cjbanning: (Default)
2016-11-26 01:34 pm

President Trump and the Arc of History

On November 8, 2016--the night Donald J. Trump was elected to be the 45th President of the United States despite losing the popular vote by a record number of votes--New York Times columnist Ross Douthat posted the following tweet:
This is apiece with many similar statements Douthat has made over the last year or so, responding in part to Francis Fukuyama's opus The End of History but also much more directly to the progressive and social liberal use of the famous line of uncertain attribution, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." For perhaps understandable reasons coming from a social conservative, Douthat objects to this sentiment, and those objections have served as a constant refrain within his columns, blog posts, and tweets. Two representative columns are The Case for Old Ideas and The Myth of Cosmopolitanism. I suspect there are blog posts which made the argument even more directly and concisely, but they fail to come up in a quick Google search.

In Checking Charlie Hebdo’s Privilege, Douthat argued that "Rather than a clear arc, [history] offers what T. S. Eliot called 'many cunning passages' — in which persecutors and persecuted can trade places, and even the well-meaning can lose their way entirely." But surely this oversimplifies, if not willfully misunderstands, just what progressives mean when they invoke the arc of history thesis. The belief is not, and never has been, in what Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, in a sermon published in 1853, called the "continual and progressive triumph of the right" (i.e., "the right" as in the morally correct, not the political right):
Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.
But progressives who accept the arc of history thesis also agree with Parker that from what we can see we are sure the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. We don't require historical omniscience to be optimistic about the direction of human history.

One can understand the argument that the ascension of Donald J. Trump, first in the Republican primaries and then in his surprise victory on Election Night, somehow refutes the "arc of history" thesis. But such an argument actually seriously misunderstands the thesis it attempts to refute, refuting only a caricature in its place. To believe to be on the right side of history is not to believe that one's position is infallible in the short term, incapable of losing elections. After all, one of the fundamental tenets of the arc of history thesis is that the arc of the moral universe is indeed long--and is not a straight line, either.

Insofar as Douthat is simply reminding us that those who believe they are on the right side of history can in fact be mistaken, it is of course difficult to disagree with his corrective. But by repeatedly (despite his own Catholicism) effectively denying the directionality of history altogether, he implies that just because progressives could conceivably be wrong on any given issue, we ought to assume we are wrong on every issue, and concede the debate to the religious conservatives before it has even begun. It's as if Douthat thinks a belief in one's own side's objective correctness ought to be somehow reserved for conservatives alone. And by attacking the arc of history thesis itself, Douthat sidesteps having to engage with the actual content of progressive and left-liberal arguments, why it is exactly we believe our positions to be on the correct side of history and those of conservatives on the wrong side.

For me, my belief in the directionality of history is a fundamentally Christian belief; before my conversion to Christianity, I understood history as being chaotic and directionless, but such a belief no longer seems to me possible, being incompatible with the fullness of the Christian hope and promise. And as a Christian, my new belief in the directionality of history is rooted in Scripture, in particular the deuterocanonical Book of Wisdom:
It was Wisdom who delivered a holy people, a blameless stock, from a nation of oppressors. She rewarded the labors of a holy people and guided them on a wondrous quest, becoming their shade by day and their starlight at night. And when these just people stood in victory over the godless, they sang of your glory, God our Deliverer, and in one voice praised your power and called you their champion--because Wisdom gave speech to those who could not speak and brought eloquence to the lips of infants. (10:15, 17-18, 20-21)
The above passage is part of a larger narrative, spanning the 10th through 12th chapters of the Book of Wisdom, which describe Wisdom's presence at crucial moments in the Biblical narrative, beginning with Adam and Eve. These are shown not as discrete divine (or quasi-divine) interventions, but part of a pattern of Wisdom leading and guiding the people of Israel through human history. By constructing this greater narrative of divine presence in history via Wisdom, the author of Wisdom is thus putting forth what I call a "theology of history": a speculative account of the significance and directive principle(s) intrinsic to human history from a position within a particular faith tradition. As Peter Enns notes in Wisdom of Solomon and Biblical Interpretation in the Second Temple Period ("Ps-Solomon" refers to "Pseuodo-Solomon," i.e. the author of the Book of Wisdom writing pseudepigraphically as King Solomon):
In the light of Ps-Solomon’s clear purpose—giving encouragement to a people facing the possibility of death—one begins to see a possible motive behind not only his reference to death as an “exodus” in the opening chapters of the work, but also his choice of Israel’s exodus experience as one of the primary themes of chs. 10–19. Israel’s exodus, her passage from death to life, as it were, is presented by Ps-Solomon as the prime biblical portrait of what Wisdom is doing now in the lives of these persecuted Alexandrian Jews—in their own passage from death to life, their own exodus.
Simillarly, in the Gospel According to St. John, Jesus promises before his death to send humanity the Paraclete (another name for the Holy Spirit, meaning "Advocate") to "abide with us forever"--that is, throughout the entirety of human history (14:16). According to the Episcopal catechism, the Holy Spirit is revealed in the New Covenant "as the Lord who leads us into all truth and enables us to grow in the likeness of Christ."

In the Book of Revelation, St. John the Divine writes of a "millenium"--a period of time during which Christ reigns over the Earth. As a postmillenialist, I understand this to describe the current epoch of human history:
Postmillennialism holds that Jesus Christ establishes his kingdom on earth through his preaching and redemptive work in the first century and that he equips his church with the gospel, empowers her by the Spirit, and charges her with the Great Commission (Matt 28:19) to disciple all nations. Postmillennialism expects that eventually the vast majority of men [sic] living will be saved. Increasing gospel success will gradually produce a time in history prior to Christ's return in which faith, righteousness, peace, and prosperity will prevail in the affairs of men [sic] and of nations. After an extensive era of such conditions Jesus Christ will return visibly, bodily, and gloriously, to end history with the general resurrection and the final judgment after which the eternal order follows. [. . .] Postmillennialism also teaches that the forces of Satan will gradually be defeated by the expansion of the Kingdom of God throughout history up until the second coming of Christ.
So in a sense, I agree with Douthat that history's only arc is the one described in Revelation--but I believe the millenium (understand to figuratively describe a long period of time rather than a literal 1,000 years) to have already begun. Postmillenialists take very seriously the third petition of the Lord's Prayer: "Thy will be done on Earth, as it is in Heaven." The millenium is thus understood to be characterized by increasing peace and social justice--the arc of the moral universe bending towards Christ, the Prince of Peace--as the Kin-dom of Heaven is established (through the work of the Holy Spirit) upon the planet Earth. This understanding of history recognizes the power of human beings, when empowered by the amazing and unmerited gift of God's grace, to serve as the hands and feet of Jesus Christ.

Taking this Biblical understanding of history and synthesizing it alongside the great philosophers of history--Hegel, Marx, Kojève, Foucault, Kuhn, Fukuyama, et alii--yields the theology of history I tried to articulate in part in my essay, History and Christ. As I noted there, it is hardly an accident that Hegel also wrote of a "spirit"--geist--at work in human history. These philosophers helped to identify the dialectical mechanisms through which God is at work in human history. This is of course appropriate because the God of the Trinity is Godself dialectical: three hypostases in perichoretic conversation with one another. (The relational ontology of the Trinitarian relationship is of course prefigured by the relationship between YHWH and Wisdom in the Hebrew Wisdom literature.) To quote Karl Rahner, "the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity" (and I would add, is the social Trinity): God's work in history is a reflection of Who God Is.

Linear history can thus be said to have a progressive nature--i.e. the changes from era to era (scientific advances, evolving moral norms, new forms of polity) can be said to represent in the aggregate objective improvements in some sense, even if what we are not always able to articulate quite what that sense might be. (I suspect both Wittgenstein and his cousin Hayek--a beloved philosopher of the intellectual right--might be helpful there, but that's another subject for another post.) I do not, like Fukuyama, think that modern liberal democracy represents the end of history. But I do think it is the pinnacle of what we have achieved so far, and I certainly do not claim to know what comes after. I also--again pace Fukuyama--do not think the project of liberal democracy itself has yet come close to achieving perfection, as so many important civil rights and essential freedoms remain under attack by structural systems of sin and injustice.

I do, however, see the expansion of civil rights and social justice which I've have witnessed even in my own life as a, however incomplete and impartial, unfolding of the Kin-dom of Heaven. And since my political left-liberalism is grounded in my theological belief in the human dignity of all people as divine image-bearers, I bear no apology for understanding this theological unfolding in explicitly political terms.

Yet if this is the case, how do we explain President Trump? I will not spend time here making the Christian argument against Donald Trump, as that has been done adequately elsewhere, often by religious conservatives (and thus, obviously not every anti-Trump argument linked here is one I personally endorse, since I was and am unequivocally pro-Clinton and many of these . . . aren't, to say the least): Yet we can accept that Trumpism and Christianity are mutually incompatible and still believe that history is guided by the providential hand of God's Holy Wisdom. Believing that God is present in the historical dialectic does not mean that God personally and directly micromanages every historical event. Given the concupiscient nature of fallen humanity, there will be setbacks and backlashes. Humanity will collectively stumble and fall.

And while I believe that God is present in the overarching dialectic of human history, I also believe that God respects the free will of human beings created by God in God's own image, that our free will is the exceptional sign of that divine image within us. The belief that there is an arc to history, then, does not require an ignorance of, or a blindness to, that arc's many curlicues.

But this is no reason to abandon those central virtues which define the Christian vision: faith, hope, and love. After all, the fact that the Hebrews stopped to worship a golden calf did not mean that God's Wisdom was not leading them to the Promised Land of Canaan; the fact that we have stopped to elect Donald Trump POTUS does not mean that She is not still leading us today to the Kin-dom of Heaven.

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, writing in the Huffington Post in 2013, put it eloquently:
The moral arc of the universe is about the transformation of that which “is” to that which “can and must be.” That includes the redemption of every single life, transformed with the vision of a more just and equal world; a vision that [Martin Luther] King[, Jr.] dreamed of and preached about 50 years ago this week. The most dangerous mistake we can make is to be blind to the continued injustice or assume that the moral arc of the universe moves towards justice on its own and that we are not a part of the bending. [. . .] Believing in the moral arc of the universe that King talked about is more than a faith statement — it is a hope statement — and many people have lost their hope. But we are meant to be used as instruments and with God’s assistant [sic] we can help bend the arc.
And thus, motivated by faith, hope, and love, I reject Ross Douthat's cynicism towards the arc of history, and say with Theodore Parker, Martin Luther King, Jr., and thousands of other Christians that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it does bend towards justice. Alleluia, alleluia!
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
2013-06-28 08:01 pm

Quick Theological Comments

Yes, I'm still working on my Wittgenstein and metatheics series. (And my atonement theology series, too, for that matter, although at present the metaethics one has the precedence.) I promise.

Fred Clark wrote about patripassianism recently, and got an "Amen!" from Tony Jones. I share their instinct that God the Parent can known, and more importantly has known, suffering, but am uncomfortable with Clark's description of Trinitarian theological reasoning:
one is “allowed” to recite the lawyerly formulations of the Athanasian Creed, but if you stray at all from that narrow path or attempt to say anything more — any positive statements, clarifications, analogies, applications — you’re screwed. [. . . T]his doctrine creates so many different ways in which you can be screwed that it’s hard not to suspect this was the intention — a doctrine more useful for generating and then condemning heresies than for avoiding error.
A lot of this comes down to Clark being much more Protestant than I am, so traditional notions of heresy and orthodoxy don't hold the same authority for him as for me. But I do think the best articulation of the pure theology of the Trinity is found in the Athanasian articulation (although admittedly it's light on the practical implications), and that it's important to be mindful of the ancient heresies precisely because God defies the categories we are liable to try to place God in if we're not eternally vigilant.

Insofar as patripassianism is by definition a form of modalism, confusing or conflating in some sense the distinction in persons between God the Parent and God the Begotten, then it represents a damaging heresy and should be denounced. That strikes me as pretty straight forward. But does it?

I think it's possible to meaningfully still speak about God the Parent being present with and sharing the suffering of God the Begotten upon the Cross (or, if our theology requires God the Parent to forsake God the Begotten in order for God to experience the absence of God, then surely the Parent suffers in the act of forsaking the beloved Child!) without falling into modalism, without confusing the distinction in persons between the Parent and the Begotten. The question then becomes a defitional one, whether a suffering Parent still constitutes heretical patripassianism even when it isn't modalist. I suspect the answer should be no, but the trail goes pretty much cold at the Wikipedia article, and without reading the primary texts in which member (or better yet, ecumenical councils) of the early Church denounce the heresy it's impossible to say.

In a talk on theodicy, Roger Olson says, "Well, theology has four criteria: revelation, including Jesus Christ and Scripture, tradition, reason and experience." Now, Jesus Christ is the revelation of God to the world. That's central to my faith. But I don't know how much sense it makes to talk about Jesus Christ as a subcategory of revelation when we are talking about criteria of theology. The revelation which was the historical Jesus is mediated to us through scripture and tradition. And the revelation of the Risen Christ is mediated to us through scripture, tradition, reason, and experience--the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, a variation of the Anglican three-legged stool. So I'm not sure what sense it makes to talk of Jesus as a separate revelation when we're talking about our work as a theologians. In a sense, what Christian theology does is precisely try to arrive at the revelation of Jesus Christ through the tools of scripture, tradition, reason, experience, etc.

Furthermore, the way Olson formulates the Quadrilateral implies that tradition, reason, and experience are not also forms of revelation. I suppose I can understood why a non-liberal ("post-conservative") evangelical Protestant wouldn't classify them as such, but as a post-liberal Anglo-Catholic I absolutely would. Again, scripture, tradition, reason, and experience are the means we have by which we come to terms with the revelation of God to the world: the person of Jesus Christ.

My twitter feed seemed to be, well, a-twitter with comments about Christological and/or Messianic themes in Man of Steel, the Superman mythos in general, and the superhero genre even more in general. I'll put forth Five Reasons Why Superman Isn't Jesus and Five Reasons Why Jesus Isn't Superman, both from Pop Theology at Patheos, as semi-representative. I tend to think the question is mostly silly (although the theology is usually right-on). No, Jesus isn't a superhero. He certainly isn't the "first superhero"; Gilgamesh and Herakles not only fit the "superhero" mold much better than Jesus, but they pre-date the birth of Jesus by several centuries.

At the same time, it's silly to think that how we tell superhero stories isn't influenced by the story of Jesus. I haven't seen Man of Steel yet, but the fact that there will be parallels, both in terms of imagery and of plot, between Superman and Christ, is pretty much inevitable. That doesn't make Jesus a superhero. It doesn't mean Snyder was somehow blaspheming in creating the movie, or that we are in seeing such parallels. It does mean that the great secular myths of the postmodern era do--as arguably all myths do--have a complicated, messy relationship with what Lewis famously called the "true myth": the Christian narrative.
cjbanning: (Trinity)
2013-05-30 09:26 am

Trinitarianism and Monotheism

Over at Patheos Evangelical, Kermit Zarley asks "Is Trinitarianism Monotheistic?" and comes to a negative conclusion. My main reaction to this is a healthy helping of apathy: certainly there is a sense in which Trinitarian Christianity is monotheistic primarily because we have defined our terms in such a way as to make it so. If Zarley wants to use a different definition of monotheism, one which requires not only unity of being but also unity of hypostases, then obviously there's nothing that you or I could possibly do to stop him.

Nor would I argue that Trinitarian monotheism is the same thing as the strict monotheism of Judaism. It clearly isn't, although I would point out that the oldest parts of the Hebrew scriptures seem to draw from a henotheistic worldview rather than a strictly monotheistic one. I'm also curious how such a strict monotheism makes sense of passages such as Proverbs 8. But these are sidebars; I'm not arguing that the Hebrew scriptures teach Trinitarianism in any direct sense. Heck, I'm not even arguing that the New Testament does so.

However, it's unequivocally incorrect to say that orthodox Trinitarians believe in three gods. No matter how you parse it, that's just false. Maybe there's something subtle I'm missing to the distinction Zarley wants to make between a "unity" and "numerically one," but it seems to me pretty clear that in orthodox Christian Trinitarianism God is not only a unity, but numerically one. There is only one God. Period. Anything else is heresy (from an orthodox Trinitarian perspective).

Zarley seems to be taking advantage of a confusion between our ordinary language use of the word "person" and the specialized theological usage as a translation of the Greek hypostasis. The Trinity are not (in orthodox Trinitarianism) three separate people who together make up God, the way three members of a family might make up that family. Instead, the hypostases of the Trinity share a unity of essence: they are all, quite literally, the same metaphysical entity, in a way which is avowedly paradoxical and mysterious. The "persons" of the Trinity are not their own separate gods--on this point, Trinitarian theology is absolutely and unrelentlessly unequivocal.

And this isn't just true of abstract theology. When actual Christians get confused about the Trinity and fall into heresy--which, admittedly, happens fairly often--it's almost always either modalism or partialism, and hardly ever tritheism.

Now, I suspect that Zarley would take this as evidence of us either being disingenuous (because we're not using his definition of monotheism) or, more charitably, that Trinitarian Christians are confused about what they actually believe. (And of course, given the abysmal state of catechesis in the Church today, the latter is almost certainly true!) But given the utter clarity with which orthodox theology teaches that there is no division in being within the Godhead, I don't see how one can argue that Trinitarians understand God as being even "numerically three."

I suspect Zarley might argue something along the line that Trinitarians cannot simply declare by fiat that a distinction between separate persons doesn't require a belief in different gods. But if Trinitarians cannot define what our own theology is, who can? One can argue that the Trinity as a doctrine is incoherent--and I might even agree with one; there's a reason why we call it a "holy mystery"--but saying that Trinitarians believe in three gods is just flat-out incorrect, and seems to willfully misrepresent what orthodox theology teaches.

In many ways, the Trinity is a good example--indeed, I would argue that for the Trinitarian Christian it is the prime example--of the sort of reason-defying doctrine that Theo Hobson quite rightly defended in the article I posted about yesterday. (And note that the Trinity is not a claim about "the supernatural" as I define it!) Indeed, I fear that Zarley's antagonism towards Trinitarism on some level stems precisely from the sort of modernist hyperrationalist theology--the attempt to "iron out" Christianity and to make it "make sense"--of which both Hobson and I despair. (And note that such hyperrationalism finds a comfortable home in evangelicalism, which already eschews the ritualism of so-called "liturgical Christianity.")
cjbanning: (Trinity)
2013-05-28 09:18 am
Entry tags:

Prayers for Trinity Sunday

This past Sunday was Trinity Sunday, and I celebrated (beyond of course attending morning mass at the Church of the Ascension) by composing a couple of prayers about the Trinity and posting them to my Facebook. One was Trinitarian in its structure, singling out each hypostasis of the Trinity in turn as an object of praise and blesssing:
Almighty God, you created us and our world and taught us to call you Parent. We praise you and we bless you.

Incarnate God, you redeemed us by sharing in our suffering as our loving Sibling. We praise you and we bless you.

Everliving God, you comfort and sustain us and are always with us in Spirit. We praise you and we bless you.

Mysterious God, Three in One, we praise you and we bless you. Amen.
The other is more theological, focusing on the relationship(s) among the hypostases:
Lord God, you have revealed yourself to your catholic Church as a God of diversity in unity, of community in solidarity, of loving relationship and overflowing perichoresis, of dialectic and dialogue and mystical paradox. Help us to contemplate the holy mystery of your triunity, not in order to understand the incomprehensible, but to reflect and share in the living dynamism of your eternal mercy, and to always and everywhere lift our voices in praise of you: one God, Parent and Child and Holy Spirit. Amen.
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
2012-11-24 06:49 am

God as Relationship and Absolute: A Holy Mystery

Speaking from the pulpit last Sunday at the Church of the Ascension, I said that "[prayer] is a chance to enter into relationship with the Triune God who, as Parent, Child, and Spirit, always exists in and as relationship. True relationship works both ways, which means that in some mysterious way I do not pretend to understand, our prayers have the ability to transform God."

Looking over a recent post from Roger E. Olson, one of my favorite theo-bloggers among those with whom I typically expect to disagree, I see him developing this point by describing his youthful encounter with an essay by Reformed theologian James Daane called “Can a Man Bless God?”:
Like many seminary students, I was taught in my theology classes that God is immutable; nothing any creature can do can add anything to God. God is in every way always complete and unconditioned—incapable of being given anything he does not already possess in himself eternally. Traditional theologians like to pay God metaphysical compliments like that.

Against the stream of traditional Christian theism, and against the grain of his own Reformed tradition, Daane wrote that “[The] God of the Bible is not unresponsive to finite human condition. His freedom does not consist in being free from the touch of what is not God, nor is his immutability a change of relationship to the world that involves no change in God….” (p. 171) Daane asked why theologians came up with the idea of God as the “Unconditioned Absolute” and answered that they “lingered too long at the waterholes of Western rationalism.” (p. 172) He concluded that “In the biblical view God hears and responds to the cries of the needy, and is indeed so involved in conditional, contingent reality that he can be both sinned against and, no less, blessed by man in such a way that it makes a difference to God himself. But a God who is unconditional because he himself accounts for all conditions by virtue of his essence or decree is a God who cannot hear, let alone answer prayer.” (p. 173)

Daane was one of several Christian thinkers who together liberated me from thinking of God as absolute, unconditioned, incapable of being changed or affected by what creatures, by what I, do.
While I am as I said sympathetic with their premise to a point, I find myself only able to go so far with Daane and Olson. [And, for that matter, with Tony Jones.] I entered into my theism--such as it is--through Wittgenstein and Tillich. It was, in some important sense, at the very "waterholes of Western rationalism" that I learned to make sense of my belief in the Ground of Being. If we too divorce the God of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar too much from the God of philosophy, then the "Biblical" God we are left with may seem more like a superpowered alien than anything else, an empirical being which can be said to either exist or not exist and demands evidence, empirical evidence, for the claim that it exists. And that evidence is, to say the least, sorely lacking. Worse yet, it would always make God and our belief in God contingent upon that evidence--the God Who Might Be, and Who Might Not Have Been in some other possible world--instead of allowing God to exist in Godself as the One Who Is, the most-real reality which is primal and ultimate. If God exists, then God exists necessarily, for any being who exists other than necessarily cannot in truth, by my reckoning, be called God.

More importantly, even if we were to conclude such evidence did exist, little would flow from it. I do not worship a being simply because it is more powerful than I am. I do not consent to obey its edicts simply because it has the power to torture or annihilate me--or if I do, then I do so out of cowardice rather than virtue. Such a view of God degrades God in a way which makes theism unpalatable down to its core. Instead of the source of all goodness in which we live and move and have our being, we are left with a jealous tyrant in the sky.

Admittedly, I have subtitled this blog "A Messiah without Metaphysics." But I write that as a Wittgensteinian, so what I am trying to describe is not so much a God without metaphysics as it is a God which is past metaphysics. Both Wittgenstein and Nietzsche--two of the philosophers who have influenced me most profoundly--were not afraid to use "metaphysics" as a pejorative. But I think both of them also understood the subtle truth that the movement beyond metaphysics is itself in some sense always-already a deeply metaphysical move. We cannot escape the limits of our language even as we do our best to gesture at what lies beyond them.

But to believe in a truly unmetaphysical God in the sense I've laid out above--a God who is simply a contingent being who can be said to exist or not on the basis of contingent evidence--represents turning our back on millennia of theological tradition and Church teaching, as Olson plainly admits:
I came to believe that paying too many metaphysical compliments to God can de-personalize God. That trend was, I believe, unwittingly set in motion by some of the church fathers as they adopted Greek philosophical modes of thinking about God, carried forward by Augustine under the spell of neo-Platonism, deepened by Thomas Aquinas who borrowed from Aristotle to describe God as actus purus—pure actuality without potentiality, and brought into evangelical thought by Reformed theologians like Jonathan Edwards and Charles Hodge.
Now of course I do not assume that everything the Church fathers and mothers, or Augustine or Aquinas, wrote is inspired and authorative truth. Far from it! If anything, I am the first to critique what I see as an untenable neo-Aristotelianism in Roman Catholic theology since Aquinas.

But as an Anglo-Catholic, I am also far more wary than a Protestant like Olson might be to conclude that such constant and uniform Church teaching represents some sort of poisoned well. The solution is to put Aristotle and Augustine and Aquinas in dialogue with Hume and Kant and Wittgenstein, not to retreat to some illusion of sola scriptura. This is especially important because I cannot see the Greek-influenced understandings of God's nature as being something separable from other key conclusions made by the early Councils, e.g. about the Trinity. I don't see how we can throw out the influence of Greek philosophy and still keep our understanding of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit as described in the creeds and confessions of the ecumenical councils.

At the same time, I agree--as I said plainly in my sermon--that God's being in true relationship with humanity requires God to be able to be transformed by us and by our prayers. And Scripture does indeed seem to agree with this point and confirm it: even if we don't understand the repeated references to God changing God's mind in the Hebrew scriptures completely literally, neither do I think we can write them off entirely. Instead, I see them gesturing towards the higher reality of a mysterious God who is at once immutable and always changing, who is at once relational and absolute. And as I said in my sermon, I don't really pretend to understand this paradox, but I do think that either of our choices in trying to defuse it is going to end up falling short in one way or another.
cjbanning: (Trinity)
2012-08-07 06:45 pm

"What is the Name of the God Who Has Sent You?"

Tony Jones has challenged "all progressive theo-bloggers to write one post about God between now and August 15."

"Write something substantive about God," Tony writes. "Not about Jesus, not about the Bible, but about God." He's afraid that progressive Christians "don’t write that much about God. That is, we don’t say substantive things about who God is, what God does, etc."
We might think that people know what we think about God, but they don’t. It’s clear in the comments on this blog and elsewhere.

It really struck me yesterday, when listening to a recent edition of the TNT podcast, in which Tripp repeatedly and forcefully said things about who God is and how God acts. He didn’t relativize those statements with qualifiers, and he didn’t cowtow to political correctness or academic jargon. That was jarring to me because it so rarely happens.
Tony's challenge reminds me of the story of Moses before the burning bush in Exodus chapter 3. Moses knows that when he returns to the enslaved Israelites in Egypt to tell them of God's promise of liberation for them, they're going to want to know just who this god is who is giving the promise. "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is this god's name?' what shall I say to them?" asks Moses.

And God answers back to Moses, "I am who I am":
Thus you shall say to the Israelites, "I AM has sent me to you. YHWH, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you." This is my name forever, and my title for all generations.
Tony's point seems to be that progressive Christians, when we speak of justice and love and liberation and mercy, need to be prepared also to answer the question that Moses knew the Israelites would ask him: "What is the name of the god who has sent you?"

God is who God is. Liberals know well that God transcends any attempt by human beings to describe the divine, that our attempts to make God fit into our own categories and concepts can quickly become idolatry. As Scott Paeth puts it:
we are using human language to describe the indescribable, and referring to a human being as the incarnation of that which is beyond all created order. These are the paradoxes that exist at the heart of the Christian tradition. This is what makes it a mystery. In speaking of God, the answers aren't at the back of the book. And the mistake that is too often made by conservative and liberal Christians alike is to believe that in their God talk they are speaking about something that can be definitively spoken of, rather than alluding to something that in the end we know only in partial and fragmentary ways.

What this ought to lead to is a great deal of theological humility, especially about the kinds of things that seem to animate contemporary American Christians so thoroughly. Yet if as Christians we are to attempt to live lives in accord with our faith, we have no choice except to attempt to speak of the unspeakable and know the unknowable. The challenge then is to do so in ways that acknowledge our inherent limitations, and the ultimate futility of any attempt to speak definitively of God.
For Paeth, as of course for me, it all comes back to Wittgenstein's Tractatus:
I am always drawn back in these conversations to the ending of Ludwig Wittenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, where after sketching out the basis of an approach to philosophy that would come to dominate the discipline in the ensuing years, he ended with the much misunderstood dictum: "Of that about which we cannot speak, we must remain silent."

For Christians of course, it is possible to recognize the truth of that, and yet feel compelled to speak nevertheless. The basis of our speech though, is always the very human reality of Jesus Christ, and our very human attempts to understand the connection between him and the God whom we believe he revealed. Once again, this ought to lead us to a great deal of humility. More's the pity it seldom does.
At the same time, I take Tony's point. What can we say as progressive Christians about God? And as I reflect about what insight our revealed tradition has given us into the nature of God, two points stand out in particular. One is broadly Abrahamic; the other is very specifically Trinitarian Christian. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the two points reinforce and illuminate each other.

First off, God is concerned with justice. This is incredibly clear throughout the Hebrew scriptures. The prophet Micah asks, "What does YHWH require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" In the first chapter of Isaiah, the prophet likewise instructs Israel: "Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow." Jeremiah agrees:
They know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphans, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy. "Shall I not punish them for these things," says YHWH, "and shall I not bring retribution on a nation such as this?"
These are just a few of the most obvious examples, but the thread of justice weaves itself visibly through the entirety of the scriptures. The very worst sin Israel could commit is to turn away from God and commit idolatry, but the second is to fail to take care of the society's most vulnerable members.

That is the God who has sent us.

The preoccupation with justice continues into the Christian scriptures. Part of the process of our salvation is "justification"--literally the process by which we are "made just" by taking the character of God's divine justice upon ourselves. In Matthew 5:10, Jesus says that those who are persecuted for the sake of justice are especially blessed: for the kindom of Heaven is theirs. Similarly, in Matthew 6:33, Jesus instructs us to strive first for the justice of God's kindom--and tells us that it is in the process of that striving that that kindom is made available to us.

That is the God who has sent us.

And of course, God's concern with justice is seen in the witness of the saints, perhaps most visibly in Francis and Clare, but also in Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Oscar Romero and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and in the whole number of those compelled by the grace of God and the love of Christ to do our part to create a just and loving society in which all are capable of flourishing, in tearing down the sinful social structures which stand in the way of that flourishing.

That is the God who has sent us.

Secondly, God exists in community, in relationship, in dialectic, in conversation, in dialogue. I've already written about this character of the Triune God of Trinitarian Christianity extensively elsewhere in this blog, so I won't belabor the point here. But the God who has sent us is the God who is Parent and Child and Spirit all at once, three persons in the unity of a single being, each the equal of the others, all complicated and messy and perichoretic. The God who has sent us models for us a way of living in community and engaging in dialogue. The God who has sent us is dynamic, never static.

That is the God who has sent us. And it is because we have been sent by this God that we progressive Christians strive and work for the justice of God's kindom, because we have been promised by our God that it will indeed be opened unto us.

That is the God who has sent us. Amen.
cjbanning: (Symposium)
2012-05-21 10:55 am

What I Want from an Atonement Theology: Orthodox Trinitarianism and Christology

A theology of the Atonement must, like any other theological endeavor, have as its starting place Who Christ Is, firmly rooted both in the hypostatic union and in the Holy Trinity as perichoretic dialectic. Without a firm appreciation of the full humanity and full divinity of the One who is God's Eternally Begotten, consubstantial with God the Parent in the unity of the Holy Spirit, the full meaning and power of the Cross simply cannot be hoped to be grasped: " the Cross was required for the world's redemption [. . .] because of the transcendence of the very bounds of sense which the Cross represents: the death of the immortal, ever-living God; the helplessness of the omnipotent Ruler of the Universe while undergoing cruel torture; the questioning cry from the omniscient Overseer" (as I put it in my 2010 post, On Atonement).

Here's Tony Jones:
Am I just too evangelical, looking as I am for cosmic import and redemption in the death of at Galilean peasant two millennia ago?

I think not.

If Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity — which I believe he was — then his crucifixion matters. And it matters more than as an example of someone who demonstrated “a Jesus-like revolutionary resistance in relation to a culture of unprecedented social inequality—and of unprecedented and appalling economic, racial, military, penal, environmental, and psychological violence.” (Oh, wait, that quote was about us, not Jesus.)

Atonement theologies insufficiently rooted in these mysteries end up subject to what I think of as the "Life of Brian problem." I first proposed this thought experiment--based of course on Monty Python's 1979 comedy film The Life of Brian in which a man named Brian lives a life strangely parallel to that of Jesus Christ--while I was in undergrad reading René Girard's The Scapegoat. Why is Jesus' death on a cross salvific when Brian's is not?

I never really figured out in undergrad whether Girard's theology held an answer to the Life of Brian problem or not. But Tony Jones' description seems to indicate that it does--and that that answer is located precisely in the hypostatic union: "the scapegoat is not one us us who is sacrificed to appease an angry deity. Instead, the deity himself [sic] enters our society, becomes the scapegoat, and thereby eliminates the need for any future scapegoats or sacrifices"--although I still don't claim to understand how exactly it all works. In particular, the explanation seems to conflate Jesus' divinity with Jesus' sinlessness; Wikipedia states that "the difference [. . .] is that [Jesus] was resurrected from the dead and shown to be innocent"--is the only difference between Jesus and Brian that Brian committed some (presumably fairly minor) sin? (Or is crucifixion considered to be in some way some sort of reasonable response to the mere stain of original sin?) I don't get it--which ultimately says more about me than Girard, perhaps.

One way for non-Trinitarians and other holders of unorthodox Christologies to escape the Life of Brian problem is to ground the uniqueness of the Cross of Jesus in Christ's sinlessness or in a sort of quasi-divinity rather than in full, actual divinity. But for an orthodox Trinitarian, I think any answer to the question "Why is the Cross of Jesus special?" other than "Because Jesus is the Begotten One of God, consubstantial with God the Parent in the unity of the Holy Spirit" is indicative of an atonement theory which is somehow deficient. It might perhaps provide us with a true and important piece of the puzzle, but it will also be lacking in some major way.

One example of this which seems particularly clear for me is the "moral exemplar" theory. Here's Tony's description:
So God sent his [sic] son, Jesus, as the perfect example of a moral life. Jesus’ teachings and his healing miracles form the core of this message, and his death is as a martyr for this cause: the crucifixion both calls attention to Jesus’ life and message, and it is an act of self-sacrifice, one of the highest virtues of the moral life.
I think Tony's way of phrasing here is telling: "God sent his son." Now, this is a perfectly orthodox way of phrasing the relationship between Jesus and the one Jesus called Abba--it had better be, after all, since it's the main way of phrasing it used by the Christian Scriptures themselves. And if Tony is right that this "view of the atonement was the first post-biblical view articulated in the very earliest, post-Apostolic church" then I suppose we shouldn't be surprised it doesn't depend on an elaborate, sophisticated account of the Trinity which stresses Jesus' consubstantiality with God the Parent. But I do think that ultimately proves to be a weakness. While the moral exemplar theory is certainly true so far as it goes, it fails to adequately capture the fullness of the Atonement precisely because it fails to capture the fullness of Who Jesus Is. You can replace "his son" with "a prophet" or "an angel" or whatever and the sense of Tony's description isn't really changed.

Perhaps strangely, I think the most popular types of atonement theology--substitutionary theories, which include both the classic "ransom" view and the Reformed view of "penal substitution"--also fall prey to this criticism (as well as other logical criticisms we'll examine in future posts). As far as I can see, there is nothing preventing a Unitarian or quasi-Arian from holding a substitutionary account of the atonement; indeed, Jehovah's Witnesses typically advocate a version of the ransom theory. (And there is no contradiction I can see between the quasi-Arian understanding of Jesus as angel with penal substitution.) This indicates that these views, too, are ultimately lacking something crucial.
cjbanning: (The Bishop)
2012-04-08 10:47 pm

Liberalism and Moral Absolutes

Ever since the creation of the world, the eternal power and divine nature of God, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things God has made. (Romans 1:20)
My assumption always is that, while the Holy Scriptures do indeed contain all that is necessary for salvation, if "there is anything at all that is morally universal" (to paraphrase Brian MacArevey), then it can be determined independently of Scripture. (I'm sure there's a good quote of St. Thomas Aquinas' to invoke at this point, but I honestly can't be bothered to look it up.) Kantian deontological ethics (and other systems of secular moral philosophy) may have its flaws, but I don’t see that those flaws are any greater from a philosophical perspective than a meta-ethic of “Whatever the Bible says, is good.” Generally, speaking, liberals and post-liberals--whether their post/liberalism be theological, political, social, or some combination thereof–-are not relativists; indeed, their--our!--post/liberalism motivates and is motivated by some very strong normative claims about human dignity.

The continuing, ongoing, and Spirit-led dialectic between scripture, tradition, reason, and experience (which is, as I have often noted here, a reflection of the perichoretic dialectic which is the Triune God) will always be allowed to override any “newly universalized viewpoint.” This, I believe, is how the Spirit moves through history, as I have already discussed at length in my essay History and Christ.
cjbanning: (Trinity)
2011-09-04 08:43 pm

Trinitarianism and Salvation

I've talked a lot in this journal about the Trinity as "perichoretic dialectic of conversation," and the implications that holds for Christian community and our understanding of the relationship between scripture, tradition, and reason. I've also repeatedly critiqued the notion of individual salvation (although have stopped short of denying it altogether), most recently in the sermon I preached at Ascension last month.

What I haven't done, yet, is connect the two notions. But over at Realiter Loquendo, Paul Hunter does a good job of it:
the Trinity, which together with the Incarnation, is one of the central mysteries of Christianity, totally excludes individualism. It may be that there are individualistic Christians, but the Christian God is not a monad. Unlike Buddhism, Christianity teaches that God is personal, but God is not a single person, because such a being is finally unthinkable. To be a person is always to be in communion with other persons.

The practical meaning of this is that "individual salvation" is something of an oxymoron. As human beings we are made in the image of the Trinity, and so we can only be saved - in fact we can only really be human - by being in communion with others and with God. To be a human being fully alive we must pour out our lives in obedience and love to God, and service to our neighbors.
This is an elaboration of Hunter's previous explanation:
Christianity is the only religion I know of in which God is a community. God is Trinity and not a monad. Part of what that means is that individualism is totally excluded. A person alone is no person; if that is true for God how much more so for [God's] creatures.
cjbanning: (Trinity)
2011-03-17 07:27 pm

Cell Handout for March 16, 2011

The Gospel According to St. Mark

It was then that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the river Jordan by John. Immediately upon coming out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. Then a voice came from the heavens: "You are my Beloved, my Own. On you my favor rests."

Immediately the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness, and he remained there for forty days, and was tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him.

Scot McKnight in 40 Days Living the Jesus Creed, 25-27:

At the center of the Shema is the God of love, and at the center of the God of love is the word “one”- and that word “one” is a dance. Let me explain briefly. When Jesus said in John’s tenth chapter that he and the Father were “one,” every Jew who heard him thought of theShema: “Here, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord isone.” Now Jesus was claiming that he and the Father were one. So somehow there were “two in one,” and, as the church gradually began to comprehend, there were actually “three in one.” The Jesus Creed derives from this “three-in-oneness of God.”

How are the three “one”? Here are Jesus’ own words: “the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” The oneness of the Father and the Son is the oneness of mutual indwelling of one another. Now, if we add to the Father and the Son the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, we arrive at something distinct to our Christian faith: the Father and the Son and the Spirit are one because they indwell one another. They interpenetrate one another so deeply that they are one. This “oneness” is often called by theologians the “dance of the Trinity.” God is almost, to quote C.S. Lewis, “if you think me not irreverent, a kind of dance.” God is, to change the image only slightly, the dance of rope in the Celtic knot.

The same theologians often call this oneness of God the
perichoresis, a Greek word referring to mutual indwelling. To say the three are one is to say the one God is a community of mutually indwelling persons where each person delightfully dances with the other in endless holy love. This perichoretic dance is the love of the persons of the Trinity for each other- the Father for the Son and the Spirit, and the Son for the Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit for the Father and the Son. Theologians and philosophers remind us that this perichoretic love is the origin, the tone, and the standard for all the love in the universe. There is no other love than God’s love.

Tony Jones in “Comp Three, Question Three” (an imaginary conversation with Jürgen Moltmann)

TJ: Doug, on this same theme, you have publicly wondered if the concept of the Trinity has run its course – this, of course, is a significant part of Dr. Moltmann’s corpus.

DP: What I think is that the doctrine of the Trinity, as formulated by Augustine and his peers, solved a certain problem at a certain time. Back then, people were saddled with this Greek concept of God as a distant, removed Being who wanted nothing to do with this earth, this creation. So, when these people inherited the story of Jesus, they had a bog problem to solve: how could the distant, removed God have possibly come to Earth? The concept of that was preposterous to them!

So the doctrine of the Trinity was of great help to them in getting over that dilemma. By conceiving of God as three persons or three parts, they could say that God did come to Earth, and he also stayed in heaven…and he also still dwells here today and still dwells in heaven.
Not only is this concept of a three-part God foreign to a holistic Hebrew-Old Testament mind, it is also becoming more and more unnecessary today. We don’t have the same Hellenistic philosophy mind-set of the Early Church. The people in my community, at Solomon’s Porch, have no trouble believing that God is holistically related to the entirety of creation. That’s just not an issue for us. Quantum physics? Nano-technology? Now those are issues that beg for theological consideration. But God becoming a man? That one is no problem.

JM: But, Doug, what I want to challenge you on is the beauty of the concept of the Trinity. Yes, I agree that when it is used as a rationalistic proof for the deity of Jesus of Nazareth, the Trinity falls short of its full theological potential. But instead of thinking of it rationalistically, I’d like you to consider it aesthetically. The Trinity affords a great deal of theological creativity to you as a pastor and preacher, and to the people who write the music for worship in your community. Don’t disparage the concept just because it’s old. Now, I don’t want you to idolize it, as some do, just because it’s old, but I don’t want you to disparage it, either.

Think of the Trinity as the dynamic, eternal dance of God. Doesn’t that jibe with your church’s desire to be a place of laughter and joy, a place where the body is honored, where worship is more than just words? I read the book about your church, and I think that Solomon’s Porch would be very well served by a robust and vibrant doctrine of the Trinity. You can talk about “following God in the way of Jesus,” and I am fully supportive of that, but part of your role as a pastor is to help the people paint a picture of God that is so beautiful that they can’t help but to follow him – that they can’t imagine following anyone else. I think the idea of Trinity as perichoresis would be a great help to you in that task.

TJ: It’s true that, just last month when I talked a bit about the Trinity at Solomon’s Porch – when I introduced that concept of the perichoresis – there were many who resonated with that idea. One man, a truck driver named Frank, said that he had been introduced to that idea just the previous week in Eugene Peterson’s new spiritual theology, God Plays in a Thousand Places, and he loves the idea. He said the world is moving so fast, it’s changing so dynamically, that it seems like we should have an image of God that is dynamic and changing.

DP: Listen, I’m open to it. I just don’t want us blindly following along with this doctrine or that doctrine because that’s the way they believed “back in the day.”

JM: Then we are of one accord. But I want to encourage you to explore the richness of the Trinity, because I am quite sure that you and your church will greatly benefit from it.’

Questions for Discussion

1. What do you think of the doctrine of the Trinity as put forward by McKnight and Jones? How is it similar to or different than your understanding of the Triune God?

2. When we begin new journeys, we often have a dance, from high school proms to wedding receptions. How is the “dance” of the Trinity at the River Jordan similar to or different than this?

3. When you begin a journey, what type of “dance” do you want from your community--and who is that community?

4. How can you be a part of that “dance” for others?
cjbanning: (Trinity)
2011-01-23 11:08 pm

The Holy Trinity

God exists in community, in relationship, in conversation. (The technical account of how the Trinity works is, of course, found in the Athanasian Creed. The Episcopal catechism is, as it often is, less than useless on this point, more or less referring one to the Creed.)

For many Trinitarian Christians, including me, this mystery--and, yes, it is a mystery--is absolutely central to our understanding and experience of divinity. Try out this account of the Trinity by a fictionalized Jürgen Moltmann (but actually by Tony Jones): "Think of the Trinity as the dynamic, eternal dance of God. Doesn’t that jibe with your church’s desire to be a place of laughter and joy, a place where the body is honored, where worship is more than just words?"

C. Leonard Allan writes in Things Unseen that:
God is not a solitary, domineering individual who rules through arbitrary exercise of power but rather the perfect model of loving community—becoming vulnerable, entering into partnership, sharing the divine life, loving like a parent. [. . .]

In this view God is essentially dynamic, relational, and ecstatic (going outside oneself). God is the very paragon of love in relationship, of living in intimate community and submissive freedom—the God who loved Israel like Hosea loved Gomer and who so loved the world that [God] sent [God's] only [Child]. And God invites human beings, [God's] creatures, to share the rich life and fellowship of the divine community, and through partaking of that life to become like [God's Child]. [. . .]

The Trinity provides our pattern or exemplar for unity and fellowship. God leads a relational life as [Parent], [Child], and Spirit. That life is characterized by submissive love, as each member of the Trinity pours [their] life into the other. In God’s own self there is an abundant outpouring of life, so abundant that it overflows and creates community with God’s creatures—those outside the relationship within God.
God's relational character as Three in One models for us our way of being Church, enmeshed in loving relationship, and also the way that Scripture, Tradition, and Reason remain in conversation with each other as complementary sources of revelation.

The RCC catechism can be long-winded sometimes )
cjbanning: (Trinity)
2011-01-20 06:38 pm

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

It's the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. For some reason I cannot even name, the unity of the Church is a cause close to my heart. Adapting the prayer of Jesus in John 18:20-23, I offer a prayer:
Parent God: We pray, as did your child, Jesus Christ, on the night before the Crucifixion, that we may be one, as Jesus and you are one. As you are in Christ and Christ in you, may we also be in you, so that the world may experience your love. The glory that you have given Christ is given to us, so that we may be one, as you are one, Christ in us and you in Christ, that we may become completely one, so that the world may know that Christ loves us even as you loved Christ. Amen.
Yesterday, Benedict XVI (not my favorite person in the world) said:
[Unity] comes from [God], from the Trinitarian Mystery, from the unity of the [Parent] with [Christ] in the dialogue of love which is the Holy Spirit and our ecumenical effort should be open to divine action, it must be a daily invocation of God's help. The Church is [God's] and not ours.
Amen! Father Nathan preaches:
If a person is predisposed to see their own particular fellowship as the one true Church, of course, and to see all of the others as counterfeits or frauds of one kind or another, as less than themselves, as lacking in certain crucial qualities, than what is the point of meeting together? What progress can be made at all until that mental wall is smashed and torn down?

Rather than retreating into that softminded security of what is known and comfortable, you and I are called by the Holy Spirit to remain open, to see from God’s point of view, to be ready for the new thing that God will do in our midst.
I think one of Anglicanism's many advantages is that it is very difficult to think of the Episcopal Church, Anglican Communion, or Church of England as representing the one true Church, or even the only authentic voice to the mission of that Church. We're very aware we're only a single branch of the greater Church, which is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.
cjbanning: (The Bishop)
2011-01-17 05:35 pm

Tolstoy and Mysticism

"[Tolstoy] is not a mystic; and therefore he has a tendency to go mad. Men [sic] talk of the extravagances and frenzies that have been produced by mysticism; they are a mere drop in the bucket. In the main, and from the beginning of time, mysticism has kept men [sic] sane." -- Chesterton, quoted here
The subtitle to Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God Is Within You, our book club book and the subject of a couple of recent posts, is Christianity Not As a Mystic Religion But As a New Theory of Life. Implicit in this title seems to be a conflation of mysticism and supernaturalism which is endemic throughout the text and seriously weakens Tolstoy's ability to engage with the religion, for it causes Tolstoy in his quite correct (in my opinion) resistance to supernaturalism to throw the baby out with the bathwater and also reject the core of Christian mysticism which runs throughout Scripture and Tradition, leaving him only with a weakly modernist set of humanist ethics.

Tolstoy's version of Christianity, then, falls into a type of angel worship by de-throning the mystic, living, Risen Christ who works in history via the Spirit. Tolstoy writes in the third chapter, "The Church as a church, whatever it may be--Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian--every church, in so far as it is a church, cannot but strive [. . .] to conceal the real meaning of Christ's teaching and to replace it by their own, which lays no obligation on them, [and] excludes the possibility of understanding the true teaching of Christ." By asserting a "true teaching of Christ" Tolstoy thus limits Christ to a human doctrine, trying to place God within the categories of human beings.

Tolstoy thinks he does so in the name of reason and science, but it is not Christian mysticism which lies in contradiction thereto, but Christian supernaturalism. Supernaturalism represents the claim that some set of empirical phenomena operate in a manner which is, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, "beyond the order or laws of the whole created nature" (ST I:102:4). (For further thoughts on the supernatural, see my post here.) Mysticism, on the other hand, makes no falsifiable claims about creation, and thus cannot find itself in tension with science. Instead it attempts to provide insight into that which cannot be said when we have come up against the limits of our language, and attempt to perceive that which is made manifest in experience. The Trinity, the Real Presence, and the Unity of the Church are examples of mystical doctrines, not supernatural claims.

Tolstoy joyfully skewers those who place their faith solely in tradition (his caricature of Roman Catholocism and Eastern Orthodoxy) or in scripture (his caricature of Protestantism)--and of course he is right to do so (for there are of course Christians of all brands who do indeed live up to the caricatures). But his own modernist account of what Christianity ought to teach similarly elevates reason as its sole authority. There's nothing wrong with this, per se: certainly being reliant on reason is far superior to a slavish, unthinking devotion to either scripture or tradition alone, and I don't have any real argument, yet alone a proof, that scripture and tradition represent legitimate sources of revelation when used in moderation, or that Tolstoy should recognize them as such, anymore than I have an argument against sola scriptura (well, other than that the doctrine of sola scriptura is nowhere to be found in the Bible).

And yet the truly catholic option is to allow scripture, tradition, and reason to enter into dialogue with each other--the "three-legged stool" of Anglicanism. (Add in experience and you get the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.) And it is precisely this sort of relationality which lies at the very heart of Trinitarian Christianity.