Tuesday 13 February 2018

The Christian dilemma: the failure-to-convince of the Trinitarian mantra

The Christology and Trinitarian disputes of the early Christian Church came from the clash of two irreconcilable desires of early church intellectuals, the theologians, who had been trained in pagan (Greek and Roman) metaphysical philosophy.

First, they wanted to be able to state that there was one God - because they had a prior commitment to philosophical arguments that led to the inference of one God as the basis of unity and coherence in reality; and secondly, they wanted to be able to state that Jesus was God.

Jesus was God, so there were at least two gods; but there could only be one God - for philosophical reasons, based on pre-Christian assumptions.

In simple logic, one of these two sides ought to give-way - and for a Christian the obvious side that needed to give way was that there was only one god. Christ implies polytheism. But for a convinced Classical philosopher, this could not be true...

This is the Christian dilemma.

In other words, Christians actually are, and ought to be, regarded as poly-theists - as Jews and Muslims have always correctly asserted! Christian polytheism was the position reached by Mormonism some 1800 years later.

Mormon theology is simple, clear, coherent, and honest (and beautiful) - and it is Christian: Christ-centred and based on the divinity of Christ.

Thus, Mormons (eventually...) solved the Christian dilemma by holding-fast to the divinity of Christ, and chucking-out monotheism.

In doing so, the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith created the first explicitly pluralistic metaphysical philosophy - a couple of generations before it was set down academically by his fellow American William James.

But the early Christian intellectuals were, apparently, as much psychologically-wedded to the truth of philosophical monotheism as they were committed to belief in the divinity of Christ. They demanded to fit the divinity of Christ into the pre-existing pagan philosophical scheme. Yet this cannot be made to make sense...

So these early theologians eventually devised a none-sensical mish-mash of words, to assert that there was only one God and that Jesus was God.

Both-together and ignoring-contradictions.

In such wise they 'solved' the Christian dilemma by denying that there was a contradiction. The dilemma was 'solved' by (complexly, not simply) denying there ever had been a dilemma...

They devised a 'mantra' - a form of words (the Athanasian Creed), and then insisted that all Christians would assert this form-of-words (or, later and elsewhere, something analogous) as the core truth of the faith. To the extent that many/ most Christians describe themselves primarily as Trinitarians!

The mantra was strictly nonsense; but the nonsense was relabelled mystery, or a higher truth beyond common sense and logic - and that has been the situation in mainstream Christianity ever since.

Well this is what happened - but did it work?

It 'worked' within the Christian churchs, mostly; by sociologically-solving the particularly vicious Christological disputes among the intellectual leadership within the Christian churches. Those who remained, agreed-to-agree on the validity of the mantra.

But what of the wider world? Did the Trinitarian mantra convince ordinary people, non-intellectuals, those without a stake in the hierarchy? If Mormons eventually took the simple-coherent polytheist-path to solve the Christian dilemma; what about the the simple-coherent monotheist path? Did anybody reject the Trinitarian mantra and take the monotheist path?

Well, it seems that nobody knows the exact historical details - but my assumption is that Islam was the actual monotheist solution to the problem of the Christian dilemma. In Islam the oneness of God was retained, at the cost of the divinity of Christ; who instead became regarded as a great prophet.

Simple, clear, coherent, and honest.

But, obviously, not Christian.

The rapid and permanent rise of Islam seems to show the deep and intractable failure of the Trinitarian mantra - and how vital it is that the basic explanation at the core of a religion makes straightforward common-sense.

There is no more powerful a critique against the fundamental error in building Christianity on meaningless metaphysics and evasive theology than the rise and success of Islam. Islam is the failure of the Trinitarian mantra: Islam is the consequence of trying to evade the Christian dilemma.

The above analysis is one (but not the only) reason why I am a believer in Mormon Christian metaphysics and theology.


Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Surely the demand for monotheism came at least as much from Judaism and the Old Testament as from Classical philosophy. The Greeks and Romans were, after all, polytheists.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - I'm sure it had some significant effect initially; however, it could have led to a reaction but didn't. Then the insistence on strict monotheism (not henotheism) was maintained generation after generation...

Plus, arguably, the Old Testament Hebrews were henotheists (much like Mormons), at least initially.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

The Old Testament is indeed less than perfectly monotheistic, but that is even more obviously true of Classical philosophy. Plato and Aristotle themselves did not see their philosophy as being inconsistent with the polytheistic religion of Greece and would surely have had little problem accommodating the idea of a "son of God."

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - All you say may be true - but it was indeed the Classical philosophers who developed the conviction that there must be one God who created everything from nothing and dwelt outwith creation - outwith Time, omnipotent, omniscient, without 'body, parts or passions' etc. This became Christian dogma - with greater mandatory force than, for example, God is our loving Father. All Christianity has been compelled to fit within this framework.

August said...

I think the dangerous abstractions are space and time. These are things we know and are subject to, but often fail to have any imagination as to what it would be like not to be subject to these things. It would make sense that the Creator would be present to all things, if He created all things. But instead our modern world views suggests space and time are present to all things.

When we measure time, we measure the movement of things.
When we measure space, we measure the arrangement of things.

When we think about space and time, some of that thinking is colored by our experiences here as beings with physical bodies subjected to various forces on a planet. We tend to universalize our experiences even though we know that being on a different planet- or travelling in a space ship- would mean changes to our experiences. The entire genre of time travel fiction suggests people easily imbue time with extra 'existence' and assume the past and future are actually places we can visit.

As errors multiply, the doctrine of the Trinity does become harder to understand, especially when errors multiply among people on both sides of the debate. But I don't think Christians failed to convince- I think they failed to keep Christendom together and had a bunch of power struggles that led to the revolutionary movements and the rise of bureaucracy. We underestimate how devastating this was to Christianity. And our technological advancement tends to mask the general devastation in knowledge as well.

Bruce Charlton said...

@August - I personally was appalled by the Monophysite business - the sheer venom of the controversy, about such a small nuance of theology that it was and is incomprehensible to almost everybody. It led to the first great schism of the church, and the Eastern Orthodox remain separated to this day. Yet it was clearly trivial in terms of the core values of Christianity - both sides were right, both sides were wrong - a storm in a teacup, but with terrible consequences for many people. This revealed profound problems in the way that Christianity had developed. The Eastern Orthodox were treated so badly by their Christian brothers, for so long, that they preferred life under Islam.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Philip Preston - These posts may briefly answer your query:



Phillip Preston said...

Dr. Charlton, these posts do clarify your position on certain points regarding Mormon teaching. Where I remain confused is more on the matter of the "truth" of Smith's revealed and translated works. Is it fair to say that your position is essentially that while Smith may have thought himself as falsifying the various scriptures he produced, he was in actuality being unwittingly inspired by God to express a more complete and accurate Christianity?

Nigel Worthington said...

OR that this is the way things are meant to be - and that it is a necessary and desirable part of the human condition that foundational belief require an act of choice from each of us as individuals. .

I have felt this to be part of how us humans and this world our designed. I noticed awhile ago that beliefs people have, in some way are reflections of the person.

Nevertheless, incredible worldviews clearly make contradictory claims suggesting that none of them are quite the wholey truth (with a capital T). With regard to religious perspectives, materialists make the mistake of assuming they aren't true at all (or only tertiarily so) which I agree is incoherent. Is the truth somewhere in the middle? Is it incredible to believe that religions are partly true but not complete?

Bruce Charlton said...

@PP - No - I believe that Joseph Smith was an inspired prophect of God.

That was how he was able to do genius-type accomplishments, despite being a man of fairly normal personal abilities.

Once it is understood what JS accomplished, the alternatives are 1. that he was an honest oridinary man that had divine inspiration (this is what I believe); or 2. (as you state) that he was a religious genius (this is how Harold Bloom explicitly regards him in American Religion), but but dishonest - and did good by accident.

(In case you are unclear, I am Not a member of the CJCLDS, although I blog at Junior Ganymede - a conservative mormon group blog; and am indeed associated with/ support a conservative evangelical Anglican church. However, I do believe that Mormonism is true and the core claims of the CJCLDS are true - I believe this by personal revelation; which is the only real way to know such things.)

Bruce Charlton said...

@NW - It is what some philosophers call 'trivially true' that the known and expressed truth (whether religious or otherwise) is partial - since we each have an individual persepctive, limited cognitive capacity and limited time, effort and other resources.

And because in reality everything is related to the Big Picture - so the act of being specifci is a distortion.

Any statement of truth is incomplete.

(I knew this from being a scientist, before I was a Christian.)

The question should be whether it is true; not whether it is complete.

(A secondary question is how-come it is true - how-come truth is possible? That depends on metaphysical assumptions.)

Phillip Preston said...

That clarifies matters, thank you very much.

Though I do disagree, I have to accept that seeing Smith as inspired is actually a reasonable position. That is to say that while I cannot accept that the events described in the Mormon canon of scripture are in any sense *historical* and I do not believe Smith's own accounts of how he came by them, one cannot argue against Mormon theology on those bases or approximate with certainty what actually went on in Smith's mind regarding his "true" intentions.

Despite holding what are fairly orthodox or "conservative" theological views, I myself believe that the Old Testament is a divinely inspired theological document and tend to suspect that very little of the Pentateuch and certain other portions are accurate history describing figures who lived and events that had occurred. For example, I am not even sure that the Exodus and conquest of Canaan occurred in anything like the sense recounted in the Bible, or that the laws of Leviticus were codified and/or enforced before the Babylonian Exile. (Archaeology thus far seems to cast doubt on the Exodus having happened.) Having said that, I nonetheless accept that some Israelites were inspired by God to write and edit works expressing what I, for lack of a better way of saying it, consider sound theology. The historicity of it, in the strictest sense, however, is essentially irrelevant. I hope that this makes sense.

To clarify, though, I believe and confess that Jesus lived, was crucified, and was resurrected, and allowing for differences in perspective and color of the individual writers, that the NY miracles occurred essentially as written about. Should that strike anyone as unconventional to hold views like these, I would note that part of what makes Christ the happy ending and fulfillment of the theological narrative of Christianity is that He really lived and ministered, and defeated sin and death-even though the OT writers were inspired and guided by God rather than relating an accurate account of events.

Perhaps I am mistaken, but I rather get the impression that your views on Smith are comparable in some ways to my view on the OT.

Bruce Charlton said...

@PP - I would regard the book of Mormon as true in the same way as the OT is true - which is not far from what you say. I regard the Gospels as true in a different way, and John's Gospel as the primary source of knowledge about Jesus.