WHAT DO WE BELIEVE? Continued…
My dear friends in Christ,
Continuing our journey through our Episcopal Catechism (which begins on page 845 of the Book of Common Prayer), we move from human nature to the nature of the divine ~ the nature of God. As Christians, we (the Church) believe that there is one God whose nature we understand to be triune (three-fold). We speak, thus, of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit … yet we are not polytheists but monotheists. In keeping with the ancient Councils of the Universal Church (the Church before the split between East and West) which gave us the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, we affirm one, single God, existing as an eternal Trinity. In the words of the Athanasian Creed (the third creed in our BCP, found in the “Historical Documents” section): “. . . we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance (p. 864).
A few thoughts on gendered language, before we proceed further: the Catechism refers to the Persons of the Holy Trinity using the traditional terminology that derives directly from the Bible and has been established by centuries of use in Christian worship and practice. This usage may well be problematic for some Christians in the modern era; along with centuries of tradition, women have also experienced centuries of exclusion, exploitation, and abuse at the hands of men empowered by patriarchal power structures in many cultures where Christianity took hold ~ and often the Church itself has been the patriarchal power structure that enabled and even encouraged such toxic behavior. These historical facts must be acknowledged. Not everyone, moreover, has had positive, nurturing, healthy experience with human fathers in this mortal life, and that fact absolutely affects the impact of the term “father” in a religious context, no matter how hard we try to separate theology from individual experiences.
We ought also to acknowledge the numerous examples in both Testaments of the Bible of feminine language, imagery, and terminology used for, of, and about God. Jesus even paints a picture of himself as a “mother hen,” spreading her wings over Jerusalem to gather God’s people to “her breast” like a “brood.” It’s important, likewise, to note that the Church Fathers and Mothers were adamant, in antiquity, that the use of the term “Father” for the First Person of the Trinity must only be understood in its relational sense, and that in no wise could any concept of gender be applied or ascribed to God. Lastly, our Lord Jesus Christ repeatedly refers to God as his “Father” (abba, in Aramaic; ho pater, in Greek). So whilst we have rich, biblical material from which to expand our vocabulary for talking about (and praying to) God, we can’t really ever get fully away from the so-called traditional terminology, either.
That said, our Catechism introduces us to the First Person of the One, Undivided Godhead thus:
God the Father
Q. What do we learn about God as creator from the
revelation to Israel?
A. We learn that there is one God, the Father Almighty,
creator of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and
Q. What does this mean?
A. This means that the universe is good, that it is the work of
a single loving God who creates, sustains, and directs it.
Q. What does this mean about our place in the universe?
A. It means that the world belongs to its creator; and that
we are called to enjoy it and to care for it in accordance
with God's purposes.
Q. What does this mean about human life?
A. It means that all people are worthy of respect and
honor, because all are created in the image of God, and
all can respond to the love of God.
Q. How was this revelation handed down to us?
A. This revelation was handed down to us through a community
created by a covenant with God.
Notice that there is a subtle but extremely significant point that is implied, rather than stated outright, in the first question and answer. The section is labeled with the heading “God the Father,” but the first question asks “What do we learn about God as creator …?” The substitution of “creator” for “father” might seem like mere poetic license; it might even seem like an error of sloppiness. But I contend that it is actually telling us something important about the First Person of the Holy Trinity: namely that “father,” in this usage, primarily means “creator.”
That is not at all to say that the act of creating is solely or even primarily the provenance of the male gender (an absurd proposition!). It is, rather, to say again that the emphasis we are supposed to take from the term, and thus to associate with the First Person of the Trinity, is the nature of God as Creator, and the Will and Love and Intelligence by which and through which and because of which all of Creation comes into being and has reality and existence.
We also learn from the first question and answer that we have this understanding of God because it was revealed by God directly to the people of Israel (into whose family we as Christians are adopted through the sacrament of Holy Baptism). Our understanding of God, then, comes not only from our own thinking and theorizing, our own attempts at theology and/or philosophy, but also (and primarily) from direct revelation as experienced by people just like us: God revealed Godself to God’s people.
The revelation to Israel makes it clear that God created not only the entire Cosmos, but humanity in particular, out of sheer love. In that act of loving creation and even more loving sustaining, by which God made all things and keeps them (and us) in existence, we discover the basis for a proper understanding of who and what we are, and of our proper relationship to God, to God’s Creation, and to each other.
Lastly, from this section of the Catechism, we learn that this ancient revelation has come down to us through the medium of community. It is in community that we first learn about God, and it is through community that we continue to experience God’s presence, grace, and power. That is not, of course, to deny that each of us individually has a personal relationship with our Creator ~ obviously, we do. But we do not experience God, relate to and with God, worship God, serve God, or seek after God alone, in the isolated vacuum of our own, individual, subjective experiences. We do all of those things as individuals living together in community. Our individual experiences inform and shape the community, and the community in turn informs and shapes our individual spiritual lives and journeys. In the Christian tradition (and in the Jewish tradition out of which Christianity arose), it has ever been so.
God created community in order for us to receive, and then to guard, preserve, and transmit to future generations, God’s revelation of Godself. The very nature of God as revealed to us therefore calls us again and again into loving community with God and with each other. And the way that God does these things is through covenanting with us. What is a covenant? Excellent question ~ one that we’ll take up next time!
As always, if this column sparks any questions, concerns, ideas, curiosities, or any other kind of response in your hearts and minds, please reach out to me via email or phone—let’s talk about it! And if you’d like to explore these things in a safe and engaging group setting, please consider joining our Faith Talk formation series on Thursdays on Zoom.
Peace & blessings,
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