I readily admit that I’m not an expert on Christian theology. It’s a tricky subject. There’s so much that is vague, bizarre and self-contradictory in the Bible that making sense of it – if sense is the right word – takes a certain kind of mind and a lot of training.
Take, for instance, Jesus and the manner of his conception.
Mary was ‘visited’ by the Holy Spirit. That’s a polite term for it, as in ‘I gave her a damn good visiting’. The result was that Mary became pregnant without any of that sordid rolling in the hay malarky.
Catholics would have you believe she remained a virgin (let’s leave aside the small matter of Jesus’ brother, James, and other siblings). Not just that, Mary herself had to be free of sin, including original sin, so Catholics had to invent all that silliness about Mary’s immaculate conception. Nor could she die, but instead had to be assumed up to heaven.
It’s all man-made nonsense, of course, but it’s not the particular piece of nonsense I want to deal with here.
No, my problem is with that Holy Spirit fella. He’s one part of that fun-loving trio, the Holy Trinity. The other members, of course, are God and Jesus. Oh, wait…
Presumably, before the Holy Spirit had his night of passion with Mary, the Holy Trinity was merely the Dynamic Duo. There’s not much I can find in the Bible or on Wikipedia about that, but in any case there’s a more pressing problem.
You see, Christianity has long anguished over this Trinity business. I mean, it markets itself as one of the leading monotheistic faiths (of which there are three key brands, but let’s not get into that coincidence). In fact, God is very emphatic about the mono bit – ‘Thou shalt have no other gods but me’ and all that.
And so theologians have had to come up with some very convoluted, clever, indeed downright devious ways of getting around the problem of there being three versions of the one God. Yes, they say, there are three entities or manifestations, but they are simply different facets of the same thing – God the father, God the son and God the Holy Ghost.
In the Credo (or Nicene Creed, if you prefer), this is made explicit. In the original version of the creed, formulated in Nicea in 325CE, believers simply state that they believe in the Holy Ghost. But in the Constantinople version of 381CE, the creed was expanded to avoid any unpleasant misunderstanding. The Holy Ghost, it says, “proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified”. In both versions, Jesus is, “begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father”.
One substance. Hmm.
And so it seems that, in effect, Mary spent the night with God. And given that Jesus is part of God … well that raises some difficult questions, doesn’t it? One assumes that the Holy Ghost is nothing but a convenient invention of members of the early Christian church to get around the problem of Jesus begetting himself, and having sex with his mother into the bargain.
Anyone who has written a novel or screenplay will recognise the huge plot problems in the Christian story. And most will have little time for how poorly these have been resolved by later contortions and rewrites. We humans have made up this story but can’t seem to make it work at any logical level. Of course, that doesn’t always worry believers: most just throw up their hands and declare it a mystery and not for us to know.
Some Christian sects have avoided the problem by simplifying the story of Christ and what interpretations they make from it. For example, many do not insist on Mary’s virginity. In any case, this was only ever the product of a mistranslation of the alleged prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, where the Hebrew word almah, which carries no connotation of virginity, became the Greek word parthenos, which means ‘maiden’ and might imply purity.
But some powerful sects, most notably Roman Catholicism, take a hardline, one might say fundamentalist, view. In the process, their excuses and explanations take on ever more bizarre forms.
I think Uta Ranke-Heinemann expressed it best. She is a theologian who holds the chair of History of Religion at the University of Duisburg-Essen. She was, for a while, Professor of Catholic Theology at Essen, until fired by Pope John Paul II for daring to insist on a theological, rather than biological, interpretation of the Virgin Birth. Still a Christian, she departed from mainstream faith, insisting that the Bible and the Trinity are the products of mankind, not God, that Jesus was human, that hell, the devil and original sin are all fabrications and that the crucifixion was, in effect, a form of pagan human sacrifice. She said:
Catholic moral theology has lost much of its prestige … It is a folly that poses as religion and invokes the name of God, but has distorted the consciences of countless people. It has burdened them with hair-splitting nonsense and has tried to train them to be moral acrobats, instead of making them more human and kinder to their fellow men and women … Its theology is no theology and its morality is no morality. It has come to grief on its own stupidity.
Uta Ranke-Heinemann’s book, Eunuchs for Kingdom of Heaven: Women, Sexuality and the Catholic Church, is available from: Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.com