Bubble Gum and the Trinity
I recently told a class of tenth-graders that what our culture needed was a return to Trinitarian bubble-gum commercials. They were a little nonplussed, and so I hastened to explain that as individuals with one set of ultimate commitments, we have the capacity to live in alien soil, that is, a culture with a different set of commitments. In other words, a Muslim can live and prosper in a Trinitarian culture. In that culture he can live and die a Muslim. But if enough Muslims congregate together, the logical extensions of their fundamental faith will necessarily work its way out into the culture. The culture will become unitarian, not because there are now enough Muslims to “vote it in,” but because the faith of individuals is like yeast. Eventually the yeast will leaven the entire loaf, which is another way of saying that ideas have consequences.
In our varied culture wars, one of the things frequently overlooked is the fact that Western culture is Trinitarian, and has been overwhelmingly Trinitarian for well over a millennium. This has only been seriously challenged in the last several centuries and, despite the manifest signs of cultural decay around us, our Trinitarian assumptions are still deeply rooted. The alternatives to Trinitarian thinking in our midst are now sufficiently grown for us to get an idea of what they look like in their cultural garb.
In ancient Hellenistic philosophy, their perennial problem was that of the one and the many. Not to put too fine a point on it, and simplifying it somewhat, how were we to get unity and diversity into the same sack? How can we account for the unity of all things? Is there such a unity? And if we have done that, how can we account for the manifest differences between the hedge hog and the toaster oven? How can we account for the distinctions? Parmenides opted for the unity of all things, but could not give an account of diversity. Heraclitus saw the diversity, not stepping into the same river twice, but could not give an account of the unity. Pagan philosophy had wrestled with this problem for centuries and, by the beginning of the Christian era, that philosophy was gasping for breath. In this setting the Christian church arrived, preaching the equal ultimacy of the one and the many, God in three persons, blessed Trinity.
After the great battles of Nicea and Chalcedon, at which battles the church fought off the pagan counterattacks, the Trinitarian cast of mind was settled for a long time. In our culture this mindset was not seriously challenged until this century. This does not mean that everyone has been Trinitarian—we have had non-Trinitarians and anti-Trinitarians in our midst at all times. It means that such people were forced to operated in Trinitarian categories, whether they liked it or not.
Nevertheless, in recent years, we have seen the attempted infusion of non-Trinitarian thinking into the mind of the West. The assault has come from both sides. Trinitarian culture is attacked from one side for its diversity, and from the other for its monolithic unity. Currently, the most immediate assault is being made under the banner of diversity and randomness. This is the option of postmodern polytheism. First, we have “this.” And then, over there, in a completely different setting, we have “that.” And then, back over here, we have the “other.” How do we relate them all together? Why would we want to do that?
And this brings us to the point about our current anti-Trinitarian bubble-gum commercials. In the old days, an advertiser would show us a pretty girl chewing gum, with a jingle in the background urging us all on to the same chewing satisfaction. However sappy the commercial was, it was offered in a universe which was thought to have some coherence, and in which unity and diversity both had important roles. But today, gum is sold by something like the following: A fish floats by on the screen, followed by an ascending bicycle. Then we have an explosion of flowers, with a skateboard blasting through them. Then a basketball bounces by. The message is that nothing coheres, nothing sticks, not even the gum to your dental work. This commercial celebrates the random, and denies the unity of all things. The religion underneath is necessarily some form of anti-Trinitarian polytheism.
When people have been frightened by the chaos of this, they are susceptible to invitations summoning them to the land of no diversity … or as little diversity as physically possible. This is the appeal of Islam to some westerners. In our fragmented state, the stagnation of Islamic culture can look like stability.
Don’t get me wrong: David Letterman is a very funny polytheist. And Islamic cultures know how to discourage thieves and muggers. The Christian response to this has nothing to do with letters to CBS complaining about Letterman’s randomness, or a letter to one’s congressman asking for vigilance against the Islamic peril in the Third World. The answer is for our churches to return to recitations and expositions of the Nicean creed.