All things considered, its sort of an indictment on Christianity. And yet, that’s just it, there’s more to it than that.
I’ve been re-reading Yaroslav Pelikan’s historical overview of Christian theology (Volume I from the years 100 to 600 C.E.) for my studies toward ordination in the Episcopal Church. These are areas I covered back in seminary some 20 years ago and have revisited in patches over the years, but the practical demands of youth ministry and parish life certainly pushed any rigorous consideration of such things to the background. Now I’m diving back in.
Pelikan is covering the development of how the early church, in all its variant forms, understood Jesus. And it can get dizzying. Jesus was divine, but in what way? Was he a demi-god or fully divine? And if the latter then in what way did that involve his humanity and one’s understanding about sin and human imperfection? Can a being be both divine and human and one nature not compromise the other? These were the issues that bishops, monks and rhetoricians were working through as Christianity developed.
And their answers often leave you wanting.
I’ve found myself more than once getting frustrated with the intricacies of such arguments. It’s a mixture of things I’m sure: one part intellectual laziness and a few parts helplessness tracking Pelikan’s thorough treatment of the variant streams. And then it dawned on me. Part of my frustration is that the heretics are partly right. The idea of Christ isn’t completely logical. It’s intellectual gymnastics. We in the church often talk about the “mystery of the Trinity” because despite some decent formulas for how three can be one (maintaining the distinction of the oneness of the Hebrew conception of God over and against polytheistic religions) in the end its tough to work out. And that bothers me. I don’t eagerly revisit the difficulties.
A point that Pelikan returns to repeatedly is that these concepts about Christ were formulated in three overlapping spheres–the way Christians worshipped, the way they taught, and how they dealt with encroaching heresies. Belief, teaching, confessing. And it reminds me of something I’ve often said, that there are concepts about God and faith that have felt more congruent to me when I’m singing about them, or visiting them amidst ritual, with people I love, than if I’m trying to work through them in a teaching setting. And it reminds me that there are a variety of ways of “knowing.”
It doesn’t let me nor the Church off the hook. In the first centuries of the church’s existence they had to make a case for who Jesus was in light of Judaism and Greek philosophers. And the intellectual hurdles were in many respects not too different than what they are today. But that is the trickiness of the religious impulse. There is something attractive about Jesus that transcends reason. I still want it to be able to co-exists and integrate with such things, and I get frustrated when it doesn’t. But I’m willing to still give it a go.