How to Destroy a Monster

Many men say there is one God; the Father, the son and the Holy Ghost are only one God! I say this is a strange God anyhow—three in one, and one in three! It is a curious organization. . . . All are to be crammed into one God, according to sectarianism. It would make the biggest God in all the world. He would be a wonderfully big God—he would be a giant or a monster.“  

-Founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith,” History of the Church, Vol. 6, pg 476 (1844) 


Living Tribunal (Marvel Comics)

Long ago I had a roommate who was Mormon (LDS), and I started reading up on that particular religion. But now, looking at this quote, I can’t help focusing on the term “monster.”

I looked up the definition for “monster” that shows up on google… “an imaginary creature that is typically large, ugly, and frightening.” I find the definition highly inadequate. A monster does not have to be imaginary. In fact, the most powerful monsters are those that exist in a state of doubt. The most powerful monsters are not the ones that we KNOW do not exist, but the ones that exist in the mental limbo between fact and fiction.

In the quote of Joseph Smith above, the Trinity (or Triune God) is described as a monster. If one can say that the Trinity is large, frightening, and exists in the uncomfortable place in our minds between fact and fiction, then perhaps we can say that the term “monster” applies. The quote by Smith in other aspects is certainly not very theologically astute (I think even Mormons would have to admit this) but perhaps the term monster is informative of a problem in Christianity. Christianity has often had the Trinity as a litmus test for orthodoxy, and yet has also been strangely embarrassed by the seeming contradictory nature of it. Not all that surprising that Smith took advantage of the discomfort.

So How Does One Destroy a Monster?

Option #1. Kill It. One can look back to stories like Frankenstein or Dracula (and a host of B-rated monster movies). One can picture villagers with torches and pitchforks coming to kill first, ask questions later.

This option doesn’t help us. Regardless of whether God as Trinity exists, killing is simply not a viable option.

Option #2.  Deny It. How do you destroy chupacabras? Deny they exist. They are only stories. How do you destroy ghosts? Deny they exist. The problem with this, historically, is that some things that were seen as monsters (giant animals of the ocean and land) were denied, only to be shown as really existing years later. Giant squid (and Colossal squid) proved to be very real. Meteorites (rocks falling out of the clear blue sky) were denied by “intelligent folk” until their existence became undeniable. Ghosts and aliens can be removed by denying… but what if they are proved to exist? Denial doesn’t always work.

This option can be used for the Trinity. However, generally, those who use this method in its simplest form, are actually denying God as a whole… not just His nature. To accept God, while denying the Trinity, most would go to Option #3. There are exceptions. Some like to argue that the Trinity doesn’t exist because the term is not used in the Bible. <Of course, that is just intellectually lazy. The term “Trinity,” like most theological terms are not used in the Bible. Rather they are developed inductively from the Bible, history, and logic. One has to analyze the reasoning… not a label or a specific verse. However, even here, those who use this argument still then move to Option #3 eventually.>

Option #3. Rationalize It. How could Santa exist? He would have to be able to travel at light speed, fit through holes far too small for any obese person, and carry loads around that would crush any roof top. UFOs must be weather balloons, satellites, and mass hysteria.

Regarding the Trinity, this is the lead one for many groups. Joseph Smith seemed to be attempting a rational argument against the Trinity.

I probably need to add an important note here. When people say that something is irrational, most commonly they mean that it is not “conformed to personal or cultural experience.” When one says that the Trinity is irrational, they mean that 3 persons within one deity is outside of one’s personal experience. Our own experience is 1 person within one being. Sure we may accept the mystery of the unconscious and conscious mind existing and interacting within our own individual self, but we are used to seeing them as aspects of one person, not manifestations of two. Of course, if we encountered a being that unambiguously had an inherent society within one being, as we see in the trinity, we would not find such a concept to be even remotely irrational. To the Romans, the imagery of Janus may well make a trinitarian (or binitarian at least) view seem not so strange. Today, a 3-in-1 being in the Marvel Universe (The Living Tribunal– Equity, Necessity, Vengeance) and a 4-in-1 being in Adventuretime (“Grob Gob Glob and Grod”) provide fictional representations that open up our cultural minds to what is possible. Helps make things less monsterous and culturally irrational. 

Rationalizing away the Trinity can go in different directions. Mormons go towards a 3-in-3 position. This kind of moves more towards a Hindu-type trinity/Trimurti (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva) of three divinities that do not exist as a unity in any important way. Some groups (United Pentecostal Church is a well-known proponent) go towards Modalism. God is 1-in-1 because Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are simply manifestations of one God, not three persons. This is like our conscious and unconscious minds as manifestations of one person. Many groups (Jehovah’s Witness and Islam) go towards Radical Monothesim. This is also 1-in-1 but where Son and Holy Spirit are not divine persons. All of these seek to align God with one’s personal experiences.

Option #4. Understand it.  Huge squids stopped being monsters, not through killing, denying, or rationalizing, but through identifying and understanding them. The Komodo dragon went from monster to (monsterous) lizard once it was recognized and understood,

If the Trinity is real and is correctly identified from the Holy Bible, then the Triune God ceases to be a monster through understanding God’s nature. That doesn’t ignore mystery. After all, if God created us in His image rather than we creating Him in ours… it is normal that we do not understand many things of God. But as we understand God as Trinity, He can move away from monster status to a social being who created us and interacts with us.

So what now? As a Trinitarian (historical) Christian, I believe that we have sort of turned the Trinity into a monster. There needs to be changes:

  • We need to teach the Trinity. But it should be taught not simply as a creedal statement. It should not be taught by prooftext. It should be taught as it is… an outflowing of historical reflection on God’s self-revelation.
  • We need to connect it to other theology. It is not simply a teaching disconnected from the rest. If there is unity of Father, Son, and Spirit, what ramifications does that have? Many imagine salvation as God the Father ready (happily ready) to condemn us to hell, with Jesus (as Son) jumping in and telling Him He can’t because we were saved by the blood of Christ. This is horrible theology (more of a Tritheism than anything else) and certainly is inconsistent with sound Trinitarian doctrine.
  • We need to understand the importance of the Trinity. Why is it important? For me, the fact that God is characterized eternally as love and social/relational (regardless of His creation) is best explained by a unified God who is inherently a social being.
  • We need to avoid our own traps of rationalization or at least overexplanation. There is mystery in God’s nature. While we may recognize God’s Triune nature, we don’t have to be guilty of trying to dogmatically define everything. Mystery is both accurate, humble and intellectually honest.

Good Theology is Mystery

The Cross in the Nuclear Age

My son noticed it. We went to a hospital here in in the Philippines… to the Nuclear Medicine lab. Right behind us was a thick heavy-looking door. My son Joel pointed to two symbols there. One was a Radiation (tri-foil) symbol. Above it was a smaller symbol… a crucifix.

Here in the Philippines we are not as prone to compartmentalize faith. Having religious symbols next to symbols of science, government, and such… in public places, is not thought strange or inappropriate.

But it got me thinking about the two symbols. Both symbols have a history to them. One is a very old symbol (the crucifix), while the other, newer, but still having considerable history to it. The tri-foil dates back to about 1946. This still makes it almost 70 years old.

Both symbols have broadened and changed in meaning over time. The crucifix (cross) symbolized degradation– curse– in its early historical context. That meaning is not eradicated but has been shoved down as new meanings have supplanted it. The Tri-foil has been a warning of hazard due to ionizing radiation (alpha, beta, gamma, neutron)… that is still its main meaning but new meanings have also crept in. The symbol has been morphed into a symbol (looking different but still showing its tri-foil inspiration) for fallout shelters… a symbol of protection. In its original form it is used in hospitals, not only to give warning, but to suggest testing and healing, through x-ray photography and radiation treatment.

A.  As Symbols. 

There are a number of ways that the crucifix and the tri-foil are similar:

1. They are both symbols of power. One symbolizes the power of the atom… power that can be harnessed for good or evil. The other symbolizes the power of God both in potential and in will to do good. Yet the goodness of God does not negate His ability to destroy as well.

2.  They both are symbols of healing and hope. The tri-foil is recognized as a symbol tied to many processes that are considered beneficial— medical treatment, medical evaluation, material inspection, disinfecting, and so forth. The crucifix symbolizes God’s provision for restoring man to Himself.

3.  They both are symbols of controversy. The tri-foil is often seen as a symbol of what is wrong with the modern world, whether it be the atomic bomb, dangers of nuclear waste, genetic engineering and other activities where man appears to be “playing God.” The crucifix is seen by some as morbid, or out of touch with modern thought. Even among some Christians (such as Protestants), the crucifix is often seen as “putting Christ back on the Cross.” (Although I am Protestant, I don’t see that necessarily to be the case. Should a church that sets up a Nativity scene be charged with “putting Jesus back in the cradle?”) 

4.  They are both symbols of mystery. The tri-foil warns us of things we cannot see or feel emanating from something called atoms, another thing we cannot see, or even understand. (Anyone who thinks they understand atoms is not up-to-date with the present theories of atomic structure and sub-atomic particles.) I recall, from my days as a nuclear engineer, walking through Reactor Compartment Upper Level of a nuclear plant in Idaho and feeling nauseous. The nausea wasn’t directly caused by radiation or contamination there… but simply the knowledge that there were things I could not see or feel or fully understand that were going into and through my body that I could do nothing about. The crucifix symbolizes the mystery of divine atonement. It is often described simply (“Christ died for us”). But the more we dwell on this, the more mysterious it is.

B.  In Juxtaposition.

Returning to the hospital, it occurs to me that the relationship of the two symbols was important.

1.  The tri-foil was bigger and at eye-level. The symbol was there warning of a hazard. It was important that people quickly see it and take heed to the danger. While there is a warning in the crucifix, that warning is more generally relevant, with less… immediacy. Additionally, since it was a medical hospital… the symbols of “science” are needed to give comfort that the hospital has competence in its secular, recognized, function. A medical doctor can have a Bible with him (or her), but it is more critical to have the symbols of the profession (stethoscope, name badge, clipboard, lab coat) to provide patient confidence that the individual has competence in his (or her) profession. A hospital chaplain can carry around a thermometer, for example, but it is more important that he (or she) has a clerical collar, a chaplain’s coat (or other clerical garb) and a Bible. The dominant symbols provide comfort of competence in each’s respective sphere.

2.  The crucifix was placed above the tri-foil. It was smaller (since it was not meant to be as immediate of a warning). For the same reason it was not placed at eye-level. However, placing it above the tri-foil symbolizes, I believe, the idea that God is above all, and the ultimate protector and healer. Scientific/natural discoveries have benefits,  but ultimately all submit to God as Lord and Creator of nature.

Symbols matter. They mean something whether we acknowledge them or not, and whether we are cognizant of their effect on us. We need to choose our symbols wisely. One should, however, be careful not to confuse the symbol’s power as a symbol with the power the symbol represents. Rather we should be recognizing their ability to affect change in the hearts and minds of people who apply meaning to them.

Innovators, Utopians, and Restorationists, Part 2.

So what does this have to do with missions? I would argue that the situation in the Burned-Over District is undesirable. A lot of the groups (Mormons, Spiritualists, and some of the Utopians) were non-Christian or syncretistic organizations. Some, like the Millerites, have a complicated relationship with historic Christianity

Perhaps the situation was created… it did not just happen. This is, of course, not a research study… just reflection on a single historical phenomenon. But here are some thoughts on what might set the stage for spontaneous development of non-Christian faiths in an area of Christian

Oneida Community.

1.  Overemphasis on Evangelism with Underemphasis on Discipleship. The term “Burned-Over District” had to do with revivalism. The term suggested that there were so many evangelistic revivals in the area that they ran out of people to convert. However, revivals tend to push very hard on a visible conversion, with little follow-through. This is an all-too-common reality. I have certainly seen that here in the Philippines.

2.  Lack of Foundational Base. <Yes this is related somewhat to the previous item.> While it may be true that too many clergy (like chefs) can spoil the soup (or the revival), there is still a role for clergy. Clergy can provide a sound theological, Biblical, and historical basis for one’s spiritual transformation. Without that, anyone can come along as a wolf among sheep and reinterpret the experience. Here in the Philippines, we used to do a lot of medical missions. The problem was that often (but not always, of course) our hosts did not provide the necessary follow-up. Other groups would sometimes descend on those who had made decisions of faith. An experience that cannot be attached to a sound foundational perspective, can equally misdirect.

3.  Unrealistic Expectations. The growth of radical groups, apocalyptic groups, and utopian societies suggests that many of the people who were interested in faith, were disillusioned. This can happen when one is given unrealistic expectations as to what will happen after a faith conversion (or at least a faith experience). Life doesn’t necessarily become rosy. Prosperity or even reduction of suffering is not promised. The new fellowship of believers can, sadly, also be less than hoped. Following Christ can be a path of suffering, serving God faithfully, within a network of flawed believers. When one is told things that are not true, when the emotional high of revival wears off, dissatisfaction can set in, leading one to look elsewhere.

4.  Unbalanced Response to Rapid Social Change. Change can be good. Change can also be bad. When change exists, the church must know how to adapt to it. The church should not be “faddish”… simply following the culture around it. However, if the church simply rejects all change, it can be seen as culturally irrelevant… marginalized. Other groups that seem to be relevant (or at least aware) culturally, may be enticing.  I believe there is balance here. Because if the church is too quick to change with the culture, it loses the solid Biblical, theological, and historical foundation that is needed (as listed above).




Innovators, Utopians, and Restorationists. Part 1.

I come from an area that has been termed the “Burned-Over District.” I don’t actually recall hearing that term until long after I moved away from there. However, the term is an old descriptor for the region I was raised in. I am from Western New York State in the United States. Charles Finney, an Evangelist of the 19th Century coined the expression “Burned-Over District” for Western New York (Niagara Frontier) and the Finger Lakes Region. He believed that there was so much Evangelization carried out there that there was no longer any “fuel” (unconverted) for revival.

The region has been known for its innovations. I am from Chautauqua County. Chautauqua County is famous for the beginning of the “Chautauqua Movement” that began in the late 1800s (look it up). It is the home of Lilydale… a spiritualist community that survived from the heyday of Spiritualism in the 19th century, to its resurgence today. The Harmonians (a Utopian society) settled there for a time before moving West. Mormonism (the most successful non-Christian religious group to develop in the Burned-Over District) stopped in Chautauqua County for a bit.

In other parts of the Burned-Over District there were many other groups… Utopians, Syncretists, Spiritualists, Restorationists, Innovators. The Millerites (Adventists) started here. The Social Gospel has its roots here. There are more. But the question is “Why did so many groups and beliefs find this area to be such a breeding ground for such?”

The quick answer is that I Don’t Know. I think there may be a few reasons… but would be interested in hearing other thoughts.

1.  National Culture. Spiritual Fervor.  Nationally, the US was going through the 2nd “Great Awakening.” There was a strong interest in spirituality and renewal.

2.  National Culture.  Rapid Change. This was a time of considerable change nationally. The story Rip Van Winkle talks about the huge changes that Eastern New York underwent in the late 1700s such that the region was almost unrecognizable to someone who had been there only 20 years before. The Western part of New York went through huge changes of nationalization, industrializaiton, and more. The Erie Canal suddenlly brought huge transformation to a backwater part of the country.

3.  Lack of Clergy. This was a frontier region so relatively few seminary-trained religious leaders were there. Clergy, having been trained within a faith community, tend to be agents of preservation rather than agents of change. Even when they seek change, the change tends to be less extreme than developing a brand new religion (such as the case of Mormonism).

4.  Cultural Disatisfaction. The frontier (and this was definitely a frontier region in the 1800s) is full of people who come there because of dissatisfaction with their previous circumstances. My ancestors came to Western New York from Sweden because of dissatisfaction, in part, with economic circumstances there. Having a large pool of dissatisfied people creates an environment for radical change. This can lead to an openness to new beliefs or even worldviews. Just as the first state to allow women to vote was Wyoming (a frontier region), Western New York in its frontier days was also innovative with having the first female physcian, who graduated from Geneva College, and being the site of the Seneca Falls Convention for Women’s rights. Certainly the Utopian societies, such as the Harmonians, the Oneida Society, or the Shakers point to a dissatisfaction with the status quo.

5.  Spiritual Disatisfaction. The term “Burned-Over District” might be in itself informative. The area had been so heavily evangelized that their were few respondents. This might have been an early indication of something we now describe as a “post-Christian” culture. When a culture becomes dominated by a certain faith, there is often a strong disatisfaction with it… After all, if the culture and religion are seen too much as being the same, dissatisfaction with culture can transfer easily over to dissatisfaction with religion. Fundamentalism seeks to restore a simpler faith. It is not surprising the growth of Christian Fundamentalism in this region. Others like the Millerites were apocalyptic… looking for a rapid end to things. Others, like the Mormons, created an alternate history and theology.

6.  Pattern Formation. When one person innovates and breaks loose from cultural conventions, it often inspires others to do the same. Back when I lived in Chautauqua County, I lived near a cult founder. His name was Calvin Kline, but changed it to Calvin of Oakknoll, and created a group called the Religious Society of Families. That group wasn’t very successful, mostly (I think) because of the difficult personality of its founder. He ultimately died in 1999 in prison (he had killed a man). I can’t help but think that he was inspired to start  a religion because of others before him who had done likewise. Even in my case, I went into missions. In some places this would be strange, but even in the tiny country church I was raised in, I was not the first to go into missions. There were at least two before me, one of whom was a relative. It is easier to seek to do what someone has done before.

So what can we gain from these thoughts (hopefully somewhat correct thoughts)? Hopefully, I have some ideas in Part 2.