As Trinity Sunday comes over the horizon of the liturgical year, a familiar nervousness sets in amongst those who observe the festival. For some it’s nervousness about their own sermon, for others it’s whether they will have to gently correct an accidental heresy (or feel uncharitable about it), and others it’s whether there will be a falling-out about it. There are no doubt swathes of people who feel nothing like this during the approach to the Sunday dedicated to he most holy and undivided Trinity. But enough sermons start with a joke on the subject – and I’ve done the same myself, mine involved Andy Dalziel and bad passes – that I think a certain number of people approach today with a vague sense of concern.
There are various solutions. The new analogy which might work this year. (Water, football teams and rainbows all having been tried and discarded. Caltrops no good, despite potential aptness for unwary preachers, as have wrong number of prongs.) A new way of phrasing the abandonment of all analogy might impress this year. The reading out of the Athanasian Creed instead of a sermon might work. Quotation from Dorothy L. Sayers always good, but did that last year.
Along with comes the jokes which lighten or deflect the anxiety. I know at least two parishes where wisecracks are made about Trinity Sunday sermons being the job of the most recent member of the ministry team. That video gets passed around in which cartoon Irish peasants explain to St Patrick that he has perpetrated various Trinitarian heresies. More seriously, it is said (and I’ve heard it said this week) that it is easier to preach the Trinity this day if we have preached it every Sunday for the last year. That Trinity Sunday usefully makes explicit, in its discussion of doctrine, the mystery and ideas which should have guided every other sermon leading up to it.
This made me think that the very difficulty of Trinity Sunday sermons might shed some light on the preaching which happens the rest of the year. Not that it is lacking in Trinitarian meaning, but that sermons on this day might make explicit principles which guide sermons the rest of the year.
It strikes me that the difficult often arises from trying to avoid two problems. Firstly, the neatness of an analogy. There is nothing wrong with analogy, obviously, and it’s a central and orthodox part of our way of approaching theology. I’ve found many useful, especially when they work in that space where analogy mingles with poetic image. However, an analogy’s aptness often depends on the way in which it explains or models the thing being puzzled over. The encompassing of the problem and its solution.
This is, I think, a tension in the use of analogy, especially when it comes o Trinity Sunday. The power and satisfaction of the analogy is greater when it seems most neat, most able to tie up loose ends. But this is a subject on which we should – and do – deeply suspect neatness and explanation. If we go away from a sermon thinking that the three states of water, or the three spurs of a fidget spinner, etc, have allowed us to grasp the Trinity, and solve the problem, then the sermon has not done its work. The analogy has closed down our thinking rather than opening it up. This isn’t inevitable, obviously – those analogies could be used for great sermons. But there is a risk in analogy here.
This points to a larger and more diffuse risk in preaching. What I think of as the “think of this way…” trope. (I’ve met a lot of these in my time reading Christian paperbacks. The different voices in the Bible are like taking a bus-ride through the countryside, that was a highlight.) Done well this ca be illuminating, but it carries the risk of setting itself up as the solution to belief. Of framing doctrine as a problem. “Look”, it can imply, “We have to believe this. It’s impossible at first sight, but think of it this way. Now you can assent to it.” It can assume that preaching is a method of getting congregations to a place where they can agree to doctrinal statements.
This is perhaps most evident on Trinity Sunday. (“I’m supposed to say X. X is nonsense. But when talking about rugby teams or water I can say something that sounds like X. Therefore I can say X and not feel bad.”) But this only highlights a risk in our preaching the rest of the year. We can give the impression that we think our job is to repackage our doctrine, in order that people can assent to it with a reasonably clear conscience, or a linguistic coherence.
The other risk, it seems to me, is the complacency of pointing to a mystery. This is perhaps less frequent in Trinity Sunday sermons, but I certainly feel it as a tempting option. Instead of getting into the mechanics of analogies, and accidentally straying into heretical territory, we declare that it is a mystery. Again, this is a fine and orthodox principle. Christianity is full of mystery, and of mysteries. Acknowledging that, and acknowledging the inadequacy of our words to bring us all the way to God, is absolutely essential. It is a check on our own tendency to build religious systems (whether in words, concepts, or places) and be drawn aside by them from giving attention to the God to whom they are supposed to point.
However, there can be a glibness in declaring things a mystery equal to the glibness of a over-near analogy. It can be just as much as get-out from encountering the difficulty and the glory of doctrine. I’ve also seen this in a certain amount of popular Christian writing. The tendency to avoid following a line of reasoning to its conclusion, or to abandon expounding an idea fully, because it’s all a mystery. I don’t have much experience of the apophatic way, beyond a bit of reading Pseudo-Dionysius, but it always looked to me quite a demanding road. To deny the adequacy of language and concept for God seemed to involve quite a lot of exhausting their resources first. (And, on the non-apophatic side, how much easier and cheaper for me to state that everything I have written seems like straw, than it was for Aquinas.)
There can be something rather too easy in deploying words like “messiness” on earth and “mystery” in the heavens, and declaring that reality doesn’t fit in our categories. It doesn’t, but “messiness” and “mystery” can themselves become very convenient categories. They can end a lot of awkward conversations, and hold a lot we don’t want to look at. So I think the unsatisfactory feeling in the over-hasty deploying of “mystery” in our Trinity Sunday sermons (if and when do so) might point to this larger question.
Of course this doesn’t apply to all sermons, and with luck none of it will apply to the sermon you hear today! I just thought that the very difficulty we sometimes run into today, which is widely acknowledged across the Church, might highlight risks in preaching which are often present, but less acknowledged, the rest of the year.