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Article | June 4, 2023

Sermon: Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Trinity

Blog|The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young

View the sermon on YouTube.

Jesus says, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt. 28).

What am I? What is? Every morning during my first year in seminary, I meditated in the ancient wood-paneled chapel a couple of doors down from my room in Divinity Hall. Only sparsely furnished with pews and a lectern, it looked more like a 19th-century courtroom than a church. That fall, the red maple leaves on the tree outside were my burning bush. Professor Peter Gomes would give the orientation to new students there. He talked about how in 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered his “Divinity School Address” to the graduating seniors there.

Emerson began by saying, “In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers… Night brings no gloom to the heart… Through the transparent darkness, the stars pour their spiritual rays. The man under them seems a young child, and his huge globe a toy… The mystery of our nature was never displayed more happily. The corn and wine have been freely dealt to all creatures, and the never-broken silence with which the old bounty goes forward has not yielded one word of explanation. One is constrained to respect the perfection of this world in which our senses converse… What am I? What is?”[1]

As a Unitarian minister, among students, family, and friends, Emerson also addressed this question to his former professors. It had only been thirteen years since the formation of the Unitarian Association (1825). These Unitarian leaders, his teachers, had objected to the rigid predestination of New England Congregational churches as overly pessimistic and focused on sin. They argued that believing God had already determined who would be saved would undercut the motivation for people to act morally. Above all, they saw doctrines like the trinity as not rational and sought to modernize the church.

In this environment, Emerson criticized both the emerging church and the old one referring to the “universal decay and now almost death of faith.”[2] Even in 1838, people worried about the church dying. Emerson said that churches were overly preoccupied with miracles (“the word Miracle as pronounced by the Christian churches gives a false impression; it is monster”). He thought churches were too inclined to discount sources of truth outside of the Bible. Christians were so focused on the divinity of Christ that they overlooked the way that all people are images of God. Emerson’s teachers viciously turned on him for this, humiliating him in the press.

Near the end of this address to future ministers, Emerson describes hearing a dry, academic, meaningless sermon. He said that he could not tell whether or not the preacher had actually laughed or wept or loved or lived. Emerson writes, “A snowstorm was falling around us [outside]. The snowstorm was real, the preacher merely spectral, and the eye felt the contrast in looking at him and then out the window into the beautiful meteor of the snow.”[3] Emerson passionately cared about helping people to move more closely to God. This involves understanding who God is.

2. This morning, we celebrate Trinity Sunday, the only day on the church calendar dedicated to a doctrine rather than a person or event. This is not merely an academic matter. This conversation must be practical, having to do with real life. At stake is the very picture of God and determines how we pray, live with each other, and understand ourselves.

So what is the trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Where does this idea come from, and how is it useful? Above all, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church describes the Trinity as a mystery. It can, “neither be known by unaided human reason nor cogently demonstrated by reason after it has been revealed.”[4] Despite this pessimism, we can grow in our knowledge of God through study, conversation, and action. We cannot know God perfectly, but the family of trinitarian metaphors can help us

The word trinity does not appear in the Bible or in early church writings. But the tension between the belief that God is one (from the Old Testament) and the idea that God is especially revealed in Jesus, lies at the very heart of Christianity. We see this balance between monotheism and the uniqueness of Christ in recurring twofold and threefold patterns in the New Testament. It is true of our gospel today in which Jesus, for the only time, talks about baptizing the nations “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28)).[5]

In the Bible, we read of people encountering God directly in the person of Jesus. But we also hear Jesus speak of God as distinct from himself (such as when he prays to God or describes God as the one who sent him). God is both one and twofold. Early followers also had encounters with the Spirit (such as at Pentecost when God’s power descended on the disciples). Jesus talks about an entity separate from himself and God. In John, he calls this the Advocate, a spirit that will guide and challenge us over time. This spirit was present in his baptism.[6]

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These are not three different gods, but three aspects of how God is both internally (ad intra) in God’s own self and for the world (ad extra). God is not just up there but in here and everywhere. God is creating, sustaining, and renewing all parts of the conscious and unconscious world. God never stops seeking a deeper relationship with us.

Margaret Miles points out that “From the earliest writings, Christians affirmed that Christ the Redeemer was God not a lower order of being. The earliest surviving sermon after the New Testament began: ‘Brethren, we ought to think of Jesus Christ as of God, as the judge of the living and dead.’ The earliest martyrdom account, that of Polycarp, said, ‘It will be impossible for us to forsake Christ… For him, being the son of God we adore, but the martyrs we cherish.’ The earliest outsider comment on the Christian Church, that of the provincial governor Pliny, described Christians gathering before sunrise ‘singing a hymn to Christ as though to a god.’”[7]

After the scattered twofold and threefold pictures of God in the Bible, the first generation of theologians called the Apostolic Fathers writing in the first century, often refer to Christ as “our God” and use the same threefold pattern of language. They are not yet writing about the Trinity.[8]

This changed in the second century with the Apologists. This group of writers sought to make connections between the Christian worldview and the philosophy and culture of the Greco-Roman world. They tried to show that Christianity was not a form of atheism, and that pagan philosophies could be harmonized with it.[9] Just in the same way that we might make our thought a reality in the world, they talked about logos, logic, rationality, and order that comes from God. They also used the metaphor of a child to show that Jesus is not something separate or alien from God.

Finally, Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 220 AD), in the third century, was the first one to use the term “trinity.” He was also the first Western theologian to write primarily in Latin rather than Greek. God consists of different persons but one substance. Tertullian uses metaphors like a plant’s shoot, root, and fruit. He talks about different modes of being in God in the way that we talk about different phases of H2O as it passes from liquid to solid or gas.

Over the centuries, Western theology tended to emphasize the unity of God, and Eastern theology highlighted the distinctions between the three persons. St. Augustine uses various metaphors. He writes that the trinity is the one who loves, the beloved, and the power of love. The Trinity is the memory, intelligence, and will we see in our inner life. Augustine believes that everything created by God preserves this threefold pattern. C.S. Lewis says that God is the one we pray to, the desire for God in our hearts, and the one who accompanies us along the way.

3. Together today, we are part of a conversation that has stretched over centuries in vastly different regions and societies using strikingly different languages, images, and metaphors. This expanding dialogue takes us to regions that none of these original authors could have imagined. Ideas and texts separated by centuries help us to understand who God could be for us.

For three reasons, I love the experience of God as Trinity. First, the trinity reminds us that God is a mystery – not a simple single entity but three unified persons drawn by love, creating an otherwise impossible harmony. Second, the trinity reminds us that who we are, is the series of relationships we have with others. We are not individuals but a chorus of the voices who cared for us. Gratitude, generosity, and giving lie at the heart of all things. Third, God is love. Whoever we are, whatever we have done, God is always reaching out to us and from within us.

I have spent many hours imagining Ralph Waldo Emerson in that chapel which is so holy to me. He desired so deeply that every person should become acquainted with God for themselves. To those graduating seminarians, he says, “Yourself, a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men firsthand with Deity. Look to it first and only, that fashion, custom, authority, pleasure, and money, are nothing to you… but live with the privilege of the immeasurable mind.”[10] May we also do the same.

What am I? What is? We are wrapped and hidden in the mystery of God. We are relational; each of us contains multitudes.[11] We will never be separated from the one who created us and calls us closer every day, until we will meet, at the end of the age.

[1] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Divinity School Address,” Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Stephen E. Whicher (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957) 100-1.

[2] Ibid., 108.

[3] Ibid., 109. Robert D. Richardson claims that Barzillai Frost was the preacher to whom Emerson refers in the “Divinity School Address.” We walked past Barzillai Frost’s house (and the house where Thoreau died) on Main Street about a dozen times last week as we stayed in Concord, Massachusetts.
Robert D. Richardson, Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) 289.

[4] The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Cited in Margaret Ruth Miles, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005) 43.

[5] Twofold patterns are found in Rom. 8:11, 2 Cor. 4:14, Gal. 1:1, Eph. 1:20, 1 Tim. 1:2, 1 Pet. 1:21, 2 John 1:13. Threefold patterns are in Matt. 28:19, 1 Cor. 6:11, 12:4ff, 13:13, Gal. 3:11-14, Heb. 10:29 and 1 Pet.1:2. The Trinitarian Controversy tr. and ed. William G. Rusch (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980) 2.

[6] Matthew Boulton, “Relationships Are Who We Are: SALT’s Commentary for Trinity Sunday,” SALT, 30 May 2023.

[7] Margaret Ruth Miles, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005) 44.

[8] These Apostolic Fathers include Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Hermas, Polycarp, and Papias, the Letter of Barnabas, the Letter to Diognetus, 2 Clement and the Didache. The Trinitarian Controversy tr. and ed. William G. Rusch (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980) 3.

[9] These theologians included Aristides, Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Tatian and Theophilus of Antioch. Ibid., 3-4.

[10] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Divinity School Address,” Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Stephen E. Whicher (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957) 113.

[11] “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes).” Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass.

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