Archive for January 11th, 2008

Well, It’s a Mystery

sleuth An old George Carlin routine went like this: a young wiseacre asks the priest; “Hey, Faddah. Is God so powerful that he can make a rock so big that he himself can’t lift?” Upon which the tired priest would reply, “Well, Jimmy. It’s a mystery.” Like Carlin, overtime I became tired of what was, to me, a theological cop out. Once my parents had relaxed their grip on my spiritual development I left the church, as it came to have little relevance in my life. I was looking for real answers and the Roman Catholic Church didn’t seem to have any.

Twenty years later I was pleased to find many of those answers in Protestantism. Joining a conservative Methodist congregation I was amazed at the wealth of information to be had in the Bible. (Although we were devout and regular church goers I don’t remember ever seeing a bible in my childhood home. I think it’s much different in the Roman Catholic tradition today.) Talking with my friends, some who had also “escaped” Catholicism, we would laugh over the way the teaching sisters would so often fall back on the old “it’s a mystery” canard. They didn’t understand –there was no mystery! – everything you needed to know was right there between the black (or sometimes burgundy) covers of the Good Book.

But that was 5 years ago and since then I have come to appreciate what my Catholic teachers were saying. Too often we claim to have such a clear understanding of what God means, or what God wants, or what God will do with us that it is almost as if we could trap God under a magnifying glass. Of course we have scripture, and we have established doctrine, and we have religious dogma but none of those things, either together or separately, can come close describing what God is. Some say that just the idea of attempting to rationalize God’s existence is heresy. They say that God, by his nature, is the great unknowable presence.

Many might say that the greatest of God’s mysteries is that of the Holy Trinity. The Trinity as a concept always eluded me. Being told that I must believe it often offended me. Of course, I’m not the only one who has had a problem with this doctrine and those people that refuse to accept it are often labeled non-Christian by others.

To some of the early Greek church fathers, the most compelling aspect of the Trinity was precisely because it was incomprehensible. There was a fear that God was being quantified and categorized to the point where various groups of people would claim to ‘know’ things about something that was truly unknowable. As Karen Armstrong tells it in “A History of God”, the Western church, greatly influenced by Augustine (who was greatly influenced by Plato)

“would continue to talk and explain. Some imagined that when they said “God”, the divine reality actually coincided with the idea in their minds. Some would attribute their own thoughts and ideas to God – saying that God wanted this, forbade that and had planned the other – in a way that was dangerously idolatrous. The Greek Orthodoxy, however, would remain mysterious, and the Trinity would continue to remind Eastern Christians of the provisional nature of their doctrines.”

Now, that’s something I can get my mind around.


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