Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Spiritual Quest

I have decided to start a spiritual quest of sorts.

I just finished reading The Road Less Traveled, by M. Scott Peck, and in that very well-known self-help book, he ends the book with a discussion about what he believes is evidence of God's immanence in human life. Far from supporting any institutional religion over another, Peck's philosophy is rooted (as might be imagined) in psychiatric phenomena such as serendipity, synchronicity, ESP, and the like. He argues that God's "grace" is enacted through the unconscious, which works beyond our conscious control to assist our spiritual growth. I found a lot of what he said to make sense on a certain level, and at the very least his arguments were interesting and unique.

I read this book, obviously, as a means to help me along the path of my own spiritual and emotional growth, and it has inspired me to continue along that "less traveled" path. In doing so, one of the issues that I want to reconcile within myself is my concept of God. In Peck's book, he talks about the idea that many people must first reject God (that is, the God of dogmatic institutional religion) before they can find the authentic God. This definitely resonates with me, as I have experienced a similar situation. However, I don't, yet, feel like I have found that authentic God. I have come across a lot of ideas that really makes sense to me, but none that I have been able to fully and completely grasp.

What is interesting is that I just finished a novel by James Michener called The Source, which fictionalized the history of Judaism, and had, as one of its primary themes, the evolving nature of the God concept. Without even realizing it, this was actually the start of my quest, because it definitely got me thinking a lot about my concept of God, where it comes from, why I believe it, and what it means for me. Bearing this in mind, while reading The Road Less Traveled (which I was reading at the same time as The Source), it was rather serendipitious (to use one of Peck's arguments for God's grace) that this book, too, began an in depth discussion of the very same topic: the concept of God. While I had known that The Source -- a novel fictionalizing the history of Judaism -- was going to deal a lot with the changing concepts of God, I had not known that The Road Less Traveled had any "God" discussion in it.

As such, I am going to run with this moment of serendipity and begin an intentional quest for God. This, of course, is nothing really new -- I've been searching for God my entire life. A few years back, when I first began to reject the concepts of God that my church had taught me, I read a very enlightening book by Marcus Borg called The God We Never Knew. So this "quest" isn't really anything new for me. However, it's more "intentional" now, I suppose.

What I intend to do on this quest involves a mixture of prayer, meditation, and reading. The prayer and meditation is self-explanatory, but I intend to buttress those things by reading three books.

The first is a book that I've had on my shelf for well over a year (maybe even two years), but have never read. Again, the serendipity involved in the fact that I have chosen not to read this book yet, so that it is now there available for me when the issue of God has come to the forefront of my consciousness, simply makes my dedication to this "quest" all the stronger. The book is by British scholar and academic, Karen Armstrong. It is called A History of God. In it, Armstrong discusses and illustrates the long history of the God concept, how it has evolved through Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and how people's interactions with God have evolved through the centuries. I believe this will be a great starting point for my quest, one which will ground me in the history of God and in humanity's concepts of God. Where The Source was a fictionalization using the evolving God concept as a theme, A History of God is an in-depth, scholarly look at humanity's changing concepts of God.

After this book, I intend to start a book called There is a God. This is written by philosopher Anthony Flew, and I came across it quite by accident (again, that serendipity thing) the other day while browsing the bookstore. I've never heard of Flew before, but evidently he has been regarded by many as one of the "Fathers" of modern atheism. In the 1950's he wrote a scholarly paper on the depravity of religious belief, and it has been hailed as the pentultimate thesis on atheism ever since (I think I read that it has been distrubuted more widely than any other scholarly paper in the 20th century).

Despite this, Flew has now embraced a sort of philosophical theism. He's now an old man, of course, and his change of heart might be chalked up to the fear of approaching annihilation, but either way, he has written a book detailing why he has rejected atheism, after a lifetime as one of the foremost champions of atheism, in favor of philsophical theism. He hasn't, apparently, accepted any dogamatic institutional form of religion (which, of course, is one thing in his favor), but instead has accepted more of a Martin Gardner type of belief -- a creator God who is involved in human life and is interested in the spiritual growth and fulfillment of human beings. Since this is not at all unlike the God concept Peck paints in The Road Less Traveled, I'm very interested in hearing what Flew has to say, particularly since he comes from a background of militant atheism.

After I finish Flew's book, I will finish up by reading the extremely popular and controversial book by Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. As a sort of "counterpoint" to There is a God, I want to see what all the fuss is about regarding this book, and see what I really think of the modern atheist position.

By reading these three books -- a scholarly history of God, a story of a former atheist turned philosophical theist, and a militant treatise on the harmfulness of religious belief -- I hope to come away with a more informed and well-rounded view of God. This, coupled with a lot of prayer and meditation will, I hope, allow me to settle on a concept of God that resonates with me -- or perhaps, no concept at all. I am willing to risk the descent (or ascent, as some would say) into atheism in order to find God. If I never return from that journey into atheism, then so be it -- at least I will have found an answer that works for me. Of course, my intention is not to turn atheist, but to buttress my sense of spirituality and universal mystery by coming to a deeper understanding of God.

I want to end by extending an offer to all my readers to join me in this quest. I realize, right from the start, that this probably will not be taken up by anyone else. It's a lot of work, and as Peck says in The Road Less Traveled, most people are not equal to the work required for spiritual and personal growth. In that same vein, Mark Twain once said "Be good, and you will be lonesome." This became the basis of a wonderful Jimmy Buffett song in 1987. For certain, the road to spiritual enlightenment is a lonely one.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that if you choose not to take this particular quest with me it means you aren't dedicated to personal and spiritual growth. Maybe this just isn't the way you want to go about it. And that, of course, is a highly personal decision, not one I can make for anyone but myself.

But if anyone is up to the task, I would encourage you to read these books, in this order, along with me, and buttress it with prayer and meditation. I think it would strengthen my quest, as well as yours, to be able to discuss it with someone else.

Finally, I want to add that I will not be blogging between now and the end of my quest. Not because I'm going to be holed up in the woods muttering Buddhist mantras -- I still have to work, go to school, and be a father, after all -- but simply because I want to focus my spiritual and intellectual attention right now on this quest. Theology, the meaning of Jesus' life, Church history, and all the other things I love to write about are not germaine to this particular quest. This is a quest to find God, and that's what I want to focus on. So unless I change my mind later, I won't blog again until I have completed this journey. Naturally, if any of you do want to come along with me on this quest, please let me know.

Until then, shalom, and I'll see you on the flip side.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Trinity Doctrine: Bad Math

The Trinity Doctrine is a theological Christian concept that says God has three manifestations or extensions – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each of God’s manifestations is an independent extension of God, but the three together make up the whole. The idea is that God is composed of “three persons,” but only “one substance,” as the official doctrine states.

In this day and age, the Trinity Doctrine is so entrenched in mainstream Christian consciousness that most Christians hardly give it much thought or critical examination. Certainly no mainstream Christian would consider herself a polytheist. Yet early in Christian history, before Christianity was the force in western society that it is today, it was commonly recognized among non-Christians that the Christians had three gods. Even as late as the 19th century, when the British were busy colonizing and converting the native tribes of Africa, it was understood by the African tribesmen that the British had come from the Great White Queen across the water (Victoria) who worshipped a three-headed god. To people not familiar with this deeply entrenched doctrine, it fairly screams of polytheism at best, and Dissociative Identity Disorder at worst. Maybe Sybil wasn’t so crazy after all.

Read the New Testament, and you won’t find a single instance of the word “trinity.” It is a concept that was developed not by Jesus, not by his followers, not by the writers of the New Testament, but by the ecumenical councils of the 4th and 5th centuries – in other words, groups of old, rich, powerful men who met in lavish palaces, all expenses paid, and were plied with gifts and food and wine while being tended to by servants, all while doing the so-called work of God to formalize and systematize Christianity so it could be sold to the masses. As Rabbi Joel Blau once said: “Theology: that madness gone systematic which tries to crowd God’s fullness into a formula and a system!” And nothing represents this idea better than the doctrine of the Trinity, which was birthed as a result of the group copulation of those aforementioned old white men at the ecumenical councils of the 4th and 5th centuries.

Of course, I’m speaking a little tongue-in-cheek here, and to be fair, the Trinity concept was first discussed as early as the 200’s in the writings of Tertullian, but it became a central issue of the first ecumenical councils, and it was at those councils, in the 300’s and 400’s C.E., that the concept was finally cemented into a nice, beribboned theological package – a perfect way to describe how God and Jesus could be one, with the Holy Spirit (whatever that is) thrown in for good measure. The ironic thing is that Tertullian, despite beginning his days as a great defender of Orthodoxy, later moved away from the Catholic Church, referring to it as “the church of a lot of bishops,” and began following a form of Christianity called Montanism, which the Church (of course, since it wasn’t their own) considered heretical. For this reason, Tertullian, despite being a leading theologian, prolific writer, and prominent Christian apologist of the early Christian era, has never been canonized. So the person who, 200 years after Jesus’ life, first gave us the Trinity concept, is also someone who the Church – which adopted that Trinity concept and put it into a nice package – deemed a heretic.

It has long been debated – literally since the doctrine was established – whether there is any biblical veracity for the Trinity idea. I’ve already mentioned that no New Testament text uses the word “trinity,” and the idea itself wasn’t conceived of until at least the 200’s, and wasn’t formalized until the 300’s. But can one go to the words of Jesus, or to the words of other New Testament figures, to find evidence that the Trinity exists?

For those who abide by the Trinity Doctrine, their strongest textual argument comes from the last passage of the book of Matthew. There, Matthew describes the resurrected Jesus’ ascent into heaven. Prior to flying off into the great blue yonder (where, presumably, he donned a space suit and oxygen tank so he could breath in low earth orbit), Jesus instructed his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Here, then, is the only instance in the entire Bible where all three of God’s distinct yet unified personalities are mentioned together in one breath.

The problem, of course, is twofold. First, we can’t know for certain whether these were the words of Jesus, or the words of Matthew. Skeptics might immediately reject the words as coming from Jesus, since they are purported to have been spoken after his resurrection. But it’s always possible, of course, that Matthew accurately recorded something that Jesus said, but simply stuck it into a post-resurrection narrative. A scholarly look at the texts of Jesus’ life would imply that he probably did send his followers out to teach in his name (Mark gives a detailed summary of Jesus doing just this during his ministry – sending his followers out two by two to heal and teach). But would Jesus have talked about a Father and a Son and a Holy Spirit? Since messianic prophecies weren’t applied to Jesus’ life until after his death, it seems rather unlikely. Of course, even if they were only the words of Matthew, and not Jesus, they are still words written early in Christian history, in the Bible itself, which might help support a Trinitarian doctrine. This, however, leads to the second problem.

Whether Jesus said these words, or Matthew simply put them into Jesus’ mouth, there is no indication or even implication that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all of one substance, as the Trinity doctrine states. Because the Trinity doctrine is so entrenched in our Christian mindset, we read this passage through the lens of that later doctrine. Yet, if you strip the doctrinal blinkers away and read the passage as it was written, you can see that Jesus is simply instructing his followers to baptize people into the names of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. He says nothing, and implies nothing, about these three entities being one and the same and equal. It would be no different than telling someone to go teach the principles of American democracy to foreigners, “baptizing” them into the names of Jefferson, Washington, and the Continental Congress. That doesn’t mean Jefferson, Washington, and the Continental Congress are all of the same substance.

On the flip side of the coin, there is another passage, this time in Mark, where it seems quite clear that Jesus is, in fact, saying plainly that God is “one” (as opposed to “three” as the Trinity doctrine suggests). This “one vs. three” dichotomy has long been the central issue between Christianity and Judaism. I read a rabbi/priest joke just today that centered on the idea of God as one and God as three. Jews, of course, believe that God is one, relying on that oft-repeated mantra from the Torah: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Christians, because of the Trinity concept, believe God is three.

The writer of Mark – the earliest of the Gospel writers – gives us a very detailed picture of Jesus’ last week on earth. According to Mark, Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on Sunday, and spent the week before his death teaching and fending off attacks from the Pharisees. In Mark 12:28-34, Jesus is approached by one of the “teachers of the law” and is asked to tell which commandment of God’s is the greatest. I’ll let you read the rest of the passage for yourself:

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared asked him any more questions.


As you can see, this is a rather eye-opening passage, in light of our understanding of God as three. Jesus – who, of course, was a practicing Jew living in a pre-Christian Jewish world that knew nothing of 4th century Trinity doctrines – said that the greatest commandment, the one that stood out above all the others, is the very one that Jews still use to this day to ritualize their belief in the basic oneness of God: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” The “teacher of the law,” the Orthodox Jew, says that Jesus was “right in saying that God is one,” and Jesus then recognizes that the man “had answered wisely.” As with the passage in Matthew, whether you attribute these words and thoughts to Jesus himself, or simply to the writer of Mark, the fact remains that this New Testament passage is clearly describing God’s nature as one, not three. For a traditionally-believing Christian who accepts that the words of Jesus recorded in the Bible are accurate, this passage should be quite eye-opening, as the Son himself is unmistakably saying that God is one.

As you can imagine, I don’t personally find any absolution in the idea that God has three distinct personalities. I believe Jesus was a man who was uniquely in touch with the essence of God, and who taught a message of love, peace, acceptance, and servitude. Regarding God, I suppose I conceive of God more like a Jew than a Christian – that is, I conceive of God as unknowable, unnamed, and formless. For me, God is love, and love is God. As for the Holy Spirit, I’m not sure I could even define what Christians believe the Holy Spirit is. Clearly it is born from that feeling of religious ecstasy that people experience from time to time. But how this emotional feeling could relate to a being that exists as a personality of God is beyond me. It would be like suggesting that the feeling of anger is a divine aspect of God. I think most Christians probably don’t understand the concept of the Holy Spirit either.

Most Christians will freely pray to God and Jesus, individually, but I’ve never heard anyone address the Holy Spirit, as an entity, in prayer. Yet, by the doctrine of the Trinity, that would be perfectly sensible and reasonable. Unfortunately, from my perspective, that’s about the only way that “sensible and reasonable” could occur in the same breath with “doctrine of the Trinity.” For me, the Trinity doctrine is bad math; three just doesn’t add up, either biblically or spiritually.

Serene Musings Books of the Year, 2005-2015