Thursday, May 08, 2008

"Evangelical" Defined

For many the word “evangelical” is a fighting word. Depending on your personal beliefs “evangelical” means standing for the truth or standing for narrow-mindedness and bigotry. It really means neither.

Evangelical is an adjective used to describe someone who propagates the Good News of Jesus Christ. In and of itself the term is somewhat neutral, though over the past decades it has been associated with the right wing of the Republican Party. An evangelical Christian, which is really an oxymoron given that all Christians are charged with spreading the Gospel, may or may not be in favor of abortion, capital punishment, evolution, deregulated capitalism, the Rapture, or dancing. Yet the word continues to be used as if it told us something.

To help correct matters some, the Evangelical Theological Society has issued an evangelical manifesto that requires those who label themselves evangelical to adhere to two principles: the inerrancy of Scripture, and belief in the triune God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as “separate but equal in attributes and glory” and essential for salvation. Now evangelicals can vote Democratic and dance at the inauguration balls. Good for them!

But I am now more troubled than before. I know that most evangelicals accepted the idea that the Bible was without error. Most of my Bible students at Middle Tennessee State come into my class with this belief, and, much to my dismay, leave with it intact as well. But I didn’t know that the Trinity required a belief in a separate but equal clause; the key word being “separate.” If Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are separate then they are distinct, they are three not one, and hence evangelicals are polytheists. That surprised me.

To look deeper, I checked the Catholic Encyclopedia and learned that according to the Athanasian Creed: "the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, and yet there are not three Gods but one God." Obviously someone can’t count. Each of the three Persons of the Trinity is co-eternal and co-equal: all alike are uncreated and omnipotent. Which means, despite creedal assurances otherwise, that there are three Gods. You can’t be co-anything if you are the same thing. So I stand corrected. I thought the charge of Christian polytheism was a slur, but now I don't think so. I think they do believe in three gods, but have found it politically inexpedient to just come out and say so.

Now I have no problem with people believing what they like. I stand with Tom Jefferson on this, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. (Notes on Virginia, 1782). Believe what you like, but be honest about it. If you believe in three Gods, say so, but don’t pretend that you really believe in one God.

The Hindus have their trinity: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva but say they these gods are attributes of the One God Brahman and not three co-equal deities. And the Hindu Rig Veda, the oldest scripture in the world says, “Truth is One, different people call it by different names.” This is my understanding as well, but it isn't the evangelical or Catholic position. I just find it fascinating that in the 21st Century people still believe in multiple gods. But then I am still amazed that you get two scoops of raisins in every box of Post Raisin Bran. Every box!


Lindsay said...

what a great blog entry -- I am in agreement with you, and am always relieved when someone discuss Vedanta with some understanding. God is One, truth is one; call it what you like, but One is all there is...

AaronHerschel said...
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AaronHerschel said...

Truth is one, eh? Sure. If it wasn't, what would "truth" even mean?

And yet this idea, the idea at the heart of monotheism, that there is one universal truth, one god, one morality, one correct set of rituals, one chosen people, flies in the face of Jefferson's live and let worship approach. In fact, it is anathema to pluralist democracy, since it negates the possibility of multiple co-existing beliefs and ways of life. Look to Elijah and the priests of Baal, for example.

This is why Hillel's Golden Rule is so important. His injunction to "NOT do unto others what you would NOT have them do unto you" is the only thing keeping monotheism ethical. Unlike Jesus' version, which is pro-active, Hillel's actually prohibits me from evangelizing, and more importantly from crusading, since no matter how "good" spreading the truth might seem to me, I would NOT want anyone else's good news rammed down my throat at knife point.

Without this injunction, the doctrine of one god, one truth, one ethics, would seem to call for a globe straddling theocracy as its earthly embodiment ... like, say, the Holy Roman Empire.

Intellectually speaking, monotheism, without a complex and indeed self-contradictory ethics, is just a hop skip and a jump from fascism. And you don't have to look far for examples of the monotheistic fascist. This is why the Talmudic tradition of contradiction and unresolved dialectic tension is so important. It embeds heterodoxy in an epistemology that would seem vulnerable to a rather dangerous and deadening obsession with uniformity and conformity.

Jeff said...

Monotheism means there is only one God or Devinity. I don't see why it means one truth, one ritual, etc.

In truth (ahem), there is one devinity, beyond description. There are many systems of metaphor and thus many paths which lead to an appreciation of the One. Many monotheists hold that the ONE is actually, in essence, unknowable, so we need to respect many paths, any which are not harmful which opens a whole nother can of worms.

AaronHerschel said...

If the One is unknowable (and I definitely lean this way), how can I know that he/she/it is One?

Quibbling aside, while I agree that there needs to be a great deal more peaceful exogomy between religions, I can't help but feel that the honoring of multiplicity is not strictly a religious position, but a humanist one.

Consider that the foundational monotheistic myth, the story of Abraham leaving his father's house, hinges on a battle. Young Abe plays war with the idols in his Dad's shop, smashing those gods to dust to find out which One among them is the most powerful, and hence the true god.

Of course, none of the idols will do, but that test of power becomes something of a trope in the Torah. Elijah enacts it again with the priests of Baal. Moses enacts it when confronting Pharaoh. The message is always "our God is the real God," and the practical outcome is always a pile of corpses.

I would add that history also reveals the bias of monotheistic religions for highly restrictive and autocratic institutions: Israel under the Jewish Kings, the Holy Roman Empire, the Caliphate, the Inquisition, etc. I mention all this not to defraud monotheism, but to suggest that we need to be extremely careful with it, constantly aware of the its tendancy to centralize power and create a politics of exclusivity.

Unknown said...

I have to sort of disagree here Rabbi. I do not believe in the "trinity" (afterall, it's just a word for a concept people couldn't wrap their minds around). But, I do believe that Hashem is our Father, that He is "Spirit" and that Yeshua was a perfect expression of G-d and that his presence in the world taught people that we can indeed understand and relate to G-d. And to me, that is truly devine.

I have been around Christians all of my life and have never heard a single one of them express any type of belief in more than one G-d. (Unless you count Mormons as Christians - apparently all of their faithful will one day be gods). So I think this was a bit harsh.

I don't see anything in the writings of Yeshua's apostles where it is said "you must believe Yeshua is G-d". But you, yourself have said that Yeshua is G-d just as you are. So Rabbi Rami, if you are G-d and the rest of us are also G-d, then what is that?


Mike Smith and Rami Shapiro said...

Great discussion! I really have nothing much to add, but, since Vania addressed me directly, I would make two points.

First, my definition of the Trinity as three separate but equal gods comes from the new Evangelical Manifesto. So if anyone is misreading Christianity as polytheism (a charge by the way that is thousands of years old) it is the Evangelical Manifesto writers and not me.

Second, I do believe we are all God. For me God is all there is. So Jesus is indeed God, and maybe even paradigmatic of what a God-realized person can be. But Jesus-as-Paradigm is very different from Jesus-as-Christ which is the key to almost all forms of Christianity.

Of course saying God is everything may also be saying that God is nothing; no-thing in particular. In which case polytheism, meaning the willingness to accept all gods as equally legitimate, which may well be the operative theological compromise in a globalist society, may also be a subtle way of undermining gods and theologies altogether.