Believing in Words and Symbols

In a previous post I discussed “true belief” and some of the comments have gotten quite interesting. I’ve considered promoting part of the exchange with commenter Lifewish to a post of its own.

One commenter mentioned the issue of essentially believing the Nicene Creed as opposed to a more simple statement of belief in God, the divine, the supernatural, or another similar concept. I want to make even clearer that my own leap of faith was not to the Nicene Creed, but rather to a simple belief in a “ground of all being” underlying and beyond existence. Now the same theologian who coined the phrase “ground of all being”, Paul Tillich, also noted that all language referring to God was by nature symbolic, which is one of a number of substantial contributions he has made to theological discourse. I could wish that I had been less concentrated on pure Biblical studies, and a little more open to theological reflection, as a seminary student. Had I read Tillich in seminary I might have saved myself much needless confusion.

I believe that our theological language tends to begin in spiritual experience. That is not to say that all theologians are somehow mystics and relate their own experiences, but rather that theology starts with people who hear voices, see visions, or dream dreams that they regard as meaningful. I have a certain amount of the mystic in me, as I have related recently, and thus I can state the first of two points from personal experience: When you put a spiritual experience into words it immediately loses something. When I feel the presence of God I cannot completely relate that story in words. Words are limited. Words are, by nature, intended to describe things. We even find them a bit inadequate dealing with emotions.

Thus the validity of what I say about spiritual experience is automatically subject to question. When I take a step further, and start generalizing doctrines, such as the doctrine of the trinity, I have taken several steps beyond that, as I use symbolic language to describe generalized, common spiritual experience. There is a big difference in my mind between saying, “I believe in God,” and saying “I believe in the trinity.” If nothing else, the first is part of the “leap of faith” I described previously, while the second is something derived from that, and form the experience and teaching of others.

Some of my orthodox brethren may get pretty uncomfortable with this, but while I regard myself as a trinitarian Christian, because I find the language of the trinity most useful in talking about God, I have serious doubts about how accurately that doctrine, or any other doctrine of God, actually describes God. I find that the language of trinitarian theology combines quite well the mystery and the experience of God as I encounter it. The language of the trinity works perfectly well for me. But I have no basis for jumping on people who cannot accept it. While I have said that I no longer can imagine not believing in God–I’ve tried to disbelieve and failed–I could easily imagine a set of circumstances that might cause me to quit believing in the trinity. Just provide me with a better set of symbols to use in talking about the divine, tie them into the tradition (long-term experience) of my community, and I’ll take a look.

One argument that will not convince me that the trinity is false (or not useful), however, is the argument that it doesn’t make sense. It does, and it doesn’t. In my view it describes our experience of God quite well, and it points me toward God effectively. At the same time it has the truly endearing quality of refusing to let me feel that I have fully grasped it. In a similar way, I think that if I think I have grasped God fully, that is the best indication that I’m off the track. I think it’s going to be hard to invent a doctrine that works better (for me) as a symbol for God than the trinity, but I leave open the door to such trials.

In conclusion I just want to say that I find tinkering with theological concepts great fun. It is unfortunate that there has been so much judgment applied to the process, and that people have been put to death over mysterious doctrines such as the trinity. Considering our infinite ignorance of God (at least I regard myself as infinitely ignorant of an infinite being), it seems awesomely arrogant to burn other people at the stake over disagreements between our various forms of ignorance–or to condemn or ostracize them.

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  1. On the Trinity: I agree that there may be some inadequacy on the normal orthodox view, but honestly, can you think of any other way to resolve the tension? Even though the analogy isn’t superb, I keep coming back in my mind to the connection John Polkinghorne makes in Belief in God in an Age of Science between the struggle of the early church with Trinitarian beliefs and the current scientific uncertainty with quantum mechanics and general relativity. It seems right to say that God is one and God is triune, even though there seems to be a conflict between the two statements, and so the typical Trinitarian view makes the best sense out of the evidence by attempting to combine two statements that paradoxically both appear to be true. Unless we get new revelation on the subject (or, as Aquinas suggested, when we experience the beatific vision), Trinitarian language is the best that we can do is describe God in our language, however inadequate that may be.

    1. Perhaps I wasn’t clear. I think the trinity works just fine. I was trying to say that if someone came up with a better doctrine it would have to cover all those bases just as well.

      The mystery is a good thing, in my view!

  2. I read this post and I agree with pretty much everything you have to say here. But the one thing that popped to mind was an expression that we use a lot in my line of work – Eventually you have to shoot the engineer and start production. The symbolic nature of the engineering work only becomes useful when a product goes out the door. And it doesn’t matter much whether the person using the product understands or cares about the theory for it to be useful.

    The same should be true of any theological pursuit. If it eventually gets you to the right course of action, then it has accomplished its purpose. Getting too wrapped up in the minutiae of the details to the extent that your theology never leaves the symbolic world is akin to letting the engineer hold up production.

    As I was raised catholic, I appreciated their willingness to allow discussion of visions seen by their saints if they served to help understand something better even if the details of the vision were judged to be improbable. Symbology is important in it’s communication of truth if it leads to action, otherwise it’s not very useful.

    1. I love your comment on shooting the engineer and going into production. I’ve been there on both sides of the question, as the engineer who really needs to be shot, and as the manager who’s saying, “We can keep tweaking all day, but somewhere we have to draw the line.”

      Speaking of symbolic language, that’s a very good analogy!

  3. It seems to me that putting any special emphasis on the Trinity is like putting special emphasis on the fact that the NT was written in Greek. With the choice of language comes a certain amount of choice of worldview, but the fact that the NT was written in Greek shouldn’t be the primary thing that informs our understanding of God.

    The trinity is a well-established Indo-European idea that gets imposed on Christianity as it shifts into a more Greek world. But it’s an idea that works better for Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva than it does for Father-Son-Spirit. It’s the less than perfect fit of an imported idea. I find the blind men and the elephant to be more useful. Does that make me a pachydermian? 🙂

  4. Thank you so much for this wonderful post. Yes, words are slippery things when talking about God, but you’ve found just the right words to describe my experience too.

    A sort of vision I had when I was fourteen gave me a symbolic picture of God; and when I ask myself whether perhaps God does not, after all, exist, that vision returns in my memory and I find it impossible to disbelieve. It’s that experience rather than anything I read in the Bible or the Nicene Creed that forms the foundation of my belief. It was my leap of faith, and I’ve found there’s no going back.

    An integral part of that vision was an image symbolizing how limited and therefore inaccurate are any and all human descriptions of God. Yes, the metaphor of the Trinity is useful as long as it is useful, but I agree that it’s important not to mistake a metaphor for the truth it describes.

  5. To steal a phrase from another religion, “The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao”; I agree with you completely that everything is originally founded on people’s mystical experience and that there’s a huge loss in rendering that into communication with others – even, I find, people who have had mystical experiences of their own.

    As do you, I find this even more difficult than expressing the truth of emotion in words – I find poetry best for emotion, and I suppose I also find it very useful for mystical experience, though occasionally just pure paradox does the job best of all. Oh, and if experience of God is not hugely emotional and perhaps entirely in either the realm of emotion or something “just past that heading in the same direction”, it doesn’t speak to me.

    And, of course, poetry is using words in an incredibly loose manner, figuratively rather than literally – my goodness, doesn’t that sound like “mythos” to me? As opposed, of course, to logos…

    Incidentally, my apologies (again) for my long absence from here, with a work part-performed.

    1. Chris, Nice to see you back. Since I developed some of these ideas in conversation with you, it is no wonder that you see them so clearly.

      I apologize for taking so long to respond to comments, but this has been the week from hell, and I haven’t responded to a number of things that I should have.

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