Dear Theophilus , (Letter 84. )
One of the challenges that Christianity raises for unbelievers is the question as to how it is possible for the one who created the universe to locate himself within the body of a given man, Jesus of Nazareth. Hölderlin, a German poet and philosopher, gave what is essentially the Christian position on this question. Not to be encompassed by the greatest, but to let oneself be encompassed by the smallest – that is divine. The concept of God and what that means in Christianity, is at odds with essentially what the rest of the world proposes.
The God of Christianity is found, among others, in two unique places – the crib and the cross and in no other description of divinity whether in the Middle East, or Asia, or Europe will you find anything comparable to this. And ironically, through the crib and the cross what is being put forth is the almightiness of God which knows no limit.
We start off the credo with I believe. This is not an expression of weakness but points to the fact that people are relational creatures. The god of speculation or philosophy is a god isolated from His creation whereas in Christianity, God is relational and this is supremely expressed in the concept of the Trinity.
Because the personal is so central to our faith, this leads, also, to the concept of freedom which is seen as more important than necessity and the law. But there is a certain amount of incalculability in freedom and this is shown by the existence of evil in the world.
For those for whom ‘science’ is god a reminder needs to be made that the world is not mathematics but love. The world may be described through mathematics in terms of its structure and behavior but it is love that undergirds the world and causes it to exist. Because of this, the central concept of a human being is not the individual but the person. The individual is isolated and is very different from the concept of the person in our faith. The person is relational – hence, love – and interacts with and relies on others. The best way to understand and interact with God is through our relationship with God and not through some objective speculation.
If we were to totally rely on logic, we would end up with myths. We would attempt to limit God to our logic and here we would see a god that is made in our image, an idol. Logic and rational thinking are important and should not be abandoned but they will not be able to give us any lasting relationship with the creator of the universe.
It is instructive to see how our concepts of dogma and doctrine develop over the years. The doctrine of the Trinity took many years to be developed and many concepts used to describe the Trinity were condemned at one time or another. The concept of the prosopon (personhood) and homoousios (consubstantiality within the Trinity) were condemned in the third century and accepted in the fourth. What was needed was a time to pray for inspiration and enlightenment and not to cling to a narrow rationalistic interpretation. It became obvious that the doctrine of the Trinity was a piece of baffling theology accepted in faith and held together in grace.
We see echoes of this in the development of some modern concepts of science. There is the idea of complementarity proposed by Bohr to explain our observations made on subatomic particles and on particles of light called photons. They are at the same time particles and waves and yet, neither of these concepts is correct. Interestingly, Bohr modeled his concept of complementarity on the idea of God’s justice and mercy, seemingly two concepts that are contrary to each other.
What we also observe, contrary to what the science of the nineteenth century taught, was that total objectivity does not exist in the world. The observer, carrying out an experiment, involves himself in the experiment in order to get results. Surprisingly, nature’s answers to our questions depend on how we ask the question. If we ask – are you a particle, the answer comes back – yes. If we ask – are you a wave, again, the answer comes back – yes. The neat predictable world of nineteenth century science is gone.
Now, if we cannot be totally objective with the world, why should we even imagine that we could be like that with God? In order to get answers from God, we must interact with God and one of the ways to do this is through prayer whereby we assert our personhood and acknowledge God’s personhood. It is interesting that the Latin term for person is persona which literally means sounding through – to be a person one must be in dialogue.
God is not only Logos – reason, word – but He is also dialogos. He is not only meaning but also communication. He is revelation and we receive this through a prayerful interaction with Him. We will see later, that this has a profound impact on how we view death and, as one aspect, what the Resurrection means.
It is often asked why God is not more overt in his dialogos. One of the reasons is that He has a great respect for our freedom, but, at the same time, He does communicate and sends messages to us. They come through Holy Scripture but also through thoughts and opinions of thinkers. One of the most striking examples of this is in the second book of The Republic, by Plato. Plato comes to the conclusion that a just man’s righteousness is complete and pure only when he accepts undeserved condemnation. Through this, a man shows that he pursues justice for its own sake and not for the good opinion of others. Plato continues by saying that the just man will be scourged, racked, fettered….and at last, after all manner of suffering, will be crucified. Sounds familiar? This was written 400 years before Christ.
Central to the Christian message is not judgement and condemnation but a conquest of death. It is said that Christ descended into Hades (sometimes erroneously labeled, hell). Sheol is the term used in the Old Testament for the post-death state. But what exactly does death consist of? Yes, certain biochemical processes cease but that is not the essence of death that is being addressed in our faith. What happens at death is obviously a mystery shrouded in hiddenness but there is something that opens this hiddenness and casts some light on it. Christ calls from the cross in the last minutes – My God why have you forsaken me? In death, we encounter a radical loneliness, a separation from all that we love and hold dear. This is the fear of death and it is not a fear that can be overcome by some encouraging words. All fear in the world originates in this fear of loneliness.
It is interesting that in a series of experiments of regression carried out on volunteers at Harvard University, the subjects were asked to imagine all kinds of situations, including death, and the participants obeyed without difficulties. But when it came for them to imagine a total and complete isolation – they started to react with fear and opposition. They would not go there.
This deep and universal fear is similar to one in which a child is frightened of something – a darkened room, or some other situation – and no words of comfort from us are sufficient to allay the fear. It is a fear that can be overcome only by someone’s hand, someone to stand with us and to give us companionship, to meet us in the absolute loneliness of that fear.
In our faith we are told that Christ descended into Hades and through this, trampled down death. I know that scriptures talk in picture language but there is no better choice. You mentioned in the past of the gospel account saying that Matthew writes that the graves opened and the dead were seen walking in the streets of Jerusalem. And you are right in calling these descriptions as mythological in the sense that our language is inadequate to describe what was happening. But to simply write these accounts off as just fantasy is to miss an important lesson they are trying to convey.
What the writers are trying to do is describe the indescribable. Something has happened that has transformed the very basis of creation and the paucity of our language has to revert to story, to poetry, to myth in order to even attempt to give some inkling of what had happened.
We are blinded by our assumptions and fail to see the richness of the reality that is standing before us. A good illustration of this is the encounter on the road to Emmaus described by Luke. The two disciples are standing there and grieving over the loss of their hope in the execution of Jesus, and there, standing in their midst is their hope which they recognize belatedly.
More in the next letter.