over the God word, what will we do with the Holy Trinity?
In God without God: Western Spirituality without the wrathful king, Michael Hampson writes (I make no apology for quoting from this excellent book again…):
To invest too much in the theology of the Trinity is to confuse the reality with the metaphor. The question is not whether God exists as defined by some version of the doctrine of the Trinity, but whether the Trinity is a useful model by which to increase our understanding of the ultimate mystery which is God, our Yahweh Elohim.
We Quakers are used to the Holy Spirit, that of God in everyone, for whose guidance we listen in our meetings for worship and for business (cf. Quaker Faith & Practice 3.04 and following), and we are familiar with the fruits of the Spirit as they grow in Friends’ lives, year after year bearing witness to the truth of our historic testimonies to equality, justice, peace, simplicity and truth.
God the Father is of course the problem for so many people, especially those whose experience of human fathers has been lacking, or worse, abusive, those for whom the idea of father incorporates arbitrary authority, irresponsible power, unpredictable, unjust wrath and cruel punishment. But Father, Abba, Pater – these were Jesus’ favourite metaphors for God as simple goodness and mercy. The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15.11ff) shows “not the wrathful, vengeful, and demanding God of presumptive monotheism: this is the God who nourishes us, holds us close, lets us go, and welcomes us home without condition.” (Hampson, op cit.) Even the words “our father in heaven” properly understood don’t imply some renaissance picture of the robed and bearded ruler sitting on a cumulus cloud. The Greek ouranois, sky, air according to Hampson “shares its origin with words meaning covering and encompassing… [God] all around us… in the air we breathe, inhabiting, encompassing, covering and embracing all creation.” And the Hebrew words Yahweh Elohim are more nuanced than we tend to think: Yahweh, I AM, is neither masculine nor feminine; and while Elohim is a masculine plural, its singular, Eloah, has the form of a feminine singular.
And Jesus? The Christ? Hampson again:
This imagined being – both fully human and fully divine – is our definition of the Christ of faith… draw[ing] into our concept of Yahweh not only the essence of all being but the essence specifically of what it is to be human; and it draws into our concept of Elohim all the richness of the full diversity of humankind. It completes a Trinity of images or metaphors for God in which Yahweh Elohim is ruach and pneuma (the breath and the wind), Abba pater en ouranois (the universal nourisher, protector and upholder), and finally the Christ of faith, the perfect union of the human and the divine…
With a specific human [Jesus] identified as the Christ of faith, our entire ordinary humanity – including our mammalian fleshiness – is drawn into the realm of the divine… It is the concept of the incarnation, the enfleshment, of God: God truly present in ordinary matter, in the practical physical material of daily life.
I really would encourage anyone who finds these ideas as exciting and involving as I do to get hold of a copy of Michael Hampson’s book. I can’t do justice to his arguments, or to the passion and clarity with which he writes, in snippets on a blog.