Sunday, February 14, 2010

Wieseltier vs. Sullivan: A Question on the Trinity

I haven't gotten into the whole contretemps between Andrew Sullivan and Leon Wieseltier because I haven't had time to read all of Wieseltier's opus and consider what I think of his criticisms of Sullivan. I have been disturbed at what seems to me Sullivan's gradual turning against Israel over the last year or so. But part of my thinking about him comes from how it is that he turned against the Bush Administration and the war in Iraq - not all of a sudden or reflexively, but after a lot of consideration. His long discussions about Abu Ghraib and torture had a big impact on my thinking about the Bush Administration, and contributed to my turning against them. I think he is coming from a deep concern with the morality/ethics of government action in democratic societies.

I do wish that he was a bit more careful in his language about Israel, and I'm starting to think that he would benefit from actually going to Israel/Palestine and talking to people on the ground. He needs a deeper basis for his judgments than he has now.

But one of the things that he objected to in Wieseltier's essay were the remarks that Wieseltier made about the Christian belief in the Trinity. Wieseltier's essay isn't particularly easy to get into - he starts off from what seems to be left-field, discussing a quote from W.H. Auden on the difficulty of explaining the Trinity to the readers of TNR (in 1944!). He then goes into a discussion of how difficult many Christian writers found it to give a rational explanation of the Trinity. He quotes Aquinas as saying, “It is impossible to attain to the knowledge of the Trinity by natural reason.” He refers then to the Church Fathers on the Trinity, and his own conclusion:
"For this reason, he [Aquinas] asserted, “we must not attempt to prove what is of faith, except by authority alone, to those who receive the authority; while as regards others, it suffices to prove that what faith teaches is not impossible.” Indeed, the despair of explanation goes all the way back to the Fathers of the Church, who afflicted themselves with the most extraordinary mental contortions–hypostasis, ousia, and the rest–to make the idea of the Trinity seem plausible. They were right, finally, to call it a mystery.
Wieseltier's judgment is that: "To regard a concept as a mystery may be a spiritual triumph, but it is an intellectual defeat." But is the debate about the Trinity really an intellectual one? I think that Aquinas' assertion that natural reason will not lead one to an understanding of the Trinity makes sense - it is a foundation of Christian faith, not a philosophical proposition.

And then Wieseltier writes about the Trinity, and this is what Sullivan most objected to:
The idea of plurality in the deity, like the idea of corporeality in the deity (Auden would not have had an easier time with the Incarnation!), represents nothing less than a retraction of the monotheistic revolution in thinking about God, a reversal of God’s sublimity, a regress to polytheistic crudity. It is completely inconsistent with everything that my mind instructs me to believe about God’s essence. (I leave aside what my mind instructs me to believe about God’s existence. We are in the realm of theology here, not the realm of philosophy.)

Of course, my stiff-necked opinion about this central tenet of the Christian faith is not only rational, it is also Jewish. The electrifying history of Jewish-Christian disputations in the Middle Ages amply documents the scrupulously argued Jewish refusal to entertain anything but a perfect unity in the conception of God. In the words of an early modern Jewish writer, whose polemical work survives in an unattributed Hebrew manuscript at the Jewish Theological Seminary, “I do not understand this and you will not be able to explain it to me.” That is not a report of a prejudice. It is a report of a view with rationally defensible grounds. The respect one must have for believers one need not have for beliefs.

Wieseltier's argument here boils down to saying that Jews do not agree with the Christian belief in the Trinity because it is not rationally defensible. Again, are Christians required to make a rational explanation for the Trinity that would satisfy nonbelievers? I don't think so - all religions have beliefs and practices that really cannot stand up to rational scrutiny (Dawkins and Hitchens have exploited the irrational in religion quite to their benefit in their books). Jews have beliefs that cannot stand up to rational scrutiny, for example the belief that the universal God who created the entire universe decided to make a covenant with one particular group of people on Earth, the Jews.

I also think there are other problems with Wieseltier's argument. Is he saying that all polytheism is "crude"? Would Hinduism then be a "crude" religion? If he's going to make this assertion, I think he needs to learn more about what polytheistic religions really are about. He doesn't have to agree with them to come to a better understanding of them. His remarks seem to be very close to the "satire of idols" as found in many of the prophets of the Bible - who were in fact mocking the polytheistic beliefs of their neighbors, without seeming to understand them very well.

And finally, on this point, I think that certain types of Judaism are open to exactly the same criticism. Kabbalah teaches that the unknowable Godhead (Ein Sof) revealed Itself through the emanation of ten Sefirot (divine potencies), which are co-existent with Ein Sof (in other words, they are not the instruments of Ein Sof, but partake in its essence). When I first studied early Christianity and tried to understand the Trinity, I had a great deal of trouble getting my mind around it - I remember telling the teaching fellow for the course that I just couldn't understand it because I was Jewish. When I began to study Kabbalah and read the Zohar (the key text of medieval Kabbalah), somehow the Christian idea of the Trinity began to make more sense to me. I wonder what Wieseltier would say about Kabbalah.

To turn to Sullivan's reply to Wieseltier's comments on the Trinity:
Leon is describing the central tenets of the Christian faith - the divinity of Jesus and the Triune God - as a step backward for religious thinking. He is dismissing as stupid and backward the Incarnation. He goes so far as to insult it by decrying it as a regress to polytheism. And not just polytheism but crude polytheism.

I am not one to take offense at such things. My own faith can withstand the cheap pot-shots of others. But can you imagine if Wieseltier came across a Muslim or a Christian making similar derogatory and condescending and cheap remarks about Judaism? As crude? A form of religious regression?

I acknowledge that the belief in the Trinity is a central tenet of Christianity - but for that reason are non-Christians supposed to respect it? From the Jewish point of view the Christian beliefs in the divinity of Jesus, the incarnation, and the Trinity are wrong. I don't believe in them, although I try to understand what Christians believe about them. (And I don't feel any impulse to call them a step backwards in religious thinking - although I think that many Jews would agree with Wieseltier on this point).

I wonder if Sullivan here is suffering somewhat from the assumption that of course everyone should respect what Christians believe because we live in a Christian culture. I don't think he would say this consciously, given all of his attacks upon what he calls "Christianism." But he does seem to give Christianity a privileged status as a religion that he doesn't give to other religions. (Again, not consciously).

In this realm, as David Schraub writes, Sullivan is writing "from an (along this axis) empowered class." In other words, Sullivan is demanding respect for Christianity as a religion from Jews who have been oppressed by Christians for about nineteen hundred years on religious grounds. Historically speaking, Vatican II and other Christian attempts to reconcile with Jews are very recent.

Wieseltier then writes in reply to Sullivan's reply:
Sullivan concludes with a ringing question: “Can you imagine if Wieseltier came across a Muslim or a Christian making similar remarks about Judaism? As crude? A form of religious regression?” He thinks he knows the answer to this question. So I want to be clear. There is no need to imagine me coming across people who think that some of the most foundational convictions of Judaism--God, creation, the splitting of the Red Sea and all the other miracles, the cosmos of reward and punishment--the whole supernatural apparatus of my religion--is nonsense. I have met such people and some of them are my friends. If their objections are thoughtful, then there is nothing “derogatory and condescending and cheap” about them.
I would have to agree with Wieseltier here. Members of my own family don't understand my religious beliefs - I don't have to go very far to meet with amazement that I could believe in such silly things.

Sullivan's latest post on this argument, The Trinity, is mostly a quote from a reader, whom he seems to agree with.

The reader writes:
It's downright evil to excuse saying terrible things about other people's faiths, especially when the things you are saying misconstrue what those people themselves believe about their own religion. It would be one thing if Leon Wieseltier laid out the doctrine of the Trinity fairly and charitably and then argued against it. But that is simply something he has not done....

And it's okay to derogate this as crude because his objections are somehow "thoughtful," and acting as if he would respect similar ridicule from another provided that ridicule was "thoughtful?" Would he acknowledge any such assault on Judaism as "thoughtful?" If he says yes, here's a hint: even he knows he's lying.
It's evil for Wieseltier to argue that the Christian belief in the Trinity is polytheistic? Is Wieseltier really under any obligation to lay out the doctrine of the Trinity fairly? It would certainly make the argument more civil, but I don't see that he's required to be polite (nor is Sullivan, for that matter).

The writer here is a graduate student at the University of Chicago and a Christian, and says that,
I've spent my entire life as a Christian trying to find and quarantine aspects of the Christian tradition that have held up Christianity as a progressive religion that renders "backward" peoples only to have Leon Wieseltier come along and decide it's high time Judaism's conception of monotheism started taking up the slack
I'm not sure what I think about this argument. On the one hand, I am happy that he is trying to disown this part of the Christian tradition, which was certainly part of the project of colonialism of many European countries from the 15th century onwards. On the other hand, Judaism, unlike Christianity, has not been a proselytizing religion since the first couple of centuries CE, due to Jewish powerlessness in the face of Christianity and Islam, so Jews were not part of the European colonial project in this sense. I think that all of us should cultivate a humble attitude towards making assertions that our particular religion is true above all others.

I thought that I was going to write a short post on whether we are required to show respect for other people's religious beliefs - I find that I have written a long post. I don't think I've answered my question, but I hope I've given my readers some food for thought.


  1. The Islamic tradition treats the Christian trinity as a rather blasphemous concept - shirk, in Islamic terminology. In that, the Islamic view is closer, as is often the case, to the Jewish view.

    I am not, by the way, entirely sure what your point is.

    My take on Sullivan is that his thinking about Jews is colored, at least in part, by his religious upbringing. Which is to say, he sees Jews as playing an ascribed role. That explains most of the quotes picked up by Wieseltier.

    That way of thinking, if I have it correct, is not necessarily Antisemitic - as Christian philosemites do essentially the same thing. It, however, is not a view of any actual Jewish people but of an imagined people.

    The difference between what he imagines and what real people do may explain his recent disillusionment. Which is to say, he seems to expect the Israelis to behave differently than any actual human beings would under similar situations and he finds that dissonance problematic.

  2. As I began to write the post I thought I had a particular point to make, but by the end I seemed to lose that point....

    I think you may be right about Sullivan. He does seem to think that everyone should have some kind of automatic respect for Christian beliefs. I don't think we're required to respect each other's religious beliefs - but we should respect each other as human beings. (In other words, if someone mocks tenets of Judaism or Christianity, that's not a problem, but discriminating against someone for believing in those tenets is wrong).

    I think he's kind of caught between his ideal picture of Jews and the actual Jews he's met - since he does sometimes write about Jews as real people. That reality seems to inform in some way the ideal picture he's built up, but now when it comes to Israel I think he's just feeling tremendously disillusioned from his previous perhaps overly-positive feelings. (Being pro-Israel without letting himself be aware of enough of Israel's inevitable flaws as a human endeavor).

  3. I do wonder what Leon Wieseltier's response would be to April DeConick's delineation of Christianity as a development of the earlier monaltrous Jewish tradition, contrasted with 'the radical monotheism that the Jewish rabbis decided upon and enforced.'

  4. I'll have to take a look at April's post on this topic.