Saturday, May 19, 2012

An Answer to a Seeking Atheist

ImageToday I read a post on Reddit from an atheist inquiring into faith in God. At one point in the discussion, he expresses puzzlement on how Jesus could pray to God if he is actually God. I wrote a really long post, and I thought that after going to so much trouble, I should also share it here in case it could be of help to others.
The nature of Theology
Since you are an intelligent and scientifically minded person, I think you would benefit from knowing a little about how theology is done. There are some similarities between science and theology in that in both disciplines, there is a set of data and an attempt to understand and explain it. The data for science comes from observation and experimentation. The data for theology is divine revelation as it has been perceived by some human and communicated in some form that we can study and try to interpret it.

A dominant theme in the Judeo-Christian tradition is that God is Holy, which means that God is entirely unique. God is unlike anything in the universe; he is an entirely different order of being. The difference between God and the entire universe is greater the difference between the entire universe and an electron. You can take a bunch of electrons and other elementary particles and build a universe, but you cannot even begin to build God out of a bunch of universes.

So, this fact that God is unlike anything else in our experience causes us to doubt if we can even talk about God intelligently. Thomas Aquinas (13th century) says that we can because God created the universe to be a kind of revelation of his nature, and he created us in his image. The grandure of the universe hints at the grandure of God, even though God's grandure is of an entirely different kind. The love of a father and mother for their child and the love of a husband for his wife both give us indications of God's love for us, even though the love of God is entirely different from human love.

So, when Christian theology says that God is Trinity, we mean that the concept of Trinity is the best that we we've been able to come up with given what we are able to understand of what God has revealed to us.

Why believe in the Trinity?
The experience of the Jewish people throughout their history and their interaction with God deeply impressed upon them that there is only one true God, the creator and ruler of the universe. As we enter the first century, this belief is firmly embedded in the Jewish people, not only in Palestine, but also in enclaves dispersed throughout the Roman empire. The theological and moral beliefs of the Jews were so distinctive that it was not uncommon for people of non-Jewish descent to be attracted to their religion at that time.

Then along comes a carpenter's son named Jesus. Jesus called God his "Father", which in his day was unheard of. It implied an intimacy with God that no human had a right to claim. He demonstrated command over the forces of nature, and performed healings that had never been seen before. He told people that his sins were forgiven, which was considered blasphemous because a sin is an offense against God, so sins could only be forgiven by God. He claimed to be building the kingdom of God and that he would judge the world, which was also seen as claiming God-like authority.

The character and teaching of Jesus attracted followers, but his outrageous claims turned others off and ignited such fierce opposition that he was executed for blasphemy against God and treason against the Roman empire. This shameful defeat was a crushing blow for his followers, but amazingly, within a couple of months they were in the streets of Jerusalem preaching that the crucified man is the Son of God. God has vindicated him by raising him from the dead. A following sprang up in Jerusalem and soon spread throughout the Roman empire, despite persecution from Jewish and later Roman authorities.

So, the problem early Christians had to wrestle with is who is Jesus, and how does his identity square with what they already knew from the Jewish tradition they had inherited. They could not reject that tradition because it had been endorsed by Jesus, but how to reconcile Jewish monotheism with the divine characteristics and claims of Jesus? Also, how can a divine being be so human?

The data pointed to the one Jesus called "Father" as being God, but also Jesus is the "Son" who came down from heaven. Jesus also taught about the "Holy Spirit", who also seemed to have divine attributes. Jesus also taught the apostles to baptize new believers in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, which implied an equality among the three. So we appear to have three divine beings in a religious tradition founded on the idea of one God. Various schemes were devised that tended to weaken one side or the other of the equation, and these were rejected. Even though they couldn't figure it out, the Christians knew that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, and there is only one God.

What was eventually worked out is that the "substance" of God (Greek physis, Latin substantia) is one. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are "consubstantial" or of one substance. We don't know what the substance is, but substance is what we call the thing about God that is *one*. However, in the one substance there are three "persons" (Greek hypostasis, Latin persona). We use the word "person" a lot today, but it was not a common word in the first century. They would have refered to a human individual using the word for "man", "woman", or "human" in their language. "Person" was more of a theater term, coming from the word for the mask used in Greek theater. The mouth part of a Greek theater mask was constructed like a megaphone so that it amplified the voice of the speaker. The word "person" came to mean "one who speaks". So, we don't know much about what differentiates the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit because they are of the same substance, but we do know they speak to each other, so we call them persons.

The Nature of Jesus The understanding of Jesus grew alongside the concept of the Trinity. What developed was the understanding that the three persons of the Trinity have eternally existed, but ~2000 years ago, one of the persons, the Son, took on human nature in the womb of the virgin Mary. In his person, he united God and humanity, thus building a bridge between God and the human race, making it possible for humans to know God and be made like him.

Therefore, it is believed that Jesus is God the Son who has taken on a complete human nature. The Son sacrificed nothing of his divine nature in order to become human, and there is no part of our human nature that he did not take on, except for sin, which is not a part of original human nature. So, when we see Jesus praying to the Father, we see God the Son, as a man, speaking to God the Father. As a man, Jesus is giving other men and women an example of prayer. As God the Son, his prayer is perfect communion with the Father. And, as we follow Jesus, by grace we become partakers of his divine nature, and our prayer can approach the perfect communion that Jesus has.

I will stop this long post at this point. I hope it helps.

1 comment:

Dave P. said...

Hey Greg, I just found your blog. This post is very well written, and quite a good answer to the question! Thanks for such good work! I'll try to give you a call for your special day, soon approaching. Hopefully, we can catch up! Blessings, Dave