Now it gets tough. That little baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying so cutely in the manger is the biggest trouble maker in world history, and the shocking claims that Christianity makes about who he is and what he means divide Christians not only from atheists and agnostics, but also splits Christians off from other religions.
If Christians saw that little baby as nothing more or less than a beautiful symbol of human innocence and love, there would be no problem. Even recognizing him as an important teacher and religious leader does not raise many hackles. Islam recognizes Jesus as a prophet and the predicted Messiah; Islam has no trouble with the idea that he was born of a virgin, and the Virgin Mary is a popular and well respected figure for Muslims. When it comes to his moral teaching, much of what Jesus says is unexceptionable. The Golden Rule (Do unto others as you would have others do unto you) has its analogs in many religious traditions. Jesus’ summary of the moral law (Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself) is also something that people from many different religious traditions can take to heart. Many non-religious people (and non-Christians like Mahatma Gandhi) have been inspired by Jesus’ example and teaching. If Christians were simply celebrating the birth of a moral teacher on Christmas, the world would be a more peaceful place.
But that’s not how most Christians see the baby in the manger. They don’t think he is a symbol; they don’t think he’s a messenger. They think he is the real thing. He is the meaning of meaning, the truth made flesh, the only begotten Son of God. As a grown man, he would tell people that “I and the Father are one.” Most of the people we call Christians believe he was right, and speak of the baby Jesus and the man he grew to be as one of the Three Persons of God.
For both Muslims and Jews, this an atrocious theological scandal, a fundamental betrayal of the essence of monotheism. It’s an atrocity to worship a creature, a human being however noble, as God; it’s an atrocity to mingle polytheism with monotheism; it’s an atrocity to blur the bright line between Creator and creation by mixing the two together in the person of Jesus.
The Christian betrayal of monotheism, from this perspective, is damaging and deep. It’s not just that God is One and indivisible; it is also that he is incomparably greater than and infinitely above above human beings. While God is compassionate and caring there is an infinite distance between the Creator and the created, between God and man. Getting into a right relationship with God involves acknowledging and accepting this truth.
The Christian idea that Jesus is God, non-Christian monotheists feel, is a direct assault both on God’s unity and his transcendence. To many serious Muslims and Jews, the Christian idea of God as revealed in the Christmas story is a caricature of monotheism, a distorted vision that robs God of both his unity and his dignity.
For many Muslims, shirk, the improper association of the created with the creator, is the ultimate in blasphemy. For many Jews, to worship a human being as God is idolatry – one of the worst sins there is. Christianity’s core belief that the baby in the manger is God made man is a flagrant assault on the core principles of monotheism as understood by the two other Abrahamic faiths.
And, both Jews and Muslims (to say nothing of Unitarian Christians) have pointed out for many centuries, this Christian idea that Jesus is in some way God immediately opens up dozens of tough theological questions. Christians have squabbled and often shed blood over the many different ways theologians have tried to define and explain the Trinity — and the Incarnation of God in Christ. There has never been a time when all the world’s Christians reached an agreement about the meaning of these great doctrines. Words like homoousion, and Filioque continue to divide the world of Christianity over technical points of doctrine.
The reason Christians argue endlessly over the nature of the Trinity and the doctrine of the Incarnation, many maintain, is because these doctrines are nonsensical to begin with. In any case, the fact that these distinctive Christian ideas lead believers into endless tangles of controversy and contradiction is real.
This little Yule Blog isn’t going to settle these great controversies. My goal is more modest: to help Christian and non-Christian readers understand what classical Christians mean when they identify the baby in the manger with God on high. That means taking on the most controversial and complex idea in Christianity; the doctrine of the Trinity is wrapped around that baby in the manger even tighter than the swaddling clothes.
In the old days almost every educated American, whether he or she were Christian or not, would have some idea about what this doctrine meant. Not all Americans were Trinitarians; in addition to Jews and the very small number of Muslims in the United States at the time, Unitarians, Mormons and a great many free-thinkers also disapproved of the concept. But understanding this idea and at least something of its history seemed important enough both for the sake of understanding American history and culture, English literature, and world history, literature and art that even secular institutions of learning made some effort to ensure that students learned about the Trinity.
That isn’t happening much anymore; unfortunately this means that young people will have to pick up their knowledge of core religious ideas from disreputable bloggers like yours truly.
The New Testament books speak of God in three persons. There is the Father (“Our Father who art in heaven” as Jesus prayed in the Lord’s Prayer), the Son — Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, sometimes called the Holy Ghost in older English translations. In subsequent years Christian scholars and theologians tried to make sense of this language and gradually moved toward the idea of the Trinity as we know it today: One God, Three Persons. The Quicunque Vult, or the “Athanasian Creed” is an early document that gives some idea of the complexity of the Trinitarian idea as theologians hammered it out; it is enough for our purposes to know that most Christians believe that the God of the Bible is best described as one God in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The question of how one God can exist in three persons has perplexed 1nquiring minds for a very long time. St. Patrick very famously explained the doctrine of the Trinity to new Irish converts by showing them a shamrock (aka a clover leaf): three lobes, one leaf. Others have used examples like a triangle: three sides, one figure. None of these are exact, and Trinitarian theology is one of the most complex and arcane branches of Christian thought. As a mere lay blogger I don’t have the theological chops to present a technically sophisticated and theologically nuanced presentation of the doctrine, so I’ll try to start from a different place – from this question of meaning that we have been tracing through Christmas.
I wrote earlier that theism is rooted in the intuition that the meaning we experience in our lives and our interactions with other people adds up to something real. Love for example isn’t just a biologically conditioned feeling of affinity that encourages us to protect our children and other members of the tribe, assuring that our genes will be passed on in this brutally competitive world. Love in the Christian view is rooted in the ultimate realities; it reflects the basic nature of the universe and in the end love will be vindicated.
Like the other monotheistic religions, Christianity moves from the idea of meaning to the idea of a personal God, but Christianity goes a step further. It identifies God with one particular aspect of meaning: love. “God is love,” says one of the letters that make up the New Testament (1 John 4:8). This is the phrase that Pope Benedict XVI chose for the title of his first encyclical letter; it resonates through the history and theology of all the Christian denominations like nothing else.
Christians really mean this. When they say ‘God is love’ they don’t just mean that God is a being who loves. They aren’t just saying that God is nice, or that he is compassionate and forgiving. They mean that love is the core of his nature, the key to his being.
Love isn’t something outside God; love is the nature of God. And love is community. Life isn’t life if it isn’t shared; to be God is to love — and to love is to be in community and relationship. God was love before there was a creation for him to be in love with, but to be solitary is not in the nature of God. Ultimately I think, what Christians mean by the doctrine of the Trinity is just this: because God is love, community and relationship are rooted in the depths of his being. Community is intrinsic to God. His unity is communal.
Among the many classes of people who dislike this idea, two are particularly prominent: rationalists and convinced monotheists who don’t buy the Christian package. For rationalists, the idea that God is many and God is one is a contradiction of the most elementary principles of logic. This was the part of Christianity that many of the Founding Fathers and other enlightened and educated people of the Age of Reason had the most trouble with. They wanted a God who was logical; the Trinity didn’t fit.
Today, this is less of an issue. We have all grown so accustomed to living with conflicting paradigms and grand narratives that we are less strictly logical than many of our ancestors were. This isn’t always a good thing; a healthy dose of Aristotelian logic would clarify a lot of the confusions that vex our political and cultural discourse today. But still it makes the concept of a Trinity less difficult for contemporary minds to accept. Two hundred years ago ‘enlightened’ minds generally accepted the existence of God without much trouble but boggled at the concept of the Trinity. Today, enlightened minds have more trouble accepting the existence of God; if they do accept that existence, the problem of the Trinity doesn’t loom particularly large for them.
This is partly because our scientific paradigms have changed. The science of 1800 was pretty open and shut: a thing was either true or false. These days, physics tends to broaden the mind; after even casually wrestling with modern physics, many people are more comfortable than they used to be with the idea that the basis of existence may violate human expectations and logical categories. If light can be both particles and waves, maybe God can be both unitary and communal.
(There may be another reason why Americans in particular are predisposed to accept the idea of a Trinity. We have one federal government, established under one Constitution, divided into three branches. If we can be Trinitarian in our politics, why not also in our theology?)
The other objection to the Trinity from the standpoint of other Abrahamic monotheisms remains vibrant and influential. This is not a religiously polemical blog — at least I’m trying to keep it from turning into one. I can understand why people from other religious backgrounds and traditions see the Trinitarian idea as chipping away at the transcendence and the uniqueness of God, and I respect their concerns. Christians, obviously, don’t share this objection. For Christians, to say that the divine unity is so unimaginably deep, rich and transcendent that what humans understand as community is inextricably bound in God’s unique being is to stress God’s transcendence, not to undermine it. Belief in the Trinity doesn’t, from this perspective, undermine one’s belief in the Unity of God: it gives our idea of God’s unity a depth that emphasizes just how unique and unimaginable the creator really is.
For Christians, God is a different order of being than we are, and one of the ways in which he is different is that for him there is no contradiction between the singular uniqueness of who he is, and the fact that his essence is community, relationship and love.
Christians see this communal nature of the one God as a further affirmation of the basic intuition of theism: that our experience of the meaning in life points us toward the divine. People are social beings and much of the meaning and transcendence we find in life is related to our participation in social units ranging from the family to the global human community. We are individuals, but we only become our fullest selves in relationship with others. God similarly is himself only in relationship; since God can never be less than fully himself, we must understand his being as complex enough to give full scope to this aspect of his being.
In any case, Christians generally believe that the baby in the manger was the Second Person of the Trinity, taking on human flesh and come to live among us. As John Milton (who later changed his mind on this topic) put it in his 1629 Nativity Ode:
That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable,
And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty,
Wherwith he wont at Heav’ns high Councel-Table,
To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,
He laid aside; and here with us to be,
Forsook the Courts of everlasting Day,
And chose with us a darksom House of mortal clay.
That baby in the manger, Christians believe, was God himself come down to be among us.