Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Making and Begetting

"In a way I quite understand why some people are put off by Theology. I remember once when I had been giving a talk to the R.A.F., an old, hard-bitten officer got up and said, `I've no use for all that stuff. But, mind you, I'm a religious man too. I know there's a God. I've felt Him: out alone in the desert at night: the tremendous mystery. And that's just why I don't believe all your neat little dogmas and formulas about Him. To anyone who's met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedantic and unreal!'"

I agree with the hard-bitten old officer, actually. If you've experienced the divine directly I imagine that the images and words that we use to try and approach that divinity pale and seem useless in comparison. The problem is that most of us will never have such a direct experience. So we're only left with the descriptions of those who have had them, or the logical wonderings and conclusions of our own minds. Which we then apply to the descriptions the people who have experienced the divine directly give us. So it becomes rather like a game of telephone when you start to think about it.

God/god(s)/the universe/whatever you would like to call it communicates directly to one human being. Because humans are limited by their very nature, the experience is already a simplified or boiled down version of the actual presence of the divine. Then you take that and filter it through the recipients perception which is formed by their culture, their time and their individual experiences. Have them try and put that into words to convey it to other people. Then have those people translate what they took away from the talk/book/interview and filter it through *their* perceptions which are formed by their culture, time and individual experiences. Rinse and repeat. It's very easy to see how what is believed to have been the message of any divine encounter could be vastly different from what it actually was.

And I've wandered off on a rabbit trail there. My point remains! I think that theology pales in comparison to an actual encounter with the divine and anyone who has had one might have less need for the 'scientific' understanding that the rest of us are left with. Which is not to say that we should do away with theology of course. It's fascinating and I think that we can, in some small ways, use it to get a faint reflection of an idea of the divine. And it's fun to argue as long as it doesn't get to the insulting, personal attack side.

"Theology is like the map. Merely learning and thinking about the Christian doctrines, if you stop there, is less real and less exciting than the sort of thing my friend got in the desert. Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of map. But that map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God—experiences compared with which any thrills or pious feelings you and I are likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused. And secondly, if you want to get any further, you must use the map."

Must we? Again, I enjoy theology. It's fascinating. But do we *have* to use it? Or does it perhaps get more in our way than help us out? Block us from seeing the simple evidence of the divine around us because we're too busy arguing about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin?

"You see, what happened to that man in the desert may have been real, and was certainly exciting, but nothing comes of it. It leads nowhere. There is nothing to do about it. In fact, that is just why a vague religion—all about feeling God in nature, and so on—is so attractive. It is all thrills and no work: like watching the waves from the beach."

I disagree. All religion *starts* from that point. From a person having a singular experience of the divine. And who's to say that, as I said earlier, our obsession with theology and defining everything as closely as we can, on 'mapping' the way to the divine isn't preventing us from the very experience we seek?

Lewis goes on to state that since we're so educated now, since we are capable of such wide range discussion amongst ourselves, that we have to have theology. When everyone was ignorant it was okay to have 'simple' ideas about the divine.

"Consequently, if you do not listen to Theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones—bad, muddled, out-of-date ideas. For a great many of the ideas about God which are trotted out as novelties today are simply the ones which real Theologians tried centuries ago and rejected. To believe in the popular religion of modern England is retrogression—like believing the earth is flat."

Aren't all ideas about god theology to one extent or another? Whether they're simplistic or not. And how do you judge which theology is correct in any case? Just because it was rejected centuries ago doesn't make it incorrect. The parallel of comparing old, rejected theologies to the Flat Earth Theory is a false one. We can prove that the earth is not flat. You can't prove that one idea about god is more or less right than another idea about god. We just think that we can because we've been thinking in the same general path for so long that it's become an automatic assumption. Also, there are apparently people out there who do, in fact, still believe that the earth is flat. So...yeah.

"For when you get down to it, is not the popular idea of Christianity simply this: that Jesus Christ was a great moral teacher and that if only we took His advice we might be able to establish a better social order and avoid another war? Now, mind you, that is quite true. But it tells you much less than the whole truth about Christianity and it has no practical importance at all."

Is that the popular idea of Christianity? Maybe it was at the time. Or maybe this is another case of my not having encountered this in my life. My understanding is that the majority of Christians do believe that Jesus Christ was God, which belief brings with it varying degrees of belief that salvation (eternal life in heaven) comes only through him. Now if you went outside of Christianity, among those who even believe that the man Jesus lived at all, I think you would find many who would say that he was a great moral teacher and if more people followed his examples the world would be a better place, none of which requires him to be of any more than mortal origins. And really, I think that following Jesus to a kinder, more accepting and generally better world has the most practical importance of anything relating to his life.

After all, how much practical importance is there to what may or may not happen to you after you die? Perhaps it's more accurate for me to say that the social teachings of Jesus have a more wide spread and applicable practical importance than the theology behind his being God. After all, no matter what your faith or lack thereof, you can follow the concepts of equality and treating others as well as you would want to be treated

Right. So Lewis says all this to say that even though people have told him he shouldn't talk about theology, he's going to anyway. And he does this by jumping into the difference between Christ who, as the third person of the Trinity is the *begotten* Son of God and humans who are the *made* Sons (and Daughters, though that phrase is never used) of God. 

"We don't use the words begetting or begotten much in modern English, but everyone still knows what they mean. To beget is to become the father of: to create is to make. And the difference is this. When you beget, you beget something of the same kind as yourself. A man begets human babies, a beaver begets little beavers and a bird begets eggs which turn into little birds. But when you make, you make something of a different kind from yourself. A bird makes a nest, a beaver builds a dam, a man makes a wireless set—or he may make something more like himself than a wireless set: say, a statue. If he is a clever enough carver he may make a statue which is very like a man indeed. But, of course, it is not a real man; it only looks like one. It cannot breathe or think. It is not alive.

Now that is the first thing to get clear. What God begets is God; just as what man begets is man. What God creates is not God; just as what man makes is not man. That is why men are not Sons of God in the sense that Christ is. They may be like God in certain ways, but they are not things of the same kind. They are more like statues or pictures of God."

(edited for clarity): The Father, in Christian theology, begets the Son but not in exactly the same way that we would understand a human father begetting a son. After all, if it did work in exactly the same way then the Father and the Son would be two distinct entities rather than one.

Let's all just say out loud what we all know. The doctrine of the Trinity is a hard one to get your head around. It's easy enough to lay out: There is one God. That one God, however, is comprised of three Persons. These Persons are, as we call them, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost/Spirit. While these three Persons exist, they are not separate gods. That's the simple, surface idea of it. And you're already going, 'But...' and raising your hand. You know you are, don't deny it.

It just gets worse from there. This post would get *incredibly* long if I went into it. Suffice it to say most Christians believe in the Trinity and acknowledge that it is impossible for us to understand how it works.

Back to the begetting. So the Son was 'begotten', but not in the same way, precisely, that humans beget. Because if he was then we've got one god spawning/birthing/fathering *other* gods which drops us right out of monotheism.

We, however, are made. Like statues. We kind of resemble the living thing, God in this case, but there's no life to us. What Lewis is saying that Christianity says to us is that we are created things who have the chance to become alive.

Like there's a warehouse full of statues created by the Father. Along comes his Son who wants to make the statues live. So the Father says, 'Sure. We can adopt them if they want us to.' and the Son runs around inside the warehouse making whichever of the statues want to be alive in the same way that he and his Father are alive, live. Only it's not exactly the same, since they're God and the statues can never be God. And the Father and the Son aren't separate entities but aspects of the same entity.


  1. I'm going to be just a little petty here, but it has a purpose. The first guy quoted there says he doesn't like the way people try to describe "Him." He's had a real experience of that mystery, and knows the real "Him." As if that isn't a perfect example of fitting the divine to words and images. I don't think his use of that word is an accident, it almost certainly means that he has this whole idea in his head of what "God" means and part of that includes masculinity. That's why we talk about theology. Because yes, there is a real experience of something beyond words. The problem is that we don't experience that without bias. It always gets filtered through our own lens based on our culture and beliefs, and when people believe in a god/God and that has a real effect on how they live in the world and see and treat other people, those biases matter. So we drag it out and subject those spiritual experiences to a lot of questioning and theologizing, because that's how we take a very personal and otherworldy experience and turn it into something we can use in the real world, and a way we can connect to other people who have had similar experiences colored by their own culture and beliefs.

    Now, if someone just wants to keep their own experience to themselves and it never affects the way they see other people or their beliefs, that's a different story. Of course people are welcome to do that. I'm just not sure I understand what good that experience does then. But that doesn't mean there isn't any good to be found there, it's just not the way I see the world and not something I get.

    I think that's what the writer means by theology being a map, and needing the map to go further. No, you don't have to engage in theological discussion and study. But if you don't, if you insist that it's all unreal and unimportant compared to your personal experience, it discounts everyone else's. It cuts you off from connecting spiritually to other people and having that fellowship. It might be worth noting also that theology doesn't only mean what a bunch of scholars and doctrine-makers say about God. Theology happens when two people get together and discuss what they see God doing in their lives. And maybe there's a misunderstanding here that's not about theology but about "organized religion"/academia vs lay religion. Maybe the officer does engage in theology, he just doesn't like doctrine. I don't know, because I haven't read the book.

    Oh! I didn't see until I got down to the "Lewis goes on to state" part that you were talking about his book again. I was wondering where this came from. Now it makes sense! But I'm still going to surprise myself and say I'm with Lewis on this one, although maybe I'm giving him too much credit and he would dislike my idea of theology. I think your point that any ideas about God are theology is very important. They are, and I think it's important to share and test them rather than simply accepting our own limited experience or taking what someone else tells us is good theology, without testing that too. Without doing some kind of theologizing and challenging of our ideas, we can't move forward.

    1. I did mention the same thing that you just did, about every experience being filtered through that persons subjective perspective, yes? I really think that this is a case where one cannot survive without the other. Without the individual experience, theology doesn't exist. Without theology, the individual experience dies out with that individual. I just think that sometimes we get too caught up in trying to define things and determine the limits or the exact way that something works and we miss things.

      I suppose an experience, kept entirely to ones self, would only change the life of the person who had it. In turn they might, without mentioning the experience, change the lives of others by their actions. So it could still have an effect without anyone but the original actor having any idea why they were doing those things.

      Reading the chapter wouldn't help you to understand the officer. He's never mentioned again. Just a story Lewis uses as a jumping off point.

      I can see both sides of the argument, really. And as I said, I *like* theology. I do believe that it serves a purpose, especially in enabling people who haven't had direct contact with the divine to grasp some aspect of it. But I do also think that it must, by the very nature of the original encounter, pale in comparison. Does that mean it shouldn't be engaged in? No.

      My questions about whether or not a focus on theology might make us miss the very experience we're trying to reach are just speculative. I think if you're going to experience the divine in such a direct way it's going to happen whether you're a theologian or not.

    2. Yes, you did. :) Sorry, I wasn't meaning to contradict you in this, I was more responding to Lewis and the officer mentioned. I agree with you, I just had a lot of thoughts on Lewis' points.

      That is a good point about the actions affecting other people without the theology being shared. :) That's definitely true and so it's not the case that I can't think of any use for keeping it quiet, it just seems strange to me because (as you might have noticed) I love to talk about my experiences and spirituality. It's definitely possible I spend too much time talking and not enough doing, actually. So maybe there is something to keeping quiet and just living it!

    3. That's right, NEVER CONTRADICT ME! *ROAAAAARRRRRR* :DDD *laughs* My response was phrased really abruptly, wasn't it? Sorry! I was trying to get it out before leaving for class and it came out very short.

      I think that sometimes there may be valid reasons for keeping such an encounter private, depending on the nature of the encounter and the information relayed. Obviously we like to talk about these things, but there have to be some people who don't. Somewhere. Like I said, I think both sides need the other in order for everything to work, in general. But there are bound to be exceptions.

  2. Bah! Too long! I had a lot to say on this one.

    Which is not exactly correct since in order for Christianity to be a monotheistic faith one aspect of God cannot be older or pre-exist any other part.

    Eh...I'm going to be petty again. Sorry. :D I don't think I agree with that, and I think there is maybe a difference between how we see humans begetting and God begetting. For people who actually do see God as 3 distinct persons (who are one), I don't know that one coming from another is any more polytheistic than that already is. If there are three persons there, then it's just as polytheistic to say they've all existed for the same amount of time as it is to say that one person begat another. There is some tricksy, mysterious way of interpreting the three that makes them one, and I think that's still valid even if one comes from another. And in fact the way I always heard it was that the Son proceeds from (or comes from, or is begat by) the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from the Son. Which could mean not that this whole other god came into existence from them, but that this aspect of the one God is an expression of this other aspect. The Son by definition means absolutely nothing without a Father to beget him. The Son of what? So it is theologically important for the Son to be begotten. That doesn't mean that the aspect of God never existed until then, it just means that there's no way of understanding it without seeing it in relation to another part. Does that make sense? Without our ideas of parents and children and begetting, the Son would not be known by that name/person. So that aspect of God, that way God interacts with the world, needs to come from another aspect, not in that he didn't exist before that but as a relational description. It's not that a new aspect was created, only that it wasn't known. But it's God and all this happens before time anyway, so before and after and begetting are really just weird twisty words that can't fully get at the mystery.

    1. :p

      The terms we use are dictated by our limited understanding, yes. And if we didn't have the concept of father and son then the names of the Trinity would be different. Absolutely. I think I just worded what I was trying to say badly. I was trying to say that the Father, in Christian theology, begets the Son but not in exactly the same way that we would understand a human father begetting a son. After all, if it did work in exactly the same way then the Father and the Son would be two distinct entities rather than one.

      I was taught that the Son proceeds from the Father and that the Spirit sort of proceeds from the both as a function of their perfect love for each other. *waves hand in a circle* All while being the same entity, essentially. Seriously, it makes a certain amount of sense if you want it to, I'm not arguing that. Just that it's not an easy thing to get your head around or explain to someone else.

    2. Oh, I see. :) I didn't understand what you were saying before, but it makes sense now. Thanks for explaining again!

  3. interesting post and I enjoyed your comments (both of you)!!

  4. Amber, I haven't read blogs in over a month. Lots of reading to do and I will be catching up on your blog tomorrow. Just saw this post and really enjoyed it but I'll come back again and will read properly then comment on this and the others.

  5. You have put down exactly what I have struggled with. I grew up in two faiths (mostly Islam but had Christian upbringing as well in hiding from my mother) and at one time in my life when I was unhappy with Islam I began studying Christianity with the hope that it would make sense to me and I'd adopt that as my religion. It didn't happen. While I greatly, greatly admire Jesus, I can't believe he was God. I admire him more than any other man who claimed to be a messiah, teacher, god or prophet. But no, he isn't God for me. Precisely for the reasons you have given here.

    1. I kind of think that the Trinity is something that you have to grow up with for it to make a whole lot of sense. And even then it's hit or miss. I know that there are people who convert to Trinitarian Christianity from more strictly monotheistic faiths but I can also understand why it causes so many problems. It's very easy to see where the cries of polytheism come into play and it's hard to understand how a being can be One but Three at the same time.


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