Under the broad umbrella of the Christian religion, there exists a great divide between two fundamentally different ways of thinking about key aspects of the Christian faith. Eugene Webb explores the sources of that divide, looking at how the Eastern and Western Christian worlds drifted apart due both to the different ways they interpreted their symbols and to the different roles political power played in their histories. Previous studies have focused on historical events or on the history of theological ideas. In Search of the Triune God delves deeper by exploring how the Christian East and the Christian West have conceived the relation between symbol and experience.
Q. What prompted you to write this book?
A. There were several stages in the development of my interest in this topic. I first came to Christianity myself as an adult with no prior attachment to any religious tradition. At the time I found the doctrine of the Trinity perplexing, especially because the explanations I was given seemed both abstract and arbitrary. I subsequently found that many Christians felt similarly. Later, I decided it would be good to create a course on Eastern Christian traditions for the programs on Comparative Religion and European Studies that I had organized and taught in at my university. Teaching the histories of both Western and Eastern Christianity I became increasingly aware of differences between them, and I found that most of these were connected in some way with their different ways of understanding this fundamental doctrine. Since I also found that this was mostly unknown territory to both Christians and non-Christians, I decided a book explaining the differences could be helpful.
Q. What is the Triune God?
A. The Christian doctrine of God as triune--i.e., both one and three--was formulated in the fourth century CE in the Nicene Creed as a way of understanding the relation between God as the source of all that is and God as encountered in the personhood of Jesus of Nazareth and in the life of those who follow him and are incorporated into his life. The development of that way of thinking about the relation between God and humanity goes back well before the Christian era, however, to early Hebrew biblical images of God breathing life into creation (the root meaning of the word spirit, in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, is breath or wind) and of God calling Israel into a relation of sonship. The early Christians interpreted Jesus as the one in whom that calling was truly fulfilled, and they believed the animating breath of God, the Spirit, was also uniting them with Jesus in his filial relation to God.
Over time, the Eastern and Western Christian patterns of thinking about this diverged, with the West following Saint Augustine’s speculation about what there might be three of in the one God, while the East’s pattern of interpretation tended to be based on the story of Jesus’s baptism, with the Spirit descending to “rest upon” Jesus as a voice from heaven proclaims him “my beloved son.” Few modern Christians in the West realize that the trinitarian creed they call the Nicene Creed is not the original one formulated and affirmed by the ancient ecumenical councils but an altered version imposed in his domain by Charlemagne (to conform the creed to Augustine’s speculations as well as to serve Charlemagne’s own political purposes in his rivalry with the Roman emperors in Constantinople) and that it was at first resisted by the papacy, which did not itself adopt the new version of the creed in Rome until the eleventh century.
Q. How do the Christian East and the Christian West differ in their conceptions of the relation between symbol and experience?
A. In the pattern of thinking that developed among Eastern Christian thinkers, the symbols of Father, Son, and Spirit expressed their experience of living, as they put it, “in Christ”—knowing the Son of God from within and knowing the Spirit as the breath of God moving them from within and raising them into participation in the Son’s life, a process Eastern Christians call “deification” (theosis). In this way of interpreting them, Father, Son, and Spirit were experiential symbols that articulated in consciousness the three essential dimensions of the mystery Christians found themselves caught up in.
Augustine, on the other hand, in his book On the Trinity, began with the assumption that the doctrine of the Trinity must refer to three “somethings” (aliquid) inside God, and he tried to work out how to connect the biblical images of Father, Son, and Spirit with those. In his interpretation the biblical images became speculative symbols used to identify a triad of objective components of the one God; they could have no experiential meanings because Augustine believed the experience of fallen human beings in this life could have no direct relation to the inner being of God. After trying numerous triads to assess their fit, he concluded that Father must name God’s memory, Son God’s intellect or reason, and Spirit God’s will and that, since a will that did not proceed from intelligence or reason would be irrational and therefore defective, this implied that the Spirit must “proceed from the Father and the Son.” (“And the Son” [Filioque] was the crucial phrase that Charlemagne added to the Nicene Creed to conform it to Augustine’s interpretation.)
Q. What are some other basic differences between Eastern Christianity and Western Christianity?
A. One is that the West adopted Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin, which was a particular theory of human fallenness that involved both universal inherited guilt and a disposition to sin that is inexorable in this life (which ruled out the Eastern belief in the Christian life as a process of deification). A further development growing out of that same theory is that “atonement” (which originally meant becoming “at one” with God), came to be thought of in the West as referring to Christ’s crucifixion as payment of the penalty due for sin, whereas in the East Christ’s atonement has been associated with the union of humanity and divinity in the Incarnation, in which, as St. Paul put it, Christ came as a son in order that he might be the first of many brothers (and sisters).
Still another difference was that in the West, after Charlemagne’s empire became broken up among his heirs and their rivals, the Church entered as an independent political power into the ensuing competition to claim the kind of authority Charlemagne had held, whereas in the East, where the Roman empire continued intact until 1453 CE and was succeeded by the Ottoman and Russian empires, the Church was never in a position to strive for such power. This preoccupation with power has gone hand in hand with a tendency in the West to imagine the relation between God and humanity in terms of a command system entailing rewards and punishments, with Christ at the top of a chain of command in which he is represented on earth either by a ruler like Charlemagne or by popes or by an inerrant scripture.
Q. How have the differences between them manifested themselves in the lives of Christians?
A. It is important to recognize, to begin with, that there is diversity within both Eastern and Western Christianity and that due to influences passing back and forth over the centuries, individual Christians don’t conform consistently to the basic patterns of one or the other. That being said, the frequently commented tendency of Eastern Christianity toward the mystical and of Western toward the juridical is not inaccurate as a broad description. Eastern Christians often say that “theology is lived” and tend to look for examples of this in their monastic tradition (Dostoevsky’s portrait of the Elder Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov would be an example). The Western tradition’s preoccupation with institutional power and its concern with knowing what to do to gain reward and avoid punishment has led to both inquisitions and rigid scriptural fundamentalisms.
On the other hand, the struggles, both ideological and political, within the Western tradition of Christianity have stimulated valuable intellectual development in recent centuries, whereas that aspect of the Eastern tradition’s life flourished mainly before 1453. I think both Western and Eastern Christians can recognize that there have been saints (and saintly lives even among people not formally recognized as saints) in both traditions during the whole course of their histories—both before and after they split apart.
Q. How did you first become interested in studying religion?
A. Growing up without a religious tradition but surrounded by a great variety of forms of religion, I first became interested in them because they seemed efforts to address the most searching existential questions: where do we come from, what are we here for, what are the best possibilities for human life? As an academic study, however, my involvement with religion began rather indirectly. My degrees were in philosophy and comparative literature, both of which I was also drawn to as ways of exploring such existential questions. As it happened, after writing a book on religion and literature, The Dark Dove: The Sacred and Secular in Modern Literature, I found myself asked to organize a program on the study of religions in the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington, and I subsequently headed that program and shifted the larger part of my teaching to it.
My reason for being willing to undertake that role was that having studied the way possible visions of life could be explored through logical analysis and through metaphor and narrative, I became interested in the way they could also be concretely embodied and lived, which is what religions try to do. The reason I have continued to find that a compelling study is that in the history of religions I found both the best and the worst of human possibilities expressing themselves. I am convinced personally that religion has been and will always remain a powerful force in human life, but that shining as much light as possible on religious traditions may help to prevent their striving toward self-transcending love from being subverted, as so often happens, by the lust for power that Saint Augustine called libido dominandi.