[Here's an edited version of an email exchange I had this morning with the Very Rev. Nicholas Knisely, a priest and astronomer/physicist who hosts the blog Entangled States, reproduced here at his suggestion.]
Where's the supporting evidence for the Trinity, etc.?
Nick, I enjoyed your essay at The Daily Episcopalian. My attention was drawn to this statement:
Now, should the primatial authority of the Episcopal Church authorize a new Prayer Book that clearly and intentionally repudiates the sovereignty of Jesus, or denies the Doctrine of the Trinity or rejects the Creeds and other historic formulations of the universal Church, then I would agree that the Episcopal Church is no longer a church and that it has come time to leave for a place that is authentically Christian.
I’ve got a serious question that has troubled me for a long time: How can people who seek to put God first – and, by corollary, to face the facts of the reality he created – justify giving intellectual assent to any of the foregoing?
Let me borrow the Anglican Scotist’s labeling scheme: I’m sufficiently confident of two assertions, A1 and A2, that I’m willing to make Bet B1. I won’t here go into why I have this confidence.
- A1: A Creator exists.
- A2: The Summary of the Law is an expression of two of the fundamental building-block processes by which the universe is being created.
(I often paraphrase the SOTL as “[A] Face the facts — that is, live in the world God actually created, not in the one ‘created’ by your wishful thinking – and [B] seek the best for others as you do for yourself.”)
- B1: The SOTL is an appropriate guide to living one’s life.
I have no such confidence, however, about the Trinity (let’s call that A3), nor about the divinity of Jesus (A4), nor about any number of other received orthodox doctrines. I simply don’t see how sufficient evidence exists to persuade reasonable people about these assertions. (I’ve explained my doubts in some detail on my own blog, The Questioning Christian.)
Sure, some of the church fathers apparently believed A3 and A4. But they also believed, for example, that the sun revolved around the earth; that illnesses were caused by evil spirits; and that Jesus would be returning Real Soon Now. The appeal to their authority is hardly persuasive.
In legal terms, the supporting evidence for A3 and A4 doesn’t even rise to the level of “substantial evidence” (i.e., evidence from which a reasonable person could draw the posited conclusion). It certainly doesn’t rise to the level of a preponderance of the evidence, and still less beyond a reasonable doubt.
To put it in scientific terms, A3 and A4 are no more supported by competent evidence than astrology, or the four-humours model of medicine, or cold fusion.
The various defenses I’ve read of A3 and A4 strike me as pure wishful thinking, the equivalent of the old economist joke whose punch line is “first, we’ll assume we have a can opener.”
Now on to your statement about it being time to leave the church. Suppose that two successive General Conventions were to amend the canons and the BCP to declare that one need not profess belief in A3, A4, etc., to be considered a Christian in good standing, and that the Creeds, the Trinitarian formulae, and other language dependent on A3 and A4 could be omitted from the various BCP rites.
How could we, with any intellectual rigor, justify abandoning TEC on that basis? Doing so would seem to be acting on a whim, at least in the absence of modestly-persuasive evidence that A3, A4, etc., are in fact true.
Nick's response: Some things have to be taken on faith
Your question deserves more of an answer than I've got time... and for that I apologize. But I wanted to acknowledge it.
I do stand by what I wrote. The moment the Church acts to authoritatively deny the divinity of Jesus is the moment I'm out of here. But I don't know that such a statement is provable logically - rather it's one that has to be taken on faith. [Emphasis mine - DCT]
What you seem to be arguing for is either a form of Unitarianism (as distinct from Unitarian Universalists) or a form of Arianism (though I'm not sure you'd give Jesus the sort of divine origin that Arius and his disciples gave to Jesus.)
Arianism is probably the more difficult to argue against - at least biblically. The Trinitarian belief that the Church holds is dependent on Arianism not being true - so if it wouldn't make sense to argue against the Trinitarian view if the Arian one hadn't been disproven.
How familiar are you with the patristic writer's arguments against Arianism?
(And I wonder if this is worth posting to a blog and having a more public discussion about?)
A reply: Acting on unsupported faith can be irrational and wrongful
[I didn't email this next part, but instead am posting it per Nick's suggestion.]
Nick, when you referred above to having to accept assertions A3 and A4 on faith, you put your finger on a fundamental issue.
My concern is not primarily whether someone believes Assertion A to be true purely on faith without supporting evidence. I think we have to recognize that we have little if any control over what we believe to be true or not true.
Suppose "Alice" happens to believe in astrology, and that our fates are influenced by the positions of the stars at our birth. I would probably think she's a bit nuts, but that she can't help what she believes. (She might think the same about me.) Without more, good manners would doubtless keep me from saying anything.
My concern comes when someone acts (or omits to act) solely on the basis of unsupported faith. It's one thing for Alice to believe in astrology; it'd be another thing entirely for her to urge others to shun "Bob" on grounds that he was born under the wrong astrological sign. If others were to follow Alice's urging, they would not only be acting irrationally, they would be doing a possibly-grievous wrong to Bob as well.
It's not hard to extend this line of argument to The Current Disputes.