In 597 BC. the armies of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, descended on the small kingdom of Judah and subjugated the region in three brutal military campaigns. The young king was deported with 8,000 exiles, including members of the royal family, the aristocracy, the military and skilled craftsmen. Ten years later, after another revolt, the Babylonians destroyed the temple of Yahweh, destroyed the city of Jerusalem, and carried away another 5,000 deportees, leaving only the poorest people in the devastated land. When a small group of Judahites finally arrived in 539 B.C.E. was allowed to return to their homeland, they brought back a very different religion and Yahweh never fully recovered his body. Without the temple rituals that had made him a living, breathing reality, he became the distant, spiritualized deity we know today.
This, Stavrakopoulou argues, was a tragedy. Yahweh, she laments, was transformed by Jewish philosophers such as Maimonides into a timeless, immutable, immaterial deity, quite unlike anything in the earthly realm, as Christians developed the incomprehensible riddle of the Trinity: “Three in one and one in three!”
Instead, she believes, we should return to ancient Israelite mythology. But that’s not how religion works. At best, when circumstances change, it requires that we respond creatively and innovatively to the present. After the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70, the rabbis rediscovered the divine presence in a highly inventive study of Scripture. The medieval mysticism of the Kabbalah depicted the inscrutable divine essence arising successively in 10 sephiroth (“stages”), one more perceptible than the other, in divine evolution, as it were. Later in the 18th century, the Polish Hasidim would develop techniques of concentration that allowed them to become vividly aware of the divine presence, “as if it were flowing around them and they were sitting in the center of the light” – an experience that did dance and sing.
This reminds us that religious belief becomes reality for us only when accompanied by physical gestures, intense mental concentration, and suggestive ceremonial rituals. Because it provides sacred knowledge, a myth is told in an emotional setting that distinguishes it from everyday experiences and brings it to life. Because they could no longer perform the passionate rites of the temple in Jerusalem, Yahweh’s traditionally vivid experience became opaque and distant to the Judean exiles in Babylonia. And the complex doctrine of the Trinity devised by Greek theologians in the fourth century was not something to be believed, but was the result of a mental and physical discipline which, accompanied by the rich music and ceremony of the liturgy , enabled Eastern Christians to glimpse the ineffable.
It is probably because most Western Christians have not learned this exercise that the Trinity remains as obscure to them as it does to Stavrakopoulou, who longs for a divine face or hand to turn to.