Trinity of love; Trinity Sunday. Nigel Bunce
A Trinity of love (justice, kindness, humility) is Gospel oriented, It is unlike doctrines about sin that focus on obedience to rules set by human church leaders.
Earlier this month, there was a news item in the Globe & Mail about a religious controversy in Germany. Certain Roman Catholic priests had defied a ruling by the Vatican over blessing same sex unions. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared that the Catholic Church does not have the power to bless same-sex unions. Because, they said, “it is impossible for God to bless sin”.
In this earthly existence, I cannot know the mind of God. Therefore, I don’t know God’s opinion on whether same sex unions are sinful. And, by the same token, neither do the members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Breaking the rules
However, all human organizations have rules about unacceptable behaviour by their members. For example, golf clubs call infringement of the rules, such as parking golf carts on the greens, breaches of etiquette. If you don’t follow the rules, the club can cancel your membership.
Governments call their rules laws. Disobeying these rules, such as exceeding the speed limit, is breaking the law. Penalties include fines or imprisonment.
In this view, religious organizations call infringements of their rules, sins. Some Christian denominations impose penalties for sins, such as saying devotional prayers. Serious sins may lead to excommunication (withholding Holy Communion). Some communities eject offenders from the community (shunning).
This argument seems to turn sins into merely human rules that religious organizations set and enforce.
Sin: an offence against God
However, there’s a crucial difference between sin and breaches of etiquette or law-breaking. Sins are considered to be offences against God. Churches hold the potent threat of eternal damnation to keep offenders in line.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the idea of sin as an offence against God originates in the Creation myth. The first couple disobeyed God. Their punishment was banishment from Paradise. Sin has a strong moral dimension in the Ten Commandments [Exodus 20]. Specifically, the “Thou shalt not”s – no murder, adultery, theft, lying, or covetousness.
The Ten Commandments
These Commandments were an important milestone in developing civil society in ancient Israel. The earlier book, Genesis, contains accounts of a time (whether mythical or historical) when immoral behaviour by the Patriarchs was neither punished nor even considered reprehensible.
But, ancient Israel was a theocracy. There was no concept of separation of “church and state”. Human rules were God’s rules and vice versa. However, from a practical perspective, people are more likely to obey rules that have God’s imprimatur.
That’s why the Hebrew Scriptures report Moses giving orders on God’s behalf on all sorts of matters apart from moral issues like the “shalt nots”. From how to build temples to what not to eat. It may be sensible, on health grounds, not to eat shellfish in a hot country far from the sea. But it’s easier to enforce with God’s say-so.
Sin as a breach of doctrine
To me, the problem arises when we equate sin with not following accepted religious teachings. The word for that is doctrine. But, sin differs from secular rules; it’s an offence against God. So, what does this say about sin? Does the Vatican equate sin with not following the rules?
Unfortunately, in every religion or denomination, human beings (the religious leadership) get to decide what actions might displease the Almighty. And, even with the best intentions, these human beings bring their own cultural norms and prejudices to the task.
Hence, in the Roman Catholic organization, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sets the “rules”. To be a Roman Catholic in good standing, you must follow the rules of Church doctrine. But Church leaders, not God, decide what constitutes a sin.
Therefore, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith makes the rules and so could change the rules in the Roman Church. They could declare same sex relations not sinful. Just as lawmakers can change a speed limit.
A Trinity of love is a different approach
However, there is a completely different aspect to this controversy. Simply put, rules-based (doctrinal) approaches to sin run counter to Gospel teachings. Jesus broke with tradition on several occasions. He said, “You have heard it said this, but I say something different.”
Jesus gave us the New Commandment to love each other. His ministry made clear that love means more than following the rules. Sometimes, tradition wasn’t the best option. For example, he healed on the Sabbath. He interacted with people who were ritually unclean.
The Trinity of love is justice, kindness, and humility
I add the words I have often quoted from the prophet Micah. Love justice. Do kindness. Be humble. In fact, what I really want to say is that Gospel Love is itself a kind of Trinity. Just like the Christian concept of God. Creator, Jesus, and Holy Spirit are partial; the Trinity is the complete package. So also, Justice, Kindness, and Humility are partial; Love is the complete package.
And it’s in this respect that doctrinal approaches to sin, such as that over same sex unions, fail the “smell test”. They often fail to exhibit Gospel love. In the specific example, the doctrinal approach fails in all three aspects. It is unjust. It is unkind. And it is arrogant.
Conversely, when we show justice, or show goodwill, we try to behave as we hope (not know) that God will approve. With compassion, with humility, we try to respect others whose opinions, or behaviours, differ from our own.
So, let me be clear. My position is that no human being can know the mind of God on any matter, including same sex unions. I asked earlier whether sins are merely human rules that religious organizations set and enforce. Instead, I conclude that sinful behaviour is knowingly to act without love or compassion. It is when we act unjustly or accept injustice. And it is when we are arrogant rather than humble. Amen.