The magic of ritual

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?

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Posted in Unapologetics. 12 Comments »

12 Responses to “The magic of ritual”

  1. jim Says:

    Firstly, a belated welcome back.

    This is a nice angle I’ve never really considered before, Duncan. The Trinity is one of the most emphatically stressed doctrines in traditional Christianity, as are the accusations of heresy against anybody who takes a stab at trying to actually interpret the thing. It endures precisely because of this rote acknowledgment, coupled with a blind defensive posture against challenges. Rituals, pledges, and oaths of different kinds are all meant to bypass serious scrutiny to one degree or another, I think. Don’t dissect it, just drill it in!

  2. chasmotron Says:

    Just FYI:

    There are Christian groups that reject the trinity. They
    say that Jesus does not need to be infinite, his death redeems Adam, which then saves everyone else.

  3. Deacon Duncan Says:

    That’s quite true; there are a variety of groups who consider themselves Christian but reject the Trinity. Probably the most famous such group would be the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but there are also groups like the United Pentecostals, The Way International, any number of the more liberal branches of Christianity (the way liberal branches, that is). The Mormons are a special case: they claim to believe in the Trinity, but they redefine “Trinity” so as to remove the strictly monotheistic elements from the doctrine.

  4. EdW Says:

    Pretty intriguing stuff — I guess I have a hard time realizing sometimes that when a person trots out the Nicene Creed, or other tropes like the creationist chestnut “there are no transitional forms”, they haven’t necessarily arrived at that conclusion by any form of reason – they know it because they believe it because they know it.

    I think we can also learn from this, watch out for the catch-phrase mentality ourselves. It might behoove us to revisit the things we learned by rote in early school, the things we may assume are our own thoughts and beliefs because they were planted in our brains early and often. Luckily, we have recourse in reason for winnowing out the wheat from the chaff.

    Of course, ritual and rote have important purposes other than the drill-baby-drill of systematic memorization to bypass logical thought. As social constructs, ritual and rote are powerful tools for building communities — an ex-girlfriend of mine’s family had a specific ritual for Thanksgiving Dinner; The ritual had no particular meaning, no overall significance, but taking part certainly made me feel like part of the family. Learning the Nicene Creed or a Statement of Faith is like learning the secret code for the club, it declares you and others an “us” by defining common beliefs in a clear, spelled-out way. It’s not always a way out of logical thought, but a way into community.

    Or not. That’s my two cents, anyways.

  5. Hunt Says:

    Christian doctrine is, in the terminology of programming and engineering, a “kludge.” — A series of inconveniences or design flaws necessitating further embellishment. In the end it can become quite an embarrassment.

    It’s not limited to the doctrine of trinity. Theodicy requires an earth-bound malevolent factor, a Satan, who creates misery and destruction. That perfect beings created by God are so utterly shitty, so often, requires that we “fell” from grace, and so on.

    Deacon, I appreciate your maxim that “truth is consistent with truth,” and even if you can strengthen that by saying that “truth is ONLY consistent with truth,” which is ultimately true in a global sense…the fact is that Christianity lives and breathes by the fact that falseness is consistent with falseness to a reasonable enough degree that the wool can be pull over many eyes for a very long time.

    One web definition for kludge: “a badly assembled collection of parts hastily assembled to serve some particular purpose (often used to refer to computing systems or software that has been badly put together)”

    Not sure if it’s ever been applied to the category “mind virus.”

  6. EdW Says:

    I’m not sure I can agree with the “kludge” assessment — with the exception of patently falsified religions such as Scientology or Mormonism, where their founders quite literally had to think on their feet to come up with excuses for their theological or simply logical failings.

    The birth of most religious dogma is an organic, almost evolutionary process, born out of traditions, common practices, beliefs, and communities, and the occasional upset by important and revolutionary figures (perhaps a sort of punctuated equilibria for religious doctrine). You are right in saying that the dogma is a necessary fix because of obvious errors and oversights, but you want to call religious dogma a “kludge” then I would hazard that you should also call most organisms “kludges” too. Religious doctrine is simply an adaptation to protect religious ideology from attack, I think.

  7. Hunt Says:

    I understand what you’re saying. I guess it depends on your “kludge” definition. In its loose form it could constitute any inferior design or contrivance, which basically means all instances of design, in hindsight. So in that form it’s pretty all encompassing and hence useless. There are probably instances, crisis points in religious development, like your examples for Mormonism, that can conservatively be called “kludges” in a more conventional sense,–n that theocrats actively compensated for embarrassing inconsistency with additional kludgey doctrine.

  8. Arthur Says:

    …[if] you want to call religious dogma a “kludge” then I would hazard that you should also call most organisms “kludges” too.

    Actually, that sounds about right. Richard “The Devil” Dawkins in particular (if I remember right) talks about organisms this way all the time, as a superstructure of found items recruited to meet the needs of specific occasions. Or words to that effect.

  9. Hunt Says:

    I think the distinction is between “kludging” and “jury rigging.” While the two are related, there is a difference. Jury rigging is using the available tools at hand, in a MacGyver kind of may. Biological systems are famous for this. Kludging, however, employs an element of cover-up or deception, where some external agency recognizes a design flaw and adds further embellishment to the system to make it work.

  10. EdW Says:

    I could agree with that, and I would definitely call the majority of theological apologetics kludgey at best. I’m still not sure though that there are many instances of people *intentionally* covering up flaws in their philosophy. I’m not sure anyone looked at their theology, said “well that just doesn’t make any sense” and put together a workaround.

    Or maybe that’s exactly how it happened. Hard to say, I suppose.

    I found a website the other day that is entirely devoted to jury-rigs, called “There, I Fixed It.” Hilarious stuff.

  11. Hunt Says:

    “I’m not sure anyone looked at their theology, said “well that just doesn’t make any sense” and put together a workaround.”

    True. If all else fails, difficulties can always be chalked up to “mystery,” which — as was covered in another post — is a catch-all phrase for unresolved inconsistency. The Catholic Church, however, is famous for arriving at resolutions that solve recognized problems, sometimes after centuries of deliberation. Those, I think, would constitute true religious kludges, since they meet all the requirements of intention, deliberation, execution and resolution. And they are usually bear the hallmark of the kludge: utter inelegance.

  12. EdW Says:

    I think that’s a pretty apt definition, and I acknowledge your status as a scholar and a gentleman.