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

A Rational Faith? Part I

The following is a quote from a 9th century Egyptian (Coptic) monk:

I find the proof of the truth of Christianity in its contradictions and inconsistencies which are rejected by intelligence and repelled by the mind because of their difference and contrast. Analysis cannot help it, though the intelligence and perception enquire and search into it.  <Regarding wise men and kings>…they do not accept or practice it except for proofs which they have witnessed, signs which they have known, and miracles which they have recognized, which compelled them to submit to it and practice it. (Quoted in “The Lost History of Christianity” by Philip Jenkins, p. 76)

This quote brings up much that is relevant today. Consider the following;

1.  A number of Christian groups today (including but not-limited to the Signs and Wonders folk) place high importance on “the miraculous.” In missions circles, many consider power encounter an important (some even seem to place it as a necessary) part of evangelism.

2.  Many people, groups, entertainment outlets (check out a few episodes of “Family Guy” if you doubt) argue that Christianity is foolish, anti-intellectual nonsense.

3.  Many other groups, non-Christian, also seek similar anti-intellectual means to proselytize. This may range from the rather silly “burning in the bosom” of LDS to full-blown miracle crusades.

Rather than look at all of this, I would simply like to ask whether Christianity is rational? Is faith, as Mark Twain said, believing what you know ain’t so? Does being a Christian require turning off one’s brain.

Okay, this is still too big of a topic. Let me put down a few thoughts. If more come along, maybe I will add a follow-up post.

1.  Many aspects of Christian doctrine are not “Contextually Rational.” By this, I mean that our understanding of what is rational tends to be tied to our cultural context. For example, for centuries the idea of a god (or gods) who judges the hearts of man was considered a perfectly reasonable and rational thing. The further understanding that sacrifice (personal or vicarious) for sin was necessary to be “redeemed” in the eyes of God (or gods) made sense. The fact that these now challenge credulity doesn’t mean that rationality has changed, but our culture. In talking about rationality, we should separate between what is compatible with rational thought universally, and that which is merely rational contextually.

2.  Some aspects of Christian Faith may not be “Experientially Rational.” A classic example of this is the Trinity. The Trinity is often thought of by many as irrational. Yet, there is nothing inherently irrational about it (in its strictest form). The idea of a being that shares unity and society within itself is only difficult for us because we don’t share that character. We have no problem with having a conscious mind and an unconscious mind (that interact socially yet still somewhat independently) because we have that character ourselves. I recall a situation a time back where there were conjoined twins who shared parts of their two brains. It was thought that if they grew up they might be the first two people (that we know of) who could read each other’s thoughts. The idea of two people physically joined and joined in thought, yet having separation of person (intellect, emotion, will, sense of self) is something we struggle to understand because it is outside of our personal experience. Yet that situation is not inherently irrational. Since non-theists often charge theists with creating God in Man’s image, to embrace an image of God that is beyond our own experiential comprehension, is actually quite reasonable if their indeed is a God. Extrapolating human experience is not necessarily more rational. As another example, the concept of Islamic heaven (what we find pleasurable now, expanded) is no more rational than a heaven that defies our own experiential comprehension.

3.  Christians create our own problems in rationality. We take God’s revelation in the Bible and then try to expand upon it. We try to “explain” the Trinity, or the logic of the atonement, or the nature of eternal life, or process of election. In so doing we bounce between contradiction (rejecting mystery for the non-rational) and extrapolation (rejecting mystery for extrapolation of human experience). This tendency opens us up for (justifiable) ridicule from both ends.

But mystery is not irrational. To accept that some things defy our own cultural context, or our own experience is perfectly reasonable. It only makes sense.

The Trinity in the Great Commission

I recall back in 1984, the first time I had bumped into the argument over Baptism… specifically whether one should baptize in the name of Jesus Christ or in the name of “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” It is amazing at how intense the emotions rise in some people on an issue that seems… well… fairly trivial to me. Of course, for those who believe in a modalistic theology, I suppose I could see why it might be an issue. However, for those of us with an orthodox Trinitarian view of God, I fail to see why one should get stressed. But some do. Some argue that the Trinitarian formulation in Matthew was a later redaction (editing). I wouldn’t know… but I can’t really see that as the case.

Jesus Sending Forth His Apostles

But it got me thinking about looking at the Great Commission from the perspective of the Trinity. The following are 4 of the major recordings of the Great Commission (I am not including the Mark passage since it (curiously) does not explicitly mention God.)

“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20
 “This is what is written, the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead the third day, and repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And look, I am sending you what my Father promised. As for you, stay in the city until you are empowered from on high.” Luke 24:46-49
“Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me. I also send you. Receive the Holy Spirit.” John 20:21-23
“It is not for you to know times or periods that the Father has set by His own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:7-8  (All passages in CSB version)

Looking at these passages, consider the prominence of each member of the Godhead…

  1. God the Father:  1 in Matthew, 1 in Luke, 1 in John, and 2 in Acts
  2. God the Son:  3 in Matthew, 3 in Luke, 2 in John, and 1 in Acts
  3. God the Holy Spirit: 1 in Matthew, 1 in Luke, 1 in John, and 1 in Acts

Now, suppose one combines these points into a Great Commission relating each of us to the Godhead. We might get something like this:

We are to be:

  •           Empowered by the Holy Spirit, promised by the Father, and sent by the Son
  •           Made confident by presence of the Son, sent by the Father
  •           Accepting our calling from the Son to go into the world.
  •           Giving the message of God to others
  •           Being witnesses of Christ
  •           Baptizing believers in the name of the Triune God
  •           Training up people in the teachings of Christ
  •           Doing all of this until the end, as decreed by the Father

To me, this is not a bad description of our calling based on the Great Commission. It also has the benefit of not being unbalanced in our relationship with God.

Mystery and Missions

How do we deal with mystery? I am not talking about “Whodonits” of modern parlance. I am not talking of mystery in the old idea of “revealing”. I am talking about the middle of the road mystery– something that we “know” but do not fully comprehend. In Christianity (as with many faiths) there are  several major ways we de deal with mystery. Here are three.

  1. Simplified heterodoxy
  2. Absolutized orthodoxy
  3. Orthodox mystery

Let’s take two common areas.  (a) the nature of God and (b) the nature of Christ.

(a) The nature of God. Historically, the church has been Trinitarian (some would argue  Binitarian, but I will stick with Three in the Godhead). The concept of the Trinity flows out of the fact that the Bible does describe Jesus, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit as persons, as divine, and having mutuality in their relationship.

-Simplified heterodoxy takes what is hard to understand on the human level and makes it more accessible. Radical monotheism, modalism, and (Mormon, for example) henotheism/polytheism are some of many ways this is done. Ultimately, the goal is to simplify that which is mysterious. When this is done, the Bible is moved subtly from a position of revelation, to proof-text. This position opens one up to the charge leveled by atheists or agnostics that theists are “creating God in our image.”

-Absolutized orthodoxy in the case of the Trinity draws from the Bible, but then removes the mystery. In essence, one comes up to a confusing situation and says “This is the complete understanding and variations from this are necessarily wrong.” So in absolutized orthodoxy, one must decide the nature of the relationship within the Trinity, whether it is efficient or essential, and what is its place within the full scope of history. It is creedal and inflexible. These can be charged with being narrow-minded.

-Orthodox mystery accepts the Bible as God’s revelation, but does not seek to go beyond what is revealed to us. If God self-describes Himself in three persons while being one, it seems reasonable to accept this without fully understanding what it is like. Of course one can be charged with being irrational or lacking curiousity (and if one does not seek to learn and grow but wallow in ignorance, perhaps such a charge has merit). Years ago there were conjoined twins who were joined at the skull. The two even shared some common brain matter. It was suggested that these girls, before surgery, were perhaps the only two humans who could genuinely share thoughts, who could genuinely read each other’s mind. Perhaps if allowed to grow up in this manner, they would have helped us understand what it means to share thoughts and feelings while being two separate individuals. But perhaps even with such an example, we could never truly understand it. Our understanding is limited by our limited perspective and experience. Thus, the mystery. Mystery is normal and healthy.

b.  The nature of Christ has been a big question throughout history. Despite popular fiction in recent years, the early church had no real issues with Jesus being divine. They seemed to accept this quite readily. They also had to deal with eyewitness accounts that definitely supported his humanness. But in the accepting of His humanity, these same eyewitnesses did not appear to have a problem with accepting His divinity. Here is, indeed, a challenge.

-Simplified heterodoxy seems an easy answer here. One way this is done is to make Jesus only human. Islam does this. So does some branches of Liberal Christianity. The Gnostics/Docetists tended to go the opposite way. Jesus was God (or at least divine) but only gave the appearance of being human. Once again, these viewpoints must be supported more by experiential logic than by Scripture.

-Absolutized orthodoxy was seen in many of the early church councils. It was not enough to say that Jesus was both human and divine. They sought to determine exactly how this was and what effect it had. Did Jesus have two natures? One nature? How many essences? Understanding Jesus in a way that is consistent with Biblical revelation but not with the philosophically-based creeds could cause one to be thought of as heterodox.

-Orthodoxy mystery. To accept the Bible without understanding the How (especially if the How is not given) is rather freeing. It provides room for meditation, study, and growth.

BUT WHAT DOES THIS ALL HAVE TO DO WITH MISSIONS. Let me suggest a few ways.

A.  Apologetics. We live in a universally skeptical and periodically hostile time. We want to share our faith and beliefs in a way that is accepted. If it is not accepted, we want our beliefs to be considered “reasonable”. Muslim scholars like to challenge Christianity as to its rationality (of course, the Islamic doctrine of the uncreated, co-eternal Quran opens up that faith to charges of irrationality as well). Logical positivists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and even some theologically liberal groups within Christianity like to challenge Christians for their seeming acceptance (by faith) of the irrational. The quote by Mark Twain that said that faith is “believing what you know ain’t so” seems appropriate. Because we want to appear to be rational people, we may have the temptation of simplifying our beliefs to conform to cultural pressures (simplified heterodoxy) or crystallize our contrast with that culture by absolutizing a narrow interpretation (absolutized orthodoxy).

2.  Contextualizing our faith. Starting churches in other cultures means taking people and discipling them in the Christian faith. How much range is allowed. Some C4 and C5 churches (two types of Muslim Background Believer churches, although such terms could have meaning in other cultures as well) go to great lengths to maintain cultural distinctives of the people while developing them in the worship of Isa as both Messiah and Allah. But when does one cross the line from orthodoxy to heterodoxy. If one looks in a Korean Bible (at least some Korean Bibles) you will find that the Eastern concept of “Chi” is in there and is created by God (in Genesis 1). This sounds heterodox. However, in the West we are pretty comfortable with the concept known as “Energy”. Having been a mechanical engineer for many many years, I can tell you that “energy” is an extremely difficult and abstract concept to wrap one’s head around. It may be inappropriate to assume that “energy” is Biblical while “chi” is not. Maybe both words have aspects that are Biblical and aspects that are not. This can certainly lead to mystery.

3.  Sharing with children. When we share our faith with children, we want them to understand things… even complex things. We might use a clover leaf (like St. Patrick) or an egg to try to explain the Trinity, but we may be guilty of oversimplifying when we do this (developing the seeds of heterodoxy). On the other hand, we might give a simple answer (in form of creed, proof-text, or catechism). In this we may be absolutizing… providing no room for growth or exploration. I think it is perfectly appropriate to draw our faith from God’s self-revelation while recognizing the limits of that revelation and our limits in understanding that revelation.

  • We don’t need to have all of the answers (“I don’t know” is a fine answer sometimes).
  • We should recognize that mystery opens us up to study and growth (something that oversimplification or absolutization does not).
  • We need to contextualize our faith to the culture, but not by oversimplification or changing of Biblical essentials. Neither should we live reactively to the local culture by setting up narrower and narrower interpretations of orthodoxy to attack and contrast local culture.

Grob Gob Glob Grod. A pop culture (Adventure Time) experiment in Multiple personality unified being.