Zen and the Trinity
Finding the Right Words Means Knowing
There is a World Beyond Words
Rev. Raoul Pagnamenta
As a pastor influenced by process theology, I am always concerned about the way I am preaching.
I want to have a receptive heart. I want to be open to the lure of God's spirit within my life and within the lives of those in the congregation. I want to avoid making my sermon a mere sharing of biblical content. When I leave the chair I hope the congregation has also received a share of the Holy Spirit.
In order for me to be sensitive to these ways, I must be a good listener. I must have an intuitive sense for their lives, their needs, their inner conditions. I sometimes have this sense and I sometimes don't, but it is important to me.
I must also do my best to listen to the stories and words of the Bible. Again, I sometimes succeed and sometimes fail, but it is important to me. have written about it in JJB before in an article called "The Bible and Zen Meditation." (GO)
But here I want to turn to something which is, for me as a Christian, a source for the receptive heart. I am speaking of the Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, God the Spirit.
For me the Trinity is not simply an idea but also, and more importantly, a living reality. And the second person in the Trinity is not simply a something but a someone. God the Son is not a what but a who. Not a thing but a person.
But that's not the whole of it. I want to say a word about how Zen meditation might help pastors become open to the Father.
The Holy Trinity
A book I read recently, Adventures in the Spirit by Philip Clayton, helped me to understand how a spiritual life could produce powerful sermons.
Clayton is a process theologian who is also inspired by Shelling. He offers a way to understand the doctrine of the Trinity which helps me.
Christian philosophers think of God sometimes as an ultimate principle, sometimes as a person.
These two conceptions seem to be in conflict but there is a way to reconcile them.
There is a part in God that could be seen as the foundation of all that exists, a power of life that is present in all beings but different from them, a reality from which all existing beings come.
And there is a part in God that interacts with the world, that manifests the will of God. God loves, commands, listens to, leads the world. That is the personal side of God.
Principle and Person
For traditional Christians who believe in the Trinity, the transpersonal side of God can be understood as God the Father, the source of life. If readers prefer a less masculine way of thinking of this side of God, I hope they will find other words. Perhaps God the Source or God the Principle or simply the Creative Abyss.
God as Person can then be identified with the God the Son, the revelation who interacts with the world. This is God as a living presence whom we address in prayer and to whose calling we seek to respond. We Christians see Jesus as a window to this side of God.
A third element maintains the unity between both, it is the self-consciousness of God that we may call the Holy Spirit.
Christian theology, especially in the West, deals a lot with the personal side of God. Often when we say "God" we mean God-the-Person.
Indeed we have often sought to grasp the identity of God the Person. Theologians have sought to know God's will, to understand God's project for the world, to understand the nature of his relation. Toward this end they have sought help in Greek philosophy.
The Focus on Words
It is noteworthy that, in doing so, they reached outside its semitic origin in order to better understand revelation of the personal God. The Bible speaks through stories, especially the story of Israel, but when Christianity became universal, it needed a more universal and precise language in order to articulate and communicate the revelation of God.
Today as well Greek Philosophy with its concepts and arguments still offers a powerful means to order ideas and illuminate the content of Christian revelation. There is something wise and helpful in the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, and also in the dialogical and questioning approach to life found in Socrates.
It also noteworthy, thought, that Western Christianity did not often try to investigate the other side of God. Certainly, it tried to understand it with the use of philosophical thinking but didn’t always succeed. Sometimes it simply limited this side of God to what cannot be said, forgetting that this side of God can be directly experienced in a non-verbal way.
There is a reason for this. Revelation is partly a matter of words, of things that can be said. Not exclusively, of course. Revelation is also found in the person of Jesus, who for Christians is the Word of God but not a specific written or spoken words.
Still, when it comes to revelation, it is natural that logical thinking helps to understand it. After all, we can talk about Jesus, too. We Christians do it all the time.
God as ultimate principle is something else, beyond words. it calls for a relation more intimate, more intuitive. Eastern Christianity and Middle Age mystics succeeded more in this attempt but, in my opinion, failed in part because of the need to identify truth with words.
Truth Beyond Words
Truth as revelation is Word but Truth as Foundation is beyond words. This is why it can be helpful today for Christians to learn from Asian wisdom and Asian meditation. Not unlike the way in which early Christians, with their semitic origins, turned to Greek philosophy; so today we Christians, still with our semitic origins, can likewise turn to Asian thought.
Just as Greek philosophy aids us in understanding the verbal sides of revelation, a practice of oriental meditation could help us to keep in touch with the Foundation.
For me as a pastor, I turn to the practice of shikantasa in zen meditation. Just being present to consciousness, present to the ground (gen in japanese) helps us to understand with our whole being the other side of God.
In order to communicate powerfully a Christian needs both. I have listened to sermons that were well thought, well built, and very clear but lacked substance, and I listened to sermons that were understandable—the preachers wanted to communicate something profound but didn't find the right worlds.
The Spirit, in order to perform, needs God the Father and God the Son; the preacher needs to keep in touch with the Ground and to find the right words.
How to find the right words? Finding the right words requires knowing that there is a world beyond words.
We can touch the Father and become more available to the Son in whose Spirit we seek to walk. We can listen and respond to the callings.
This is our vocation. To listen and respond. Each moment. Every moment.