I am the least spiritual of men, and believe in no gods or supernatural beings of any kind, my only deviation in these matters being a slight case of triskaidekaphobia. However, I do take an interest in history, and religious belief has certainly played a significant role therein. It’s interesting that the times most people would consider the most enlightened are not necessarily those coincident with the highest levels of sophistication when it comes to religious belief. In fact, some of the writings that have come down to us from what Europeans call the “Dark Ages” are hardly behindhand in that regard. To support this assertion, I call to the stand Gregory, Bishop of Tours, who wrote in the latter half of the 6th century A.D., a time when England was shrouded in a deep historical mist. Gregory was a chatty, gossipy, entertaining writer, who lived in and described firsthand the horrific scene in western Europe following the collapse of the Roman Empire. It was a time of warring petty states whose kings and nobility tortured, murdered, and robbed their subjects, of constant devastating plagues, natural disasters and famines, and periodic social chaos. If you want some real insight into what it was like, read Gregory’s “History of the Franks.” He won’t disappoint you.
In spite of it all, Gregory, scion of an old Roman senatorial family, somehow managed to acquire an education, and no mean skill as a theologian. In those days, the Goths, Vandals, and most of the other Christianized barbarian tribes had adopted a Unitarian version of the faith before Athanasius and his followers had managed to gain acceptance for their Trinitarian teachings. When the Trinitarians gained the upper hand in what remained of the Empire, the surrounded barbarians remained Unitarians, with the exception of the Franks. In the excerpt that follows, Gregory, an orthodox Catholic, describes a debate he had with a visiting Unitarian cleric from the Visigothic kingdom in Spain. What’s noteworthy about it is the subtlety of Gregory’s theological arguments. As you’re reading it, try to imagine a “modern” priest or bishop teaching a similarly sophisticated version of the Trinity. I rather suspect most of us have never heard anything of the sort. Turning it over to Gregory…
“As envoy to Chilperic (one of the Frankish kings who ruled part of France) King Leuvigild (Visigothic ruler of Spain) sent Agilan, a man of low intelligence, untrained in logical argument, but distinguished by his hatred of our Catholic faith. Tours (seat of Gregory’s bishopric) was on his route and he took advantage of this to attack me concerning my beliefs and to assail the dogmas of the Church. ‘The bishops of the early Church made a foolish pronouncement,’ he said, when they asserted that the Son was equal to the Father. How can He be equal to the Father, when He says: ‘My Father is greater than I’? It is not right that the Son should be considered equal to the Father when He Himself admits that He is less, when it is to the Father that He complains about the miserable manner of His death, when at the very moment of His death He commends His spirit to the Father, as if He Himself were completely powerless. Surely it is quite obvious that He is less than the Father, both in power and in age!’ In reply to this, I asked him if he believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and if he admitted that He was the wisdom of God, the light, the truth, the life, the justice of God. Agilan answered: ‘I believe that the Son of God was all those things.’ Then I said: ‘Tell me now, when was the Father without wisdom? When was He without light, without life, without truth, without justice? Jast as the Father could not exist without these things, so He could not exist without the Son. These attributes are absolutely essential to the mystery of the Godhead. Similarly the Father could hardly be called the Father if He had no Son. When you quote the Son as having aaid: ‘My Father is greater than I,’ you must know that He said this in the lowliness of the flesh, which He had assumed so that He might teach you that you were redeemed not by His power but by His humility. You must also remember, when you quote the words: ‘My father is greater than I,’ that He also says in another place: ‘I and my Father are one.’ His fear of death and the fact that He commended His spirit are a reference to the weakness of the flesh, so that, just as he is believed to be very God, so may He be believed to be very man.’ Agilan answered: ‘He who does what another commends is less than that other: the Son is always less than the Father because He does the will of the Father, whereas there is no proof that the Father does the will of the Son.’ ‘You must understand’, I replied, ‘that the Father is the Son and that the Son is in the Father, each subsisting in one Godhead. If you want proof that the Father does the will of the Son, consider what our Lord Jesus Christ says when He come to raise Lazarus – that is if you have any faith in the Gospel at all: ‘Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. And I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me.’ When He comes to His Passion, He says: ‘And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was.’ Then the Father replies from Heaven: ‘I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.’ Therefore the Son is equal in Godhead, and not inferior, and He is not inferior in anything else.”
…and so on. As noted above, I’m not a believer, but I’ve spent a great deal of time in church. I’ve never heard the Trinity discussed by pastor, bishop, or priest with anywhere near that level of sophistication. I grew up in the Methodist church, and one of our pastors in my early youth was a throwback who took theology seriously. He is the only Christian teacher I’ve ever heard who so much as made a serious attempt to teach the doctrine of the Trinity to his flock. However, his sermons never approached Gregory’s level of subtlety or refinement. What’s the point? I guess that, when one compares intellectual development in the “Dark Ages” with that in modern times, one should answer the question, “What kind?”
The “kind” of theological debate Gregory excelled at no longer exists outside of obscure seminary classrooms because the conclusions of that debate have become irrelevant. Today, the “theology” of the more liberal sects of Christianity is a mélange of badly digested “progressive” ideology. To the extent that the Scriptures have any significance at all, they are rifled through in the search for verses that appear to support some already foregone conclusion, borrowed from the realm of politics. The “doctrine” of the church conforms to a prevailing political fashion, and not vice versa, limited only by the reluctance of the clerics’ more conservative flocks to go along. This is what one might expect. Modern “in-groups” and “out-groups” are far more likely to be defined by politics than religion in first world countries with a European background. (See my post on the significance of in-group/out-group behavior in the archives.) If one wants to play a role in a group that has relevance in modern society, one must conform to the fundamental doctrines that define the intellectual boundaries of the group. If the groups happen to be political, then so much the worse for religion. Its “teachings” must conform to politically derived ideological doctrines, regardless of what the contents of its written scriptures might be. Thus, for example, one finds a number of Christian sects embracing gay marriage, in defiance of the Bible’s clear condemnation of homosexual acts. The sophistication of Gregory of Tours and the “Dark Ages” is exchanged for “Christianity Lite.”
As an infidel, I offer these remarks as an observation on the human condition, and certainly not to support or condemn gay marriage, or any other aspect of Christian belief. As for the battle between Athanasius and Arius, I am content to let sleeping dogs lie.