Saturday, June 18, 2011

De Trinitate: A Response to Hector

Hector is, as far as I understand, an Anglican Christian who embraces most Roman Catholic liturgy, and his ethnicity is Indian, as in, the Indian subcontinent, not Native American. He has recently posted at Alexandria a long piece on The Trinity and the terrible heresy of "modalism," a heresy of which he has accused me in the past. I cannot respond to him there, being at present banished from the pond by the Ruler of All He Surveys whose divine majesty I offended some months ago. So I will do so here - albeit this may be a little confusing for anyone else trying to follow the debate.

I should note, when I say that Hector "accused" me, that this was done in a friendly and mutually respectful manner. Hector takes doctrine seriously, although by some lights he is a bit unorthodox. For instance, he's not at all sure that homosexuality is a sin. Hector and I generally agree on economic issues. We both favor some sort of socialist policies which more equably divide the fruits of labor among ALL who produce it, without, I think, violating the principle that "those who work will eat," provided an opportunity to labor is indeed available to everyone.

Hector is deeply devoted to the Trinity. I am at best indifferent to it. If it brings you closer to God to think of God as a Trinity, I am not so militant a lower-case unitarian that I need to argue you out of it. Ultimately, God is a mystery, and must be taken on faith, so anyone who wants to be purely rational about it can easily argue their way to atheism.

Hector has now argued that the concept of God as Trinity "is a persistent and permanent affront with those rationalists who would do away with mystery, with miracle, and with the supernatural." I see this entire question from the opposite end of the same telescope. Insistence that the Trinity IS an accurate and essential understanding of what God IS, rests on a kind of rationalism, which is an affront to the ultimate mystery of God.

Yes, the notion that God is one divine essence in three divine persons does defy rational thought, so much so that it easily leads the unwary into tritheism, which Hector explicitly rejects. Whenever anyone tries to defend the Trinity in a rational or logical argument, they always end up invoking the explanation, "It's a mystery." My point is simply, since it IS a mystery, why pretend that we know the answer? Just leave it at that: what is the nature of God? It's a mystery. Period.

Indeed "human reason was not designed, nor is it capable, of comprehending the essence of the Trinity. We cannot understand it." But that being the case, and there being no divine revelation to guide us, why should we "acknowledge it." What does it add or detract from our sense of what God requires of us? (One verse of Micah, and three in the Gospels, suffices to tell us what God requires of us. Hmmm... one and three. If I were into numerology, I would concede the argument, but I'm not.)

I have been known to suggest that the Trinity is like three blind men feeling an elephant: some feel a trunk, some feel a leg, some feel a flank, and all believe they know the essence of what the elephant IS. They are all part right, and terribly wrong. But if they put these three perceptions together, without recognizing that these are simply appendages, if they said the elephant is a symbiosis of three different persons, they would also be wrong. Hector calls this "Modalism."

I won't repeat at length what Hector says about the error of "Modalism." It is all available at the link provided in the first paragraph. Hector sees Modalism "as a knife pointed at the heart of the Christian Faith, for if Modalism is true, then Christianity is a farce and a lie, and Christ was simply a sham, a cosmic joker."

I can't imagine why. If God really doesn't have three persons, Christianity is a farce and a lie? How so? The shock and horror have leapt far ahead of any logical progression from premise to conclusion. True, logic is a poor foundation for faith, which is why I hardly see that such doctrines matter in the slightest.

"You can see right away why this doctrine is so appealing to the modern West. It fits perfectly with the gospel of postmodernism, by which perception is reality, and by which each person’s worldview and opinion is equally valid." Hmmmm... I place little stock in postmodernism, especially since "modern" is itself a relative notion. In every generation people have announced that "modern times have arrived," and every decade or two, a new modern takes the stage. I am perfectly certain that there is an absolute Truth to the universe in which I live, and that it is what it is, regardless of what I think of it.

I have pointed out many times that the first two clauses of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America neither establish nor imply that all worldviews and opinions are equally valid. The First Amendment proceeds from the understanding that the instruments of human governance are incompetent to declare which, if any, religion is the True Faith, and all humans must be free to pursue this truth for themselves as best they can, without interference by the blunt instrument of the law.

But what does the Trinity have to do with any of this? If God is One and not Three, then there is no absolute truth to Creation? How in the Name of God does THAT follow? The supposed horror is offered to spice up the argument, without ever establishing causality.

I would certainly agree that the "prospect of Jews, Muslims and Christians coming together and sharing a common understanding of God, is very appealing." I adhere to the statement by El-Hajj Malik el-Shabbaz, upon return from Mecca with that name (he was previously known as Malcolm X), "The God we worship is the one who created the universe. Isn't that the same God you worship?" Of course it is. And THAT is what is important. The shape of that God, the nature of that God, which are indeed unknowable to us, is of no particular importance. It could even be described as hubris to attempt to write doctrines on the subject.

Beyond that, for now, I will say only that many paragraphs of the essay I linked to above, and have responded to here, are pure tautology. IF God is a Trinity, then it is an insult to his divine majesty to deny it. The premise is the preordained conclusion, which logically proves that if A is true then A is true, without ever establishing anything else, or indeed, any foundation for the truth of A. That is the nature of all defence of the Trinity, passionate or logical.

The bottom line is, "De Trinitate" advocates belief in the doctrine that God is a Trinity, because it would make God a better god, or because it would help to undermine the appeal of secular Western culture, or for any reason except, because it is true. There being little evidence, or possibility of evidence, as to the truth or falsehood of the doctrine, it becomes a matter of conjecture and personal preference what to believe. Does it really matter to God how well we understand the details of what we are incapable of knowing?


John E. said...

Hey Siarlys, I followed you here from Erin's place...

Ultimately, God is a mystery, and must be taken on faith, so anyone who wants to be purely rational about it can easily argue their way to atheism.

Well, to agnosticism, anyway. Seems to me that 'There is no God' is as much a faith-based statement as 'There is a God'.

"You can see right away why this doctrine is so appealing to the modern West. It fits perfectly with the gospel of postmodernism, by which perception is reality, and by which each person’s worldview and opinion is equally valid."

As I said back in the Autocracy, Hector seems to have grossly misjudged the Modern Westerner's interest in the subject of God's True Nature. He - I think - sees hostility when in truth there is at best indifference and more typically obliviousness.

I find it most telling that both Hector and - of course - Rod Dreher have a fascination to the point of identification with Ignatius J. Reilly.

John E. said...

The supposed horror is offered to spice up the argument, without ever establishing causality.

See also "It would be terrible if it turned out that this were not true"

1 Corinthians 15:14

King James Version (KJV)

14And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Hi, John, and greetings to your lovely wife April as well. Nice to hear from you. I must admit that I have no familiarity with Ignatius J. Reilly, and have compounded my ignorance by not googling his name before responding.

I actually like Rod Dreher. I'm even beginning to like Gary Fouse. They are often wrong, of course, but sincere, and what kind of world they would like to end up in is not wildly different from mine... I just think they are on a road paved with good intentions that leads elsewhere. As you may recall, a snide remark about how some people view Dreher was the detonator for my eventual excommunication.

I think you are right that Hector has misjudged what passes for modern Western culture. It may be missing some valuable human attributes, but there is nothing about any specific heresy that particularly feeds it. Doctrine is not that relevant, except to true believers. Christian monks fought each other to the death over this stuff, and where did that get anyone?

Come to think of it, you've posted twice. Now, where is Hector?

Hector said...

Siarlys Jenkins,

I feel bad about your 'excommunication', since in a sense I was the catalyst for it: you were excommunicated from Alexandria for a post you made (if I recall correctly) in response to H.M. Stuart's response to my vociferous defence of Rod Dreher against the Templeton Foundation.

Basically, the main problem with Modalism is the one I outlined in my post. It has to do with pure logic. If Modalism is true, then sociality, relationship, and love cannot be of the essence of God (since the capacity to love would be dependent on something outside God). If, on the other hand, Trinitarian Christianity is true, then contained within the Godhead itself is the potential for love and relationship. Thus the Trinitarian picture of God is much richer and more perfect than the Modalistic picture: and therefore, as St. Anselm said, it must be the true one, for there can be nothing conceivable more perfect than God. The summit of conceivable perfection- and that includes moral perfection- is defined as God.

On a more concrete level, Modalism also presents some specific problems having to do with the life of Jesus. If Jesus was both Divine and Human, and if the divine and human natures cohered into one person, then either the Divine Person incarnated in Jesus was a separate person from the God the Father, or else Jesus was never distinct from God the Father at all. But if that is true, then Jesus' prayer to the Father, and his existential distance from the Father at times like the Temptation in the desert, or the agony at Gethsemane, were merely illusory, and were simply a mockery of the real pain that human beings experience. Hence my 'cosmic joker' line. Thus we have a flow chart of premises.

Now if you're a Unitarian, or a Nestorian, or a Docetist, or if you do think Jesus was simply a cosmic joker, pretending to be a human being and to suffer, then you can get out of that dilemma, and it doesn't arise. However, if you do accept that the separation from the Father that Jesus endured was real, and if you agree that he had a Divine nature that coexisted with his human nature in one person, then you are logically compelled to believe that the second person of the Trinity is distinct from the first.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Thanks for dropping by Hector. I'm going to try to respond in the most respectful way I can, because I know you are very sincere about this. Ultimately, as I've said before, I have no objection to people thinking of God as a Trinity. If you and St. Anselm and Fr. Phil from the Lutheran prison ministry find that it brings you closer to God, so be it. I object to the notion that there is something objectively recognizeable to humans as Truth to the notion.

The idea that God can be more loving if God has more than one person is incongruous to me. I have heard another speculation, that God created man because he was lonely, and needed someone to love -- not, obviously, in the sexual sense, but beings with free will he could care about, and who might choose to care about him. That requires no split personality, if I might put it so irreverently.

Now WHY an austere, transcendent, perfect, divinity, would have the attribute of love is a mystery. I have occasionally speculated, concerning the prayer "God is great, God is good..." -- aren't we lucky God IS good? If God were omnipotent and bad, we'd be out of luck, because there would be nothing we could do about it. But then, would he have created this universe, and us? A Jewish rabbi candidly told me, his religion doesn't pretend to know the nature of God, or why he cares about us. God revealed himself, for whatever reasons seemed good to him.

I consider Jesus's status as "Son of Man" (the title he often used -- which has Old Testament antecedents), or as son of God (he generally referred to "My Father" and to "the son" but seldom if ever explicitly called himself "Son of God") as a mystery best left a mystery. I have a problem with the philosophy that we must parse and explain all this and try to get the transcendent into sharp focus.

If Jesus was "the word made flesh," the best explanation I can offer is that some aspect of the Divinity entered into a human body, and the human experience, like a drop of water separating itself from a cloud or a larger reservoir, and that this divinity did, necessarily, return to the whole, when the human body died.

Again, Jewish exegesis is helpful, although of course no rabbi would apply it this way to the heretical syncretism of Christianity. Judaism does not teach original sin. The way a rabbi explained the incident in the garden to me is that the neshama (loosely translater soul) was only in approximate contact with the physical body. It was the difference between sitting in a car, turning a steering wheel, or being totally integrated into the car, feeling the turning of the wheels, the operation of the pistons, as you feel your own hand and heart beat. They weren't ready for the total integration, and grasped for it prematurely. The animal instincts overwhelmed the spiritual essence. We've been dealing with the result ever since.

Application to your argument: By totally integrating some extension of God himself into a human body, God was able to fully experience what it was like to be human. But that doesn't mean that some eternally separate personality entered into the human body.

All of this is speculative. But, so is your expoundment of the Trinity. That is ultimately my point. We are much less than the three blind men feeling the elephant. We can't even touch what we are speculating about. It's a mystery. To acknowledge that, and stop engaging in the futile effort to solve the mystery, does not in any way make Jesus a cosmic joker.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I write separately about Alexandria. You shouldn't blame yourself. Stuart originally invited us all to join a community. At some point, he started getting directly involved, trying to tweak the discussion -- which is not in itself a problem. But, while I admired Stuart as architect of a freewheeling discussion site, I found his personal contributions quite annoying, and had been making that clear for some time.

Like you, I find much to admire about Dreher. I had a sense that Stuart was mocking him, more than once. Apparently it wounded Stuart's feelings that I referred to him as "chortling" over Dreher's apparent recent misfortunes. He could have simply said so.

Instead, he posted a demand at 10:00 pm that I provide proof of his "chortling." Then, at 6:00 am, he pronounced that I had failed to provide a timely response to his challenge. The entire time, I was both off line and sound asleep. He did not even have the courtesy to send an email. It took me an hour, after logging in the next day, to find out WHAT all this was about.

From that point, I found his behavior petty and vindictive, and I said so. He got tired of hearing it, never credibly refuted it, and exercised his privilege to pull the plug. (I did, incidentally, provide links to his prior posts that struck me as "chortling."

I don't object to someone being responsible for reasonable regulation. If there were a set of commonly understood and accepted standards, set forth a priori, if there were some minimal discussion among the group before taking the step of curtailing privileges, and if there were a reasonable period of time, e.g. three days, for response, it would have been perfectly understandable.

As it is, I have come to picture Stuart as Yertle the Turtle, proclaiming "I am the ruler of all I survey!"

John E. said...

Interestingly enough, my Dear Wife April has brought back from the library a book called "Jesus Wars" with the subtitle "How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years".

I'm only a couple of chapters into it, but it seems clear to me that True Doctrine has less to do with Inspiration than it does to do with what the politicians and rulers of the day found useful.

And to touch on Siarlys' question - I can't see God getting all worked up over people not getting His True Nature correct.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

If you look at even the standard Sunday School history of how The True Faith Was Spread To The Heathen, conversions took place en masse simply because The King, usually no more than an elevated tribal chieftan, made the decision for all those under his command and protection. Warriors were baptized en masse, before hurrying off to slaughter The King's Enemies, who were now not only in the way, but heathens besides.