The film maker M. Night Shyamalan rocketed to fame with his third film, “The Sixth Sense,” a cinematic tour de force that he both wrote and directed. The year before, 1998, saw the release of a less recognized work, “Wide Awake.” Like “The Sixth Sense,” it is tightly-focused with an obsession for detail, telling the story of Joshua A. Beal, aged ten, played with panache by Joseph Cross. Rosie O’Donnell pitches in, pun intended, as a baseball-loving nun who wants to know which apostle should bat clean-up with Satan on the mound.
Joshua is growing up, starts to see others for the first time, their complexity and their frailty. He has a first crush, experiences his first loss. It is that loss, the death of his beloved grandfather, that gives Joshua a mission. He spends much of the movie looking for God.
Like all of Shyamalan’s movies, “Wide Awake” is a meditation on belief and meaning disguised as narrative, though this might well be his manifesto, the declaration of his great project, to help us all be wide awake. In “The Sixth Sense” he comes back to the theme of wakefulness. The movie’s great reveal, an epic plot twist, is followed by a series of flashbacks showing us that the clues had been there all along, if only we had been awake, or as it might be put in scripture, if we had had eyes to see. Once we saw “it,” the film’s big secret, we couldn’t stop seeing it.
While Shyamalan may urge wakefulness, and Joshua sees God, or at least thinks he sees God, the rest of us stumble through life in a bit of a spiritual fog, and while we get glimpses of the holy, the ineffable we name as God, that Christians have described as a Trinity, is always just beyond our reach.
It is okay that we can’t quite get a hold on God, for a God that we can contain is no God at all, and no God we can construct is worthy of our worship.
Not that that ever stopped us from trying. Christians have been chasing after an understanding of God for a very long time, writing volumes, preaching billions of sermons and homilies, and it has been very messy indeed.
The ancient Hebrew narrative brings a certain fanaticism to bear on the question of depicting God. They won’t even write the name. There are to be no graven images, no idols, much less God played by Alanis Morrisette, Morgan Freeman, or George Burns. T
he refusal to portray their God was a religious innovation, unique in the ancient Near East, one of several innovations in the Judeo-Christian trajectory. To be fair, one source of the Torah described God as an übermensch of sorts, taking the “created in God’s own image” part of scripture literally and giving God lungs to breath life into clay and hands to close the ark. Then there was that whole wrestling with Jacob thing. So maybe it is not completely surprising that the followers of Jesus could accept his claim that if they had seen him, they had seen the Father. Besides, that was only one of many ways he described himself, so who knows how literally they took him…
But when the early church began describing the Spirit as God not-the-Father, God not-Jesus, then there was a problem, a teetering on the edge of polytheism, a near rejection of the core Hebrew principle of ethical monotheism, making them no better than their Hellenized neighbors, worshipping a smorgasbord of deities, Greek, Romanized, Egyptian and beyond, including Caesar, the deified earthly ruler responsible for killing Jesus. The Christians had to find a way to say they experienced God as the Hebrew god Yahweh, that they experienced God in the person of Jesus, that they were still experiencing God as Spirit, but that they only believed in one God, so we got the Trinity.
Looking back, the battles over the nature of Trinity look about as stupid as the battle over the nature of Jesus. Take the Filioque clause, one of the causes of the Great Schism that divided West from East, Roman from Orthodox. The clause, from the Nicene Creed, is used by the Roman church in Latin, and suggests that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, though proceeds in this sense does not imply ultimate origin. The Eastern Churches use the Koine Greek, ἐκπορεύεσθαι, which also means proceeds, but in that tongue implies ultimate origin, so they reject the Latin formulation, insisting that the Spirit on proceeds from the Father.
Really? Fifteen hundred years of division over this?
Maybe it is a good thing that trinitarian language defies logic, forcing us outside of our reason, but that didn’t stop churches across New England from splitting two centuries ago, the Trinitarians claiming some churches, the Unitarians others.
The greatest Trinitarian theologian of our time, the Anglican Sarah Coakley, comes at the issue through prayer and embodied experience rather than through abstraction. Still esoteric, but she makes no claim to offer a final answer.
Humans hate the unknown. We want final answers. Our fear drives us to define, contain, explain. We create myths, interpret experience, then call it dogma and creed. Fear drives countless millions into the arms of charlatans, leads them to buy the snake oil of certainty.
Rejecting dogma and creed, and with good reason, Renaissance humanists sought explanations through reason. Early in the 20th century, this reached a sort of pinnacle with neopositivism and the Vienna circle, a complete rejection of all that was metaphysical, speculative and spiritual, choosing instead pure logic, convinced that the perfect formula, a sort of theory of everything, was just around the corner. Then Einstein happened.
The thing is, our faith tradition got to relativity, uncertainty, incompleteness, those great discoveries of a century ago, long before the physicists and mathematicians caught up. The pilgrim’s gift to future generations was humility, the idea that there was more light and truth to be discovered, that God is still speaking, that they didn’t have the final answer, an open heart, and open mind.
If anyone tells you that they know the nature of the Trinity, run like you’ve just encountered a killer bunny. Our trinitarian language is and always should be poetry, linguistic impressionism. There is a reason we don’t have a creed.
We make room for mystery in our faith, and not the sort of mystery found in so many churches, where it is a mystery why anyone would believe such ridiculous dogma.
It turns out, we are on pretty solid and fairly ancient theological ground when we embrace the unknowableness of God. But let’s start with the problem of predication.
In grammar, in the equation X is Y, Y is the predicate. The wagon is red. The cat is old. God is love.
Ah, but what kind of love? Parental love? Romantic love? The kind of romantic love that you feel in those first weeks of head-over-heels? Or the kind of romantic love you feel after ten years when the twins sleep through the night for the first time? Run into a burning building for a complete stranger love? And let’s not forget the love that says “I’m doing this for your own good,” for abuse almost always claims to be love.
And love is pretty much the easiest predicate we can attach to God, one on which we can almost all agree, except for those folks who can’t even get to “God is.” Though, for the record, we still welcome those folks too.
So imagine the predicate problem when you say “God is one God in three divine persons but of one substance.” And let’s not forget that this God is co-eternal, and Jesus describes himself as the Father, but also says he doesn’t know things that the Father knows. And if God is one, how can there be hierarchy in the godhead, though there clearly is?
Predicates. Insane, illogical predicates. You’ve already gone awry when you’ve said God is. Yet we need words, some way of naming God.
There is another way of approaching theology. Rather than asserting that we know God, apophatic theology works through negation. You are already familiar with some apophatic notions, like the idea that God is not constrained by time or place.
Apophatic theology pairs well with constructive theologies that admit the ways we project our desire onto the divine, construct understandings that validate our own desire. Of course a patriarchy will have a male God, the Nazis would have a white God, American nationalists would have a God who transferred blessing from the people of Abraham to America. Thinking Christians take an apophatic turn to say what God is not. God is not creaturely, is not male, is not American, does not belong to a political party, is not a capitalist. Openness to God sometimes requires clearing away these old positivist images of God, the sinful certainty that constructs God as a petty male tyrant.
Because we in the Congregationalist and UCC tradition don’t claim to know the exact nature of God, the being of God, because we are non-credal and don’t bicker over dogma, we encounter God in other ways. We experience God in the serendipitous creativity in creation, the the serendipitous creativity in humanity, in those moments of transcendence we experience in art, in music, and dare I say it, in love.
As a particular people who have committed to walk together in God’s ways, we experience God in the surprising story of Jesus, a Hebrew religious reformer who unwound human claims that God was a brutal king, teaching us instead that God had parent-like love for humankind, all humankind, especially those rejected and oppressed by other humans. We experience him as God-with-us, Emmanuel, in ways that defy our logic and our words, that cannot be forced into a theological formula, or even a single gospel.
We are wide awake to the possibilities of God’s presence, and so, like Jesus, we choose to see those that others choose not to see, to be awake to their presence. Where others turn away, we see the stranger in the ditch. While they watch big donors, we see the widow’s mite. Where they see power and right, we see whitened sepulchers and self-righteousness. Where they see a sinner, we see the beloved ready for new birth, new life.
Trinitarian or unitarian, what matters is that God is allowed to be God, to be experienced in ways that defy and exceed our expectations, a God that we do not create and do not control, but that is with us in the dark night of the soul, the dawns too bright to see, warmth and light and life.
Let go of all your definitions. The holy is not meant to be controlled. It is a wave to be ridden. It is all the waves, force and life, eating away and building up. Levies eventually fail. Theologies eventually fail. God happens.
An apophatic theology stops trying to put God in a box, allows God to be God. We’ve got sins enough. At least the idolatry of certainty is not one of them.
A leper. A mad man in a cemetery. A woman taken in adultery. Those who hunger, for food and for hope. Do we need an ancient formula to understand God? Do we need a creed to be awake?
Joshua Beal, aged ten, mourning his lost grandfather, adventurer seeking God:
“Before this year, bullies were just bullies for no reason, weirdos were just weird, and daredevils weren’t afraid of anything. Before this year, people I loved lived forever. I spent this year looking for something and wound up seeing everything around me. It’s like I was asleep before and finally woke up. Know what? I’m wide-awake now.”