Geckos abound in these parts during the summer. It’s a wonder to observe their ability to walk on virtually any type of surface. Until recently it was one of the mysteries of nature. We didn’t have a very good idea of how they climb like Spiderman. The science section in Tuesday’s edition of The Times contained a brief article highlighting the work of a scientist, Shihao Hu, who has figured out how it works. Apparently the toes of the gecko are covered with microscopic hairs, and each of these tiny hairs splits into hundreds of nanobranches, giving the gecko thousands of points of contact with any surface. Amazing. The mystery has been solved, but that does not diminish our sense of wonder. It’s one more reminder of the power and beauty of natural selection.
Back when I was religious, we in the church used to talk about the “mysteries of faith” A prime example is the doctrine of the Trinity– God is one, yet the godhead contains three distinct but equal “persons.” One can have a lot of fun pondering this “mystery.” Theologians even write lengthy treatises on the distinction between the “economic Trinity” and the ” immanent Trinity” (or “ontological Trinity.”) The problem of course is that the “mystery” of the Trinity is not a mystery at all. None of this means anything. While the mystery of the gecko’s climbing ability is based on something real we observe in nature, the mystery of the Trinity is not based on any observation or empirical evidence of any kind whatsoever. You can’t watch the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit interacting and then describe what you saw. There’s nothing to go on.
Religion misuses the term mystery. You just can’t make stuff up and then, because you have no explanation for what you made up, chalk it up to mystery. In my experience the “mysteries of faith” often become a burden to the faithful who struggle to get their heads around things like the Trinity or the “real presence” of Christ in bread and wine, and then feel like they are sub-standard believers because they can’t fathom the theologians’ supposedly profound insights. It’s nuts.
Leaving the crazy metaphysics behind doesn’t make the world any less wondrous. Quite the contrary. Looking at the world from a naturalistic perspective is far more interesting than anything theology could possibly dream up.
Let me close by quoting one of my favorite passages from Dan Dennett’s book, “Breaking the Spell,” where he talks about developing an “awestruck vision of the world.”
“If you can approach the world’s complexities, both it’s glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only just scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the greater scheme of things.” (p.303)
First of all, I just want to say thanks to everybody who commented on yesterday’s post (5/22). I really appreciate you taking the time to read and to respond. So I’d thought I’d do a quick follow-up today–mainly to the questions that were raised.
“Adtz” gave a great response to Julia’s question about the Israelites and their Canaanite origins. I don’t have much to add to that. Some scholars have suggested the possibility of a small band of escaped slaves who joined up with the Canaanite tribes, but hardly any credible scholar thinks that anything like the mass exodus portrayed in the Bible ever happened. And “Yahweh” appears to be the result of a merger between two earlier tribal gods “Ya” and “El.”
Julia, you also mentioned that you had trouble wrapping your mind around the Trinity. Good for you! I take that as a sign of sanity (and I’m not being facetious.) Theological discussions about the interrelationships of the Persons of the Trinity are incomprehensible. When you try to follow the logic of the Trinity, it always ends up reminding me of that old Willie Nelson song, “I”m My Own Grandpa.” Of course the concept of the Trinity as we have it today emerged gradually in the early centuries of Christianity’s existence. And in those early centuries various Christian groups had a broad range of opinions regarding the divine/human nature of Christ.
Chris Breman asked how others have worked through the process of leaving religion. Some of you shared parts of your story, but if anybody wants to share more, I’m sure it would be helpful to others. I’m convinced there are many secret skeptics out there. (See “The Atheist at the Breakfast Table” in the latest issue of Psychology Today.)
Finally, I really liked John Stutzer’s description of a dinner in a VFW hall for volunteers fighting the 1993 Mississippi flood as the best “communion” he ever had. A lot of great images and symbolism there. Those kinds of moments can help us recognize and affirm a common humanity that transcends the tribal labels we so often use to define ourselves. Christian communion has often been a vehicle for separating people, especially along doctrinal lines. I’m all in favor of experiences that bring us together.
Thanks again, everybody, for the good conversation.
Once upon a time in another life I was fascinated by theology. I devoured the writings of the great theologians of the 20th century: Tillich, Barth, Rahner, and others. This was some deep reading, so when I encountered passages I didn’t comprehend, I always assumed the problem was me. The theologians were surely expressing profound insights about existence that were far beyond my ability to comprehend. But, if I stuck with it long enough, I was sure that I too would eventually understand the mysteries of the universe as they did. When I was an undergraduate at Michigan, I was admitted into a graduate seminar with the famous Catholic theologian Hans Kung. For our final papers we were all assigned topics to address. Mine was “The Shift From Hermeneutics to Praxis as Foundational for Political and Liberation Theologies.” I didn’t understand at all what that was supposed to be about. And many years later I still don’t.
That’s part of the schtick that lends theology the pretense of intellectual credibility. Use intentionally obfuscating language that sounds like insider technical jargon. Throw in a sprinkling of Greek, Latin, and German words.
Here’s a random sample from a standard modern classic by Walter Kasper, who is now a Catholic cardinal, I believe:
“I have found a systematic conception of the doctrine of the Trinity can be aufgehoben (set aside, preserved, and elevated to a higher level) in a higher unity. In principle, this view of the Trinity begins, as does the Greek, with the Father, the unoriginated origin; but insofar as it conceives the Father as pure love, as pure self-giving, it is able to understand the processions of the Son and of the Spirit according to their inner logic, after the manner of Latin theology, and to conceive these processions, in faith, as forms of the one impenetrable and incomprehensible love of God and as expressions of the one mystery of salvation.” (Walter Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ,” p. 309)
Didn’t get it? Don’t worry. There ain’t nothing there to get! The lack of lucidness is intentional. Theology is ultimately all speculation, all assumption. The emperor has no clothes. It’s time to call the question.
More to follow…