A cardinal rule for fiction and theology

Right now I’m reading two books that wouldn’t seem to have much to do with each other. One is a book on writing, especially on writing fiction, by Stephen King. The other is on trinitarian theology, by Robert Jenson. (I highly recommend both, even if you don’t fashion yourself a writer or theologian, though Jenson’s most recent work might be an easier starting place.)

I’m also trying to write about the church’s doctrine of the Trinity. When you talk about the Trinity, you walk through a minefield. With every description, you risk heresy. If you’ve ever heard the Trinity compared to H2O (ice, water, steam) or to a man in three different roles (father, husband, son) or to a three-leaf clover, it was a bad description. It bordered on heresy if it didn’t go the whole way there. Even better analogies, like a three-note chord, still have problems. Every analogy falls short. This brief, funny video shows the problem.

Scripture shows us God as Father, Son and Spirit relating to one another, but it doesn’t explain this trinitarian relationship in the fashion we would like. Some people note that the word “Trinity” isn’t used in the Bible, nor is the doctrine spelled out. Some even suggest that the Church may have invented the concept of “Trinity.” They don’t find the word or a clear description in the Bible. It must not be real. This treats the problem as if only what’s defined is real.

Others start from the opposite end: Everything that’s real can be defined. So they labor to fill in the descriptive holes left by the biblical narrative, explaining what we mean when we say “Trinity.” The best attempts have led to major theological statements, with words like homoousios. The worst attempts have led to heresies.

Robert Jenson says that even with our best attempts, we’ve created a problem by separating trinitarian theology from the biblical narrative. Even our less-than-heretical attempts to describe the Trinity do damage as they move from depiction to description.

Our analytical, bullet-pointing, PowerPointing Western minds love description. We like to understand just how everything works. And so, in any of our -ologies, we assume a sort of science, in which all can be explained. But if we can move out of the world of -ology, we can see that bare description doesn’t always enhance understanding.

Depiction Trumps Description

This is where Stephen King comes in. He says, “One of the cardinal rules of good fiction is never tell us a thing if you can show us, instead.”

You’ve seen this. In the world of narrative, depiction can do much more than description. You’ll understand a person better by living with them through the narrative than you will through reading a character description. Moreover, that character description can’t explain everything. Personality is more complex than description can contain.

If this is true for mere humans, how much more must it be true for the Triune God? Words will fail to fully describe.

Theology in Liturgy and Scripture

This is where I love the way the Eastern Church has done theology. Jaroslav Pelikan describes it this way:

To grasp the Eastern understanding of the church and of its doctrine, “one has to return from the school-room to the worshiping Church and perhaps to change the school-dialect of theology for the pictorial and metaphorical language of Scripture.”

The church’s liturgies and biblical accounts do theology in a different way than our textbook theology. In fact, Jenson notes, “What kept the apologists religiously trinitarian was not their theology but their church’s liturgical life.”

In the church’s liturgies we baptize in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit and we sing “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.” We give trinitarian benedictions like the great one from 2 Corinthians: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you.” And we have icons like this brilliant one from Andrei Rublev, which depicts the Trinity at table, in relation to one another.


Rublev’s icon of the Trinity

Perhaps in our theology, we should take Stephen King’s advice. “Never tell us a thing if you can show it instead.” The next time someone asks you to explain the Trinity, instead of turning to examples of H2O or three-leaf clovers or musical chords, turn instead to Jesus’ baptism in Matthew 3 and Paul’s benediction in 2 Corinthians 13 and Rublev’s icon.

I said this before in relation to preaching, and so now I say it more broadly for theological discussion: better to tell the story than to talk about the story.

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The Beauty of the Incarnation

Gentile da Fabriano's "Adoration of the Magi"

Gentile da Fabriano’s “Adoration of the Magi”

Christmas celebrates one of the most shocking and beautiful events in all of history––the Incarnation––when the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.

In my study of theology, I’ve found that many of the great theologians break from their typical prose into a higher, poetic language when they come to the Incarnation. This piece of our Christian faith calls for something that bare prose can’t seem to satisfy. I want to share a few of my favorite quotes with you.

Martin Luther:

It is not for the angels to be proud of Christ’s incarnation, for Christ did not assume an angelic but a human nature. Therefore it would not be a surprise if the angels looked at us with envy in their eyes because we human beings, creatures far inferior to them and sinners besides, are placed above them into an honor so high and great. They worship Christ, who has become our Brother, our flesh and blood.

(from Luther’s Sermon on Colossians 1:18–20, as cited in Thomas C. Oden’s Classic Christianity, p. 274)

And now listen to how Augustine talks about Christ’s birth in a sermon on Christmas Day:

My mouth shall speak the praise of the Lord (Ps 51:15);
of that Lord through whom all things were made (John 1:3),
and who was himself made among all things;

who is the revealer of the Father,
creator of his mother;
the Son of God from the Father without mother,
the son of man from his mother without father;

great as the day of the angels,
little in the day of men;
the Word, God before all times,
the Word, flesh at the appropriate time;

the maker and placer of the sun,
made and placed under the sun;
marshaling all the ages from the bosom of the Father,
consecrating this day from the womb of his mother;

remaining there,
coming forth from here;
producer of heaven and earth,
appearing on earth under heaven;

unspeakably wise,
wisely speechless as an infant;
filling the world,
lying in a manger;

so great in the form of God,
so small in the form of a servant,
in such a way that neither the greatness was diminished by the smallness,
nor the smallness overwhelmed by the greatness.

(from Augustine’s Essential Sermons, edited by Daniel Doyle, translated by Edmund Hill, p. 245)

We haven’t grasped the significance of the Incarnation if we haven’t been overwhelmed and awed by it. So this Christmas we celebrate with Augustine, who remarks, “That men might be born of God, God was first born of them.”

We’ll have only understood half the truth if we stop here –– even at Christmas. Why did God become man? Anselm presents it well:

Death entered through one man’s obedience
Life is restored through one man’s obedience

Sin came through the temptation of a woman
Salvation came through one born of a woman

The enemy conquered humanity by tasting of a tree
Christ conquered the enemy by bearing suffering on a tree

(from Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo)

Mild he lays his glory by, born that man no more may die!

Do you believe in God?”

believe?A friend asked me to weigh in on a Facebook discussion: “Can we choose to believe?” It was clear the inquirer’s intent was to ask if someone could choose to believe in the existence of God. Another friend encouraged me to share my response here…

I must say I’m a total lightweight in philosophy — much more comfortable (and interested) in theology. First, “belief” I think goes much deeper than we tend to treat it. Belief can be about existence (i.e. Do you believe in Santa Claus? Do you believe in the Easter Bunny? Do you believe in God?), or about trust (i.e. Do you believe in Barack Obama as President?). We can have a belief in scientific principles (i.e. Do you believe in macroevolution?) or attributes (i.e. Do you believe that piece of paper is red?).

When philosophers ask about belief in God, it seems that they’re primarily talking about existence and attributes. Can a God exist? Can a God like this exist? Can someone choose belief in the existence of something? Many people will want to say no. We believe something because we believe it — whatever evidence we have assessed has convinced us — not because we choose to believe it. If we know that piece of paper is white, it would take some real mental gymnastics to convince ourselves that it’s red. When the evidence on one side outweighs the other, they’ll say, they can’t just choose to ignore the evidence and believe something contrary to it.

I get the importance of being convinced by the evidence. But I suppose I’m also not convinced we’re such rational creatures that we really believe or don’t believe in things based on a logical examination of the evidence. This is why we see red-faced arguments between otherwise rational people over stupid (or not stupid) issues. They have so committed themselves to believing in something that they’re nearly immune to all evidence presented on the opposite side. At that point, they’re not holding those beliefs because of evidence, they’re holding those beliefs because of a commitment to them — probably more unconscious than conscious refusal to consider the alternatives.

But then there’s this — which I suppose is one of my great general critiques of philosophy… It seems that philosophy treats God as an object rather than a subject. Philosophy tends to examine God more the way that you would examine a table or the number six or the concept of beauty. [1] Look for Trinitarian language in philosophy. I find very little. Because the Trinity reveals God as Subject–as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in relationship–and it seems that philosophy is more comfortable analyzing objects than subjects. And so, at least in my experience of it, philosophy tends to stop at theism and rarely goes to Trinitarian theism.

I don’t believe in an objective God. I believe in God the Father Almighty and Jesus Christ his only Son and in the Holy Spirit. That’s a totally different belief. It’s not a belief that they are. I suppose it includes that, but it’s much more a belief that this Trinitarian God is Life and Salvation. And ultimately, I think it’s much more about choosing to put my trust in the God whom the historic community of the Church has witnessed to. I believe I could choose to walk away from that trust, and thus from any legitimate “belief” in the God of the Christian faith. But I don’t want to. I choose to continue to believe.

Martin Buber’s I and Thou would lend some extra philosophical points to the discussion.

What do you think? People who have wondered/struggled with the question of God’s existence, how does this strike you? People who are heavier weights in philosophy, where am I assessing correctly and incorrectly? 

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1. I’m not necessarily saying this is philosophy’s fault. It just seems that philosophy is better setup to ask and answer these sorts of questions. And for me, at least, these aren’t the questions I’m really interested in.