Theology, the Long Conversation
by Rachel Creager Ireland
I’ve been slowly making my way through Karen Armstrong’s A History of God. I usually only read a few pages at a time, so it’s taken me months to get past the 100-page mark. There are two very significant insights that I am slowly gleaning from this history. One is that there has been a very long conversation taking place between countless learned philosophers and theologians over thousands of years. To study theology is to join in this conversation, and to presume to speak authoritatively without awareness of this age-old conversation is to make an ass of oneself.
The other is that the idea that the Bible ought to be read and interpreted in the most literal, simplistic way, as a rule book for living, is a modern idea, and wasn’t the intention of those who wrote it, nor of most of the above-referenced learned philosophers and theologians, nor of most of the people who have studied it throughout its very long history.
This week this quote struck me:
“The Trinity must not be interpreted in a literal manner; it was not an abstruse “theory” but the result of theoria, contemplation. When Christians in the West became embarrassed by this dogma [“the deeper meaning of biblical truth, which could only be apprehended through religious experience and expressed in symbolic form”] during the eighteenth century and tried to jettison it, they were trying to make God rational and comprehensible to the Age of Reason. This was one of the factors that would lead to the so-called Death of God in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries . . . . One of the reasons why the Cappadocians evolved this imaginative paradigm was to prevent God from becoming as rational as he was in Greek philosophy . . . . 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 a way: 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 [public teaching of the church] could only be provisional.”
I’ve sometimes heard people discuss the Trinity in depth, and wondered what the big deal was. This idea that it is part of expressing and trying to grasp the enormity of The Divine is helpful to me. I think most of us can use regular reminders that The Divine is far bigger than we can hope to comprehend.