The Long Journey to the Trinity
The title of this post is a slight alteration of the title of this excellent book, a translation of the Ad Monachos of Evagrius Ponticus. I am not here applying it to Evagrius or his works, but to myself. I mentioned back here that I was an Arian–or perhaps, better, “quasi-Arian” or “little-u unitarian”–in my younger days. I said that a detailed unpacking of my beliefs and how they developed was for another time. That time is now.
I grew up in a small town in Appalachia, part of the Bible Belt and hotbed of Fundamentalism, and (paradoxically) one of the most unchurched regions of the country. I was raised in a sort of generic, culturally Protestant way, without anyone in the family formally belonging to any church. Both my parents had been baptized before I was born, though I don’t know the details. During my life, though, neither was a formal member of any church, nor a regular attender. I was sent to Sunday school at a Methodist church from about the age of four until about seven; and at a Baptist church between the ages of about eight or nine and thirteen. During this latter period, I was usually sent to vacation Bible school in the summers, at the Baptist church (and once or twice, I think, at a second Methodist church). Every once in awhile, my mother would go to church services (this was at the Methodist church–she never attended the Baptist one, as far as I remember) and drag me with her. “Drag” was the operative word.
I was always extremely reluctant to go to church, and never did so voluntarily. I don’t know exactly why. I do remember I that I associated church with fear. I don’t clearly remember any hellfire and damnation sermons, though there may have been some. Mom and Dad certainly never used threats of hell, as some parents did. I remember thinking that being in an actual church involved a commitment I was unwilling to make. I recall one time Mom dragged me to church, and the hymn being sung was, “I have decided to follow Jesus/ No turning back, no turning back.” I mouthed the second line without singing it. I wasn’t going to sign up for that! I remember another time in Sunday school at the Baptist church, there was a visiting preacher, a black Baptist (there were very few black people where I grew up, so for us this was exotic). The one thing I remember about him is that at one point he said, “When you say I’m going to follow God and get my life together tomorrow, that old devil just laughs and laughs!” Those words haunted me for years.
By the time I started high school, I was past the age limit of Bible school. I don’t know if they had teen-oriented Sunday school or not. Whatever the case, Mom quit sending me to Sunday school, and I was quite content with that arrangement (Dad never gave any indication of caring if I went to Sunday school or Bible school or church in general, or not). She did not attend church at all, save for weddings and funerals; Dad tried to avoid even those, when possible; and I certainly wasn’t going to suggest attending church. I was happy to stay far, far away from anything ecclesiastical. Once more, I’m not sure why, beyond an inchoate feeling of fear and negativity.
Now, to back up a bit. My paternal great-grandfather–Dad’s father’s father–was a Primitive Baptist preacher. “Primitive” in this context doesn’t mean wearing bearskins and carrying spears and stone axes. It means following the “primitive Church”, that is, the Church as it was–or was interpreted to have been–in the time of the Apostles. Great-grandad–whom I never knew, he having died a few years before I was born–also was a universalist. Many years later, I discovered that there is a branch of Primitive Baptists, sometimes called “no-hellers”, who are indeed universalist. In any case, Dad would talk about how Great-grandad would say that there’s no hell after death–most of us, he said, make our hell on Earth. He had picked up some Greek (Dad never knew how) and argued that the original Greek of the New Testament doesn’t support an eternal hell (kind of like David Bentley Hart). Obviously, the universalism runs deep in my family (Mom also talked about not being able to see how God would want to make people burn forever in hell, so it comes from both sides).
Dad loved and respected Great-grandad a lot, and said he was the only person Dad had ever known to live out the Gospel, often, for example, giving his last cash to those in need. I get the impression that this didn’t always go over well with his family. My grandfather (Great-grandad’s son) was markedly irreligious to the extent that I remember him (he died when I was in my early 20’s). Dad had learned a lot about religion, had read the Bible all the way through, I think, and had studied some Biblical scholarship. It was more of a hobby for him, though. He never gave any indication of wanting to attend any church, nor did he ever seem to have beliefs that conformed to the doctrines of any church. As of this writing, he is still alive at the age of 89, and his attitudes haven’t changed much. My mother, also still alive at 81, became Catholic the year after I did–but that’s not germane to the story here.
For reasons I don’t know, all during my childhood Dad was subscribed to The Plain Truth, a magazine published by the church known then as the Worldwide Church of God, founded by the controversial Herbert W. Armstrong. This church (which has since changed its name and become a mainstream Evangelical church) held a lot of eccentric beliefs at the time. It taught keeping the Old Testament Jewish feasts, observing the Sabbath on Saturday, British Israelism, and various other unusual doctrines. What’s relevant here is that the Worldwide Church of God was non-Trinitarian. According to Armstrong, Jesus was a being separate from God, and the first of a new set of children God was producing for Himself. To say Jesus is divine is to say he’s part of what Armstrong called the “god family”. I’m part of my human family, for example, by being begotten by my father and borne by my mother; but we’re all separate beings. Thus, according to Armstrong’s doctrine, through baptism, the elect will be added to the “god family” on equal footing with Jesus in the world to come. The reprobate will not be punished in hell, but will merely cease to exist.
Some of the ideas made me skeptical early on. British Israelism, while interesting, seemed a bit daffy. Later, when I picked up some Hebrew, I could see just how daffy. Armstrong derived “British” from “brit” (“covenant”) and “ish” (“man”), thus, “covenant man”. I had learned enough about linguistics by then that I knew quite well that “-ish” is the typical adjectivial ending of English, cognate to the Greek -iskos and the Latin -iscus. The “brit” in “Britain” comes from a Celtic root something like brydain or prytain, possibly from a root meaning “shape” or “form”. Finally, in Hebrew, you wouldn’t say brit-ish to mean “man of the covenant”, but ish-brit. I don’t even need to put in the proper diacritics to show how that doesn’t work!
I was sympathetic to two notions Armstrong taught, though. One was his rejection of hell. I wasn’t sure I liked the notion of annihilationism; but I thought it might be better than an eternal hell. I do not subscribe to annihilationism now–nor could I ever quite back then–but as regular readers know, I am committed to universalism; so I still at least agree with Armstrong in rejecting an eternal hell. The second notion with which I was in sympathy was the rejection of the Trinity. It seemed to me that the notion of the Trinity necessarily implied that Jesus of Nazareth was God; which seemed to be making a man divine; which seemed to me to be in clear violation of the First Commandment. Thus, while remaining agnostic about the “god family” thing, I was onboard with Armstrong’s non-Trinitarianism.
In high school, I wrote my senior term paper on Islam, which was much in the news those days (the Iranian hostage crisis being in full swing). As part of the research, I read Huston Smith’s classic The Religions of Man (as it was known before the later edition The World’s Religions came out with the more gender-inclusive title). As I’ve recounted before, my freshman science teacher in high school encouraged me to read the Bible in full. This and the fascination I experienced in reading The Religions of Man motivated me to study as many sacred scriptures of as many faiths as I could. Thus, as I have described here, among other places, between the ages of seventeen and twenty-one I read the Bible twice (King James and New English versions), the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, the Dhammapada, parts of The Analects of Confucius, and bits and pieces of other religious writings. Throughout my twenties, I read more and more, and added to the list books on interpretation of the Bible and Christian theology.
I was in college by now, and my mother, feeling perhaps guilty at not nudging me more towards church attendance, suggested that I should attend different churches on and off, to see which one I might like. I actually thought that was a good idea–so of course, I failed to do it. Being a bit of a purist at that age, I felt that if I couldn’t sign on 100% to the teachings of a religious body, I had no business joining it. By some obscure logic, that extended to not even attending casually to check it out. None of my friends at the time attended religious services regularly, either, after all. I did get invited to Mass once or twice by a Catholic acquaintance, but I politely turned the offer down. I still had a kind of genteel Protestant anti-Catholicism whereby I viewed the Church as a syncretization with paganism, full of Medieval corruptions. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, I had a neighbor in the dorm who was a member of what was then called the Campus Crusade for Christ. I think he talked religion with me briefly once or twice, but still no dice. All in all, I was content to have my lazy Sunday mornings free.
I was very much drawn to Buddhism, having read the Dhammapada and a lot of books on Zen, particularly those by D. T. Suzuki. I certainly read all I could find on Buddhism, and quoted Buddhist scriptures a lot. I ran into a friend from those days a few years ago, after some thirty years; and in conversation, when I mentioned I was Catholic, he said, “I always thought you were Buddhist!” I guess, as I sometimes say now, I was a functional Buddhist, or a Buddhist fellow-traveler. There was a local organization I was vaguely aware of that had meditation practice, but for some reason, I never sought it out. Thus, books provided the only contact with Buddhism that I had. I might have been a fellow-traveler, but I never took refuge or (aside from one or two abortive attempts) practiced meditation. Everything about religion to me remained on the intellectual, theoretical level.
As to Christianity, I wasn’t really very much interested. The Dharmic religions drew me much more. Still…still, the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and his teaching of the unconditional love of God for the cosmos, were very much compelling to me. As I read much Medieval literature, including the Divine Comedy, I came to have a sympathy for Catholicism that I’d formerly lacked. The magnificent A Canticle for Leibowitz, about which I’ll write in the future, was also a step in this direction. I was drawn to Buddhism, but I was compelled by Christ and could not completely escape the orbit of the Christian faith. Probably part of it was the atavistic fear of going to hell if one chose the wrong religion; but more of it was that strange compelling aura of the Carpenter of Nazareth.
The Carpenter of Nazareth was at the very same time the problem. All the Christian churches that held any interest at all to me (and I’d narrowed it down to the Episcopal, Orthodox, or Catholic Churches) insisted on the Trinity. Once more, the lessons I’d imbibed from the Plain Truth insisted that this was a violation of the First Commandment. So, what to do? Essentially, I read as much theology–Protestant, Catholic, and to the extent I could find it, Orthodox–as I could find, in a quest to figure out a way to finesse the issue. Maybe one could find a way that a non-Trinitarian belief system was compatible with a Trinitarian Church; or maybe one could figure out a way to have a little-u unitarianism that didn’t decay into insipid irrelevance like the Unitarian-Universalist Church. The quest didn’t look hopeful.
One book I read that sticks out is Protestant scholar Harold O. J. Brown’s excellent Heresies. His basic thesis was that all heresy, properly so-called, boils down to a denial of the divinity and dual nature of Christ. This was an answer I did not want to hear; but he made a very compelling case. I read other books, with no more luck. Finally, I bought On Being a Christian, by renowned Catholic scholar Hans Küng. Küng had a reputation for massive intelligence and erudition. I was also quite aware of his being more or less continually in hot water with the Vatican over his views. Here’s a guy, I thought, who’ll tell it like it is. If one can reconcile unitarianism with traditional Christianity, this guy will be the one to do it. I avidly read On Being a Christian, especially the parts on the Trinity. And when I’d read it, I experienced…crushing disappointment.
Küng didn’t deny the divinity of Christ, nor did he assert it. Essentially he wrote a chapter consisting of much obfuscation in which he asserted that the Church early on assimilated Greek categories of thought alien to it*, and ended up making complex definitions that weren’t necessary. Really, he said, when we speak of the Incarnation and its uniqueness, what we’re saying is that the God whom we see through Christ is the same as the One God of the Jews, and the One God is revealed through no other than Christ. I’m quoting from memory, but that’s more or less the gist of it.
But what the fuck does that mean?
I was, as I said, crushingly disappointed. Küng wouldn’t directly say “Yes, Jesus is God–deal with it,” or “Jesus is merely human–deal with it,” or anything else (e.g. Jesus is an Ascended Master, Avatar, Highest Created Being, The Force–anything). Here is one of the most distinguished theologians in the world, and this is the best he can do? Many years later, by the way, I found a compendium of the correspondence between Küng and the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith over just this issue. I found it very illuminating to see how Küng continually refused to say simply, “Yes, I believe in the Trinity, and Christ is God incarnate.” Again and again he would waffle, obfuscate, or change the subject. Once he even said, in effect, “To answer in a letter would be overly simplistic, but I’m working on a new book that will address your questions, if you’ll wait for me to finish it!” Good grief! I certainly came away with newfound sympathy for then-Cardinal Ratzinger, of all people!
After that, I was at my wit’s end. I more or less gave up. No brand of Christianity that I could respect could accommodate a unitarian; and I was too intellectually honest to join a church I couldn’t agree with on such a fundamental issue, or to found one of my own. My interests drifted back towards Buddhism and I read a little about ceremonial magic, of all things. I had no idea what, if anything, I’d do; but Christianity seemed to me to be a closed door. Until God intervened.
I say that advisedly. It’s certainly not the type of thing I’d normally say, as regular readers probably are aware. I don’t claim to have had a blinding revelation or a Road to Damascus moment. I never even consciously prayed for insight or guidance. I just gave up on trying to square circles in Christian thought and turned my attention elsewhere. For a long time, nothing out of the way happened. Then, one day when I was pondering theological issues again, the Trinity popped to mind. I began thinking about it and suddenly realized that I had absolutely no problem at all accepting it. It wasn’t a Technicolor, bolt from on high moment; and though it was surprising, I don’t recall a strong feeling of surprise, except perhaps in an abstract way. If anything, it was a very calm, “Oh, yeah–now I get it. That makes sense now,” feeling. Over the following days and weeks, as I continued to think through the theology I’d so long pondered, one by one all the various issues clicked into place, fitting into a perfectly Trinitarian mosaic. Problem solved.
Of course it’s never quite as simple as that. There were still some hurdles to overcome on the way to actually joining a church. It didn’t take me too long after this to decide that the Catholic Church was where I needed to be; but for various reasons I didn’t take action for about another two years. That part of the journey I may write about in the future. Suffice it to say that I attended Mass for the first time on Corpus Christi 1989, entered RCIA soon after, and was baptized, confirmed, and received First Communion on the Easter Vigil of 1990. This past Sunday, Corpus Christi 2018, was thus the 28th anniversary of that first Mass.
Once more, the key breakthrough was the acceptance of the Trinity, from which everything else followed. From the time I had first begun to articulate theological issues and continuing for over ten years, I was a pretty determined unitarian. I believed that God was strictly one, I actively rejected the Trinity, and I fought to preserve a unitarian viewpoint. Then, in effect, I went to bed one night as a unitarian and awoke as a Trinitarian. What happened? Religion is central to my life (as anyone reading this blog can easily see), but I’m not usually touchy-feely, let it all hang out, about my personal spiritual life. That’s very private to me, even among family, friends, and co-parishioners. I’m not the kind to go yammering on about all the things that God has done in my life, His plan for me, how I relate to Him, and so on. That’s not me.
Still, God works in mysterious ways, and I think He does sometimes nudge us in ways that we wouldn’t go were it not for His action. I think I was what William James would call a “sick soul”. I was divided in my beliefs, adrift with no commitment, actively seeking but not finding. Having come to the end of my rope, I was poised on a fine balance point. The least tap would cause my whole psyche to collapse and fall into a new configuration. Nothing exterior happened that I could identify as such a tap. The only hypothesis that makes sense to me is that God, on a deep and subliminal level, provided that tap. Everything else followed from that.
So why write about this, instead of keeping it strictly private, as I do with most of my spiritual life? Partly, I think, as a way of working it out explicitly for myself. Partly because the issues I struggled with and the way I met them influenced my religious views in a lot of other areas. Partly because some blog conversations I’ve had elsewhere of late have motivated me to think more rigorously about where I’m coming from and why I hold the views I do. Partly, perhaps, in appreciation, as a “thank you” to God. Certainly, my life has not been a bed of roses since then–it’s had the usual ups and downs. Nevertheless, in a real sense, the biggest part of my long journey to the Trinity was over. It’s not truly over in this world, of course; but now I have the directions and the marching orders, and the rest of the journey is just a matter of hanging in there, keeping on the road, and keeping the faith. In the words of St. Alphonsus Liguori, “Amen; so I hope; so may it be.”
*I should note something in relationship to this idea, by the way. There is a common strand of thought in some quarters along the lines of “We need to recover Jesus’ Jewishness! All that Hellenization and syncretization imposed Greek and Roman categories on the simple teachings of Rabbi Jesus. We need to get back to the roots!” I think in some ways, Küng, at least in this context, is doing something similar. If you like Jesus but don’t like Christianity, the whole the-Greeks-messed-it-all-up schtick is a clever way to have your cake and eat it, too. It also insulates one from the occasional implications that the break of early Christianity from Judaism makes the former inherently anti-Semitic.
The problem with this line of thought is that the Jews themselves rejected Jesus, full stop. Rabbi Jacob Neusner, in his book A Rabbi Talks to Jesus (which I’ve referred to before over here), is very clear that the very words of Jesus himself preclude anything like normative Judaism. Jesus claims to have authority even over the Torah, and makes claims of himself that no orthodox Jew, then or now, could ever accept. Certainly there’s no place in Jewish thought for a dying and rising Messiah. Some Jews at the time did, in fact, accept Jesus and became his followers; but they were soon expelled from the synagogues. There was a small Jewish Christian sect, the Ebionites, in the early centuries AD; but they seem to have eventually returned to Judaism or assimilated into mainstream Christianity.
The point is that I worked very hard to figure out a way to assert that the Greeks had indeed messed it up, and that the Hellenization was all extrinsic stuff, accretions over the purity of the original teachings of Jesus. I simply couldn’t manage this, though. All the earliest Christian sources, including the New Testament itself, were resolutely Hellenistic. And if you scrape away all the Hellenism, what do you have left? Not a heck of a lot. As I said, though I probably didn’t have it as clearly articulated back then, a Judaized Christianity simply can’t be made to work, philosophically or theologically. I think I had already grudgingly admitted that, on some level, by the time I got to Küng, and that this is part of the reason I had such a strong reaction to him at this point.
Posted on 06/06/2018, in Catholicism, Christianity, theology and tagged Alphonsus Liguori, Catholicism, Christianity, Hans Kung, Harold O. J. Brown, Hellenism, Herbert W. Armstrong, personal, Plain Truth, religion, theology, Trinitarianism, Trinity, Unitarianism, William James, Worldwide Church of God. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.