Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Nearly All Christians Are Heretics

You read that right. According to their own dogma, nearly all Christians are heretics and knowing that should keep them up at night worrying about being subject to eternal torment. I realize those are pretty bold statements, but I'm going to unpack them. Fair warning: what follows is going to be some real cerebral egghead type theological stuff. If that's not your bag baby, hit the back button now. I won't mind. It'll still show up as a hit on my stat counter whether you read it or not and my ego will just assume you did.

According to the Bible, believing certain propositions is of eternal consequence. Consider Hebrews 11:6
"And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him."
This verse notes that at the very least one must believe at least two propositions. One of those is that God exists. Yet without correctly apprehending what God is or how God is, how does one believe this very basic proposition?

To illustrate, I could ask if you believe the proposition, "dwarfs exist." Now, if when I say the word "dwarf" you think I am speaking of short and ugly beings from Germanic mythology that live in mountains and are associated with mining, smithing, wisdom and crafting and when I say "exist" I mean in reality and not merely as a product of human imagination, you might be inclined to say that you do not believe the proposition "dwarfs exist." However, if instead you think of the word "dwarf" as representing a human being that is short in stature due to abnormal growth arising from any one of over two-hundred distinct medical conditions, you would probably say that you do believe the proposition, "dwarfs exist."

Now, apply this to the proposition, "God exists." The passage from Hebrews clearly indicates that believing this proposition is necessary (but not sufficient) for pleasing God. What it does not do, however, is define the word "God" or the word "exists." So for the person who believes that in order to please God one must at the very least believe he exists, she is still left with two very important questions, namely "What is God?" and "How (i.e. in what way) does God exist?"  To answer these questions wrong is to risk incorrectly believing the proposition "God exists" and to incorrectly believe that proposition is to be in a state in which God is displeased with one, which presumably has dire consequences.

Coming up with the correct answers to "What is God?" and "How does God exist?" is not as easy as it sounds. It seems that the standard answer is that God possesses the properties and characteristics he assigns to himself and exists in the way in which he says he does. Fair enough. We will lay aside the question of whether or not it is safe to assume that God could be trusted to communicate this information accurately. We will also assume, for the sake of argument that God has chosen to communicate this information in the 66 books of the Protestant Bible.

Even granting all of this, we are still faced with a problem. How are we to interpret this information and what about the apparent contradictions we face when we compare different bits of data that would seem to be at odds? We still have a long way to go and there are so many avenues we could explore, given the attributes that the Bible assigns to God. We could spend ages looking at the problems associated with questions regarding the extent of his power, knowledge and presence for starters. For discussion purposes, let's just zero in on the question of in what way does he exist both personally and substantively [begging those questions, of course].

When it comes to the question of how God exists, the vast majority of professing Christians subscribe to the doctrine of the Trinity, even though I would be comfortable in estimating that well over 99% of professing Christians have absolutely no clear understanding of what that even means and would further posit that this has been the case throughout the history of Christianity. Ask any Christian to explain the Trinity. Most will immediately present some kind of ridiculous analogy about water or oranges or fathers, sons and husbands or some other such nonsense that betrays they have no idea what they're talking about.

Here's the problem, if you use an analogy to explain the Trinity you're a heretic, plain and simple. That bears repeating, but I'll just let you go back and re-read it for emphasis. Another option is to punt by throwing your hands up in the air and with pseudo-humility proclaiming, "You're asking me to explain God? I am but a lowly, sinful creature. How could I possibly explain God?" At that point, you're done talking about God because you've just admitted that you have no idea what you're talking about. You can't have a conversation about something you can't explain, define, conceptualize, describe, etc. Any further discussion would be pointless. It would seem that the only way to articulate Trinitarian doctrine without espousing heresy and without completely abdicating the conversation is to express the concept in confessional, propositional form.



I must ask, however, is it even possible for someone to believe the propositions contained in something like the Athanasian Creed [click the link because I'm not reproducing the whole thing here] when those propositions are taken together? What I mean is that it is generally acknowledged that one cannot believe a proposition that one does not comprehend. Even if we lower the standard from comprehension to apprehension, I’m still not sure those propositions, taken collectively, can actually be believed by anyone because I’m not convinced they can even be apprehended, much less comprehended. Sure, they can be stated just as easily as the propositions 1+1+1=3 and 1+1+1=1; but even with arbitrary semantic distinctions between words like “person” (a relation: the Father generates, the Son is begotten, the Holy Spirit proceeds) and “substance”, which are hardly ever defined or agreed upon, how does any non-heretical formulation of the Trinity not violate the Law of Identity in nearly everyone’s mind?

I'm aware that distinctions have been made by theologians between what God is (the divine substance) and and how God is (the divine persons) in precise ways. That it is impossible to find a proper analogy anywhere else in our experience for this phenomenon should be a giant red flag suggesting that we are dealing with an ad hoc explanation. But let's just lay aside the fact that these distinctions appear to be merely the inventions of theologians from the fourth century and onward trying to wiggle out of the logical identity corner their dogma painted them into. As I said, I'm quite certain that fewer than 1% of the people that would consider themselves Trinitarian are even aware of the distinctions and an even smaller percentage can clearly articulate them. I must ask though, on a practical level, what’s the difference between propositions that are incomprehensible and those that are complete and utter nonsense?

I can point to plenty of examples of modern heretical expressions of the Godhead that I personally encountered. I can recall several instances wherein I heard trained clergy pray clearly nontrinitarian prayers. They usually go along the lines of something like this, "Dear Heavenly Father, we thank you so much for dying on the cross for our sins" [insert record needle scratch trope]. That's clear heresy. In Trinitarianism the Father did not die.

This isn't just a problem for contemporary apatheological American Evangelicalism either. We find other problems in some of the classic hymns. "And Can It Be That I Should Gain?" is a great example. It contains the line, "Amazing love! How can it be that thou my God shouldst die for me?" That's a great question, Charles Wesley. The short answer is, it can't be. 'Tisn't mystery at all, Charles. 'Tis the heresy of theopassianism. God can't suffer or die, as this would be a drastic ontological change. Yet tens of thousands of professing Trinitarians have been singing that line for nearly three hundred years and thousands will sing that line again this very Sunday. No wonder nearly all Christians are heretics when their clergy and hymns constantly reinforce wrong belief.

I can't blame them. It's incredibly easy to think nontrinitarain thougths and I found myself doing it quite readily throughout my Christian experience. I challenge anyone to try to read the Gospels without having a few stray nontrinitarian thoughts. Just try to have a basic conversation about Jesus with a child and you'll see what I mean. It won't take long for you to get confused looks from her and to start getting confused and befuddled yourself.

Just show them this helpful 12th century diagram and it's sure to all make perfect sense.

Top that all off with the fact that historically, it's been safer to say nothing about God than to say anything about God. This would also be true for thoughts as well because to think things about God that aren't true is necessarily blasphemy. But that takes us back to our question of how it is that one is to believe the proposition, "God exists" if one can't properly think about God. 

Now, let's revisit the less-than-one-percenters who have some understanding of the whole substance/person distinction and are savvy enough to avoid heresy some of the time. The trouble for them is explaining just how the relational distinctions between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are even meaningful and serve any purpose whatsoever other than to wiggle out of the problems associated with the Law of Identity.

Let's dig a bit into this. The Greek word for proceeds implies ultimate origination in something. To have an origin necessarily implies some kind of time and change. In Trinitarian creedal expressions the Holy Spirit is said to proceed from the Father (and the Son), yet how is saying such a thing not necessarily implying mutability? Similarly, the word for begotten implies generation, an action involving time and change. Again, if the Son is said to have been begotten of the Father, how is saying such a thing not implying that a person of the Trinity underwent change? How can the act of begetting be eternal? What sense is there in calling something a timeless act? 'Tis mystery all, you say? Perhaps, but now we have to question the practical difference between mystery and utter nonsense. Go ahead. Appeal to the distinction between comprehension and apprehension and beg the question that this doctrine can even be properly apprehended.

Orthodox Trinitarianism says the action of begetting is not dependent on the Father’s will, but rather is ontologically necessary. It is said that in this act the Father generates the personal (read: relational) subsistence (read: maintaining or supporting) of the Son, but thereby also communicates (read: transfers) to Him the divine essence in its entirety. Even readers who aren't following and are now completely lost can understand that those are all actions that imply time and change, even though they are said to be "timeless and eternal".

As I stated previously, the very words “begotten” and “proceed” imply time and change. When used to describe eternal beings those words lose semantic value. They become meaningless. They are merely illusory placeholders. Trinitarian theologians have used words to create a distinction between the persons and essence of God, but in doing so they've merely taken the identity nonsense from the proper nouns like "God", "Father," "Son" and "Holy Spirit" and transferred it to verbs like, "communicates," "generates/begets" and "proceeds." Golly, that sure looks an awful lot like sophistic sleight of hand. But what do I know? I'm not a professionally trained theologian.

Trinitarians posit that for the Godhead there is no beginning, no change in being, no process within time. The Son is said to be generated eternally and the Spirit is said to proceed eternally, but as we've seen, those terms appear to be completely devoid of meaning. What does it mean to be eternally generated? What does it mean to eternally proceed? It is not clear how saying something eternally proceeds or is eternally generated really means anything at all. It's just a very elaborate way to say that the persons of the trinity are not the same...except they are...but not totally...well, in one sense totally, but not another. Look, they just are. Period. Full stop. At this point we appeal to that word again: "mystery."

The more I look into the answer of "mystery" in Christian doctrine, the more I'm inclined to think it is merely shorthand for, "We know it doesn't make sense, now sit down and shut up about it." It seems to me that religion needs mysteries to survive. If it could be explained, it could be disproved. With mysteries like the doctrine of the Trinity, Christian theologians have embraced an inherent weakness by constructing a reductio ad absurdum and then using it as a proof instead of disproof. It's quite brilliant...or silly, depending on your perspective.

So what's a Christian left with if she doesn't want to try really, really hard to believe mutually exclusive things about God? Well, there are alternatives like Modalism and Arianism. Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and Oneness Pentecostals don't have the same identity issues to contend with that Trinitarians have. They have different issues. Those issues largely stem from the fact that while some passages in the Bible seem to support their views, others do not. Trinitarians, for their part, have done what they could to try to somehow combine the material and make sense of its expression. In doing so, though, they've made the concept of deity sink further into utter nonsense. 

If you're a Christian and you're having difficulty keeping up with the theological jargon and distinctions that surround discussions like this one, don't feel bad. You are the 99%. You may have cause for concern, however, as failing to correctly believe the right propositions may result in a one-way ticket to eternal torture. On second thought, maybe you should study up on this. Jesus did say the way was a narrow one that few would find, and nontrinitariansm is regarded as damnable heresy by quite a few Christian denominations.

This whole thing is really messy from a practical standpoint because it screws up the reliance on Pascal's Wager by plugging yet another variable into an otherwise convenient, binary risk assessment. What if you're wrong about the way in which you believe the proposition "God exists"? To revisit my earlier illustration, what if you're thinking of short people when the Bible means mythical miners? Uh-oh. All of sudden eternal hell is right back on the table and you're in the same boat with atheists when it comes to the possibility of being tortured forever.

The doctrine of the Trinity is but one rather complex angle I could've taken. There are countless other variables I could throw into the mix to show how you may have missed the mark in your understanding and apprehension of concepts like faith, grace, salvation, God, the person of Jesus Christ and works along with whatever beliefs have to be held or deeds performed in order to fulfill God's requirements for avoiding eternal torture. Just getting the "I believe in Jesus" part right is not as simple as all that. Concepts like "believe in" and "Jesus" have to be properly defined and understood. There is plenty of room to screw up in just that little four-word phrase.

Point is, even if we rule out all other religions and make Christianity and atheism the only options, Pascal's Wager is still not binary. You are risking everything on one particular understanding of Christian doctrine among so many others. In spite of whatever words some clergy member may try to assure you with, you can have absolutely no assurance that you've chosen correctly because no matter what that clergy member says or what verse of scripture may be appealed to, the possibility remains that he or you may have the wrong interpretation. But hey, whatever helps you sleep at night, right? I mean, it's only the worst possible thing that could ever happen to you. I'm sure it's safe to just put that question to the back of your mind and trust what you've always thought or been told.

Is it safe to just listen to that reassuring word from the pastor telling you that this is all just Satan trying to rob you of the joy of having the assurance of your salvation? Otherwise comforting statements like, "you just have to trust Christ and rest in his finished work" run the risk of being empty platitudes. Now that I think about it, that sounds exactly like something Satan would want you to believe so that you won't worry about it and so that at your appointed hour you will have your soul dragged off kicking and screaming toward hell amid your pitiful protests of, "but I believe in Jesus! The pastor said not to worry!" Mwuhahahaha! See, you can really work yourself up in knots over this thing. 

This could be the point where some theologians step in and say that Christ, as part of his substitutionary role, fully and correctly comprehends God on behalf of believers. OK, but believers in what and to what extent? Is there some sort of scale and when you get to a sufficient level of some arbitrary apprehension of the object of your faith, you're in? Where is the line? I ask, because we've now opened the door to the possibility that any incorrectly or inadequately comprehended truth proposition could potentially be propped up by Christ in this substitutionary capacity. This would include truth propositions about Christ himself, his work or the entirety of what one must believe in order to be saved.

In other words, any false belief about anything up to and including a false belief about whether or not something like God (whatever it is) even exists could potentially be overcome by Christ's believing it correctly on someone's behalf. At this point it seems we're either reduced to absurdity, universalism (Yay, love wins!) or a rather capricious deity that went to a great deal of trouble to do and say a lot of things about himself and salvation and faith and all sorts of other things that ultimately turn out not to matter much at all in the eternal grand scheme of things.

If you happen to be one of those less-than-one-percenter theologians and you're reading this now and foaming at the mouth or face-palming because I've somehow misunderstood or misrepresented something, ask yourself why. Why is it so easy for someone to completely misconstrue or misunderstand such an important doctrine and why does it take entire chapters of systematic theologies to unpack and articulate this doctrine, largely to no avail?

Please feel free to offer your corrections in the comments below. However, be sure to answer those questions in a way that spares me a conveniently unfalsifiable appeal to the noetic effects of sin or the role of Holy Spirit as divine interpreter/knower. Such appeals bear no resemblance to the reality of the oh-so-many divergent and confused understandings of this doctrine. Also, see my objections in the previous two paragraphs.

Maybe, just maybe the material about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit contained in portions of the Bible, when combined, has left the majority of Christianity with no alternative other than to try to believe nonsense, even though the vast majority of Christians don't even have a rudimentary grasp of the nonsense they're trying to believe. Like so many people who just check the "I agree" box at the end of the lengthy terms of service agreement and click "OK" when downloading new software to their devices, most Christians couldn't care less and remain blissfully unaware of just how absurd their concept of the divine really is.

Of course, that doesn't stop them from appealing to Pascal's Wager like it's an either/or assessment, and it damn sure doesn't stop them from making fun of and pointing out the absurdities within every other concept of the divine on the face of the earth. Meanwhile Jews and Muslims are left shaking their heads wondering how in the world Christians can get away with calling themselves monotheists. Can you blame them?


10 comments:

  1. This was awesome. I was a Catholic for the first half of my Christianity, and a Pentecostal for most of the second half. I usually just punted to mystery the whole way through. I had a conversation about that sort of idea as a child with my aunt, a nun, and yeah, it got confusing so fast I just stopped thinking about it. I should have kept thinking about it.

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    1. Thanks, Cap’n. I’m surprised anyone actually waded through that muddled rambling.

      “it got confusing so fast I just stopped thinking about it.”

      That’s kind of what I’m getting at. You recognized that it’s simply not a coherent concept. Very few conceptions of god that are put forward by what I was calling the “less-than-one-percenters” are. That’s why when it comes to this version of god, I’m more of a theological noncognitivist than agnostic or atheistic. This concept of god is not cognitively meaningful. The personal, anthropomorphic god-concept that the vast majority of Christians hold in their thoughts most often might have literal significance for them much of the time, but when you drill down and try to press them for definitions, that concept invariably breaks down to something that has no literal significance.

      Perhaps for the nontheist, the first response to the question, “Do you believe in God?” should not be “No, because I see no evidence for God,” but rather, “That depends on what you mean by ‘God’?” If coherent parameters for “God” cannot first be established, there is really no need to proceed with an existential discussion. That might be seen as a cop-out, but really it might be a way to get people who “stopped thinking about it” to start thinking about it again.

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    2. I don't think much of anybody really understands or tries to define what they mean by just the supernatural, let alone this fuzzy-wuzzy idea of a "god."

      In the computer field we used to talk about the "Duh Factor." That was when you used a bunch of big words to a technical illiterate and very quickly the illiterate would just shut down all mental function and just nod along with whatever you were saying. I had a friend at one job who decided on the "explanation of the day" and use that on anybody who called. One day it was sunspots; another day it was El Nino. He'd always have this ultra-technical explanation using that excuse and I don't know of a single caller/client who called him on his routine. I think religious people do that too. If they just pack enough weird big words and concepts into things (IMMUTABLE, f.e.), they'll look super-intelligent even though they're no longer actually communicating in any meaningful way.

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  2. I love your blog. Keep it up!

    It seems to me that one reason people live with their cognitive dissonance is the need for community. I've heard more than one Catholic say that in spite of the Church's position on various social positions (abortion, gay marriage, etc.), he stays because "those are the people I grew up with and love."

    My former "cell" church seems to me more like a club than anything else: a group of people who think alike (frequently quoting conservative radio hosts) and enjoy the same kinds of activities (sports, potlucks, game nights). These are the real criteria for membership.

    Mark

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  3. It's "dwarves", dude.

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    1. That's initially what I thought as well, but it turns out that the standard plural of the noun "dwarf" is "dwarfs" (the OED appears to grant both.) Although I will admit that using "dwarves" to refer exclusively to the mythic variety and "dwarfs" to the actual human beings would be helpful. It still leaves us with ambiguity about the singular "dwarf," though.

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  4. I got through until you stumbled on the Holy Spirit proceeding part. Can I provide a thought exercise that may help illustrate? First, imagine nothing but God the Father. God the Father being a Spirit. He has no physicality because He does not exist within physical reality. He is timeless, immaterial, and capable of immense creative power. Picture a being that is infinite in nature. He is so outside of anything we could ever understand. Language, time, dimensions.... they all break down and their use would limit the nature of his being.

    At this "point" (understand language breaks down here because point denotes some measurable reference - but at this point there is no point. Right.) ... so, at this point in the thought exercise, there is only the Father. Nothing else. At some point the Father decided to create. This means he was able to make a choice (has a will).

    Now it's understood that in a material existence, the infinite does not exist. An infinite being cannot exist within measurable space. God the father cannot "fit" into existence as we know it. But, he can *reach* into existence with a part of himself. I picture it like this: Imagine a sheet hanging that separates God the infinite Father from material reality. Picture me (playing the part of the Father here) reaching into reality through that sheet. You wouldnt see me, but you would see the representation of me through the sheet. The point where God the Father enters into existence into material reality is the work of God the Son through the power if the Holy Spirit. Behind the sheet, the infinite God the Father still is ever-present... but He reached into material reality, creating it, and working within it. When God spoke the universe into existence, it was the power of His voice that extended into reality. The point that it passed the threshold from the infinite into finite reality can be again understood to be the person of God the Son. This is what we read in the book of John... and in this context it all makes sense:

    John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

    The Word here being God the Son - Jesus. Now God the Son further extended into material reality by embodying Himself into the man we call Jesus. This is why we can say that Jesus is God. He is the part of God that we can know. We can't know God the Father in His true essence because it is so far outside of our ability to comprehend (or apprehend) Him. Jesus is the Word of God. So He is the part of God that we can communicate with. He has language. Again, language itself is a limitation on the infinite. Language only applies within the container (this side of the sheet).

    Hope that clears things up! I think if you meditate on the concepts it will begin to make sense... though that certainly presupposes a belief that He exists...

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    1. This comment actually does a pretty good job of illustrating what I was talking about. Regardless of whether or not what you have constructed here is coherent (I would argue it isn’t), it in no way meaningfully distinguishes itself from heresy. That’s with a charitable interpretation. At worst it contains several blatantly heretical statements. For starters, the idea of the Father existing at any “point” before the other persons of the Trinity is a big problem. It’s not too bad if we’re only dealing with logical priority, but we’re not. You specifically suggest that God “enters into existence into material reality.” That’s a temporal occurrence and it’s suggestive of dramatic ontological change. When you construct that sheet analogy, it only makes that heretical portrait even more concrete. It’s pretty much blatant modalism. The Son is reduced to being a form of God that we can see. Simply using the word “person” as a descriptor doesn’t solve that.

      But it might actually be worse than pure modalism. You begin by confounding the persons into one like a modalist with statements like “there is only the Father” and “[the Father] can *reach* into existence with a part of himself” and “[Jesus] is the part of God…”, etc. But you also appear to divide the essence with your statement that “An infinite being cannot exist within measurable space,” which suggests that the Son does not equally and eternally possess properties like ubiquity, transcendence, eternality, and robs the Father of the property of imminence and turns him into the god of deism while making the Son into a demigod. That’s directly contradictory to the two most fundamental components of Trinitarianism: “we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence.”

      You could maybe clean some of this up by replacing words like “part” with “person”, drop the sheet analogy entirely, and change “Father” to “God” in a few places to make it less heretical. Even if you did that, though, whatever was left still wouldn’t address the core objection in my post with respect to the way in which the relational distinctions between the persons are meaningful and not merely a semantic avoidance of the law of identity. The words “begotten” and “proceed” imply time and change. When used to describe eternal relationships, those words lose semantic value. They become meaningless. But the moment you try to strip away the eternality of that relational identity, you venture into heresy. And then you’re conceiving of and worshiping a god other than the one described by Trinitarianism. Personally, that doesn’t bother me a lick, but it should concern you immensely.

      As an aside, it may interest you to know that there are quite a few theologians following Aquinas that will argue that the Father absolutely can manifest himself in some visible form perceptible to created beings and directly interact with them, based on their reading of passage like Daniel 7:9-14 and Matthew 18:10. At the very least, to suggest that every time the Father passes your imaginary threshold from the infinite into the finite he must do so through the Son by the power of the Spirit runs into serious problems when you encounter passages like Matthew 3:16-17 where the Father speaks about the Son in an audible voice and the Spirit descends upon the Son like a dove.

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    2. What a thoughtful reply! (No disingenuity intended) I am going to digest this in thorough fashion and see where I can make clarifications, and possibly even reconsider any aspects of my understanding. While you owe no service to me, I appreciate the insights! Irony at its best, for sure...

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  5. I know I'm very late to the party here, but I've been reading through your blog from the beginning and just wanted to say WOW, thank you so much for all the time and effort you've put into this. I can imagine that you sometimes pour so much effort into these posts, wondering if they'll ever be read or appreciated, and I can say that on a personal level at least, they most certainly are. I've greatly enjoyed (and have been intellectually stimulated by) everything I've read so far, and in particular the "Mistakes of Moses" series. Your thoughtful and thorough rebuttals to nearly every verse are a joy to read, and you have taught me a great many things in the process about a book I only thought I knew and understood.

    But this post in particular was so good I finally had to post a comment telling you as much. After being raised in the Southern Baptist Church for the first 30 years of my life, I finally recently had my own deconversion experience, privately - and very recently, publicly - breaking away from the faith of my childhood.

    Since then, I've been astounded at how often my questions about God and the bible are ultimately answered with the "mystery of faith" nonsense. But what can you say when someone arrives at that answer? It's essentially a conversation killer, and once that line is trotted out there's really nothing more that can be said. Except that here, you've laid out an incredibly detailed and clear response to such an answer, one that I hadn't really considered before. Blind faith is one thing, but even to have blind faith in something, you still need at least a basic understanding of the nature of that thing. It's like if I said I have faith that the Great Snorfendorf will one day establish his Kerplaphen throughout all known Schimacofarl, but then I can't even establish a definition for any of those things that make sense from a logical, non-contradictory standpoint. How can I claim faith in such a statement when I don't fully understand what the hell I'm even talking about? As you've so perfectly explained, the concept of the Trinity is no different. One can say the words and claim belief in them, but it's impossible to truly have faith in their veracity if they are impossible to comprehend. The "mystery of faith" is the very wall that prevents true faith to begin with.

    Anyway, sorry to ramble, I'm just excited when I read something like this that gives me a new perspective I hadn't considered before. I truly hope you continue to post your thoughts and research, because I for one really want to continue benefiting from it!

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