Thursday, January 26, 2006

Questions for Christians, Part I

Over the past decade, I flirted with Christianity. I had some wish to become Christian and sought a reason, or a way, to become Christian. I spoke to Christians, both Catholic and Protestant. I attended Mass. I read.

I failed. I found that I could not become Christian. Indeed when I look back on my flirtation, I now think that I never really wanted it.

I did not decide that I could not become Christian. Rather I simply found that I could not, much as I find that I cannot believe that my head is made of glass, or that I am now asleep and in a dream. Belief for me now seems impossible.

The occasion of this was Roman Polanski's The Pianist. It tells the story of a young Polish Jew who endures the years of the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. As I watched, I thought this to myself: "This young man was a Jew. God had made the Jews His people and had promised them His protection. Yet He did absolutely nothing to spare his people the hell of Nazi persecution. Moreover, nothing the Polish Jews had done could have merited what happened to them at the hands of the Nazis. Thus there can be no God, at least no God of the sort in which the Christians believe."

I do not mean that you should find this a persuasive argument. It has numerous gaps of course, and I plan to return to it in a later post. Rather all that I intend is to report what I thought. (The argument, of course, is a version of the so-called 'Problem of Evil.')

From the time that I saw The Pianist, Christianity was no longer a live option for me. In the posts that follow, I will explain why this is so. Each post will consist of a question or questions for which the Christian must have an answer, and although I have attempted to answer each for myself I have an answer to none. Thus at present I cannot be a Christian.

Before I ask my first question, let me say this. In some of what I will say I will presuppose the objectivity of moral principle. I have found that many Christians think this tantamount to the assumption that God exists, or that the dogmas of Christianity are true. I simply do not follow. Perhaps the objectivity of moral principle presupposes the existence of something greater-than-human, of something outside the world in which we live. But why it should presuppose the God of Christianity I do not know. The Christian God is triune. How do we derive that from the objectivity of moral principle? The Christian God became flesh in the form of Christ. How do we derive that from the objectivity of moral principle? Many such questions can be answered, and I have no idea how to begin an answer to any of them.

Here, then, is my first question:

As said, the Christian God is triune. Indeed this is a core dogma of Christianity.
The trinity of God does not imply that God is three gods. (Christianity is a variety of monotheism, not polytheism.) Nor does it imply that God is tri-partite. (This would ruin the unity of God; it would split him into three distinct things.) Rather in its orthodox formulation it means that God encompasses three persons with one God.
I have no idea what this means, and indeed I can think of no reason why I should even believe such an assertion coherent.
The upshot of this is that I cannot become a Christian until I have a good answer to the question, What do we mean when we say that God is triune.

Put another way, I cannot fix in my mind what idea 'the Trinity' is meant to convey. Thus I can associate no proposition with 'God is triune' and so simply cannot believe it. But then I cannot believe one of the core doctrines of Christianity and so am not Christian.

Perhaps others do understand what 'the Trinity' is meant to convey (though a study of the relevant literature on the question makes me doubt it). I do not say that they do not. Rather all that I say is that I do not understand it, and conclude that Christianity is not a possibility for me.

Let me end with discussion of a possibility that I at present but dimly understand. It is that true Christianity is marked not by assent to this or that set of propositions but rather by a form of life that has as it essential character moral rectitude. Of course many Christians will deny this; they say rather that Christianity is, in part at least, a matter of assent to certain propositions. But what if it is not? What if Christianity is rather a life lived a certain way? If so, I could yet be a Christian and yet have answers to none of my questions. If so, I could be a Christian and yet not know it. If so, I could be a Christian and deny that I am a Christian.

If one adopts this possibility, it makes little or no difference that one call oneself a Christian. Rather all that matters is that one live rightly.


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Mason,

I spotted you at Bill Vallicella's site, and had a look at your site. And, right away, stumbled upon this interesting post - which resembles my situation, although not quite: someone even denoted me recently as 'flirting with Christianity' - your usage of that term was for me an interesting recognition. My 'flirtation' is a lot younger than yours (less than a year) but takes the same form - going to Mass, reading heaps of books, talking etc. etc. Nice to see someone having the same experiences - although you seem to have made up your mind, whereas I haven't yet.

Anyway, to the point: I am currently reading mr.Ratzinger's 'Introduction to Christianity' - and find it very stimulating as he cuts probingly into the very problem of how, "in God's name", it is possible nowadays to be a Christian. I find his writing very thought-provoking and intelligent; his coverage of the Triune God is very interesting.

Anyway, looking forward to the next posts on this issue,
Thomas (from the Netherlands)

Anonymous said...

Christianity is not primarily about living a good moral life. Most any religion would do for that. Christianity is about accepting Jesus Christ in faith. Faith means we respect, honor, obey Christ without being able to completely understand, without knowing exactly who it is we follow. Surrounding God is a cloud of unkowing and to demand that He fit into our intellectual criteria is to put ourselves higher than God.

Ask yourself, if you can, what is causing your unbelief. Is it because you will accept no truth you cannot fully grasp? Or is it honest intellectual seeking that simply has not yet escaped from certain ways of looking at the world that are incompatable with Christianity? In the former case you will probably get nowhere unless you can turn somewhat from intellectual pride, in the latter case God will surely guide you in your quest, even if it finds no solution in this life.

Franklin Mason said...

Thanks Thomas for the suggestion. I'll take a look at Ratzinger's Introduction. Perhaps it will help me along.

To Anonymous:

My point about the trinity is this: I simply do not know what is expressed when the words 'God is triune' are uttered. It's not that I don't fully understand. Rather it's that I don't understand at all. Thus it seems to me that there is nothing on which I can fix my mind, nothing that I can believe. Perhaps others know what it means and thus can believe that God is triune. But I do not. It is as if you were to utter a sentence in a language that I did not know and asked me to believe what was expressed. I would reply that I could not b/c I do not know what that sentence expresses. Just so, I do not know what 'God is triune' expresses.

I would say the same about much within the Nicene creed. I do not claim to know that what it expresses is false. Rather I say simply that, for much of it, I simply do not know what it means.

As for faith in Christ. I cannot separate this in my mind from a life rightly lived. For what use is faith in Christ if I am not thereby led to live a good life? And what is a good life if not one in which the Great Command reigns? What is Christ if not love?

Anonymous said...

Mr. Mason, I totally agree with your last paragraph. About the trinity though, it seems to me this is a side issue. Even the church has somewhat differing views in regards the trinity- exactly how it is to be understood. The core of Christianity is having faith in Christ. And faith like a child accepts what it cannot make sense of, because faith trusts the person beleived in. It sounds like you are wrestling with trying to trust God though, wrestling with the question of whether God is good. Once this question is answered maybe the other will not seem as daunting. May God guide you and lead you in your search.

Franklin Mason said...

I hear the refrain 'Just trust in Christ' often. I hope that the world is as some Christians say it is. (I do not hope that it is as those who say that some will suffer an eternity of toment in hell say that is is. That view seems morally repugnant to me. If torture is wrong for us humans, it is wrong too for God.) But I do not know of a way to transmute that hope into trust, for I do not know in whom I am supposed to trust. If Christ was merely human, I of course should place no special trust in him. But if Christ is more than human, I do not know what He is.

Anonymous said...

Once again, I found Ratzinger's comments on this very illuminating. Unlike 'normal' human beings, who try to "put their life where their talk is", i.e. practice as you preach, in Jesus' case, his life literally IS his talk. His whole living being is a preach. This is Ratz's way of talking about Jesus being Word. Apart from the fact whether you can do sth with this, Ratz's remarks are very interesting and thoughtful.