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May 14 2013

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On the Trinity.

For the background of my thoughts on several subjects referenced here, please see some of my previous essays, such as “On Dual Nature,” “On the Meaning of Life Personified,” “On How I Got Here part III,” “On Being Israel” and others.

This is not the first essay of mine triggered by somebody’s question about why I am a Christian – as opposed to Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Voudou, Pagan, or a member of a multitude of other movements and groups and religions that connect communally to the Divine, punctuate their lives with ritual, immerse themselves in sacred art, formulate ethical guidelines, and reflect on the nature of existence. I’ve approached this topic before from different angles – how Christianity is different for me from others and how it is not different, and why I am this, now.

I’ve talked about falling in love with a man who walked the earth two millennia ago but whom I found alive and most intimately warm in the world and in my heart. Who would have thought? I talked about Christianity’s refusal to choose between transcendence and immanence of God but embracing and melding both in a weaving of a delicate, semi-porous conceptual line. I talked about the heritage of Israel, my Jewish history – the Christian covenant of Abraham, Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. Most recently, the question came again, and this time, in the context of conversation, the heart of the answer was: the Trinity.

The Trinity (the Christian formulation of the triune God as Father, Son, and Spirit) is a difference in understanding the nature of God between Judaism and Islam on one side and Christianity on the other. It is a profound difference and yet, in my mind, it is not. The self-contradictory sound of this statement, unfortunately, is the truest part of it and what matters most. Because, in essence, Christianity discovers complexity in God and God-World relationship that bothers the others but that’s inherent in their understanding, too. This complexity helps Christians illuminate the mystery and deepen our understanding of it – helps us make our theology more complete (as incomplete as it ever will be). Our Abrahamic family finds that complexity carries a danger of infringing upon unity, and unity of God’s nature in any monotheism is paramount. The gravest and oldest of sins is idolatry, and as much as we interpret and reinterpret the term, in the end, the temptation to take our eyes off the ONE that matters is constantly there. We are an easily distracted species, after all. It’s the temptation to look out the window during math class. It’s the temptation to talk to the crucifix instead of the one whose image it carries. It’s the temptation to reduce mystery to analogy, and Judaism and Islam are properly worried of the danger – but the danger lies not in the Trinitarian understanding but in misunderstanding.

transcendence of linesIn contrast to its sister traditions, Christianity discovered that simplicity in perception interfered with the discovery of mystery. A daughter of Judaism, Christianity is as phobic of idolatry as the rest of the Near East, but it was born from historical events and subsequent debates that led to the formulation of the doctrines of the Trinity. It was born from the search for words that could better explain what they – the early Christians – lived as their relationship with God. From what they recognized when they felt touched by God. From the mystery they encountered.

It’s not a different mystery. It’s just a different way of verbalizing it and, perhaps, a different context. I personally find it a marvelous and fundamentally true way, but then, I am biased.

Now, the first Person of the Trinity – the Father – is rarely in dispute because this is God as Source, the Creator and Law-giver, that which Christianity started out with because this is the God of Judaism. And it is the God of Islam. This aspect of God the whole Abrahamic family gets from the same set of scriptures: the Tanakh.

The third Person of the Trinity – the Spirit – is perhaps the most abstract and difficult to formulate. As the least imaginable, the least sensorily represented, the ineffable, it is also the least discussed in the interreligious circles. The Spirit, though intended to be the most present among humanity in the here and now as inspiration and consolation, ironically is the least understood, but quietly so.

The hottest debate tends to concern the second Person, the Son. The Co-creator and Savior of the world. God who walked among us fully human.

The greatest stumbling blocks for Muslims and Jews seem to be the Christian assertions that God is “in three Persons” and that Christ Jesus is the “Son of God.” On their faces, these statements appear to suggest that God is somehow divisible, but this is not so. Christian theology has never meant to say that. I believe that it is only an insurmountable challenge if one understands sonship too narrowly and “persons” too rigidly. The Persons of the Trinity are aspects of God, ways of God’s self-revelation, and our terms for them are just as limited and their nature is just as unfathomable as Islam’s “attributes” of God. Our attempts at circumscribing the uncircumscribable. Our ways of defining God are real and true, but they are never complete.

One objection of the other Abrahamic traditions against the sonship of Jesus and the divinity of Christ stems from their absolute monotheism and their care for the line of transcendence between God and the world. Basically, God cannot have a son. God is God. Humans are humans. ContemplationBut Christianity does not abolish the transcendent God, and the flow of divine nature into human form does not dilute its monotheism, for the Three are not three – they are One and the same. One essence, One God, inseparable and indivisible. Father, Son, and Spirit are the  Source, the Human Face, and the all-permeating Love which are the Divine Reality, and each is the other. The Human Face is Love; Love is the Source; the Source is the Human Face. Encountering one, we encounter all Three.

There is in this theology a wonderful intimacy between Creator and Creation, which Christianity inherited and developed from the Hebrew scriptures. Turn to Genesis, where the Word born of God causes the things of the world into existence, much like a writer’s word his imagined universe. Turn to the Proverbs, where the Wisdom of God is the co-creator of all things good and right – the moral and rational order of the universe, personified. Paul calls Jesus the wisdom of God. Eastern traditions and mystics of all persuasions have perceived this uninterrupted flow of God’s nature through everything we know – for “God” is the word for the Love that holds us all together, for animating force, for the source of life through time.

A conceptually thinking Jew or Muslim might agree that not only can God have a son but God must – did – does have sons a plenty if sonship is understood as “issue.” The living breath of God in human form is humanity, after all. Creation. To a great degree, we all are children of God even in the minds of those who take quite literally any of the Abrahamic scriptures. We all have natures human and divine – dual natures.

There is, of course, a difference still. Christians look to Jesus of Nazareth as qualitatively different than the rest of us: the Son not just a son of God. The One in whom God is apparent and  Savior. But even that is a difference temporal not principal, if one thinks about Jesus as Divinity Personified in Fulfilled Humanity – something Jews and Muslims are essentially still looking forward to, in a bright if apocalyptic future of the end-world. For Christians, Jesus is a preview, a glimpse of the Kingdom itself, of the Human and Divine natures harmonious together as they were ever intended to be, of the state of being for which we long. By being here he shows us what perfect love is. By being what he is, he gives us hope. That’s how he triumphs over death. That’s how he saves the world.

There are metaphors of Jesus as the one who connects, brings humanity back to God from the abyss of sin. In one, he is a bridge that allows us to walk over the chasm. In another, he is a sowing needle that comes through both sides of a tear in a fabric of reality – the chasm between God and Humanity – and pulls behind it a thread, bringing the sides together, closing the gap. Comes through and pulls everyone behind. Comes through and shows the way. Of course, both of these images make him a foreign body to both rather than one with both, but every metaphor has its limitations. I’ve started recently to think in a direction of a wound being healed – new flesh forming between two sides of a tear, living flesh connected to both, one with both, leaving no gap and no death but forming new connections and letting the blood run.

"Face of Jesus" by Susan SolakI think that Christianity’s talk of sonship should not trouble the other monotheistic traditions so much: the Christ is not a fracturing of Divinity; he is a, sort of, condensation of It. A group of Jews in the first century met and loved and lost a man, and in their love and loss, in their grief and guilt and enlightenment, they realized they encountered God. And they searched for words to tell the world about what they now knew – because this is what we do, and because what they knew was God. And their successors kept doing the same in the words and circumstances that suited their knowledge and their questions and their search. This Christ, this Human Face of God, is the Divine that understands human suffering, human joy, and human weakness. He is the Divine that touches, loves, and holds. He is how God is With Us, recognized by some of us by name.

As for this very high Christology of Christ Jesus, the King of Kings, the walking deity with foreknowledge and might over nature, that is so unpalatable to non-Christians – Christianity itself has not mastered it. It teeters always on the brink of teachings the Church has battled against and called heresies, that paint him as a god wrapped in human body, or as the two coexisting in one. The Church rejected these and piled more and more precision-making amendments upon its doctrines. Christians have always been better at saying what God is not than at saying what God is. And not just Christians, either.

This is all right. The unfathomable will remain unfathomable. Such is the nature of Ultimate Reality. And we will continue to try to fathom it – to our own frustration and ecstasy, and to annoyance and outrage of our neighbors. This is all right. Such is the nature of humanity.

Still, I wonder what the landscape of inter-religious dialogue would be like if some of you – many of you – out there agreed with me that the Trinity is a profound difference between Christianity and Judaism and Islam, but really, it’s not.

 

Permanent link to this article: http://onmounthoreb.com/on-the-trinity/

3 comments

  1. William McGuire

    This feels less like a persuasive argument for Trinitarianism as the most complete form of Abrahamic theology and more like a statement of the author’s aesthetic preference for the idea. Judaism or Islam states that the Trinity is logically indefensible, and the response is that it’s logically difficult, but poetically beautiful. Well, that’s hardly a response at all, really.

    “The self-contradictory sound of this statement, unfortunately, is the truest part of it and what matters most. Because, in essence, Christianity discovers complexity in God and God-World relationship that bothers the others but that’s inherent in their understanding, too. This complexity helps Christians illuminate the mystery and deepen our understanding of it – helps us make our theology more complete (as incomplete as it ever will be).”

    When competing truth claims are at play one of them being self-contradictory is a bad sign, but as we are discussing the infinite, that objection is not a fatal one. The thesis is essentially that the Trinity is the best metaphor(? You don’t seem comfortable or willing to discuss this in terms of truth claims) for the relationship of God to the world. If the Trinity is a fundamental misrepresentation of Jesus which became the dominant mode of Christian dogma for political reasons, it doesn’t matter how nice the idea is–it’s just not true. If you’re not willing to address this first, then everything that follows is literally preaching to the choir (Christians, and sympathetic monotheists), and it’s not a persuasive piece.

    ” It was born from the search for words that could better explain what they – the early Christians – lived as their relationship with God. From what they recognized when they felt touched by God. From the mystery they encountered.”

    Tabling the white wash of the early Christian debates, this sounds a lot like the Israelites at Mt. Sinai: they didn’t believe the golden calf WAS God, they believed it was a means of visualizing and expressing worship for God. God didn’t approve hence, the no craven images thing. The ONLY way a crucifix is any better is if you have already accepted the claim that Christ IS God, and further accepted the claim that Christ would want you to worship in this way. It’s beauty is immaterial.

    “The third Person of the Trinity – the Spirit – is perhaps the most abstract and difficult to formulate. As the least imaginable, the least sensorily represented, the ineffable, it is also the least discussed in the interreligious circles. The Spirit, though intended to be the most present among humanity in the here and now as inspiration and consolation, ironically is the least understood, but quietly so.”

    Most of this article is directed towards heading off objections towards Christ-as-God, but THIS paragraph is the one with the really fatal problem. How can one aspect of an INFINITE OMNISCIENT BEING be INTENDED TO BE THE MOST PRESENT AMONG HUMANITY? How can one aspect be any more present than another? Do the other two CEASE BEING OMNISCIENT when somebody needs inspiration?

    “The greatest stumbling blocks for Muslims and Jews seem to be the Christian assertions that God is “in three Persons” and that Christ Jesus is the “Son of God.” On their faces, these statements appear to suggest that God is somehow divisible, but this is not so. Christian theology has never meant to say that. I believe that it is only an insurmountable challenge if one understands sonship too narrowly and “persons” too rigidly. The Persons of the Trinity are aspects of God, ways of God’s self-revelation, and our terms for them are just as limited and their nature is just as unfathomable as Islam’s “attributes” of God. Our attempts at circumscribing the uncircumscribable. Our ways of defining God are real and true, but they are never complete.”

    Equating the attributes of God in Islam to the Trinity is strange to me, because incompletely enumerating the ways in which Allah gives Grace, is different than saying God incarnated himself as a flesh and blood man; walked among humanity; and died to redeem all humanity in the most significant moment in the history of the universe. It’s not an “in for a penny, in for a pound” thing.

    “One objection of the other Abrahamic traditions against the sonship of Jesus and the divinity of Christ stems from their absolute monotheism and their care for the line of transcendence between God and the world. Basically, (!)God cannot have a son. God is God. Humans are humans(!)” !Emphasis mine!

    This is a misreading. There is nothing that God, as an infinite being, cannot do. Even by delineating the gulf between the infinite and the finite, one places impossible limits upon the infinite. The contention is that God DID NOT have a son who was also God, which can neither be proved nor disproved– merely believed or not believed.

    “One essence, One God, inseparable and indivisible. Father, Son, and Spirit are the Source, the Human Face, and the all-permeating Love which are the Divine Reality, and each is the other. The Human Face is Love; Love is the Source; the Source is the Human Face. Encountering one, we encounter all Three.”

    Why stop at three? It’s a good number, but it’s kinda…finite. Because it’s a number.

    Quick question: What’s the difference between the Father and the Holy Spirit?

    I get that the Father SENT the Holy Spirit, but he didn’t send it (per se) because it IS the Father who always existed and was always present and couldn’t be more present by God sending it to humanity as a comfort, not because The Father wasn’t able to console us (after all he IS the Spirit), and the Son was there to tell us about it and he is also God. And the Son’s Father was happy with him, which the Spirit let us know, because the Father believed it would be MORE perfect for the Spirit to tell us how happy the Father was with the Son. Even though the Father was there. Because he’s infinite.

    Now one day the Son died. He was fully human and fully divine and he died, but in an important way he did NOT die because he was still the Father and the Spirit. The Father (and maybe the Spirit?) exists in every moment simultaneously, so death is meaningless because death is a corporeal ending, from which we have no direct evidence of the continuation of, but the Father before he made the world, HAD ALREADY RISEN FROM THE DEAD. Because before Mary was born he was The Son and had already sent the Spirit. Right?

    This is a confusing metaphor.

    1. River Adams

      Thank you, William. This is really detailed.
      The confusion of your paragraph beginning with “I get” stems, I think, from treating the Persons of the Trinity as parts of God or three different interrelated deities rather than something like aspects of God or the ways of His self-revelation. To ask why the Spirit would tell us something when the Father was there doesn’t make a lot of sense. It makes more sense to say that, when a revelation is perceived or an inspired message received, Christians say it came from the Spirit — because such is the role of the Spirit.
      Having been risen from the dead is a temporal event that is a part of the mythology of Christ Jesus — the Son in the trinitarian theology. It did not happen before creation of the world because it is part of temporal and human history and can be placed in its context. But high Christology envisions the Person of Christ as Logos who is co-eternal with God the Father the Creator. You might say that Christ as Divine Aspect existed “before” the world, but his temporal aspect who would live and die and rise did not, not yet.

      As for God being omnipotent and therefore able to have a son in Muslim theology, this is not exactly so. God cannot be certain things not for lack of might but by definition, logically — in essence, there is a difference between doing and being. For one, God cannot NOT BE GOD. God is infinite and thus cannot be finite. It’s not about God’s limitations so much as about our proper understanding of God’s nature. That’s partly the reasoning that leads to the conclusion that a human son is an impossibility and to theologize such a son is blasphemy.

  2. William McGuire

    Yeah, it was a very nice piece, it’s just ultimately not of much use to me if I don’t already believe.

    Keep up the good work.

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