Monday, 10 September 2007

the Trinity and Jewish theology

The Trinity is a problematic concept for a lot of people. Its nature was the cause of a major rift between the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches, due to the Filioque controversy. The Filioque clause was added in response to the Arian heresy (Arius and his followers believed that Jesus was divine but had not existed from the beginning of time). Apparently St Nicholas (aka Santa Claus) punched Arius at the Council of Nicaea! Other 'heretical' views of the Godhead included the Ebionites, who were Jewish Christians who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but not part of the Godhead. There were also the Nazarenes, who believed he was divine and accepted the virgin birth story, but kept to the Law of the Torah. It should also be noted that the current contents of the New Testament were fixed at the Council of Nicaea, which also established the Nicene Creed, which fixes the doctrine of the Trinity as orthodox belief - so the history was written by the winners, as usual. Gospels that did not support the orthodox view were rejected.

If we look at the Trinity in terms of the Kabbalah (note that there is no concept of the Trinity in Judaism, though), it could be represented in two ways: as the first three Sephiroth of the Tree of Life (Kether, Binah, Chokhmah). It could also be represented as the three spheres on the middle pillar (Kether as God the Father, Da'ath as the Holy Spirit, and Tiphereth as Christ). One could also equate the figure of Adam Kadmon (the cosmic Adam, whose body is the Tree of Life) with the concept of the Cosmic Christ (as popularised by Alice Bailey), as Christ is often referred to as the New Adam in Christianity.

However, according to Jewish theology, the Godhead is unmanifest; it is the sea of limitless light (the Ain Sof Aur) which extends "above" and beyond the Tree of Life. So really the Tree of Life appears to be equivalent to what the Eastern Orthodox Church calls "God's energies" which they distinguish from the essence of God (the unmanifest). So there appears to be a contradiction at the heart of Trinitarian theology - both Christ and the Holy Spirit are manifest aspects of the Godhead, whereas God the Father is transcendent and unknowable. This contradiction is worsened if the Filioque clause is added, because it maintains that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and Son, thus putting Christ outside the universe as well (which makes no sense if he is the Cosmic Man).

Besides which, the entire doctrine of the Trinity seems to have been spun out of a misunderstanding of the term ruach.

In John 14 (a later and more mystical gospel than the other three), Jesus says that "the Father will send the Holy Spirit in my name" (which certainly seems to back up the Orthodox position that the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone).

However, in order to understand the concept of the Spirit from a Jewish perspective, we need to look at the word Ruach. The words ruach (Hebrew), pneuma (Greek) and spirit (Latin) all mean both 'consciousness' and 'breath'.

Ruach comes from God (and the Spirit of God is mentioned in Genesis 1:2), but does not seem to be a person in the same sense as the Hypostases of the Trinity. In Genesis 2:7, it says that "the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being." So the breath is here associated with the spirit, and the human spirit comes from God.

The Jewish concept of the human soul is threefold:
Kabbalah (esoteric Jewish mysticism) saw the soul as having three elements. The Zohar, a classic work of Jewish mysticism, posits that the human soul has three elements, the nefesh, ru'ah, and neshamah. A common way of explaining these three parts follows:
the lower or animal part of the soul. It links to instincts and bodily cravings. It is found in all humans, and enters the physical body at birth. It is the source of one's physical and psychological nature.
The next two parts of the soul are not implanted at birth, but are slowly created over time; their development depends on the actions and beliefs of the individual. They are said to only fully exist in people awakened spiritually:
the middle soul, or spirit. It contains the moral virtues and the ability to distinguish between good and evil. In modern parlance, it equates to psyche or ego-personality.
the higher soul, Higher Self or super-soul. This distinguishes man from all other life forms. It relates to the intellect, and allows man to enjoy and benefit from the afterlife. This part of the soul is provided both to Jew and non-Jew alike at birth. It allows one to have some awareness of the existence and presence of God. In the Zohar, after death Nefesh disintegrates, Ruach is sent to a sort of intermediate zone where it is submitted to purification and enters in "temporary paradise", while Neshamah returns to the source, the world of Platonic ideas, where it enjoys "the kiss of the beloved". Supposedly after resurrection, Ruach and Neshamah, soul and spirit re-unite in a permanently transmuted state of being.
Incidentally, the doctrine of the reuniting of nefesh, ruach and neshamah at the end of time goes some way to explaining why Christian theology has the spirit going to heaven but the soul and body only being resurrected at the end of time.

Anyway, it could be that Jesus envisaged his neshamah returning to the Divine source (as per standard Jewish doctrine) and his ruach (which was given by the Source, as we saw in Genesis) being sent into the 'kingdom of heaven' (as are all individual ruachim). Remember that he had earlier stated that 'the kingdom of heaven is all around you'.

This Jewish doctrine of the soul was evidently known to the Gnostics (note the early, pre-Nicaea date of Valentinus' writings):
The soul, according to many religious and philosophical traditions, is the ethereal substance - spirit (Hebrew: ruach or nefesh) - particular to a unique living being. Such traditions often consider the soul both immortal and innately aware of its immortal nature, as well as the true basis for sentience in each living being. The concept of the soul has strong links with notions of an afterlife, but opinions may vary wildly, even within a given religion, as to what happens to the soul after death. Many within these religions and philosophies see the soul as immaterial, while others consider it possibly material. ... In [the] early years of Christianity, the Gnostic Christian Valentinus of Valentinius (circa 100 - circa 153) proposed a version of spiritual psychology that accorded with numerous other "perennial wisdom" doctrines. He conceived the human being as a triple entity, consisting of body (soma, hyle), soul (psyche) and spirit (pneuma).

However, on being transferred to Greek culture, much of the Jewish doctrine (which Jesus and his early followers would have been thoroughly immersed in) was lost - the start of this process can be seen in the book of Acts and the letters of St Paul. Various Greek concepts from the mystery schools were imported into the nascent religion of Christianity - one of the most influential being the Logos (famously used in the beginning of the gospel of John). The Logos originally meant the order of the cosmos, and the Hellenized Jewish Christians identified Jesus as the Logos - and here we get the beginnings of the concept of the cosmic Christ, as popularised by Paul, instead of the man Jesus being identified as a specifically Jewish messiah:
Heraclitus established the term in Western philosophy as meaning the fundamental order of the cosmos. The sophists used the term to mean discourse, and Aristotle applied the term to argument from reason. After Judaism came under Hellenistic influence, Philo adopted the term into Jewish philosophy. The Gospel of John identifies Jesus as the incarnation of the Logos, through which all things are made. The gospel further identifies the Logos as God (theos), providing scriptural support for the trinity. It is this sense, the Logos as Jesus Christ and God, that is most common in popular culture. ~ from Wikipedia
So it can be seen that the elevation of Jesus to the Logos was a gradual process of doctrinal wrangling, and not necessarily part of his original intention. Jesus knew he came from God because he knew that all spirit/pneuma/ruach is the breath of God.

Certainly Jesus was and is a child of the Universe (as are we all), but not in the Trinitarian sense. In the "Old Testament" (apologies to any Jewish readers for calling it that), there is more than one son of God. Job 1:6 refers to the sons of God; Genesis 6:2 refers to the Nephilim and the sons of God. It appears that angels were traditionally viewed as 'sons of God', and that the gods of other nations were regarded as tutelary angels of those nations.

It is sometimes argued by Orthodox and Catholic believers that the Church was guided by the Holy Spirit in the development of its doctrines, but the problem with that theory is that it got all entangled with the Roman and Byzantine empires, and even the Orthodox Church started to promulgate some pretty dodgy ideas as a result of that (Christ as Emperor, for example) - though not as dodgy as some of the ideas of the Catholic Church (original sin, papal supremacy, etc.) So discernment (a gift of the Holy Spirit) is still required on the part of the individual to ascertain which bits are true - though obviously, as others also receive wisdom in this way, much can be learned from others, both in one's own tradition and beyond it, to try and understand it all.

I prefer the Quaker and Unitarian view that the Source speaks to each one of us in the chamber of the heart (also affirmed in some Orthodox traditions like Hesychasm). Hence the über-tradition or ur-tradition consists of all those who love the Source and follow the compassionate way as expounded by Yeshua, Kwan Yin, Buddha, and many others. Not of those who have usurped worldly power and seek to impose doctrine on others (however well-meaningly). Therefore I cannot accept any authority other than the Universe itself, speaking to me through my own conscience. (There, I am a protestant after all....)

Certainly, the Way can be perceived as threefold; but it can also be seen as twofold, fourfold, and infinite. The Trinity is a useful model, but it's only a model, and is bound up with claims that Christ is the only way to the Father. But what if Christ is a state of being, rather than a person? Christ-nature seems remarkably similar to Buddha-nature. The Kabbalist Z'ev ben Shimon Ha-Levi, in his book The Anointed One, (the words Messiah and Christos simply mean 'anointed one') suggests that there is a messiah for each generation - rather like the Jewish concept of the Lamed Vav, the 36 righteous hidden ones. So the status of 'anointed' or 'son of God' is not conferred on only one person in the whole of history, but rather on many people (even in Catholicism, Saint Francis is sometimes referred to as "another Christ"). The Hindus say that Brahman sends a messenger whenever humanity needs to have the message restated again.
"Tao begets one; One begets two; Two begets three; Three begets the myriad creatures." (Tao Te Ching 42, tr. Lau, modified)

No comments: