Sunday, November 22, 2009

The trinity

The trinity reminded Christians that the reality that we called "God" could not be grasped by the human intellect. The doctrine of the Incarnation, as expressed at Nicaea, was important but could lead to a simplistic idolatry. People might start thinking about God himself in too human away: it might even be possible to imagine "him" thinking, acting, and planning like us. From there, it was only a very short step to attributing all kinds of prejudiced opinions to God and thus making them absolute. The Trinity was an attempt to correct this tendency. Instead of seeing it as a statement of fact about God, it should, perhaps, be seen as a poem or a theological dance between what is believed and accepted by mere mortals about "God" and the tacit realization that any such statement or kerygma could only be provisional.
Karen Armstrong-A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

The idea of an all powerful, all knowing God becoming mortal, frail, and human is itself an incomprehensibility. It reflects the broader classic theosophical paradox of freewill (how does an all powerful being limit that power?), which has been struggled over without ever being fully answered successfully. And that's essentially why faith is the key to religion. The human mind is incapable of producing a logical or rational answer to the question that would be satisfying to someone whose attitude was not already receptive to the idea.

Which is sort of the point. The experience of religion is meant to go beyond the intellect. This is why Eastern spiritual systems tend to include intellectually incomprehensible concepts such as everything is emptiness. Trying to understand sunyata in an intellectual way only leads so far. In the same way, trying to understand how a god could become a man could only lead so far. The symbolic power of this incomprehensible idea is clear in the enduring nature of Christianity as a religious force.

The word Kerygma is a Greek word that means a kind of public teaching. It was the apparent teachings of the church. Originally, this was contrasted with dogma, which meant the hidden teachings (the mysteries, sort of). The word dogma used to have this mystical connotation. The change really occurred during the late medieval period as Aristotelian ideas were being reintroduced to European Christians through new translations of Plato and Aristotle previous lost to the Latin world as Spain was reconquered from the Moors by European Christians (and subsequently all religious freedom that had existed under Moorish rule vanished in a flash, and death, torture, and forced conversion destroyed or displaced much of the Jewish and Muslim populations of the Iberian peninsula).

The introduction of Aristotle's metaphysics would turn the medieval conception of reality on its head. The reality of that period was what Paul Tillich calls mystical realism. The idea was that the world we experience was not the ultimate reality. The reality of the divinity (which theologically drew much from Plato's phenomenological ideas of form over substance) was the true reality. Aristotle argued that substance has primacy over form, and Thomas Aquinas took that into his own philosophy. William of Ockham would take this to it's logical conclusion, building the basis of later positivism that was then called nominalism. A belief that not only is substance first, but it is all there is. Abstractions and universals were merely mental constructs.

At the time, while nominalism had great value in the realm of science and math, what it meant for religion was the shifting of the locus of attention in church doctrinal dogma from a spiritual plain of what were essentially theological attempts to understand the incomprehensibility of God to the physical plain of the authority of the church. Dogma took on the connotation of edicts of the established Catholic church, which were more or less inviolable. The mystical world in which the reality of God's logos (word or law [the logos was a Greek idea {the actual word can be translated in many different ways} that had been fused with the concept of the holy spirit]) was in all things began to wash away, and, with the reformation and the enlightenment, the mystic nature of life and existence receded into the background.

One of the great dangers of the idea of a personal God is the anthropomorphic tendency to make God in the image of a man. The idea of God as a father, for example, should always be understood to be, at best, a metaphor for some inexpressible thing. Otherwise, as Armstrong points out, we attribute our own ways of thinking to God, which is always a kind of blasphemy.

It's probably kind of obvious where I'm going with this. Intolerance as divinely inspired is quite clearly a case of the loss of a mystical understanding of the incomprehensibility of the concept of God, and that's the prerogative of free peoples to be sure. Where we come into difficulty is when attempts are made and executed to translate personal beliefs that are intolerant into public policy.

In this way, the fundamental principle of liberty (as individual liberty bounded by constraints of sociality [my liberty should not infringe on your liberty and vice versa]) is then subverted.

The American founding, which was done through the displacement of the native populations of the continent through disease, debt, and warfare, is the classic example of this type of thinking. The European settlers believed that this land, already in the possession of various loose confederations of native tribes who had been living here for thousands of years, was their divine right, a kind of new Eden that God had bestowed upon them. One of the ways that God manifested his personal blessing for those settlers was through the deaths of the natives at the hands of diseases carried from fetid European cities. A personal God, when he's your personal God, can act in this way. And you see the things that you do, for example kill and exploit native populations, as the will of God.

But God's will can't be understood by humanity. God doesn't even have a will per se. It's a matter of speaking. One meant to attune the listener to the potentialites of the godhead; not create the sense that my own desires, be they base or even evil, are my destiny because they are the manifestation of the will of God.

You, we, I cannot comprehend what the idea of God even is. We can't comprehend it. God is an incomprehensibility. And not an incomprehensibility in that incomprehensibility. And further not comprehensible in the comprehension of that incomprehensibility. Such that faith becomes an acceptance of the not comprehensible nature of the comprehension of incomprehensibility. And the comprehension of the not comprehensible nature of the comprehension of incomprehensibility, and on ad infinitum (the infinite cycle of incomprehensibility). Faith is the mystical matter of the personal state of being in the attempted comprehension but the known incomprehension of whatever it is that we mean when we use the word God. A word that is empty of all real meaning, as no human signification could in truth represent God.

The Western world seems to have long since forgotten this essential mystic element of religious symbology. God is a real person, a father who loves his children and punishes their enemies. Or he is dead. That literal father is such a ridiculous and so clearly a blasphemous idea that many walk away into cynicism. When in truth the value of the idea of God was in that mystic experience of the incomprehensibility of God.

I know I said I was done with the God talk for awhile, but I just can't leave it alone. The history is too brutal. I've been watching PBS's recreation of the displacement of native Americans by European settlers, We Shall Remain, and it's just such a God damned shame. I can't even begin.

No comments: