Tuesday, August 4, 2009

red rose

Theology is – or should be – a species of poetry.

-- Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase


My love is like a red, red rose; but she would be displeased if on that account I sprayed her with pesticide, or pruned her in the spring. She would not then think me a good lover, nor would she think me a good gardener. She would know from my behavior that that I had not understood the poem. Burns was not making a botanical comparison.

And yet my love is like a rose. Saying this, I attribute beauty to her figure and her aura. I announce a standard of delicacy in approaching her. I demand your reverence for her person, and for my actions in her honor. These are proper consequences – logical entailments – of the poet’s premise. If I am prepared to live out these entailments, then my statement was true. If I can say such things truly, I change her life and mine. But I do not prune her or spray her.

Being rational means, among other things, knowing what kind of reason one is practicing at the moment. Am I making love or botany? Music or chartered accountancy? The logics of physics and anthropology, chemistry and history, prose and poetry, are parallel lines that do not meet, and yet all these researches may be pursued rationally or irrationally. One cannot ride a bicycle by Aristotelian syllogisms; and yet one rides or, if riding irrationally, one falls off.

I am a Unitarian, and so I stand in the shoes of sixteenth-century martyrs like Michael Servetus and Katherine Vogel, who chose to die horrible deaths rather than say the words “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” As a twenty-first century liberal, I find their choice to die for mere theology a strange one, but what’s even stranger is the choice of those who killed them for theology. No term of theology is worth a human life, yours or mine. Learning this is part of what we mean by moral progress.

I don’t think I’d like to have a beer with either Servetus or Vogel. They speak from a world I am glad to leave behind, here in my Western liberal democracy. They seem to think that terms of pure speculation – words like “Father,” “Son,” “Holy Ghost” – are real like quarts of milk. That the words refer to things, and those things, like bullets or balls of cotton, can actually hurt or heal.

Both the Unitarian martyrs and their persecutors are confused about the nature of reason, and of language. They do not understand that the words Father, Son, Holy Spirit are figures of speech rather than names for objects. The Church Father, when forced to explain the Trinity, has to admit it’s a mystery – that it’s just a representation, within the categories of human experience, for what exceeds that experience. And yet the Church has killed in the name of these representations.

No term of theology is worth a human life. What’s worthy of life is, as Micah said, loving kindness, and acting justly, and walking humbly with our God. Humbly: which is to say, without presuming to settle God’s grievances for her. Vengeance is mine, she said, so leave it to me. What’s worthy of life is loving your neighbor as yourself – remembering that even a vile Samaritan may be neighbor to a Judean, even a klansman to a black man, even a Republican to a Democrat.

So I’m a post-modern Unitarian, and I lose no sleep about the Trinity. I know that people sometimes experience God as like a parent, and sometimes as like a divine child, and sometimes as like a Spirit, without which swing it don’t mean a thing. I have no problem with that – I’m sometimes part of it.

I can assent to Trinity, knowing that, like all theology, it’s poetry. If you think it’s fact, you show that you haven’t understood the doctrine. To think that it excludes, or is excluded by, my people’s intuition of absolute unity is to apply the wrong form of reason at the wrong time and place. It’s trying to ride a bicycle by Aristotelian syllogisms. It’s spraying your love with pesticide.

God consists of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in much the same way that my love is like a red, red rose. No pruning, please.

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