Thursday, January 21, 2010

From the Incarnation to the Trinity

For monotheists, the idea of the Trinity (the one God being three individuals) can seem like polytheism. A popular model of the Trinity regards each person (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) as a relation between the other two, but not only is that quite mysterious, it hardly answers the objection because either such relations are distinct (because what is related is) or else they are not. Still, God is presumably more real than the mundane world, if He created it, and it may seem that our relationships are what make us truly real, more than mere things. And if we think of the Creator of the world as to us a bit like a dreamer is to his dreams, then again we have the sense of Him as more real than we are. And furthermore, even the Trinity may then come to seem less objectionable.
......Let us assume that there is a God who created us and the world around us ex nihilo. Such a Being (the ground of being) might be apprehended philosophically, although to many even this sparse conception of God seems paradoxical. Many have preferred to think of creation in terms of emanations from God's being, or of the forming of an energy (formless matter) that coexisted with God from eternity. But maybe God is, to the world, not too different from how we are to our daydreams. Our dreams are hardly real, but the thought is not that the world is just a dream, but that as we are to our dreams so God is, in some ways, to us (and the material world). God is, then, more real than what we ordinarily think of as real (the obvious objectivity of our world deriving from its dependence upon Him). And then we do not have to think of how mere matter could give rise, in some arrangement, to mind, because the original Being was Spirit.
......Let us add to that rather philosophical picture the idea that God became a man, Jesus. Many religions have stories of avatars of gods or goddesses, or even of God, and the divinity of Jesus did occur to the early Christians for some reason. But again, God's incarnation seems impossible (or blasphemous) to many. Still, it is quite reasonable to think of ourselves as spirits in a material world (and it is up to God what He does with His creation). That dualistic approach to psychology is unpopular amongst scientists at present, but modern science actually supports it (and there is an underlying monism for theists) because chemistry being fundamentally quantum mechanics all but solves the old problem of how spirit could interact with a human brain to give us our human minds. So, if God is also Spirit (a spirit more real than we are) then it is not unthinkable that He might similarly incarnate, giving Him a human mind (and body).
......A problem with the idea of God incarnating is how He sustains the universe while He is wandering around as Jesus. But how does the Incarnation look if God is (in some ways) to the world as we are to dreams? Well, dreams come in a great variety, but some end in something more like a daydream, in that the dreamer can deliberately alter them as she wakes up. Such dreams can be very vivid, so they seem very real to oneself, inside their world (so to speak) to begin with. The self in such a dream is at home in the dream, and can even be quite unlike the waking self. But one might surprise oneself in a nightmarish dream, for example, by falling and then finding that one can fly. In later dreams, flying might seem a realistic option, within the dream (whereas other daydreamish possibilities might not). But the more vivid one's control over one's dream, the less realistic the dream seems, and the more one wakes up. There seems to be a play-off in our dreams, between losing oneself in the dream (it seeming real) and one dreaming of whatever one wants (it being like a daydream).
......Now, God is presumably not much like us (or any created thing), but we do have something like a threefold aspect with respect to our dreaming. There is the theme of the dream, which we may have more control over as we wake up (cf. the Father), the dreamer aware of herself as lost in her dream (cf. the Son), and the person one is when awake or daydreaming (cf. the Holy Spirit). Since dreams naturally happen to us, the theme is naturally an unconscious aspect of our dreams, as is the mechanics of how we dream. And unlike God we do not create other people by dreaming. But if God incarnating as Jesus is a bit like our being in our dreams, with something like that sense of two different selves, then the difference that creation involves created people like us could plausibly be associated with what we would perceive as the glory of the Holy, the paradoxical presence in creation of the transcendent ground of being, revealing Himself to us as directly as any of our perceptions could be. It seems that it is by such theophanies that prophets become aware of the God of Abraham, and in similarly direct ways that we become aware of the reality of the Holy Spirit amongst us. We may then wonder how this more real than real personal presence could be related to the creator of the world, the ground of all mundane beings, and to the life and history of the works of Jesus.
......Still, this is only a vestige of the Trinity (if the Trinity is real), not a good model of it. E.g. it hardly helps us to think of the one God being three selves simulataneously. But these Selves are not like created selves. And one can become aware, as one wakes, of the three aspects to one's identity when dreaming being all oneself and being all coexisting, even if one can only do so by switching one's agency and awareness between them. And since that is not like acting in three different ways, not like one's character going through three stages as one grows up, but like being in three different ways, in relation to the same dream, and since this is only an analogy, so one might see how the one transcendent Creator ex nihilo might be, in relation to His creation, what we would naturally perceive as three people. Of course, to see that possibility one must examine such experiences as one wakes up, and then think about them analogically (under the assumption that God has made us in His image and incarnated with us and is amongst us now).
......There can be a moment (which can be protracted into a series of moments) as one wakes when one is not aware of oneself in bed, in the world, but one is aware of the dream as a dream, when one can go back into the dream and continue with it, or change the dream, and go back into it, or think about why the dream was as it was. If dreams were not something that happens to us, but we were more in control of the dreaming process (as we are when daydreaming, or when walking around the real world), as God is presumably in control of His creation, then one would also at such moments be aware of oneself behind the unconscious aspects of dreaming, the creation of the dream landscape and the other characters. So if those other characters were as real as oneself (in the dream), and if one was not unconscious of much of the dreaming process, there would be something like a threefold structure to such moments, corresponding very roughly to the Trinity.
......As creatures we never relate to a God who is not relating to His creation, so it is highly speculative how He would be without creation. But presumably He would have begun then with His responsible ability to create other spirits (centres of awareness and action), and so perhaps with a Trinitarian structure (cf. one's orientation upon waking). Now, realistic thoughts about the revealed God (Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit) are difficult enough, and thoughts about the Trinity as it is in itself are plausibly beyond us, even if the Trinity has been revealed to us in history. But it is at least possible for us to see how we do not have to think of the Trinity as merely how the One appears to His creatures as He reveals Himself to them (to us).
......Suppose that we exist in a 2-dimensional world, Flatland, e.g. as thoughtful triangles, and that transcending our world is a 3-dimensional object, a cylinder. As it shows itself to us by passing through Flatland, it might appear to us as a circle suddenly appearing and disappearing, or as a rectangle slowly appearing from and disappearing into a line. As triangles we would naturally think of the reality as a circle or a rectangle, appearing from nowhere. But the reality is more than that, and the claim that the circle and the rectangle were the same being is not the claim that a circle can be square. And nor is it the case (fictionally) that the being is two shapes (like the plan of a cylinder), or an intrinsically shapeless thing that can take on the form of any shape as it appears to us.
......I don't think that either analogy, the cylinder or the dream, will yield a very accurate model of the Trinity, but they may help us to see that the Trinity might be realistic, by resolving some of the paradoxes we find with other analogies (e.g. the relational Trinity). I'll have to think about it some more (and I'd be glad of your thoughts). The world is not a dream; and God is not much like us, whether we are awake or dreaming. But all our thought about the world involves analogical reasoning, and we might expect that a good grasp of transcendent truth would involve even more of it. If God really incarnated as Jesus, why should that not give us a Trinitarian view of God? And why should God not incarnate in His world? Why should He not create people (if He could) to whom He could reveal Himself like that? Even the creation of a pebble ex nihilo can seem impossible to us, but to God it is plausibly as possible as a daydream of the seaside.
(PS: This post is linked to in the Christian Carnival CCCXII:)

Friday, January 15, 2010

A Stab at a Dogma

The Trinity, one God being three who relate to each other, seems paradoxical, prima facie, but perhaps it is only realistic (cf. how chemistry, as it became more realistic than alchemy, turned into a far stranger quantum mechanics). Let us presume that God created us, and the world around us, ex nihilo. Could He have incarnated as one of us? Well, He is presumably omnipotent; and perhaps we are essentially spirits, currently limited by our incarnation in human brains (with which we interact quantum mechanically), and perhaps God is also Spirit (who made us in His image).
......And an obvious way for us to think of creation ex nihilo is by analogy with the way we dream. When one dreams there is the creator of the dream (i.e. oneself), and the character in the dream whose point of view one has (i.e. oneself), and all the other stuff, which is not real but which corresponds (in God's creation) to us and the world around us. This is not supposed to be a very accurate model of divine incarnation; but if the other characters in one's dream were aware (as they obviously could not be) then they would naturally perceive one as a character with special powers and centrality, identified with and yet different to the creator of everything in the dream (including that special character's appearance), most strangely including themselves (which is where the analogy most obviously breaks down, but which may be where the Holy Ghost comes in).
......And quite generally perception (e.g. of a tree) seems to involve phenomena (e.g. green leaves) that are objectified (as what 'green leaves' refers to) in a rather paradoxical way (i.e. the problem of perception). Even when it is a perception of other people, so that we have a relatively direct knowledge of the kind of object, there is still an obvious distinction between how they seem to us and who they really are. And note that if there is a God then Idealism is not especially unrealistic. The connection between how something looks and what it is really like is made on the basis of wide experience and wise conjecture; and if the creator of everything else ex nihilo did incarnate as one of us, He might well be perceived by us as something more like a Trinity than not.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Not-So-Free Thinking

Enlightened critics of religion like to point to a history of intolerance of criticism in religion. So it is nice to see Terry Eagleton and Karen Armstrong in fifth place in the New Humanist's 2009 Bad Faith awards, with about six-and-a-half percent of the votes. The New Humanist's article points out "that both have written books this year criticising the New Atheists and mounting what some might call a more sophisticated defence of religion." Quite generally it seems that whenever people talk about important things, there will be those who find good criticism most irritating; and the more popular the philosophy, the more politics there will be.