Polyphony of Glory

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.
Isaiah 6:3

The creeds can seem like rote, take-it-or-leave-it dogmatic moments in the liturgy, rather than expressions of hard-won, blood-stained wisdom wrung from centuries of wrestling with the meaning of God and human experience.
Tom Long

Talk about the Trinity sounds a far cry from “Jesus loves me, this I know.” Actually, the former can help illuminate the latter, and vice versa, but there are a couple of things one must keep in mind. The first is that Christian theology is a conversation that has been going on across two millenia and in countless historical situations. Taking it seriously involves the effort to become more fluent in this vast language.

The other thing to acknowledge is that each and every discipline has its unique vocabulary, from a CNA conversation in the hospital hallway to a quarterback calling plays in the offensive huddle. Theology is the kind of language that probes, clarifies, parses, distinguishes between ‘not this, not this, but this.’ One who properly uses this language admits with fear and trembling that even though words about God are “a raid on the inarticulate,” we must not settle for “the general mess of imprecision of feeling / Undisciplined squads of emotion (T.S. Eliot, ‘East Coker’).

God’s glory fills the earth and encompasses all facets of truth. You can be astounded by the complexity of one of Stephen Hawking’s cosmological theorems, and also be enraptured by holding your child under a brilliant night sky while singing ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are.’ The two expressions are not mutually exclusive.

The Scripture passages for Trinity Sunday are not definitions, but encounters. One way into these passages is to pay very close attention to the ways the encounter with the living God disturb, disorient, and alter one’s present understanding. Inadequate notions of God can be traced back to a naivete concerning evil in the world and/or a blindness to the presence of glory in the world.

The prophet Isaiah sees the Lord, hears the seraphim singing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.” His response is more than “O wow,” though certainly not less than that. Isaiah is terrified to be in the presence of God, and yearns to run away. Polluted speech hinders participation in the song. Confession is met with a cleansing that he could not himself accomplish.

Nicodemus encounters Jesus at night, and is bewildered by their conversation. Most shockingly, we are told that God loves the ‘world,’ which encompasses not only the ‘world’ of rosebuds and symphonies but also the ‘world’ of school shootings and wholesale deportations.

The Apostle Paul was dramatically rescued by the Spirit of life from a ferocious, Bible-based zeal. From that moment on, his life was caught up in making known the incredible identity and calling of the people of God. To call God “Trinity” is not a mere “belief,” but a “conviction” (= “the gutsy beliefs that I live out – or in failing to live them out, I betray myself” – James McClendon).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer basked in the epicenter of German academic theology, earning two doctorates by the time he was in his early 20’s. Like the Apostle Paul, he “advanced beyond many of his own age among his people.” Yet he claims that his most profound encounter with the Gospel came during his 1930 pastoral internship at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, while immersed in a tradition that was “fairly untouched, indeed, avoided by the white church.” The worship, the preaching, the music, especially the music, took on new power and life for him, precisely because it took place in the context of “the real face of America, something that is hidden behind the veil of words in the American constitution that ‘all men are created free and equal.’ His was the kind of kairos collision the royal wedding is offering us today.

Bonhoeffer returned to Germany to face the darkest evil during the remainder of his life. With very few exceptions, both the sanctuaries and the halls of academe were either co-opted by or complicit with the lava flow of Nazi terror. All the more amazing then that with his eyes wide open to this horror, especially during his last years in prison, Bonhoeffer proclaims so many facets of glory. He writes about the polyphony of life, in which joy and pain “exist independently side by side.” “Spread hilaritas” he counseled, in a newfound defiant confidence and good cheer that Christ really has defeated death. He was nourished in this confidence most certainly through scripture and music, but also through the arrival of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, Volume II/2. Far from an irrelevant exercise in abstract theology, Barth’s proclamation of the scope of God’s redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ opened the gates for Bonhoeffer to join the seraph’s song.

The glory of the Triune God surrounds us, clearly seen in a martyr’s witness, in a scholar’s labor, but also in acts of daily faithfulness.
My neighbor Betsy resettled here from The Netherlands years ago. Now in her 80’s, she has seemed to grow more radiant with each passing day. Betsy and her husband were foster parents to over thirty children, many of them with severe needs. In her younger days, she was a gifted concert pianist, but arthritis had brought that career to an end and had made it painful for her to play. After the death of her husband, however, she began to play the piano for the patients at the local nursing home. One day she told me in her delightful Dutch accent, “I’m Catholic, and we sing from the Baptist hymnal. This morning I asked if anyone had a request, and somebody shouted, “On Top of Old Smoky.’ So we sang ‘On Top of Old Smoky’ to the glory of God!”

(Bonhoeffer references drawn from Charles Marsh’s Strange Glory)

2 Responses to “Polyphony of Glory”

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  1. Susan Adams says:

    Jim, this is beautiful and rich. Thank you!

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