Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Relationships in the Bible

The "original meaning scholar" inside of me always cringes a little when I read about Moses' relationship with God... or David's or Peter's or Paul's. Frankly, I have the same reaction when people talk about the relationships between the persons of the Trinity. The reason? These sorts of comments strike me as vastly anachronistic.

Six months ago I would have tried to explain this "feeling" I get in terms of ancient personalities being "dyadic" or group embedded. I might have suggested that the modern, introspective self traces back to the Romantics and in some ways back to Augustine, who individualized our understanding of Paul's writings.

Charles Taylor's Sources of the Self has been filling in some of the details. I wish I had the time to encapsulate his massive tome in detail. One of the main shifts that I blogged on a few weeks back is a shift from seeing truth as something out there that is part of the order of the world to seeing truth as something that my mind has to sort out by sifting through all the particular evidence of my reason and senses.

Inadvertantly, "I" become the center of the universe. I can still affirm that God is the center, but I am keenly aware that I am concluding that God is the center. Before I simply assumed God was the center unthinkingly. (I sense that Taylor will go Heideggerian on me at the end, but I'm no fan of Heidegger, meaning that I find this Cartesian situation unavoidable to some extent).

Eventually, individual identity becomes more and more particular to me. "I" become more and more self-defined, determined, and differentiated. It thus entails the eventual birth of modern intimacy, where my vastly increased in size self connects with your vastly increased in size self.

What I'm getting at is that pre-moderns did not have nearly as developed senses of themselves as individuals as so many of us do. And as a result, their relationships were not nearly as deep or complex as ours can be. It is not simply that "abba" did not mean "Daddy" in Aramaic (it didn't). I am saying that there really weren't any "Daddys" of the modern sort. Love between individuals did not have the kind of differentiated complexity--or post-Romantic age feeling--that we often have in the Western world. Go look at relationships in Africa or Asia if you want to know what biblical relationships were like.

Now of course the Trinity is a realm of absolutes beyond cultural contexts. The Trinity did not change their interrelationships after Descartes, as far as I know. But I'm not sure any of us mortals could really fathom what their absolute relationships would be like. Nevertheless, I predict that most of the trendy trinitarian stuff right now will be completely abandoned within twenty or thirty years. I suspect that an aweful lot of it is yet more of the post-Cartesian, post-Romantic projection of the modern self on God.


mwp said...

Interesting piece, and this line "Go look at relationships in Africa or Asia if you want to know what biblical relationships were like" made me want to do what you suggest (sadly, I'm in a position to "look at" but not to "go"). Does the Taylor book talk about relationships in Africa?

Many thanks!

Ken Schenck said...

That was my addition rather than Taylor's. It should not be heard pejoratively. What I am saying is that a world in which marriages might easily be arranged is more like the biblical worlds than our highly individuated worlds where long courtships are often considered necessary for us to get to know each other.

JohnLDrury said...

I think your bit at the end about trinitarian fads is spot on, though I am less optimistic that it will go away as quickly as you do. I say so because the connection is too deep: the traditional doctrine says God is three "persons," which in its original pre-modern context did not include the concept of "self-consciousness" so central to personhood after Descartes. Moderns hear "person" and think God is an egalitarian society of three individuals. Nicea does not teach this, and squaring such a revision with the New Testament is even harder than for the traditional doctrine. But the meaning of "personhood" has been so deeply enriched by the concept of self-consciousness and its accompanying romantic practices, that the trend to overstate the meaning of the trinity is a recurring one in the modern period. This is precisely why some theologians have eschewed the language of person altogether in their accounts of the trinity (e.g., Barth, Rahner, etc.).

mwp said...

Thanks, Ken. I didn't read your comment as potentially pejorative, and your reference to arranged marriages helped me understand the direction you're going.

I'm with you, but I can't help wondering about David. So over the top, such a scoundrel, and God so helplessly fond of him. Doesn't it seem modern in an almost Shakespearean way (think Lear)?

And, to drop God out of the equation, what about "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!" Is it completely anachronistic to imagine a personal resonance that any modern parent can feel?

John Mulholland said...

"The Trinity did not change their interrelationships after Descartes, as far as I know."

That's a pretty funny line. I thought of a song by David Bazan aka Pedro the Lion called "Letter from a Concerned Follower":

"it's weird to think of all the things
that have not been keeping up with the times
it's ten o' clock the sun is down
just begun to set the western hills on fire
i hear that you don't change
how do you expect to keep up with the trends
you won't survive the information age
unless you plan to change the truth to accommodate the brilliance of man
the brilliance of man

some folks think we're better now
social evolutions new synthetic breed
you'll keep us on a straighter path
better than used brand new math with no wrong answers

i'm just a little bit worried
do you have some sort of plan
have you been finally defeated
by the cunning of these fully evolved men

i hear that you don't change
how do you expect to keep up with the trends
you won't survive the information age
unless you plan to change the truth to accommodate the brilliance of man
the brilliance of man"

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Relationships in the modern paradigm are built as much on "economic" value as anything, because economics drives the modern world, in trade and commerce. This represents the industialized 'self' which has gifts to give and talents to sell. And these relationships are negotiated, not arranged. Otherwise, one enslaves the other, which in our modern sense is anathema to "good business ethics", which is equality under law.

(A side-line to abuse of the 'equality under law', means much to the question of our present immigration policy. Does the human or the citizen have the right to voice?)

npmccallum said...

Ken, good stuff.

John, not that you implied this, but for the record, Nicea doesn't teach "persons," Tertullian does. How the latin persona maps to the cappadocian hypostasis is still up for considerable debate.

You are 100% correct that Nicea doesn't teach "an egalitarian society of three individuals." In fact, it teaches that there is one God (the Father) and that He has begotten a son and processes a spirit and shares with them all it means to be divine (but not Fatherhood). In doing so it maintains the "Christ is both God and not God" paradox present in the apostolic writings. Further, it seems to me that attributing Cartesian self-awareness to the divine "persons" would fly in the face of the Christology of Maximus in the monothelite controversy.

Thus, it seems to me that the theological difficulties which result from applying modernist philosophies as norms to Christian theology are correlated to the abandonment of classical, conciliar Christian anthropologies. One may not have one's cake and eat it too so to speak. I'm not really sure that this fares well for post-modernity either.

Dr. Bence used to ask an opinion question in his final for Theology I: Should we bother teaching classical (conciliar) Christology in the post-modern age? It is a good question indeed. I suspect that evangelicalism's nearly-unanimous "no" to this question exacerbates the theological problems generated by whatever correctives are applied since said correctives are normed primarily by contemporary concerns rather than the perspicuity that comes with awareness of ancient ones. It is, as CS Lewis calls it, "chronological snobbery."

Anonymous said...

God in three witnesses sounds a better option. Matt 3:16,17

Paul Schultz said...

As one who has spent some time in Northern Africa...I must say I enjoy my relationship with my wife a great deal more than the "typical" relationship between husbands and wives there, but I must also admit that I envy their men to men I wouldn't necessarily say that all of our relationships are at a greater depth. That said, I do imagine that you are quite correct that African relationships are much closer to the Biblical world.