It is also hard to believe a lot of what they came up with.
"Orthodoxy" is the word used to describe these standard, mainline Christian tenets. Most of these beliefs were solidified long before the major break-offs of the Great Schism and the Protestant Reformation, so they are still quite common among Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches. They include:
- Jesus was fully human and fully divine.
- God consists of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which is fully 3 but also fully 1 unity.
- God is all-powerful, all-loving--yet evil still exists.
- Humans are completely free, yet there is a Divine plan.
- Humans are fully spirit and fully body (which drives a lot of beliefs about the necessity of bodily resurrection after death as well as the spirit).
History is ripe with challenges to these beliefs. Arianism argues that Jesus was mostly human with some divine characteristics. Docetism holds that Jesus was fully God--his humanity was more symbolic, but deep down he was really God and could do whatever he wanted. These debates go back to the beginning of Christianity, but as you can tell, people still argue these points today. I'm sure you know people who think Jesus was more divine than human or the reverse.
Modalism professes that God is one unity with three manifestations. Other beliefs show God as three beings (a pantheon of Gods) with a unifying characteristic. Pelegians believed that salvation is achieved through human merit, others believe God has a rigid predestination that is already set. Gnostics believed in the sacredness of the spirit but deplored the body. Process Theology says that God can't be both all-powerful and all-loving if you consider the presence of evil in the world, so God must not be one or the other. Many people today hold views that resemble these in one form or another.
One thing that dawned on me in my Intro to Theology class was that in each of these viewpoints, the mainline Church took the least logical route. These so-called heresies seemed to make the most sense. It is much easier for the human mind to comprehend a God that is either three beings with one unifying attribute or one being with three manifestations. It is easier to pick a side and say that Jesus was either divine with some human characteristics or human with some divine characteristics. How could Jesus be God and still have human vulnerability? It seems impossible for both to be true, and even the Church has not done a good job of living into this (such as arguing the Jesus was human but never tempted, which seems to deny his true humanity).
Yet, time and again, the Church went there. It chose the paradox.
I was really impressed that the Church chose to live within these "crisis points." They did not resolve the tension, but rather chose to glory in it. When you consider that religious truths are transcendent realities, then it seems that paradoxical beliefs are probably the best way for us to access something that is way beyond ourselves. Instead of reducing God to formulas that the human mind can easily wrap around, it chose to pick something that forces us to continually meditate upon and stretch in order to grasp. It invites us into this transcendence, rather than coming down to our level, so to speak (in that, theology itself is a true spiritual path, not just a discussion of it).
It is not that I necessarily "believe" that orthodox tenets of faith are "true" or not. However, I do think they are a much deeper and richer mine from which to continually extract from. They inspire the imagination and force us to wrestle with difficult--perhaps impossible--concepts. The mind and spirit can draw all sorts of meaning out of them because they are never resolved. They are like a big, juicy piece of bubblegum that you can chew and chew and chew and still find flavor. They are also hard and empty.
Some of these other theologies try to nail things down into terms the human mind can more easily comprehend. In that, they are missing some of the primary aspects of a faith-filled theology--transcendence, awe and mystery. A God you just can't grasp.
What it must mean for Jesus to be both fully human and fully divine calls us to comprehend an incomprehensible, unbelievable infusion of God into humanity, and humanity into God--to such an extent that we can say there exists fully Divine and fully human all together. It would be easy for some to say that humans must therefore be divine (Pantheism), but that would also be taking the easy way out. No, the story goes: fully human and fully divine. It is hard. But there seems to be no end to the water in that well, either, when you consider what it must mean for God to become Incarnate into human history, and for humanity to become part of that which is divine. There is a sense of relationship, as Barb Finan says, and movement.
This does not mean we should just celebrate theologies that don't make sense! It was Aquinas who said that "faith without reason is the emptiest of vessels." Faith must be informed by reason, and reason must be sparked and tempered by faith. But there is something to these orthodox tenets that really seem to live at the intersection of faith and reason without compromising either. This tension is the source of growth and development, for we all grow through crisis. The Church has chosen to live right at these "crisis points."
Value of Church Tradition
The organized body of the Church often seems to veer completely away from goodness and truth in so many ways to the point where it seems about as far removed from Jesus as it could be. However, there are some amazing examples where the Church has kept its finger on the hot button despite all forces that would pull it to the contrary. These aren't just accidents of history, either. The debates that solidified these orthodox viewpoints took centuries of debate and a stream of church councils to decide. It wasn't something that just slipped through the cracks while no one was looking. In other words, there is something about the fundamental nature and structure of the Church which is actually good!
Kinda like the Biblical Tradition
I parallel the development of these beliefs to the development of the Bible. There are a number of books out there that did not get included in the Bible. There are probably some decent ones. But based on what I've heard from scholars, it seems that the really good stuff ended up in the Bible. Somehow, someway, the long process that chose the books to be included within the Bible really did an outstanding job. The cream of the crop really did rise to the top. Sure, they excluded the Gnostic texts, and people may argue that the Gospel of Thomas is a worthy book. I don't know, I wouldn't be surprised if there a couple of good examples out there that were left out. The point is that the end product of this long debate created a canon of Scripture that is really impressive. Maybe not perfect, but really up there with the best. Like a polished stone which has been sanded down from generations and generations of waves.
Don't take me literally
The irony is that a paradox would preclude any attempt at nailing down concrete attributes. Knowing that eternal truths are transcendent realities expressed as paradox should by definition preclude anyone from taking them too literally. This is what cracks me up when people take these ideas (expressed in the Creed) as scientfic fact--we call them "mystery" and "paradox", duh. They are Models of God, as Sally McFague argues, not descriptions. Preserving paradox creates the need to transcend our understanding. This is the genius of orthodoxy.
This does not mean that orthodox belief is the only belief system, only that it is a darned good one. It is often the one most casually tossed aside, but also one that has stood the test of time better than most. It will be a long while before it loses its place at the table of theological discussion.