This Trinity season, I’m not going to talk about the Trinity of orthodox Christian thought, but of a different trinity which may or may not be related to it. By all means keep that question in mind, but what I want to emphasise today is that, whatever religious views we adopt, we should grasp the significance of this other trinity and live our lives in the light of that understanding.
How might we best name what we feel when we look at the night sky, or peer down a microscope at some miniscule life form, or contemplate the ever-expanding universe? Astonished, perhaps? Or humbled? Or thrilled? These and many other words might spring to mind. Let’s bundle them all up into one: Awe. A sense of Awe comes very easily to a child, and naturally so, because even our primate cousins show this sensibility; there is a wonderful account of chimps making a regular detour to stand before a thunderous waterfall, and after some contemplation to dance excitedly in the presence of what is Awe-full. It’s not just waterfalls, stars and other obvious manifestations of Awe-fullness, of course; if we allow ourselves to be open to that sensibility, practically every aspect of the world and the universe around us can trigger it. Our earliest human ancestors were perhaps more routinely aware of Awe than we are, immediately dependent as they were on nature being kind to them. Our sense that we have made ourselves so much more self-reliant gets in the way of Awe. So does our ability to understand the science behind the phenomena we see; too easily we not only explain things, but explain them away, and lose the proper sense of Awe we were born with. To do that is to lose a hugely important part of our human heritage, the thing that makes all around us glow, making us glad to be alive and aware.
The second element in my trinity doesn’t come quite so easily to us, though when we are well enough taught it can feel entirely natural. We need to learn how to feel Love, and if we are not exposed to Love when we are small, it can be terribly hard to make up for this later. In this Love is like language, and together with our use of words it is what characterises our humanity. What is this Love? It is the sense that within each person we meet there is as endlessly lively a personality as we know ourselves to be, and that these other personalities have a claim on us simply because they are there and deeply like us. Notice that we cannot love others until we have learned to love ourselves, to experience ourselves as lovable and indeed as loved. This is where the chink of possibility for repairing childhood damage exists; if as adults we encounter someone who against the odds demonstrates overwhelming Love for us, there is a possibility that Love can yet be learned. I should add that of course we cannot love as a duty; it is foolish to say that we ‘must’ or ‘should’ love our neighbours. To love is a possibility that exists for us, but it is a possibility that can be realised only with the help of others. It follows that humanity could forget how to love; that is why we need to keep talking about it, celebrating it, and teaching ourselves and our children how to deepen the experience of Love.
I’m not sure exactly what word to use for the third element. It doesn’t seem to settle down like the other two, though its flittings do seem always to be around Truth. There is the Truth about ourselves, most obviously the awareness of our limitations and shortcomings which enables us to set about overcoming them. But more importantly there is the Truth about the personality that integrates the many roles each of us plays in life; who am I, really, as deep down as I can know? What am I called to be and to do? Then there is the Truth about everything outside ourselves, the desire, the need to see and to express as best we can – and not necessarily in words – what we have come to understand about how things are. And not only to identify individual bits of Truth, but to try to discern the pattern that the bits of Truth make together. The commitment to Truth has many enemies – internal ones like fear or lust or greed, and external ones in the form, usually, of institutions and ideologies that have a vested interest in not following where Truth may lead. Love may lead to sacrifice; it is commitment to Truth that leads to persecution.
Awe and Love and Truth are not quite as independent and they may seem. If Awe is evoked primarily by the wonders of the visible world, Love can be thought of as beginning with particular version of Awe, the Awe we feel when we apprehend the unseen glories of other people. And our urge to discover the Truth is in part the desire to comprehend what is Awe-full and what is loved.
I have been brought up not only in the Christian tradition but in the European tradition that developed from it, often through difficult and challenging debate. I do not know to what extent what I have just said about Awe and Love and Truth is specifically Christian, Euro-centric or just human. But I do believe it to be profoundly important, and if it is not the way non-European or non-Christian cultures see things, then I want to urge them to see whether it might be helpful to them. Why? First, because I believe that only by doing so can we human beings make the most of the amazing potential we currently posses and become genuinely fulfilled people. But second, I also believe that it is only by building on the basis of Awe and Love and Truth that humanity as a whole will continue to develop in ways that we would recognise as good and positive. I suppose that makes me a missionary for Trinitarianism.