The Limits of Logic

A sermon for Trinity Sunday
2 Corinthians 13.11-13 and Matthew 28.16-20

trinityToday, the Sunday after Pentecost, is Trinity Sunday. The Trinity is one of the most fundamental beliefs in Christianity. It is the belief that God is both one God, but yet three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The first defence of the doctrine of the Trinity does not occur until the 3rd century, and the concept as such is not mentioned in the Bible.

In today’s readings we see the two cases in which the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are mentioned in one breath. Together with the notion that Jesus is truly the Son of God and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, these beliefs form the foundation for the Christian belief in the Trinity.

Some of you may be disappointed and others delighted to hear that here I don’t intend to try to explain the Trinity, nor will I attempt to give a historic overview of how the idea developed in Christianity. Rather, I would like to highlight just one aspect of this teaching: the insight that God is beyond our logic and beyond our understanding, and I would like to reflect a little bit on what this might mean for us at this time.

As many of you will know, there are no public exams for pupils in the UK this year. Instead, their teachers have done their best to come to a fair judgement of their grades, which they will be awarded in August. Having no exams has freed up a lot of time in the Summer term, and at Marlborough College we have used this to offer our pupils additional courses.  

I have been teaching a group of Sixth Formers the foundations of Logic. As so much of our Western thought, also Logic has its roots in Greek Philosophy, with the philosopher Aristotle setting up the first system how to think logically and how to form arguments that are valid.

Foundational to Aristotle’s thought, and often ours, is the idea that some statements contradict each other. A sentence cannot be ‘true’ and ‘false’ at the same time. Nor can something be ‘zero’ and ‘one’ at the same time. Apply this logic to God, and we quickly see the problem: God cannot be ‘one’ and ‘three’ at the same time. However, from the earliest days, people recognised the problem with Aristotle’s rather rigid system. They started pointing them out by using paradoxes, instances in which logic goes wrong. Maybe the most famous one is the Liar paradox. If I would state that all Dutch people are liars, and that I am Dutch, does that make me a liar?

It is easy to see how the concept of the Trinity can become just such a paradox. If there is only one God; and the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are not the same, can they all three be God? However, I would like to suggest that thinking this we are making a fundamental mistake. We are trying to apply human logic to God. If we look at the Trinity this way, we are reducing God to a puzzle to be solved.

This does not mean that we should not apply our God-given capacity to think and to reason to our religious beliefs. On the contrary, for me it has been one of the ways in which I have deepened my own faith. Yet, we need to do so remembering that it is our limitations that limit our understanding, not God’s.

If we accept this, we see that rather than restriction our thinking, the Trinity extends the invitation to a relationship with God. No longer can we only relate to God as our Creator, but also as our Redeemer and our Sustainer. No longer is God only accessible through his majesty, but now also through His sharing in our vulnerability and his power to inspire. The Trinity is not a conundrum to be solved, but an invitation to be accepted.

That leaves us with two final thoughts this morning. Firstly, the reassurance that God exceeds all our expectations. It can be hard to remember this, particularly now, when our expectations have had to change so much, and maybe we at times even feel we are losing hope that we will be able to live together as human beings again. In the light of all this, do we still dare to pray expectantly? Do we still dare to hope, knowing that God will give more than we ever could have thought?

Because also we know that God is with us. The Trinity is the promise, the reassurance, that God will never leave us, he knows us, and he wants us to know him. So maybe in the next week or so, we can try to do exactly this. Rather than trying to understand what is happening, focus on knowing who we are. Shift the focus from the restrictions we face in our own thinking, to the freedom that we find in God.

Again, this is by no means a call to stop science and research, to stop looking for ways to live sustainably, and to learn to share this world with others. But it is an acknowledgement that God is our beginning and our end. Truly being who we are, we can only find in our relationship with Him. He, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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