Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Understanding, and not understanding - Non sequiturs and the example of the Nicene Creed


Following the Savior’s death, the Church He had established drifted into apostasy. Fulfilled were the words of Isaiah, who said, “The earth also is defiled under the inhabitants thereof; because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the everlasting covenant”.

Realizing the importance of knowing the true nature of God, men had struggled to find a way to define Him. Learned clerics argued with one another. When Constantine became a Christian in the fourth century, he called together a great convocation of learned men with the hope that they could reach a conclusion of understanding concerning the true nature of Deity. All they reached was a compromise of various points of view.

The result was the Nicene Creed of A.D. 325. This and subsequent creeds have become the declaration of doctrine concerning the nature of Deity for most of Christianity ever since.

I have read them all a number of times. I cannot understand them. I think others cannot understand them. I am sure that the Lord also knew that many would not understand them.

And so in 1820, in that incomparable vision, the Father and the Son appeared to the boy Joseph. They spoke to him with words that were audible, and he spoke to Them. They could see. They could speak. They could hear. They were personal. They were of substance. They were not imaginary beings. They were beings tabernacled in flesh. And out of that experience has come our unique and true understanding of the nature of Deity.

President (1995-2008) Gordon B Hinckley CJCLDS


Understanding is a subtle thing, or maybe it is a very simple thing!

At any rate, the world is full of people who say they understand, who believe they understand - but apparently don't.

The human grasp of reason is so shaky, and human pragmatism so strong, that by and large people say and believe what is practically-expedient - and there are very very few (and in some times and places zero) people who do otherwise. 


And some statements that claim to elucidate or explain are in reality un-understandable - and the people who understand most deeply know this.

(I am reminded of Einstein who knew that quantum theory was un-understandable, hence could not be regarded as a statement of reality. Many lesser minds, however, claim to understand it!)

I have often experienced the situation when I thought I understood something, but as learned and pondered more, I realized that I did not understand it and never had understood it - that I had been fooling myself (although I would have sworn in a court of law, or before God, that I did understand it - I had been mistaken).

This was the basis of most good science I have done - first the recognition that I did not understand what others claimed was clear and obvious and true; then finding an explanation that accounted for the primary observations and that I did understand.


What is the status of an un-understandable statement? Well, it can have many functions.

It may be the result of confusion, or an attempt to mislead.

In Christian history, an un-understandable statement may be a deliberately-crafted ambiguity whereby two or more intractably-warring factions read into the un-understandable statement what they seek, and each chooses to pretend they understand its meaning correctly.


More often the un-understandability is at the level of a non sequitur ("it does not follow") - several understandable statements placed side by side, but with no understandable link between them

Non sequitur is how the historical Christian church (more or less) 'solved' the vicious and intractable Christological ('nature of Christ') disputes of the early centuries - these disputes themselves being an artefact of the inflexible insistence of expressing Christian doctrine through philosophical spectacles manufactured to Classical Metaphysical specifications. 

This technique of dispute resolution resulted in the usual mainstream formulations about the Holy Trinity being both One AND Three; and Jesus Christ having been both God and Man at the same time, despite that God and Man are being conceptualized as utterly different kinds of entity.


These things are stated very firmly, very solemnly, they are absolutely insisted upon and often made definitional of being-a-Christian - but they are un-understandable; they are unconnected statements placed side by side and claiming to make an argument - which allows what people really believe inside their heads (i.e what they actually picture or comprehend) to range very widely.


On the other hand, such non sequiturs may kill understanding, and faith, by placing un-understandability at the very heart of what Christians (supposedly) must believe.

For some, this is intolerable - they need to understand the most important things; rather than having the most important things expressed in forms that are intrinsically un-understandable.  


In reality such 'understanding' as comes from the non sequitur is more of the nature of a truce, or an agreement to go no further along that line of argument.

That is understandable, and it may be expedient in situations of intractable conflict - but it is also hazardous, spiritually - and leads to those in authority solemnly insisting upon solemn non-sense (i.e. intrinsically un-understandable statements), and allowing a kind of dishonesty into the very heart of Christianity.


For me, one of the most wonderful aspects of Joseph Smith's Restoration of Christianity was his work in putting clear, comprehensible explanations back at the very heart of Christian doctrine - in clearing-out the major non sequiturs.

Of course, its honesty, clarity and understandability exposed Mormon doctrine to ridicule; but Christianity is indeed intrinsically absurd (or blasphemous) to those who do not believe it (hence the temptation to hide its absurdities by retreating into abstraction and un-understandable non sequitur - whether or not re-framed as 'mystery').


I believe that humans are incapable of a metaphysical system which is both sufficiently concrete and commonsensical to be understandable, and yet also comprehensive.

All comprehensible metaphysical systems therefore run into problems (e.g. infinities of regress, zeroes, stasis) when pushed further than explaining the appearances.

But I think it reasonable to prefer a system which solves the up-front and core problems of Christianity - and these are the Christology problems.

And they were solved by Joseph Smith - by means of chucking-out the philosophical (specifically metaphysical) presuppositions of Classical Theology. This 'move' would perhaps not have been acceptable in the early centuries of the Church, but it is acceptable now.


To solve the Christology problems, it is necessary to understand God the Father, Jesus Christ, and Man in a way which makes understandable that Christ could be both God and Man - this Joseph Smith achieved, by recognizing (taking literally the Biblical descriptions) that God, Christ and Man are qualitatively of the same kind, despite truly-vast quantitative disparities.

And this was a great achievement, greatly valued by those who benefit from it.


But I expect that the whole thing started with Joseph Smith knowing that he did not understand the existing explanations of Christianity, and refusing to accept proffered explanations that he did not understand.



Gyan said...

But why would one expect the creed or other definitions of God to be fully understandable? Isn't God supposed to be beyond human understanding?. Thus, that the mysteriousness of the creed is a mark in its favor. This argument is also given by CS Lewis, in Mere Christianity I think.

There have been previous attempts to remove this mystery---Arians, Unitarians, etc, but they did not satisfied man's religious thirst to the extent the orthodox creed has.

Bruce Charlton said...


"There have been previous attempts to remove this mystery---Arians, Unitarians, etc, but they did not satisfied man's religious thirst to the extent the orthodox creed has. "

Well, yes - but they were not Christian: Christ was not essential to salvation.

*Obviously* it is possible to be a great Christian and hold by the un-understandable - but it is nonetheless a very real problem for many people. And there are, inevitably, ham fisted (and dishonest) claims that it is NOT a mystery but perfectly simple.

("Let me explain. Christ is God AND Christ is Man - at the same time, OK? And God and Man are so qualitatively DIFFERENT in kind that it is a gross blasphemy to claim otherwise. Don't you get it? Let me explain again: God and Man at the same time! Both. Listen carefully while I shout it louder GOD AND MAN AT THE SAME TIME."

It is still a non sequitur even if said three times, even if shouted - or if agreement is imposted coercively - still a non sequitur.

No, if one is content to leave it a mystery, AND SAY NOTHING MORE ABOUT IT - then fine.

But the mystery derives from the prior assumption/ imposition of a particular philosophy; not from that which is essential or natural or native to Christianity.

To deny THIS is to deny that the great Christians who have held simple anthropomorphic ideas of God and Jesus (including children, and the poor and 'simple' people of low intelligence) are not Christians - despite that Scripture tells us repeatedly that they are actually *the best* Christians.

ajb said...

Or consider the doctrine of transubstantiation. I don't know if it's true or not, because I don't believe I understand it. It's basically gobbledy-gook to me, vaguely pointing at something more understandable. Nor do I know how I would test to see if it were true.

So, do I agree with the doctrine of transubstantiation? I have no idea, because I don't think I know what it means. Nor do I think anyone else in the church I'm in at the time does, either.

So, it might be right, but ...

George said...

I think my brain is wired differently. To me, doctrines like transubstantiation and the dual nature of Christ make Christianity more believable - amazing, miraculous. As miraculous as the thought that we may have eternal life after this. Or there might be a place beyond life where all imperfections are made right.

The infinite regression is too big a hole for me. If you take either Catholic theology or Mormon theology, you're ultimately left with a mystery (something not understandable). The idea that there are a forever regression of God's parents and their parents ad infinitum is totally incomprehensible to me.

Maximo Macaroni said...

I find it odd that "scientific" atheists may complain that religious doctrines are not understandable and at the same time feel perfectly confident that they understand the nature of space and time.
Is there any religious question more confusing and less intuitive than the "scientific" inquiry into the nature of empty space?

Bruce Charlton said...

@George - "The idea that there are a forever regression of God's parents and their parents ad infinitum is totally incomprehensible to me. "

1. That is not in any sense official Mormon doctrine, although it has been said by senior 'authorities' including probably Joseph Smith in the King Follet sermon.

2. Even if it were official Mormon doctrine, it is not central to Christianity or the central issues of Christian life - such as the Nature of Christ, what he did and why, the implications of a Loving God etc.

3. I personally don't believe it. I think God the Father *just is* and always was - although not always the same as He is now and will become. The understanding that the fundamentals *just are* and always were is common/normal among children and hunter gatherer tribespeople.

Bruce Charlton said...

@MM - I remember once talking with a physicist about something like string theory, and realizing that they did not understand it; but just knew how to do the maths.

Maximo Macaroni said...

"Just knew how to do the maths.."
Exactly, Bruce. Is it possible that theologians are more aware of the nature of true understanding than quantum physicists?


The Crow said...

Man does not understand the God in him, and so does not understand God. Man often fails even to understand the man in him, let alone understand the God.
Understanding very little, man's ego takes centre stage. It stands in for both man and God.
Man is both man and God, but almost never knows it. Until he does, ego is all he has.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

I have read them all a number of times. I cannot understand them. I think others cannot understand them. I am sure that the Lord also knew that many would not understand them.

How is it then that Catholic (and, I suppose, Orthodox and High Church Anglican) children and adolescents, as well as most converts, sufficiently understand the Nicene Creed when they are properly catechized?

I suspect most devout members of any Christian church also understand these terms correctly in the main, because they summarize the only things that all Christians have in common: God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Son became man and founded a Church whose sacramental power is necessary for our salvation and sanctification. Anyone who does not believe that is not a Christian believer, although he can be morally a Christian, if he acts like one.

Anyway, we should not put stock in the theology of one man, as saintly as he appears, as all heretics always do. That is what the Catholic Magisterium is for: we would not put stock in anything Augustine or Aquinas or Newman or any other wrote if the Body of Christ did not acknowledge it as being in tune with the Word of God.

Thursday said...

The other theological point is whether we should expect to be able to understand God. I would submit that we should not.

I tend to think of the truth of the trinity, and many of the other truths about God, as something analagous to many of the truths of physics. I have no blooming idea how something can be both a wave and a particle, but it seems to be true none the less.

Human reason tends to break down out at the frontiers. We need to accept this.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Th - "The other theological point is whether we should expect to be able to understand God. I would submit that we should not."

That is certainly the view of the other great monotheism which arose to challenge Christianity.

But I suppose it hinges on the meaning of understanding - we need to understanding enough to Love God, that's for sure; and that means Christians must have more understanding of God than most other religions.

" I have no blooming idea how something can be both a wave and a particle, but it seems to be true none the less."

See above comments.


@SDR - I am sure that most devout Christians have - and always have had, and always will have - 'heretical' (in the direction of anthropomorphic) views of the Trinity, the nature of Christ and numerous other matters - even if they mouth theological sophistications. They simply cannot help it!

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

...theological sophistications

The theological notions learned in the catechism that you call sophistications are only rational and accurate ways of expressing revealed truth. If the technical language fails, we try the simple words (saints and theologians do that all the time), and if we sound as the widow of the Gospel harassing the judge, we are only doing what Christ told us to.

Thursday said...

I also kind of doubt that the theological mysteries of something like the trinity actually get in the way of loving God.

Gyan said...

Analogy to quantum mysteriousness and paradoxes is misleading.
Science is a rational attempt to understand the natural world. It is not supposed to have recourse to mysteries.
Thus, the quantum mysteries are an imperfection and they are recognized to be so by physicists. See the epilogue to The Discarded Image by CS Lewis.

Whereas, theology properly admits of mysticism since the subject-matter is held to be beyond human reason.

The comprehensibility or rather the fittingness of Trinity is a subjective. People like CS Lewis, Dorothy Sayers (The Mind of the Maker-an exploration in Trinity), and others have recognized a peculiar fittingness in Trinity. All one can say that he does not see the appeal of it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Gyan - "others have recognized a peculiar fittingness in Trinity. All one can say that he does not see the appeal of it. "

You may be confused about what I said. Nobody is arguing against the Holy Trinity - just against the un-understandable 'explanation' of what it is - in particular its unity of being, while yet being three.


@Thu - If it is not a problem for you then fine. But clearly it is a different matter to Love God who is conceptualized as being of the same kind as us and our loving Father in some literal sense - rather than conceptualized an utterly incomprehensible, impassive, abstract entity that we dwell *inside* (and so does everything else) - and indeed is everything.

As for worship - there is no mystery. People worship powerful people even when they are evil, so why not by far the most powerful entity, especially if the entity is wholly Good and our Loving Father and created/ ordered everything (starting from souls, matter and the laws of the universe). What could be more worthy of worship AND Love.

Gyan said...

God is NOT our Father but our Creator.
Since we are not begotten of God but created by Him.

Following Jesus, we call God our Father as an aspiration. We shall be like sons of God but before death, we are not literally His sons. This was the view expressed by CS Lewis in Mere Christianity.

The view of God as "an utterly incomprehensible, impassive, abstract entity that we dwell *inside*" is appealing to some and not appealing to others.

Bruce Charlton said...


"God is NOT our Father but our Creator.
Since we are not begotten of God but created by Him."

None of this is sure - or at least the meaning of the key terms is not sure. There is room for legitimate disagreement (which is just as well, because that is what there is and always has been).

Thus most people think of a creator as someone who is a maker, a shaper, and organizer - nobody would have supposed God made everything out of absolutely nothing unless they had already been deep into Classical Philosophy.

It is not *wrong* to think of God creating from nothing, it is legitimate, many (but only the very intelligent) Good Christians have believed this - but it does lead to big problems very near the centre of Christian doctrine, and these problems are essentially insoluble for those who do not have advanced philosophical understanding - which can be a threat to faith.

God certainly created us in some sense - but what creation means is uncertain. I believe that (on philsophical grounds, and to make sense of our relation to God) there must have been some essence, spirit, soul, centre of intelligence of each of us (not a 'self') which existed *before* we were created by God; but this view is rare (even among Mormons).

And begotten is unclear as well, since Jesus existed before he was incarnated as a mortal (at least, that is what most mainstream theologians seem to believe - ie. that Jesus was Jehovah of the Old Testament, who created this world. That being the preferred interpretation of the beginning of the Gospel of St John).

So, presumably, it was something like that Jesus was begotten in the spirit world before he was begotten on earth. My point is simply that begotten is not very obviously clear - and seems to refer to lineage and kinship rather than a specific process.

On the same grounds, there is *a lot* of Scriptual evidence that we too are Sons of God already here and now on earth - but of course that evidence is ambiguous and susceptible of various interpretations.

It was to *clarify* such ambiguous matters (as well as to add further revealed knowledge) that (I believe) Joseph Smith was called to be a Prophet.

And such clarification turns out to be very much needed in our times - since secular Leftism has wedged-into almost all the weaknesses of the classical theological view - such as the problem of pain and suffering necessarily being willed and caused by an 'omnipotent' God - which has been exploited by Liberalism; the problem of finding any place for free will (hence Christianity) when there is not space for free will in Manstream Christian theology (because God does absolutely *everything*); the problem of why God allows purposive evil - Stan and Demons - to exist whe he could defeat them or not allow them in the first place; and the weakness and negativity of the mainstream Christian theology of marriage and family - which has been expoited by the sexual revolution.

The supposed theological answers answers to these problems are 1. incomprehensible to those who most need them; and 2. not really proper answers anyway.

Thus, the strengths of Mormonism are precisely at the greatest points of weakness of mainstream Christianity - which is why all serious Christians ought to welcome the rise and growth of the CJCLDS as (at the very least) *complementary* to the mainstream churches - and perhaps the only sizeable denomination which can survive in healthy-Christian-shape in the West.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

I must have been distracted when I wrote that: If the technical language fails, we try the simple words… I did not keep a record of that post, but I think I meant something along the lines of: These technical notions can often (or usually) be translated in simple words. Indeed, one normally begins with the simple words and introduces technical terms progressively, not the other way around.