Saturday, October 25, 2014

Confounded by God and the Trinity? Let the Song of Songs lead the way

I have read plenty of explanations and descriptions of God and the Trinity. It seems to me that many of them are unhelpful because they fail to address either the interactions between us, the world and God, or the different-ness of the Father from the Son from the Holy Spirit. It also seems to me that if we want to understand the meaning of the mystery of life, we need to bring all those concerns to the same place. I have a rudimentary instinct that the answer to all these concerns can be found in a Trinitarian perspective of God, but how do we even begin to understand it?

My suggestion, in this post, is to approach it from a new angle; this time through one of the most enigmatic books of the Bible – the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon). This is not about presenting a commentary or an explanation of the book, but about using it to open up these confounding mysteries.

Firstly, what I suggest you do, if you're not already familiar with it, is to read through the Song of Songs in it's entirety. It's only eight chapters, and it won't take long. When you read it, keep in mind that it describes both an earthly scenario (the urgent, sexual tension between the two lovers, witnessed by their friends) and the heavenly reality that this scenario signifies.

Secondly, when you have read the Song of Songs, consider the following
  • Do we see God in the origin, sustenance and validation of the scenario that the two lovers find themselves in? Yes, and in this we see something of God the Father
  • Do we see God in the beloved prince; the one that the lover can tangibly and physically embrace and apprehend? Yes, and in this we see something of God the Son.
  • Do we see God in the urgent, vibrant love that drips from the lovers' hands like myrrh, and fills their every breath with perfume? Yes, and in this we see something of God the Holy Spirit. 
In considering these questions, we might begin to understand the different-ness of God the Father from God the Son from God the Holy Spirit. The illustration does not allow us to think of them as three different “people”, because it is difficult to describe this kind of “Father” and this kind of “Holy Spirit” in the same way that we could describe the “Son”. Further, we would struggle to understand the three as different “faces” or “modes” of the same person. They are different, and an acknowledgement of their different-ness is fundamental to a basic understanding the Trinity.

Nor it is appropriate to think of them in terms of hierarchy. Which one of these three “persons” is in charge? Does the Son direct the Holy Spirit, or is he born along in it? (Incidentally, I generally dislike referring to the Holy Spirit as an “it”, but it's appropriate in this case.) The best we can say is that there is a reciprocation between the Son and the Holy Spirit. But, such a reciprocation can only occur if the Son is not the same “person” as the Holy Spirit. And yet, there are not three “gods”, but One (Deuteronomy 6:4 etc).

These meditations might seem somewhat theoretical and other-worldy, but I think they also open up the mystery of the relationships between us, the world and God. Thus, they become highly relevant and this-worldly.

It seems to me that the most popular understanding of God is that he is some kind of singular entity, closed in on himself, who occasionally invades and interferes with our existence (often to our detriment). Technically and historically, this is the Pythagorean view of God as a monad. By considering God as Trinity, we are presented, instead, with an open, reciprocal union that we are invited to join. The Trinity also provides us with the means to move from the negative descriptions of God to the positive; from descriptions like “closed”, “static”, “detached”, “uncreative”, to “open”, “dynamic”, “engaged”, “creative”. 

Most of all, as the Song of Songs describes, we see love, something that is only possible if the beloved is not the lover. In the Trinity, then, we find the fulfilment of our humanity and the essence of the God whose image we reflect (God is love, 1 John 4:8). That should be no surprise because, if Genesis 1:27 is right in saying that we are made in the image of God, it follows that we are made in the image of the Trinity.


I ought to acknowledge the inspiration for this blog, which came from my recent reading of the Song of Songs, and Boris Bobrinskoy's weighty theological tome The Mystery of the Trinity: Trinitarian Experience and Vision in the Biblical and Patristic Tradition. The following extract is Bobrinskoy's reflection on the Song of Songs;

… The Jews view the Song of Songs as the high point of Scripture. In the Introduction to his French Translation of the Song, AndrĂ© Chouraqui emphasises that, for the spiritual masters of Israel, it forms the crown of the Bible, its most necessary book. He quotes Rabbi Akiba as saying, “The world had neither value or meaning before the Song was given to Israel.” Likewise, the Zohar states

(In the song) is to be found that summary of the whole Torah, of the whole work of Creation, of the mystery of the Patriarchs, of the story of the Egyptian exile, and the Exodus therefrom, and of the Song of the Sea. It is the quintessence of the Decalogue, of the Sinaitic covenant, of the significance of Israel's wandering through the desert, until their arrival in the Promised Land and the building of the Temple. It contains the crowning of the Holy Name with love and joy, the prophecy of Israel's exile among the nations, of their redemption, of the resurrection of the dead and of all else until that Day which is 'Sabbath of the Lord.' All that was, and is, and shall be, is contained in it; and, indeed even that which will take place on the 'Seventh Day,' which will be the 'Lord's Sabbath,' is indicated in this song

Tradition tells us that when someone recites a verse from the Song as a profane verse, the Torah complains about it before the Holy One, as of a defilement. For the Kabbalists the Song is a synthesis of the mystery of oneness. It encompasses, at once, a cosmogony and and apocalypse.

The destiny of this theme from the Song, first in the Psalms and the prophets, and then in the New Testament is well known (see Eph 5).

Here, we should specify that the anthropological themes are not used to explain God according to psychological modes proper to us. They are not secondary, archaic, outdated metaphors. On the contrary, by donning works and feelings, God validates them, reveals their true ontology, manifests their infinite source and finality, describes man in his total natural reality, and attracts him to Himself through the alliance and the love in which God and man share the same feelings. The sentiment that best expresses the relation of God and man is that of sharing. In the Hellenistic vocabulary, faith (pistis) means only the faith man has in God. From a Semitic point of view, faith is reciprocal; God loves man first, and believes in him; and man finds the stability of his own faith in a reciprocal faithfulness. The same could be said of the benediction: God blesses, and we return His blessing to Him. It is always a matter of reciprocal knowledge, of a love that is shared.

This endeavour of sharing is, at the same time, unilateral, progressive and reciprocal. Unilateral, because God is first sovereign grace, hesed (mercy), creative paternal love, forgiveness. God has saved us, we who were in sin, and under His anger. These words are to be understood in the strong sense. God has loved us in our sin, like the adulterous wife whom the divine Bridegroom leads out into the desert to meet her once more. Unilateral, the grace of God comes like a refreshing dew, and appeasing breeze, a warming fire, a holiness that sanctifies, a glory that glorifies, a purity that purifies, a justice that justifies, a life that vivifies, a paternity that adopts, a maternity that gives birth and matures – and all this freely, without remuneration, just as a father behaves.

It is a progressive endeavour, because this grace is not poured into inert vessels; it transforms them gradually into itself, into light, fire, breath, it restores human progress.

Finally, it is a reciprocal endeavour, because this transformation of man into the divine life, this establishment of an ontological relation of man to God makes the fulfilment of the human being possible in a free, infinite reciprocity. Man – through the transformation, and not the abolishing of his humanity – becomes spirit, a breath of eternity. Here, the image of love is expressed in the multiple terms of a reciprocity of which the Song of Songs represents the culmination.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Arguing Folk

In defending theism, many theists have said some stupid things. I know. I've done it. I'll probably do it again, despite my best efforts.

Theism's noisiest opponents (Dawkins, Krauss, et al) frequently use this to attack any form of belief in God, or to defend their own belief in no God. It's what I call the Folk Argument. Does it work? My response is a qualified “no”.

Let me illustrate with an example. It seems to me that most people don't understand evolution, particularly when they say things like “I'm evolving into a better person”.

It's a hideous thing to say. If I were a proper atheist, I might even say it's blasphemous. Evolution does not make you (individual you, that is) into anything. What it does do is that if your children are better suited to the environment in which they find themselves, they are more likely to survive and produce more children with their genes. By the time any significant change has happened in the gene pool, you will be long dead.

Then, there's the whole problem of  “better”. What is "better"? Better suited to the environment? But that might mean a radical departure from the values that we hold dear. For instance, it might mean the removal of all inhibitions in killing your neighbour's children. That's a very unpleasant possibility that won't suit our current environment (for which I am very thankful). But, how do we know what possible future environments we might find ourselves in, and what makes these environments better or worse than ours? Why assume that what is “good” today will be “good” tomorrow? Are these future environments "better" because they suit us better? What an ironic inversion of evolutionary theory! 

I digress. My point is that though evolution is not making me (or anyone else) into a better person, many people believe it. It's a folk argument, but does it make evolution untrue? Of course, no.

(Incidentally, the only way you can argue that evolution or circumstance is making you into a better person is by believing that there is a purpose or meaning that has given rise to these processes and circumstances, and as soon as you do that, you assume that there is a God, or at least a God-pseudonym.)

Now, if we shouldn't use the folk-argument against evolution, we also shouldn't use it against theism. It's not an excuse to stop enquiry, but it does clear away much of the clutter. It's also wide-ranging in it's scope. It means that you cannot argue that belief in God is ridiculous because Mrs Smith believes that God always gives her a car-parking space whenever she goes to the shopping mall, and that's a ridiculous thing to believe. You also can't argue the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or the junk-yard of gods (where all the gods go after their respective religions have died out).

In fact, the next time an angry atheist holds forth on the folk-argument, I will be strongly tempted to respond with a folk-argument of my own – that most atheists believe that their criticism of religion serves some sort of meaningful purpose. It doesn't – if proper atheism (as distinct from folk atheism) were true, nothing would have meaning or purpose, including the atheists' dislike of religion. Our perceptions of meaning and purpose would be mere delusions that have been thrust on us randomly by a pitiless and indifferent universe that, frankly, could not care less about what you think, believe or do. The reason I might hold back with this strategy is that I know it is a folk argument.

So, the folk-argument does not settle the issue. It's good rhetoric, but poor logic.

But it does present a dilemma, hence the qualification to my initial “no”. 

The dilemma is this – it's easy to dismiss Mrs Smith's God-of-the-car-park as wishful thinking, or affirmation-bias, pattern-reinforcement or whatever you'd like to call it. But Mrs Smith is not qualitatively different from anyone else in her perceptions, including the finest Oxbridge dons. If Mrs Smith cannot perceive reality, can anyone? I'd like to think that we (that means all of us, including the Mrs Smiths and the finest Oxbridge dons of the world) have the capacity to perceive the reality, even though that capacity is often flawed and is necessarily limited. If we didn't, all our enquiries and all our science are necessarily doomed from the start. We would not be able to perceive anything because our perceptions are irredeemably lost and broken.

To me, this means two things; one is that we can, and should continue to search, and the other is that the ultimate goal of that search is God. Heaven help us find Him.