Monday, October 31, 2011

The Trinitarian Conundrum

You might say that life is not predominantly—or even superficially—a logical endeavor. Life transcends logic, and therefore religion does too. At the practical level logic does its manual labor, but the higher reaches are intuitive. Christianity illustrates this. It is the only monotheistic religion which features a triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Belief in these three persons, who are yet a single God, is the mark of all those who subscribe to the Apostles’ Creed. The scriptural roots of this appear in Matthew 28:16-20, the concluding verses of that gospel. The resurrected Jesus appears to his followers on a mountain in Galilee. There Jesus said to them: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” This verse is then formulated, in or around 390 AD into the Apostles’ Creed. In the Latin version, the Son is conceived of the Holy Spirit (conceptus est de Spiritu Sancto)—and since the conception is actually experienced by the Virgin Mary, the obvious reading is that God is most definitely masculine. How else can we read this?

But religions are intuitive structures. Not surprisingly, therefore—and almost by way of a kind of Law of Compensation—the Our Lady becomes a very major symbolical figure, at least in Catholicism. Her statues and images are everywhere—and rare the office of Jesuit professors I used to visit in college where a prominent painting or statue of Mary was not the distinctive art in those offices. Indeed I remember reading, with approval of course, Robert Graves opining that the enduring quality of Catholicism as a religion, and (he might have added) its continuing strong attraction of converts everywhere, is due to a cultural correction introduced into the extraordinarily masculine theology by popular intuition. Once you open up that indivisible number, One, and thus (however explained, however theologized away) multiple persons appear—which, of course, happens in every religion sooner or later, if the real essence of it is strong—the numbers will multiply and the Feminine will make its appearance.

Catholicism makes a kind of conceptual but in practice meaningless distinction between veneration and worship. It is permissible to venerate the Virgin Mary but not to worship her. Doing that would be Mariolatry (rhymes with idolatry), a word of Protestant coinage dating to the eighteenth century.

Religions have a life of their own—and the cultural realities of it have more weight than the theological skeletons that are largely always out of sight. Thus also Buddhism evolved from a kind of very focused, ascetic elite pursuit into the Mahayana, with far more members than any other of its endlessly growing strands. But women in Buddhism are still written in very small letters. How many people know, for example, that the Buddha had been married? Or what Mrs. Gautama’s name had been? Well, for the record, she was the Princess Yahodharā. And she and the Buddha had had a boy called Rāhula. Learn something new every day.

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