"Human aspirations have often been expressed in trinities..." - What's yours called?
Satish Kumar prefaces Part Two of his book with a quotation from T S Eliot:
The only wisdom we can hope to attain is humility; humility is endless.In his continuing 'Quest for Wholeness' (the title of Part Two) Kumar refers to the Bhagavad Gita, according to which "nature, society and self should form a triangle, an interconnected whole. Every day we need to take care of these three aspects of our lives," he says. These are the grounds of his own thinking and he has chosen the words Soil, Soul and Society to describe his version of this trinity. He compares it to other, better-known, trinities, such as the Christian Trinity, the French revolution slogan ('Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite'), and the new age trinity of 'Mind, Body, Spirit'.
It is hard to disagree with much of what Kumar writes in this book: even the varied participants of the Wychwood Circle discussion on this topic showed an unusual degree of agreement. Kumar sets out his own stall, travelling via Jainism and Hinduism, with more than an obeisance to Buddhism, and a nod in the direction of Islam. Christianity, oddly enough, hardly gets a mention - which made a refreshing change for our discussion group but is odd when writing for a Western readership.
This 11th chapter in Part Two is a case in point. He wants to emphasize the superior merits of his own trinity which 'brings nature, humanity and spirituality together' and has little trouble dismissing the humanism of the Enlightenment because it seems to discard spirituality. Similarly what he calls the new age trinity is too personal, he says, ignoring social justice and ecological sustainability. And Christianity is written off in a sentence:
'Father, Son and Holy Spirit' is a spiritual trinity, but it takes no note of the social and ecological dimensions.Reading this book for refreshment and a good dose of 'Eastern wisdom', one can happily move on swiftly as he does. But coming back to this, it is striking what a narrow interpretation this suggests for the Christian trinitarian faith. Whatever one makes of it in practice, it is a recurrent theme in scripture and the liturgy, not to mention two thousand years of theology, that the Trinity is - at least for some - precisely a way of formulating the sort of vision that Kumar recommends.
Maybe more of us are CeltsIn classical theology, God the Father is creator and sustainer of the universe and we are to worship and adore him for that role; can we possibly do so without reverencing nature as it speaks to us of God and his creation? Kumar refers to nature and creation in chapter 25 on dualism, where he acknowledges that 'the Celts saw the presence of God in creation itself'. But he is convinced that the 'dominant Judaeo-Christian influence' has been that God told man to 'subdue the earth and multiply'. He is quoting Genesis and taking a not untypical interpretation of it as the 'dominant' one. He may be right, but maybe more of us are Celts nowadays.
Similarly, Jesus as the second person of the Christian Trinity is usually understood as God's self-expression as a human being, who as flesh and blood goes round Galilee preaching the establishment of 'the kingdom of God', a community which foreshadows an ideal which may be called heaven: is this anything other than the 'humanity' or the 'society' which Kumar wants us to take seriously?
Finally, the Holy Spirit - well, that's your spiritual or 'soul' bit, which Kumar does not question, even quoting Thomas Aquinas as referring to anima mundi - the soul of the world. But the whole point of the Trinity is surely to understand the three persons as one God and therefore to separate or play down one element of 'soil, soul or society' goes against even orthodox Christian teaching. Or so one could argue.
Humanity, humanism and human-nessIn practice Kumar has a point in that Christians have seemed to see and talk about their faith as a personal journey, individualistic rather than social, largely about self-fulfilment and reaching towards a future goal of 'eternity'. But it's hard to follow the Jews through the Egyptian desert or listen to the Sermon on the Mount (Blessed be... etc) without realising that this is a very human, not to say humanistic, faith and a very social lifestyle.
As for the ecology, maybe we should be looking for a few more references in contemporary sermons to sustainability and symbiotic relationships. Or we should be singing more psalms (or the Canticle Benedicite, omnia opera in the Book of Common Prayer) where the glories of nature are cited as evidence of 'All ye works of the Lord'; and then we should go home and think hard about our own responsibilities.
Of course, Kumar is right in his conclusions - as was TS Eliot in his prescription. Unless we can bring together compassion and humility, concern for the environment, and (however we interpret it for ourselves) spirituality, then maybe we are missing something and the whole balance of our world is under threat:
Without reverence there can be no ecology, and without spirituality there can be no sustainability.
The next open forum is on September 7th when we are delighted to welcome Canon Mark Oakley from St Paul's Cathedral. He will lead an interactive session on poetry and faith, anticipating his new book, The Splash of Words: believing in poetry. Some time ago he wrote The Collage of God, a treasure trove of thoughts and quotations which resonate with the modern reader with even a passing interest in spiritual things.