Cultural interpretations

While reading further in one of my favorite books today, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (which takes a bit of getting used to, but is worthwhile after that), I came across a discussion of some early ideas about the divinity of Jesus Christ. What was so interesting about them is how the doctrine of the trinity was almost forced based on prevailing assumptions about the nature of the world.

For example, it was a strongly held notion around that time that divine substance (the quintessence) was something indivisible, perfect and beyond corruption. Anything divine was of the quintessence, such as soul, heaven, etc. Alchemy was a science devoted to discovering the relationship of quintessence to ordinary items, thus enabling the scientist to convert them to any other form, heal the material substance of the body, and live eternally young.

Now, based on the idea that divine things are of quintessence, it was impossible for thinkers to conceive that Christ could be both divine and yet of human form. They believed Christ had come from heaven (and returned to it), but they sought a model to allow for a visitation within the physical world of One who must have been a living form of the quintessence – otherwise His divine nature would be in question.

It is surprising how many theories evolved from the single necessity of requiring that Christ not be of common flesh in order rationally to accept His divine nature. A first group asserted that He never had physical form at all, but was an optical/auditory illusion who simply bore the appearance of a human being. In this way the Divine visited humanity without becoming “corrupted” by intermingling Its substance with the four elements.

Another group believed that Christ was in fact human, with the Holy Spirit being the real divine agency. It visited Jesus of Nazareth at the time of His baptism – which allows for His being an ordinary human being during birth and childhood, a very messy consideration (e.g., how could the Son of God have come through a woman’s vagina to enter this world?) – and left Him during His trials on the cross, immediately before His seeming exclamation of despair. This model invoked a dual nature to Christ which again permitted the Divine to visit humanity without the taint of mortal corruption.

Later this dual model evolved into a triune one, afterwards confounded as a unity to avoid the obvious problem that quintessence must be indivisible. But I still have more to read on that development…

What interested me is how strong the basic assumptions were – of the nature of things, and how mortal substance could not become the carrier of divinity because of its corruptible essence – and how these assumptions forced religious thinking down certain avenues in order to reach a compromise between what was believed about the world and what people had come to believe about Christ from His teachings.

Then what about the assumptions we have of the world today? In what ways is the same thing is happening now as then: the invisible bending of religious interpretations toward a believable model based on the context of our world-view. How we see things seems to put a range to the truths we can accept – those which fit the model somehow. Are there assumptions we hold of mortality and selfhood that run so deep, our view of God is not so much a form of truth as an inverted picture of how we see ourselves?