Beyond Mere Christianity


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  • Beyond Mere Christianity








  • Five:

    The Problem of Illogicality

     

    ‘Beware!
    Sincere true obedience is due to God alone!’
    (Qur’an 39:3)

    Is God illogical
    when it comes to dealing with humanity?

    When pressed to explain some
    hard-to-grasp point of mainstream Christian doctrine
    what
    the Trinity means, for instance, or whether Jesus really promised his followers
    that he would return to them during their lifetimes, or why an omnipotent God
    should require the sacrifice of a human being before delivering salvation to
    repentant sinners
    some people have offered a particular, distinctive
    kind of answer. And their answer has to do with illogicality.

    Human logic,
    the argument goes, can never expect to grasp divine logic
    and
    this certainly seems hard to dispute. Yet the argument does not end there.

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    Mainstream Christian teachingssuch as the Trinitarian formulation of Father, Son, and Holy Spiritare complex and counterintuitive, we are
    told, because God Himself has, for
    His own reasons, created a reality that is strange, mysterious, and unpredictable.
    So it should not surprise us when His
    religion is strange, mysterious
    , and unpredictable.

    Therefore, when we come across a
    component of the Christian faith that seems to us to contradict our own instinct,
    experience, or common sense, we must train ourselves to step back and accept this
    apparent illogicality as evidence of
    God’s handiwork.

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    When a thoughtful person ponders this
    explanation, he or she may at first wonder whether it is being offered seriously.
    But C.S. Lewis, the most respected Christian writer of the twentieth century,
    was a famous proponent of this view, and he certainly meant it seriously.

    In his book Mere Christianity, Lewis briskly
    dismisses the complaints of those who find orthodox explanations of
    Christianity unsatisfying ‘because simplicity is so beautiful, etc.’ Then,
    Lewis suggests that such skeptical people have simply failed to notice the true
    nature of things. ‘Besides being
    complicated,’ Lewis writes, ‘reality, in my experience, is usually odd. It is
    not neat, not obvious, not what you expect … Reality, in fact, is usually something
    you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity.
    It is a religion you could not have guessed.’ [C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity,
    (New York: HarperCollins Edition 2001), p. 41]

    Those are important words, and I hope you
    will consider them very closely.

    Lewis really does want his hearers to
    join him in believing that any theological principle that appears disorganized, unclear, inconsistent, inaccurate, or
    logically indefensible is a reflection of the mysterious reality
    that surrounds
    us … and thus a reflection of God. Lewis was
    and isnot
    alone in this belief.

    Yet he does not
    continue his claim by saying that the more
    illogical and unpredictable a doctrine is, the better it reflects God. Why he shouldn’t continue in this way,
    though, is not easy to say.

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    Please understand: When he makes this argument,
    Lewis is not advancing some radical claim that he himself has invented. He is outlining a classic position of
    mainstream Christianity.

    Suppose we were
    to say to a dozen traditional theologians that the doctrine of the Trinity is
    hard for us to understand, and hard for us to explain to others. Suppose we
    were to ask those theologians for help in understanding
    and explaining the Trinity. Each and
    every one
    of them would explain to us, using some formulation or other,
    that the very illogicality of the
    doctrine
    is what identifies it as ‘mysterious’ as Godlike.

    Consider the Catholic
    Encyclopedia’s
    terse response to this all-important question. It says of
    the Trinity:

    ‘A dogma so mysterious presupposes a Divine revelation.’ (The
    Catholic Encyclopedia, 1912, Vol. 15, page 47)

    And that, apparently, is that!

    Well, suppose
    we were to press the matter? Suppose we were to demand to know, from those
    dozen traditional theologians, why
    three Gods are an essential component of a
    religion that aims to obey the
    First Commandment (which forbids
    worshipping anything other than God)? Suppose we were to demand some clearer
    understanding of why the Trinity
    should be so closely connected to the mission of Jesus? What should we expect
    to be told? Here is what the Baltimore
    Catechism
    tells us:

    ‘It is there, and that is all. We see it and believe it, though we do not understand it. So if we refuse to
    believe
    everything we do not understand, we shall soon believe very little and make ourselves ridiculous.’
    (Baltimore Catechism, 2004, Catholic.net;
    Lesson 3: On the Unity
    and Trinity of God, Question 31)

    I am afraid we must expect to be orderedsometimes more
    tactfully than others, but always on essentially
    the same terms
    ordered
    to believe whatever
    we do not understand about the Trinity,
    and to stop asking inconvenient questions.

    This, we must
    understand, is the final message of the theologians: not to dig too deeply into
    the matter,
    not to inquire after details too closely. The
    theologians, if we press them, will say something along the following lines to us:

    ‘This whole issue is a mystery. God is mysterious, and so
    is the world He has created, and so is His Triune nature. So please don’t keep
    asking this question, because you are not entitled to a clear answer to it. The
    simple fact that the dogma is beyond our comprehension will have to do.’

    If my version of the theologian’s
    ‘subtext’ here sounds exaggerated to you, rest assured that it is only the tone
    that has been heightened. The logical content of what you just read is in fact
    the official response to questions that countless millions of Christians have
    been taught not to ask, among them:

    ‘What is the historical origin of the Trinity?’

    ‘Why must we believe in a Trinity, rather than, say,
    a Unity
    or a Duology or a
    Quadrology?’

    ‘Where in the
    Bible does Jesus mention the Trinity by that name?’

    If you doubt
    what I am saying, all that is necessary for you to verify is for you to ask
    your pastor or priest the questions I have just posed.

    Take careful note of the answers you
    receive, and then determine for yourself whether they conform to the outlines
    suggested in this chapter. At the end of the day, I believe you will find that
    you have been told, in one way or another, that the Trinity and its origin is a
    mystery, and that you must believe in it because
    it is a mystery.

    You will also find that you have been told, directly or indirectly, to
    stop asking what verse in the
    Bible demonstrates Jesus’ familiarity
    with the specific word ‘Trinity’.

    The answers you hear may be long. They
    may be short. They may be polite. They may be brusque. But they will, I
    believe, match the patterns set out here.

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    So that is what we read and hear a great deal about when we examine the difficult questions of
    Christianity:
    its ‘mysteries’. At this point, we must, I submit, have the courage to examine another under-examined
    ‘mystery’ about the Christian faith … and,
    what is more
    , we must summon the courage to take upon ourselves the responsibility for its resolution. The ‘mystery’
    is this:
    Do the words of Jesus
    support Lewis and the others on this matter of illogicality and
    incomprehensibility somehow mysteriously reflecting God? Or do the words of
    Jesus contradict him on this point?

    If we summon the courage to ask those questions,
    we may just discover that something important has in fact been overlooked in
    the discussion. Because the Jesus we
    encounter in the most ancient Gospel passages
    , for some strange reason,
    makes a point of emphasizing how accessible the Divine message is meant
    to be.

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    ‘Askit will be given to you. Seekyou
    will find. Knock
    it will be opened for you.’ (Luke 11:9)

    ‘Let the one who has ears listen!’ (Luke 14:35)

    ‘Get
    behind me, Satan: for it is written, ‘Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and
    Him only shalt thou serve.‘
    (Luke 4:8)

    ‘You,
    (God), have hidden these things from the wise and the learned … but revealed
    them to the untutored.’
    (Luke 10:21)

    ‘You
    scholarly experts
    damn you! You have hidden the key of
    knowledge. You yourself haven’t entered, and you have stood in the way of those
    who want to get in.’
    (Luke 11:52)

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    Are these verses really the words of a man who believes that
    the core religious principles of his faith are divine because they are hard to understand?

    Are these really the words of a man who
    is preaching that God is both three and one simultaneously?

    Are these
    really the words of a man who believes his mission is rooted in mystery?

    How can we possibly reconcile these
    verses with Lewis’ description of Christianity
    as ‘a religion you could not have guessed’? What
    is unguessable or mysterious about these words?

    The verses seem
    to me to suggest quite the contrary of Lewis’ suggestion: that Jesus is trying
    to get us to pay attention to something of fundamental importance, something
    singular and utterly impossible to ignore. This ‘something’ is, at least,
    impossible to ignore for those who open their eyes, open their ears, humble
    their hearts, and avoid anything remotely resembling spiritual arrogance, as he
    instructs. There are, as we have seen, two paths.

    ‘Blessed
    are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’
    (Matthew 5:3)

    ‘Woe
    unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep.’
    (Luke 6:25)

    His command to
    us is not that we believe, obediently, something we could not have guessed.
    Instead, he challenges us to choose which path we are going to walk: that which
    leads to the Kingdom of God, or that which leads to weeping and grieving.

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    Islam holds that God Himself is beyond
    human comprehension. Islam insists that His revelations could very easily
    consume a lifetime’s study. But the central facts of the believer’s
    relationship with God
    that He is unambiguously One, that he
    demands heartfelt repentance and obedience from human beings, that He alone is
    worthy of worship
    are, in Islam, so simple as to defy misrepresentation.

    The accessibility
    of these essential facts to a humble heart is, in the early Gospel verses as in
    Islam, a given. The willingness of a ‘great thinker’ to respond to the Divine message is another question. God, we are told
    in Q, has hidden knowledge from those who claim high status and wisdom … and
    has granted His guidance to ‘the untutored.’

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    If we look closely at the early Gospel passages, we will
    have a difficult time persuading ourselves that Jesus’ aim is to preach something mysterious, difficult, or illogical.
    Yet Lewis and the others insist that the true faith is mysterious, difficult, and illogical
    something
    ‘you could not have guessed.’

    Jesus warns
    people frankly to repent their disobedience to the One God:

     

    ‘Woe unto you, Chorazin! Woe unto you, Bethsaida! For if the
    mighty works that had been done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they
    would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be better
    for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than it will be for you.’
    (Luke 10:13)

    He warns people
    to fear God alone:

    ‘And
    I tell you, my friends: Don’t be afraid of people who kill the body, and after
    that have no more that they can do. But I will tell you the person you ought to
    fear! Fear the one who, after He has killed, has the power to cast into hell.
    Yes; I am telling you, fear Him!’
    (Luke 12:5)

    He warns people to stop worshipping that
    which has been created:

    ‘Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth
    and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal. But lay up
    for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt,
    and where thieves do not break through nor steal.’
    (Matthew 6:19-20)

    He insists, with peculiar intensity, that
    people should make every possible effort to attend to the business of fulfilling
    the will of the Creator while there is
    still time to do so
    :

    ‘Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the
    plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.’
    (Luke 9:62)

    Not
    once
    , however,
    does Jesus warn people, as C.S. Lewis does, to repent their failure to
    embrace the doctrine of the Trinity.

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    Now, these sayings of Jesus are simple,
    and momentous
    , instructions. But they are not mysteries, and nothing an honest man or woman who
    could do them can possibly turn them into mysteries.
    And this is where
    Lewis and the others lead us astray.

    Indeed, for those people who would
    formulate mysteries where none actually exist, the Jesus we hear in the earliest verses of the Gospel has nothing
    but con
    tempt.

    ‘You
    scholarly experts
    damn you! You have hidden the key of
    knowledge. You yourself haven’t entered, and you have stood in the way of those
    who want to get in.’
    (Luke 11:52)



     

    That sweet campus priest eventually
    married
    my girlfriend and me, and we settled in suburban
    Massachusetts. We each moved ahead professionally and became grownups. We had
    three beautiful
    children. And I kept reading and rereading the Bible.
    I was drawn, as ever, to the sayings about the lamp
    and the eye, the Prodigal Son, the Beatitudes, the
    importance of prayer, and so many others
    but I had steadily more
    serious intellectual problems with the surrounding ‘architecture’ of the New
    Testament,
    particularly with the Apostle Paul.

    Was it Christianity I was following?
    Or was it Paulism?

    In the mid-1990s, my wife and I both became
    deeply disenchanted with the Catholic Church,
    in part because of a truly terrible priest who gave
    very little attention to the spiritual needs of
    his community. We later learned that he had
    been covering up for a child abuser.

     

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