Friday, February 21, 2014

The Bodies of God and the Jewish Trinity

I’m excited to direct readers to a wonderful resource offered by the Foundation for Jewish Studies.  Benjamin D. Sommer, professor of Bible and Ancient Semitic languages at the Jewish Theological Seminary, has delivered four lectures (each of which several hours long) teaching his book The Bodies of God in the World of Ancient Israel to a Jewish audience.  Having completed all the lectures over the last few days on my car commutes, I can say they are fascinating. (Sommer’s book was a favorite of mine having found it in the library several years ago.)  You can download all the lectures for free here.

Now, why should Christians care about Sommer’s book and these lectures on a subject as weird (or creepy, rather) sounding as “the bodies of God”?  I’ll provide you with this quote from Sommer starting at 35 minutes into the last lecture to give you an idea:
“When the New testament talks about Jesus as being some sort of small scale human manifestation of God, that really sounds to Jews so utterly pagan, but what I’m suggesting is perhaps the radical idea for us Jews--that in fact, it’s not so pagan…We Jews have always tended to sort of make fun of the Trinity…[that Christians] aren’t real monotheists like we Jews are or like the Muslims are, but I think what we have been seeing from what I’ve been saying for the past couple of days [is] the idea of the Trinity…[is] actually an old ancient Near Eastern idea…that can also function in a monotheistic context, as it does I think in the J and the E texts and some of the other texts we were looking at.  In fact, to say that three is one—hey! The Kabbalah is going to go even further than that! They say ten is one. The Zohar [and] Sefer Ha-Bahir, they say ten is one. Actually when you get to Lorena Kabbalah there’s the idea that within each of the ten sefirot has ten sefirot within it so that we’ve got a hundred…We [Jews] are taking this [divine fluidity] reasoning much, much farther than the Christians did.  One of the more radical conclusions that I came to, much to my own surprise when I was writing this book--and this is not at all what I had intended to do because in various ways that we could discuss if you’re interested--I’m actually rather uncomfortable with my own conclusion here, but as a scholar I gotta to call em as I see em—one of the conclusions that I came to…is that we Jews have no theological objection to the doctrine to the Trinity…The Trinity is an old Ancient Near Eastern idea that shows up in the Tanakh and in a different way shows up in Jewish mysticism as well”

As a disclaimer, I don’t accept some of his source critical presuppositions throughout the lectures.  (He thinks there is disagreement in the Biblical sources about God’s embodiment.) But the value of Sommer’s thesis for apologetic contexts and understanding ancient Israelite religion is tremendous.  I’ll also use this as an excuse to point readers to Michael Heiser’s work on pre-Christian divine plurality here.

6 comments:

  1. If you are interested in some new ideas on the Trinity and religious pluralism, please check out my website at www.religiouspluralism.ca. It previews my book, which has not been published yet and is still a “work-in-progress.” Your constructive criticism would be very much appreciated.

    My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

    In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

    The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

    1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

    2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or "Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the "body of Christ" (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

    3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

    Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

    * The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

    ** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

    For more details, please see: www.religiouspluralism.ca

    Samuel Stuart Maynes

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  2. The teachings of Jesus in the gospels are too exclusive for me to contort them into pluralistic theology with a clear conscience. He is paradigmatic (and polemically probably more fastidious) of the second-Temple Jewish worldview which saw the pagan enemies of God being condemned to eternal torment. (See my post on Enoch and Universalism.)

    I'm all for technical philosophic articulations but your writing is full of too many neologisms to be intelligible to someone with formal philosophic and religious training. You asked my opinion, and my emotional reaction to the above is one of suspicion--suspicion that if the above were articulated in street talk it would be unprofound. I mean that in a constructive way as uncharitable as that last sentence probably sounds.

    Several things to think about:

    1) All these systems have pretty distinct soteriologies. In order to say they all have a nugget of truth which can be harmonized into a whole you are really only saying they all have significant errors at their most important core. This is discriminatory and unpluralistic. You end up claiming you are smarter and greater in religious authority than Jesus or Paul.

    2) Why should we assume *anyone* in mankind deserves salvation when all the evidence indicates were are all extremely selfish and detestable in our hearts? Why reject out of hand a Homeric concept that everyone gets a ticket to hell at death?

    3) Is this pluralism arising out of emotional convenience or can you articulate soundly in your mind why each of these religions is not absolutely true in an exclusive sense?

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  3. Ben, thanks for the constructive criticism… Jesus did not say that he is the ONLY way, the ONLY truth, the ONLY life. The Bible says that there is no way to the Father, except through the Son, and implies that Jesus Christ will be the Supreme Judge of all human beings on ‘Judgment Day.’ However, it would only be fair if Christ shares that judgment seat with Muhammad or the Mahdi in the case of Muslims, Indra or Krishna for Hindus, Gautama or Maitreya for Buddhists, Lao-Tzu for Taoists, and so forth. Some just recognition is required.

    If you read the Preview on my website at www.religiouspluralism.ca, you will see that I am merely expanding on what is already inherent (but sometimes obscured or hidden) in the orthodox concept of the Trinity. Despite apparent differences, the underlying similarities among religions suggest the possibility that they may all be merely different facets of the same multi-dimensional reality. It is only common sense that the Trinity would reveal itself in three basic religious attitudes to the Absolute. Indeed, when we examine world religions, we see in the personalities they portray and the language they use, a reflection of one or other (or some combination) of the three divine psychological personae.

    I think that Genesis 1:26 (in the beginning), where God says “Let us make man in our image,” suggests that later on he might also have said, “Let us help humans make their religions in our image.” It is quite probable that the inspiration for human religions reflects particular aspects of the threefold psychology of One God in Trinity expression. On the face of it, maybe God is telling us something about his multi-dimensional self, through the diversity of major religions.

    Mere toleration is too fragile a foundation for a world of religious differences in close proximity. It does nothing to unite people, and leaves in place the stereotypes and fears that underlie old patterns of division and violence. In the world in which we live today, our elitism and ignorance of one another will be increasingly costly. If the interactions of society are to be at all a rational process, some set of principles must motivate the general participation of religious groups in the oneness of the community, without hindering the maintenance by each group of its own identity.

    Recently, a number of theologians have suggested that the Trinity may provide the key to an inclusive theology of religions, and a new understanding of religious diversity. An expanded abstract version of the Trinity can function as a metaphysical "architectonic principle" to unlock the providential purpose and meaning of religious variety, in the portrayal of the multi-dimensional nature of God.

    In the past, religious misunderstandings have caused immense grief, but civilization is rapidly approaching the point where the very survival of the world depends on overcoming anti-social religious conflicts, and the negative impacts of increasing population on the planet. The human race can no longer afford religious strife that divides people and disturbs urgent cooperation on mutual issues such as conservation and sharing of resources, combating climate change, stimulating healthy economic growth, etc.

    Peace in the world requires peace among religions. Religious pluralism is a necessary paradigm shift whose time has come. Absent any better idea, the Trinity Absolute concept of One God in three phases or personae is the only adequate metaphysical vehicle necessary and sufficient for a real form of religious pluralism that is more than just lukewarm toleration and talking past one another.”

    Samuel Stuart Maynes
    www.religiouspluralism.ca

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  4. John (14.6) has Jesus teaching regarding heaven “No one comes to the Father except through me.” This statement is tagged at the end of and stands in defining relation to the preceding statement that he is the “way,” the “truth” and the “life.” You are saying that he is *a* way and *a* truth and *a* life, but the introduction of each of these iterations with the article ἡ, along with the immediately following ratifying summation “No one comes to the Father if not by me” (ὁδὸς καὶ ἡ ἀλήθεια καὶ ἡ ζωή οὐδεὶς ἔρχεται πρὸς τὸν Πατέρα εἰ μὴ δι’ ἐμοῦ) precludes the possibility that any other way to God, truth or life with God is possible in the author’s mind.

    In short, you have vaunted yourself above Jesus and asserted your religious opinions to be more valuable than His. This is not inclusive. It is a theological discrimination. You have also told Muhammad that Gabriel was either wrong, lying, or not there when he dictated the prophet to write:

    "Verily, Allah forgives not the sin of setting up partners in worship with Him, but He forgives whom He wills sins other than that. And whoever sets up partners in worship with Allah, has indeed strayed far from the path." (4:116)

    This passage was written in polemic against certain groups, namely Christians. You are saying Christians have a way to God. Muhammad is saying they do not by principle of their being Christ worshipers. Forgiveness is denied them. I understand the desire for religious peace, but the way in which you are going about it declares yourself superior in religious knowledge by declaring people like Jesus, Muhammad and Paul wrong. That won't sell.

    I also think you need to seriously examine any declarations you make to the effect of “it would only be fair if…” The Bible itself declares that men’s ability to judge what is fair and unfair is “desperately wicked” and “twisted.” You are assuming your moral sensibilities are veridical. Hebrew literature does not share this assumption. If I commit some crimes and go to court, the mere fact that I have a twisted idea in my head of what my personal concept of a just judge ought to look like does not mean that I will or ought to get a judge to match my personal moral code and beliefs about reality. The whole point of appearing before a judge is that he is the standard and represents the exclusive and corrective interpretation of moral law which actually exists. You have said that Jesus will likely share judgment with others. John says, “For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all [πᾶσαν] judgment to the Son.” You have really said that all judgment in fact has not been handed over to the son but will be shared. This is not in agreement with Second Temple Jewish theology.
    I didn’t understand the self-defined(?) terminology in your last post, and I’m still skeptical you have discovered any meaningful parallels. Some clarification on what they are would be nice. :)

    I think that Genesis 1:26 (in the beginning), where God says “Let us make man in our image,” suggests that later on he might also have said, “Let us help humans make their religions in our image.”

    _____This, of course, is a conclusion supplied by the imagination and not the texts. Deuteronomy 32:8 (harking back to Babble) declares that the nations outside of Israel were handed over in judgment by the one true God to worship illegitimate divine beings. Verse 17 calls them demons. Paul in Romans 1 has these nations in his cross-hairs in his declaration that they have exchanged the true God for a lie.

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