During the spring, I took advantage of working at my alma mater by auditing a class, “The Road to Nicaea and Beyond,” a class on the history and formation of Christian theology. Though an auditor, I still had the opportunity to lead the class in a discussion of a theologian or heretic. I, enthusiastically, signed up for the 4th century heretic Arius, who believed that Christ was subordinate to God the Father.
OK, so unlike most people, I have a deep interest and love for the early church heretics. There’s something about their ideas, being so close to what the Church has deemed truth–yet, just a little bit off–that intrigues me. (And what’s just a little bit off, the Church believes, has really big consequences.)
For Arius, after reading his scrapped-together collection of writing and commentary on his theological grounding, I wasn’t so quick to dismiss him. I had a hard time imagining what was so wrong with his theology. His theology was pretty sound, using Scripture to back him up even more substantially than his nemesis Alexander. Arius’ ideas weren’t formed willy-nilly. They were rooted in his soteriology, his beliefs about what it means to be saved by the person of Christ.
During my research, I texted my friend, Sarah, telling her all I had learned about Arius and how it seemed pretty alluring to me, too, to believe in a hierarchical Trinity, where the Son and Spirit were subordinate to the Father (though not quite as lowly as humans). Maybe Arius had a point!*
Sarah responded that she found it interesting that the Church came to see a mutual, interdependent, egalitarian** Trinity as the truly orthodox position, rejecting a theology that mirrored their patriarchal society.
In class the next week, when I led the seminar discussion, I kept returning to Sarah’s words. I could imagine a world where a theology of a subordinate Christ lives on–it’s not so different from our world, where women are subordinated, where people of color are subordinated, where the poor are subordinated.
For some reason, 1,600 years ago, a group of (presumably) influential men were led to believe that God was not hierarchical.
Our class spent time with this idea, convinced of orthodoxy for this one reason at least.***
For a while after that, Arius was on my mind; I was constantly coming back to Sarah’s words and to class discussion. Wanting to understand, I began working on a poem. Poetry is often my way of teasing things out. I figure, if I have to say something with concrete images and with a strict form, maybe I’ll be forced to say something meaningful and make sense of what’s in front of me.
I called my poem “‘Thalia’ Revisited,” for Arius’ theological poem (yes, he was a poet too!) which laid out his fledgling doctrine of God. (A quick note on form: This poem itself is young and needs love and revision but what I appreciate most about it is its form. Each stanza contains three lines, the first line not being indented; this is meant to signify Arius’ hierarchical trinity, or a “demoted dyad”–the Son and Spirit subordinate to God the Father.)
for the poet-heretic Arius
What gets you off, claiming Christ a creaturely sub-God?
…..Did you just hate the clutter
…..of Alexander’s twisted image:
Son equals Father equals Ghost?
…..Your logician’s brain churned to jam,
…..curdled by contradiction.
How have you borne
…..the weight of it, like your demoted dyad,
…..that there was a time when you were not?
. . .
What got you here? Kicked out
…..by Constantine, slapped
…..by St. Nick, milked by a Council of your peers.
Maybe you just hated an equal rights Trinity,
…..that interpenetrating threesome.
…..Because how can the Begotten beget a Mother?
How can sperm be mightier than a Father?
…..Do not throw the Incarnate
…..Baby with the bathwater.
. . .
Oh, Arius! What kind of catty daddy
…..issues have you given your son, clinging
…..to your convictions all the way to the desert?
Must everyone knows who’s boss?
…..“A son doesn’t make a father a father.”
…..But in your heretic’s heart isn’t that what you want:
both a God whose loafers are too big for your feet to fill,
…..and a God who’s fit for you, milk
…..to your honey, homo– to your ousios?
* For this reason my professor, Darren, called me an Arian sympathizer–whoops!
** My words, not the Church Fathers’
*** This probably wasn’t our only reason for orthodoxy, but we found it was the one with the greatest implications for our world.