Sermon for Evensong, Trinity Sunday (June 4th, 2023)

Delivered at St. Thomas Episcopal Church and School:

I. Introduction

According to the fourth-century theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, the doctrine of the Trinity was the trending topic of his day. He claimed that everywhere you went, people were sharing their theological opinions: whether you were asking for change at the market, inquiring about the quality of the bread being sold, or visiting a bathhouse, you would run into someone who wanted to share their personal theology with you (Oratio de deitate Filii et Spiriti Sancti). In other words, “doctrine” or Christian “teaching” was akin to what we see regarding politics and sports in our society today. It’s what animated people! Can you imagine the equivalent of an ESPN, CNN, or Fox News that is dedicated to Christian theology? Or people arguing about the Trinity, en masse, on Twitter as they argue about politics and sports. I can’t. (And maybe that’s a good thing!)

Today, for better or worse, only some Christians want to discuss the Trinity. I can’t say that I blame the rest. Throughout the history of Christianity, one of the quickest paths to being labeled heretical by your fellow Christians has been to try to explain the Trinity in a way that they find unsatisfactory. It seems that every analogy and metaphor—from three-leaf clovers to water in the form of a liquid, a solid (ice), and a gas (steam)—can lead to accusations that you’ve misunderstood one of the central teachings of Christianity. For this reason, many have found comfort in side-stepping discussions about the nature of the Trinity by using the one phrase that can provide an escape from complex theological debates: “It’s a mystery!” And this isn’t wrong. In some sense, it’s wise. Christian theology is often at its healthiest when Christians admit that the Christian God is “ineffable” (a fancy way of saying that our God is beyond our ability to describe with human language). But I’m not in a position to avoid talking about the nature of the Trinity tonight. After all, it’s Trinity Sunday! 

So, I want to emphasize the value of the doctrine of the Trinity with regard to how it shapes us as individuals seeking personal, individual spiritual nourishment within a diverse, pluralistic community, like St. Thomas. Our goal can’t be to revisit the philosophical, theological, and metaphysical arguments that led to the present shape of the doctrine—after all, it took many of the most prominent minds of Christendom several centuries to iron out the specifics. Instead, we’re going to skip directly to the practical implications of Trinitarianism. 

II. The Trinity as Unity-in-Diversity

We must begin with the earliest Trinitarian language which is found in the texts of the Christian New Testament. While attempting to maintain fidelity to the Jewish theology they inherited, the earliest Christians spoke of the Creator God in a unique way. There was a recognition that the Creator God had been experienced afresh with the appearance of Jesus. For example, as we sampled in our excerpt from the Gospel of John (16:12-15), the Gospels report that Jesus’ followers were invited into a dynamic relationship between the Father, Son, and Spirit. As a whole, John’s Gospel claims that Jesus Christ prayed to and spoke about God the Father, that God the Father spoke to and about the Son, and that the Holy Spirit was actively sent from the Father to the Son, but also that the Son promised that he would send the Spirit who would draw Jesus’ followers into the divine life. As their Lord and Christ, Jesus spoke of the divine nature in such a way that the earliest Christians understood as revelatory what he had said regarding the nature of God, but also it seems to have aligned with their own experience of God in Christ and through the Spirit.

III. Experiencing God through the Son and the Spirit

Our other reading from the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (5:1-5) sketches the Christian experience of the Trinity as the One who saves us. Paul wrote:

“Therefore, being justified (or made right) by [Christ’s] faithfulness, we have peace toward God through our Lord Jesus Christ whom also we have access into this grace in which we stand and we boast in the hope of the glory of God. But not this only, but also we boast in afflictions, having known that afflictions produce steadfastness; and steadfastness, character; and character, hope; and hope does not humiliate because of the love of God that has been poured in our hearts through the Holy Spirit—the one gifted to you!”

Paul’s audience had collectively experienced reconciliation and peace with their Creator, God the Father, and they were growing together as a community through their collective struggles, into a fuller understanding of God’s love. This peace and reconciliation had been experienced through the crucified and resurrected Son, Jesus Christ. The shared, internal confirmation of this reality was actualized by the Spirit. Notice how Paul presents the experience of God: with regard to the peace we find with God, the touchpoint—if I can use that word—is the Son. The Son is the one by whom we find peace, but we don’t experience peace with the Son alone. You can’t separate your experience of Jesus from your experience of God the Father. Jesus provides us with the human face that helps us see the invisible God. Similarly, the love we experience is the love of God the Father, but the touchpoint is the Spirit. When we consider the whole testimony of Scripture, we know God the Father is Love and loves us by sending the Son (1 John 4:16; John 3:16) and that the Son has loved us, even commanding that we love each other as he has loved us (John 15:12). But here Paul says that this love is something we can experience, we can know, we can feel because of the Spirit’s work in us. The Spirit is the divine touchpoint for experiencing the love of the Father and Son.

IV. Embracing Diversity and Plurality within the Trinity

As you know, I’m a Social and Religious Studies Instructor at TMI Episcopal. In this capacity, I teach courses on comparative religion. One component of these courses is that I lead field trips to various sacred sites in San Antonio. While visiting other religious communities and listening to the various presenters as they teach my students about their beliefs and practices, I often experience what the theologian and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor calls a “holy envy,” where you see something in another religion that you respect, or maybe even wish was part of your own religion. These encounters make me rethink my own Christianity anew. For example, when I take students to the local Hindu temple in Helotes, they see a variety of murtis or images of the various Hindu gods. This may seem to be an aspect of Hindu belief and practice of which Christians should be critical. But when you talk to Hindus about the various murti, many will explain that each murti is analogous to how multiple TV channels can show the same event. Let’s take the State of the Union address, for example. Everyone who watches it wants to hear what the sitting President has to say, but everyone approaches it through the means that are most natural to them. This means some will watch on ABC, others on CNN, others on Fox News, etc. Same event; different platforms. Similarly, for many Hindus, the divine is one—similar to what Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe—but how you access the divine is multifaceted and people are invited to approach the divine from where they are through the murti that most resonates with them. Each murti or god is a different channel emphasizing a different aspect of the one and same divine reality.

Christians sit at an interesting place within the schema of the world’s religions. Like our Jewish and Muslim neighbors, we place a strong emphasis on the oneness of God but unlike our Jewish and Muslim neighbors, we want to emphasize internal diversity and plurality-in-oneness. In some sense, this connects us with our Hindu neighbors, though, unlike our Hindu neighbors, we place greater emphasis on the unity of God. But what’s important for my current point is that we can learn to think of the Trinity with the help of our Hindu neighbors. We speak of God as Father, Son, and Spirit. Whatever worship we give one, we give the Trinity, ultimately. But the plurality-in-oneness gives our minds more ways to perceive our God and to be open to our God based on our present needs, past experiences, and the state of our mind and heart.  

For the individual who needs a majestic deity who provides assurance that in the chaos of this life, there is a sovereign One above it all, holding it all together, guiding everything towards its ultimate purpose, the Father is our divine touchpoint. For the one who asks the question (that the musician Joan Osborne asks, “What if God was one of us?” What if God participated in this “workshop, of filthy creation”— to take a visual from Mary Shelley—the Son is our divine touchpoint, sharing in our human frailty, but also showing us the way as humans to be the imago Dei (image of God) that we were created to be. For the one who needs a sense of presence, of experience, an assurance that we’re not alone in this world, the Spirit is our touchpoint, bringing us into the divine life. But in all these ways that we can experience God, we experience the Trinity holistically, through each touchpoint. We experience the one Creator God who is Trinity but we experience the Trinity as we need it at that moment wherever we are in our life through the Person that acts as our touchpoint. 

This is depicted beautifully in the cover art by Kelly Lattimore found on your handout. If you look closely, you’ll see that there’s an opening at the table. The Trinity sits for a shared meal but the internal divine nature isn’t closed off to us; there’s an opening for us to join. You’ll see that we’re invited to experience the Triune love of God. It may be that you find that invitation is made possible through reflection primarily on the Father, or on the Son, or on the Spirit, but however you approach you get the whole Trinity. And when one Person of the Trinity interacts with us, we get the whole Trinity. As the fourth-century Bishop and theologian, St. Augustine of Hippo, wrote (Letter 11.2), “For the union of Persons in the Trinity is in the Catholic faith set forth and believed, and by a few holy and blessed ones understood, to be so inseparable, that whatever is done by the Trinity must be regarded as being done by the Father, and by the Son, and by the Holy Spirit together; and that nothing is done by the Father which is, not also done by the Son and by the Holy Spirit; and nothing done by the Holy Spirit which is not also done by the Father and by the Son; and nothing done by the Son which is not also done by the Father and by the Holy Spirit.”

Now, if the language of Father, Son, and Spirit creates a hurdle, our Triune God goes beyond language. (Remember, God is ultimately ineffable!) As the 14th-century English theologian and mystic, Julian of Norwich reminds us, and as Kelli Lattimore has depicted it, we are free to think of God through feminine language as well, if the masculine language is prohibitive or feminine language more inviting (since language is but an arrow pointing to God, not God in God’s self). In her book, Revelations of Divine Love (LIX), Julian points out to the reader that “we receive our being,” our very existence, from God through Christ just as we receive our existence through our mothers. Therefore, God, and Christ, are Mothers to us. The Triune God self-reveals as who and what you need. Julian says that God says to us, as an invitation, “I am the power and the Goodness of the Father, I am the Wisdom of the Mother, I am the Light and the Grace which is blessed love, I am the Trinity, I am the Unity, I am the supreme Goodness of all kind of things, I am the One who makes you love, I am the One who makes you desire, I am the never-ending fulfillment of all true desires.” And this is what I want you to remember on this Trinity Sunday: Christianity has long taught that we share one God, Creator of us all, and this unifies the Church and potentially humanity but this one God is internally pluralistic, relational, Trinitarian. And the Trinity’s plurality meets our human plurality so that in all our difference—even in our differences of language and imagination—we can find God as unified individuals. We don’t have to become homogenous to experience God as Christians; our God can meet all of us at different points simultaneously, as we see here in this setting tonight. And you—especially you—are invited to approach this God just as you are.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


A Short Note on Jay L. Garfield’s Losing Ourselves

Jay L. Garfield, Losing Ourselves: Learning to Live Without a Self (Princeton, 2021).

(Amazon; Bookshop)

Jay L. Garfield does for the Buddhist concept of anattā /anātman, what Robert Wright did for Buddhist meditation and mindfulness practices: he provides scientific and philosophical justification for their value to an audience that might be hesitant to embrace the metaphysics of Buddhism. For those unfamiliar with anattā /anātman, its a Buddhist doctrine that teaches there’s no essential “I” underneath my physicality, emotions, perceptions, mental formations, or even consciousness. Instead, “I” am the culmination of these realities; their intersection, if you will. Buddhists call them “Skandhas” or “Aggregates” or “Heaps” that together make “me”. Buddhists reject the idea, encapsulated in the Indian concept of the “Atman” which has parallels to the “soul” of the Abrahamic religions. Hinduism’s “Atman” is the “real me” underneath it all. You could change my body, thoughts, feelings, etc., but those aren’t the “real me”. The “real me” is the Atman that holds it all together. Buddhist say “no,” there’s no “Atman” (hence, “anatman” or “no-Atman”) underneath it all. What makes “me” who “I” am are all these realities. For those familiar with Greek philosophy, which posits an underlying “essence” that shouldn’t change (e.g. humanness) and “accidents” that do change (e.g. gender, eye-color, weight, height) from human to human, in a way Buddhism teaches we are our collective “accidents” and that’s what we must embrace when we speak of “I”.

Garfield is a philosopher, so he runs through a wide-array of philosophical arguments for why this Buddhist concept is closer to the best philosophy than say Descartes’ dualism or other approaches to the mind-body problem that seem to depict a little “me” controlling my body from inside my brain. Similarly, modern neuroscience appears to be leaning in a direction that leads some to reject the concept of a static, essential “me” underneath it all. Instead, most neuroscientists appear to argue for an understanding of consciousness and explain our mind-body relationship in such a way that the Buddha would approve.

For Garfield, this doesn’t mean there’s no “me” but instead of a “self” he prefers the word “person,” with a person being what Buddhist understand when they see the Skandhas intersecting together. And Garfield argues that there are ethical implications to seeing ourselves (for lack of a better word) as “persons,” interconnected and dependent upon the environment in which we live and the relationships that shape us, over against a “self” that somehow transcends our material and relational realities. This work is very thought-provoking, easy to read, clear in its arguments, and challenging in its conclusions. I highly recommend!

Gen Z, social media, and mental health

Recently it dawned on me that in a few short years I’ll be teaching so-called “Generation Alpha” (we’ve got to get better named for the post-Millennials!) but for now, my concern remains “Gen Z”. If you parent and/or work with Gen Z-ers (c. 1994/96-2010/12), I have a couple of podcast episodes worth listening to:

The argument that there’s not just correlation between smartphone and social media use and mental health but causation, and negative causation at that, seems to be strengthening.

On a slightly related note, I deleted my Twitter account today, probably for the last time. I did it back in 2016 and I don’t know why I rebooted it. It’s truly a terrible platform. If, like me, you keep your account private, then there’s almost nothing “social” about it.

A Short Note on Robin Dunbar’s How Religion Evolved

Robin Dunbar, How Religion Evolved: And Why It Endures (Oxford University Press, 2022).

(Amazon; Bookshop)

Robin Dunbar is an Emeritus Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Oxford. In his book How Religion Evolved: And Why It Endures, he explores the interface between the social phenomenon we call “religion” and the evolution of the human species. To be clear, this is not a rehash of the older theories where so-called “less developed religions” like shamanism matured into so-called “more developed religions” like Christianity and Islam. Instead, it asks basic questions about what religion—and all that we associate with religion from shared belief and rituals to community creation and identity formation—did for us to help us become what we are. \

The first several chapters don’t highlight the evolutionary history of religion. That begins in Chapter 7, “Religion in Prehistory”. Instead, Dunbar discusses subjects ranging from the possible health benefits of “belief” (Chapter 3, “Why Believing Might Be Good For You”) to what rituals do for us humans that participate in them together (Chapter 6, “Ritual and Synchrony”).

There are a couple of aspects of the book worth flagging for scholars of religion. First, while Dunbar doesn’t use the old simple-to-complex approach that places value judgments on religion, he does discuss the function of “Moralizing High Gods” as a “very late development” (p. 199) and how this late development had a major impact on human societies and our sense of morality. Second, he does use the word “cult,” which I know is upsetting to many scholars, though for what it’s worth, this is less a value judgment and more a way of describing smaller or newer religious movements, a “seedling” religion if you will, instead of a negative religion or “fake” one.

If you’ve wondered why humans are religious and how it has benefitted our adaptation over time, I recommend this book. It addresses a very complex subject in an inviting way. It’s informative and thought-provoking, assuming a naturalist/materialist stance on the question of what religions are and how we got them.

A Short Note on Christopher Bartley’s An Introduction to Indian Philosophy

Christopher Bartley, An Introduction to Indian Philosophy: Hindu and Buddhist Ideas from Original Sources (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).

(Amazon; Bookshop)

The other day, while reading Christopher Bartley’s An Introduction to Indian Philosophy, I sent a text to a friend marveling at the fact that Indian philosophers like Ramakantha and Dharmakirti were debating ideas related to the self centuries ago that sound a lot like what we might hear from David Chalmers and Daniel Dennett today. But it takes some work to find these thinkers and their writings. For this reason, I’m grateful to Bartley for the volume he has created. This book introduced me to a wide variety of Hindu and Buddhist intellectual traditions with which I was unfamiliar. It made most apparent something I teach my students over and over again: “religions are internally diverse”.

Hinduism and Buddhism are oversimplified labels that we use for pragmatic reasons. Beneath these labels there are many Hinduisms and many Buddhisms. Bartley guides the reading through the dense arguments. The reading takes some work, or at least it did for me. (I purchased the book in May, 2022, and it’s only about 300 pp. of content!) But it’s worth it.

In my estimation, the major philosophical topics that this book addresses are the self, consciousness, cosmology, and epistemology. The reader will learn that Indian philosophers have been addressing questions centuries before Descartes, Hume, et al. Yes, the Indian milieu is different but I contend that Hindu and Buddhist philosophers are easily as thought provoking and challenging as their European counterparts

A year ago, I finished reading Bryan Van Norden’s Taking Back Philosophy, which passionately argued that we must include world philosophies into our philosophizing or start honestly labeling what we call “philosophy” more precisely as “Anglo-European philosophy”. I’ve taken his argument seriously, and in doing so, I feel like my brain has been stretched in a good way. Indian thinkers have been deeply engaging our world for millennia and we do ourselves a disservice if we ignore their contributions or mistakenly dismiss them as “religious”. I highly recommend Bartley’s book for anyone interested in world philosophies, the philosophical categories I mentioned above, or Indian traditions in general.

A Short Note on Sylvester A. Johnson’s African American Religions, 1500-2000

Sylvester A. Johnson, African American Religions, 1500-2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (Cambridge, 2015).

(Amazon; Bookshop)

The subtitle to Sylvester A. Johnson’s African American Religions, 1500-2000 is key to understanding the aim of the book. It isn’t a generic overview of the history of African American religion but a precise examination of how African American religion intersects with American ideas around colonialism, democracy, and freedom. The reader will encounter figures, events, movements, etc., that you expect, whether that be the Transatlantic slave trade, American slavery, the American Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, or major characters in those stories ranging from Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. But the directions Johnson goes with those stories, and the stories he tells that may be less familiar, are what make this book an essential addition to your religious studies or American studies library.

Johnson’s history introduced me to pasts with which I had little familiarity, ranging from people like Dona Beatriz and her role within Kongolese Christianity to the rise and role of corporations, to the subversive interpretation of the Bible modeled by Olaudah Equiano, and on and on and one. I found myself encountering a history of which I knew little. Concepts like Black Settler Colonialism in relation to places like Sierra Leone and Liberia, or Marcus Garvey’s “Garveyism” as a philosophy of Black identity and a strategy for engaging White supremacy may be ignored in most American and American religious history textbooks but upon reflection appear to be essential elements to those histories. If you want an excellently written book with dynamic content that will give you a broader understanding of the worlds that shaped our own, then this book is a “can’t miss” read.


A Short Note on Aaron W. Hughes Muslim Identities

Aaron W. Hughes, Muslim Identities: An Introduction to Islam, 2nd Edition (Equinox, 2022).

(Amazon; Bookshop)

Aaron W. Hughes’ Muslim Identities is an introduction to Islam that I would highly recommend. His goal in creating this resource is to “maneuver delicately between an overly critical approach and the apologetic approach” (p. 1). Muslim readers should find a fair representation of their various traditions; non-Muslims should find a sound, scholarly introduction to one of the world’s most prominent religions. Hughes avoids framing a single, “normative” Islam (p. 2), instead introducing readers to the varieties of Islam that exist. This project is framed around the shared, inherited, and created identities to be found among Muslims (hence the title of the book). Hughes understands the varieties of Islam as being a variety of ways that Muslims enter into and shape “communities” that “are socially constructed or imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of a group” (p. 6). He comments that “identity is something that was and is actively constructed in response to various needs, and these constructions derive their potency from being projected onto the past, where they are thought to exist in pure form.” (pp. 6-7)

This framework of seeing Islamic history, traditions, sectarianism, etc., through the prism of identity formation is what makes this introduction unique. In many ways, it’s similar to the other introductions to Islam that can be found in the type of content it covers but the emphasis on identity formation is far more enlightening than it might seem at first glance. In fact, I would say that since reading this book, almost everything related to religious studies that pass through my brain must now cross a checkpoint that evaluates how these elements relate to the way people shape their personal and group identities. Shia and Sunni aren’t mere opposites or sects, but groups that form their identities in relation to one another. Muslims in Saudi Arabia and Muslims in Iran may shape their forms of Islam with an eye toward how their neighboring country is practicing the religions. When we ask why a religion took this or that shape, aligned with this or that political movement, or thrived in this culture but not that one, we’d do well to inquire how it is that said religion provided people with a sense of identity in a given time and place.

Interviewed on Notes From Nash

A former student of mine, Farouk Ramzan, is a Staff Writer and Podcaster for Vanderbilt University’s official student newspaper, The Hustler. He hosts a podcast called “Notes From Nash” (as in Nashville) and he invited me on to talk about religion (of course!). Unfortunately, only half of the conversation’s recording was saved. I thought the second half got pretty interesting but the first half is good too. Enjoy!

Notes From Nash: Interview with Dr. Brian LePort

Apocalyptic, Restorationist Christianities and the United States in the 19th Century

This semester, I’m teaching my “Religion in the United States” class. In a couple of months, I’ll introduce four branches of Christianity that emerged in the United States in the 19th or very early 20th century: The Latter-day Saints (1830); the Adventists with the Millerite Movement (1840s); the Jehovah Witnesses’ (1870s); and the Pentecostals (1900s). I tend to emphasize the pre- and post-Civil War ethos as a rationale for these movements but that seems incomplete. This past week, the question has lodged in my head and keeps coming back to me: What was it about the United States in the 19th century that made it the place that birthed these expressions of Christianity?

I have the Kindle version of Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis but I need a physical copy because I can’t sustain reading in a digital format. Also, I see there are books like Anthony Avenue’s Apocalyptic Anxiety: Religion, Science, and America’s Obsession with the End of the World and the collection of essays that make up Apocalypse and the Millennium in the American Civil War Era but other than those two books, and histories of the origins of the aforementioned groups, I’m not sure where to start. Any American historians out there who would recommend a history of 19th century America that captures the country’s mood and movements? This is a topic I want to explore further.

(Side note: I’m aware that the origins of Pentecostalism can’t be limited to Los Angeles alone but I think it’s fair to say that what because global Pentecostalism was greatly influenced by American culture and events.)

A Short Note on Liz Bucar’s Stealing My Religion

Liz Bucar, Stealing My Religion: Not Just Any Cultural Appropriation (Harvard, 2022).
(Amazon; Bookshop)

Liz Bucar’s Stealing My Religion is a humble, open-hearted, scholarly examination of the ethics of appropriating the religion of others. I say that because this is not a book where you will find Bucar demonizing other people nor will you find an apology for why anyone, anywhere should be able to practice whatever element of whatever religion they want. Instead, you will find a sincere attempt to navigate between these two poles, with Bucar using her own pedagogical practices as a case study for one of the chapters, and transparently questioning herself and thinking out loud about taking students to Spain to participate in Camino de Santiago de Compostela, even when they are not Catholic, or even religious at all. Her other case studies—non-Muslims wearing a hijab in solidarity with Muslim women and people practicing yoga divorced from its Indian spiritual roots—are both thought-provoking.

It is fair to say that for Bucar, not all borrowing is the same. Her presentation shows that appropriating religious practices can be far more ethically ambiguous than say appropriating something that has to do with another race. And some religious appropriation, e.g. wearing the hijab, seems to be more problematic than others, e.g. practicing yoga for its health and psychological benefits. The key point is that we should be careful when engaging the religion of others when we do not intend on becoming part of the communities and histories that gave us this or that belief or practice. If this ethical engagement with religions that are not your own is a concern to you, then I highly recommend this book as a thought partner.