The magic of ritualAugust 12, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
I’d like to follow up on last week’s post about the Trinity, because I think we just started to get into a discussion that’s actually pretty interesting on its own. As mentioned last time, the doctrine of the Trinity is a doctrine made up of two mutually-contradictory ideas: the idea that there is one God (monotheism) and the idea that multiple, distinct, individual Persons are each fully God (polytheism). What’s more, the Church has known since the origin of Trinitarianism that these two aspects of the doctrine contradict each other, hence the need to officially declare it a “mystery” beyond the grasp of mortal reason or study.
So how, then, has the Church been successful in persuading people that the Trinity is the Truth? It seems fairly obvious: truth is consistent with itself, and the only way we have to distinguish between truth and untruth is to look for the telltale inconsistencies and contradictions that betray untruth. Yet here we have a doctrine that is not written in the Bible, was not revealed through allegedly inspired prophets, and that was adopted, after much conflict and even violence, through a political process that boiled down to deciding which side was most convincing to the greatest number of (fallible, uninspired) men. It should be easy, given a self-contradicting teaching with such a checkered past, to convince Christians that this is a false and man-made doctrine. And yet, it is not.
So how do you pull off a maneuver like that? The answer is complex in some ways, and yet simple in others. Before the council of Nicaea, there were two powerful factions within the Church: the strict monotheists, who held that there was One and only One God, and their opponents, who believed in the deity of Jesus. It was a particularly vexing problem because, while neither side was strong enough to win, the Church as a whole could not afford to let either side lose.
The monotheists could not lose because Jesus was a monotheist, and the Christians, like Jesus himself, were firmly rooted in the Pharisaic traditions regarding how many gods were really God. To reject monotheism was to undermine the whole theological foundation of Christianity, and to cast doubts on whether Jesus really knew and taught the truth about God. So the monotheists had to be victorious.
On the other hand, to interpret Jesus’ death as a sacrificial atonement for all mankind, the Christians had to see Jesus as more than just a man, otherwise the sacrifice of one (merely) human life would suffice to pay for the sins of (merely) one other human follower. To be an infinite payment for sins, the Cross would need to involve the death of an infinite Being, so that the value of His life would be sufficient to pay for an unlimited number of sins.
So monotheistically, Jesus could not be God, and yet, paradoxically, neither could he fail to be God. Somehow, both sides needed to win even though each contradicted the other.
The Church councils tried to resolve this dilemma, and failed, ultimately sweeping it all under the “unfathomable” rug of “holy mystery.” But though they failed in the rational realm, they managed to achieve a brilliant and enduring success in a different realm: the psychosocial.
What the Church councils did was to create an official doctrine, which they named “The Trinity,” and which they defined as incorporating both of the conflicting views of deity, without any attempt to explain or reconcile the conflict between them. But the stroke of genius, the factor that turned the Trinity from an obvious false doctrine into a cornerstone of Christian dogma, was to institutionalize and promote this contradiction by teaching church members to regularly recite an official, ritual, Trinitarian formula. And even to this day, it is not uncommon for some branches of Christianity to recite the Nicene Creed as part of their weekly worship.
The reason this is so ingenious and effective is that it puts the believer in the position of having to learn a very specific dogma, expressed using a very specific and ritualized formula. The creed is long enough to require some small mental effort to learn, yet not so long as to be out of reach for anybody who really tries. By teaching that the Trinity is a “mystery,” by teaching believers that there’s a “right” way and a “wrong” way to express the doctrinal formula, and by having them recite the “correct” formula every week, the Church bypassed the believer’s normal critical thinking, and taught them to judge the rightness or wrongness of the idea strictly in terms of how accurately it reproduces the official formula.
You can see this whenever there’s a debate over whether or not the doctrine of the Trinity is true. The skeptic can point out the inescapable contradictions in the doctrine, but the believer is unfazed, and replies that the skeptic “doesn’t understand” the doctrine he’s trying to refute. The believer will then typically “explain” the doctrine by reciting the ritual formula, believing that because this is the recitation he’s most familiar with, it is therefore the “correct” expression of the doctrine. And because he feels like this particular formula is the “correct” one, he thinks he has demonstrated that the content of the formula is also correct.
In fact, the skeptic did not fail to understand the doctrine of the Trinity—far from it, because his whole argument is based on showing the contradictions between the twin aspects of the doctrine. Yes, he knows that the Trinity teaches “one God in three Persons,” that’s why he’s pointing out the logical problems in saying that three distinct persons, each of whom is God, are at the same time one God in any meaningful sense. But to the believer, this contradiction merely confirms the Trinitarian declaration that human intellect cannot understand the Trinity. The territory is familiar, and therefore the doctrine has nothing wrong with it.
Thus the Trinity becomes a doctrine that is immune to critical thinking. Because the official, ritual formula for the Trinity incorporates the inherent conflict between monotheism and polytheism (without directly addressing or resolving it), the believer will react to this contradiction by feeling a warm sense of familiarity and tradition rather than by perceiving the self-contradiction as a red flag. Rote repetition replaces rational relevance—it doesn’t matter that the Trinity is a self-contradiction, because it’s a traditional self-contradiction. The familiarity of the ritual works its magic on the believer, and deprives him of the insight he needs in order to distinguish truth from untruth.
And so the doctrine endures. We can try in vain to point out that it’s not a question of the Trinity being a hard doctrine to understand, it’s a question of getting people to realize that a self-contradictory man-made doctrine is a flawed and false doctrine. If someone adds one plus one plus one and comes up with an answer that is not the sum of three ones, it’s not because you, the listener, need to study some advanced calculus that contradicts basic mathematical principles, it’s because the flaws in wrong answers prevent them from adding up consistently.
Truth is consistent with itself. The Trinity is not. If we cannot tell that the Trinity is untrue, then we’ve lost the ability to genuinely know the difference between what’s true and what isn’t. And if that’s the case, why should anyone come to us for spiritual or moral guidance?