Tuesday, November 29, 2005

How can the Trinity be three Persons and still only one God?

A few years ago, one of my favorite teenagers (now one of my favorite bloggers) joined an interfaith group at school, somehow managing to stay under the radar of the Supreme Court and the ACLU. Fairly early on the Jewish members challenged her by saying that the Trinity made no sense, and she discovered to her chagrin that if there was an answer to this assertion, then she, at least, had no idea what it was. So she very intelligently sat down and fired off an e-mail to several of us adults at St. Luke's whom she thought might be able to give her a hand. This was my answer.

UPDATE: A thousand thanks to Alexandra for the picture. Now I owe her a thousand words.

FURTHER UPDATE: The debt is paid and then some...

FURTHER UPDATE: That comment thread has turned into one of the most remarkable conversations I've ever been privileged to take part in. If you have not read it, go do so now.


I'll happily explain the Trinity some, as long as you remember that it's a trap to spend too much time trying to explain things that can't be understood. St. Thomas Aquinas once said, "Things predicated of God are predicated neither univocally nor equivocally, but analogically," and what's truly sad about that statement is that (a) it's something you absolutely must understand to think accurately about God at all, (b) when you read that, you probably said, "What the....?!?!?!?", and (c) St. Tommy was actually trying to make it easy for beginners when he put it that way. But you really do have to understand this if you're going to try to talk about God or understand the Bible when it talks about God; so let me try to show you what it means. ...continue reading...

Human language was designed to talk about things we directly experience: things we see and touch, emotions we feel, etc. But when we try to talk about God, it's like talking about sub-atomic particles: we can't possibly imagine it, and we don't really have good words for it. So we come up with pictures that we use to talk about it...but the pictures that we imagine are just tools to help us do the right thing and get the right results. In physics, the image of electrons going around a nucleus made up of protons and neutrons (like a tiny little solar system) is just there to help us keep track of which equations to use when and to help us keep track of which elements readily bond with which other elements, etc. -- it's not that the atom literally looks like a little solar system. (It doesn't look like anything at all because its magnitude is far below the wavelength of visible light.) But in other contexts you don't want to use that image -- instead you want to imagine the electron as a probability field, sort of like a cloud rather than like a planet. Both images are just pictures, and their value is in helping us use the right equation in the right context. Neither is "the way it really is." But since we can't imagine "the way it really is," pictures like that are as good as it gets.

Now, God is outside of our experience, too; but we can still talk about Him meaningfully, using the same kind of speech (it's called analogical speech) that we use to talk about sub-atomic particles. You just have to remember four things.

1. Analogical speech is valuable only insofar as it serves its purpose of helping you decide what to do in ordinary life. The physics models are good models if they help you use the right equations at the right times; that's it. The things we say about God are intended to help us figure out how most effectively to love Him and each other, and that's it. When you hear Christians arguing over things that cannot possibly make any difference to any decision any Christian could conceivably be called upon to make (such as whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father only or from the Son as well), then you have the sort of "quarrelling over words" that Paul condemns so bitterly to (I think) Timothy. Is understanding the Trinity going to make a difference in how you behave and in the emotions you feel and in the choices you make? If so, then we can keep going. If not, why then for God's sake (quite literally) don't get caught up in it. As the Psalmist says, "I do not concern myself with things too high for me."

2. Analogical speech isn't "true" the way speech about things within human experience are true. (In technical terms, it isn't "univocal" speech.) So things that would be contradictions in ordinary life may just be paradoxes in analogical speech -- places where the pictures we're using just break down. The pictures are valid as far as they go; but they will break down if you push them too far. You have to know not just the image, but also the context in which, and the use to which, you're expected to apply it. Two Christians arguing about predestination versus free will are like two silly high school physics students in a passionate argument in which one of them says, "No, light's not a particle, it's a wave!" and the other one says, "No, you moron, it can't possibly be a wave, because it's a particle." And any real scientist listening is sitting there thinking, "You two don't know anything about physics, do you?"

3. But that doesn't mean that there aren't things you can say about God that are false and damnable. It may not be "true" in the ordinary sense to say that electrons orbit the protons. But it's downright false to say that the protons orbit the electrons, even though that's still an analogy -- if you try to use that model then you'll absolutely fail. I mean, you might be able to work out some tortuous sense in which you can claim it's true, by violently wrenching about the terms of human speech; but anybody who teaches high school students that protons orbit a nucleus made of electrons and neutrons, ought never to be allowed to teach high school physics again. In the same way, while no doubt you could find many ways in which God is like a mother, still it is analogically true to say that God is our Father and analogically false to say that He is our Mother -- the misleading connotations overwhelm whatever truth might be wrested from that statement (at least for the average person who speaks English). We may not know why it's destructive for most people to think of God as a Goddess (I certainly don't know why myself). We just know that it is, though I'm sure there are plenty of Episcopalian feminists who would be enraged by that statement. There are ways about thinking of God that are very dangerous -- even if there are a few people who can use those dangerous analogies in a very restricted and careful sense, most people will misinterpret them and (if they buy into them) run the serious risk of damnation. God spent two millennia very, very carefully shaping the Jewish culture in order to get it to the point where when Jesus did come, His mission and teaching and nature could be understood, and most of that shaping had to do with driving out the false and seductive and destructive religious ideas that are the natural coin of paganism and Gnosticism and just in general the kind of religion that people always seem to wind up with when they set out to "find a religion that works for me." (Remember that, as every skillful liar knows, the most effective lie is the lie that has the highest proportion of truth, because lies have no power except what they borrow from the truth. Satan is a liar and the father of lies and the best liar in the business, and he knows better than the most skilled propagandist or the most beguiling Don Juan how to mix as much truth into his lies as possible. When Satan intends to seduce a person onto the broad path that leads to destruction, he puts together an attractive religion with plenty of truth -- so that it will have credibility and power -- but enough lies to ensure damnation. Thus most of the people who argue that "there is truth in every religion" are quite correct -- and also pitifully naive. Of course there is truth in every religion; do they think Satan is a complete moron? There is truth in every effective lie, in religion just as much as in political character assassination or in sexual manipulation.)

4. Just because we're talking about religious topics, that doesn't necessarily mean that we're using this kind of picture-language. If we're trying to decide whether, e.g., it's morally acceptable for a man to have sex with a woman who's married to somebody else, there's nothing analogical about that -- human language can address that issue with precision. People who try to pretend that morality is as subject to paradoxical language as is theology, are either people who are being disingenuous or else people who don't understand what it is about theology that makes theological language paradoxical and hence not necessarily subject to the logical laws of contradiction.

With all that as an introduction...okay, I'll speak to your questions about how the Trinity can be three Persons but still only one God, and about what the different roles of the different Persons are, but only as long as you remember (a) that it's all just pictures of something we can't really hope to visualize, and (b) that the most important question is, in the end, "What difference does it make in my life that God is a Trinity?" And while I don't really know any of the answers all that well, I can at least give you a place to start.

How can the Trinity be three Persons but still be only one God?

A cube is square, and a sphere is circular.

I like to start there when we think about the Trinity. For of course when we say that a cube is square, we know that in reality a cube is more than square – it’s cubical. It is, if I may put it this way, more square than a square is. A square is just a slice of a cube; it is as cubical as it can be in a mere two dimensions. By the same token, a sphere is more circular than a circle; and a circle is as spherical as it can be in a mere two dimensions.

What if we only lived in two dimensions, so that we had never seen cubes or spheres, but only squares and circles? What if somebody from the three-dimensional universe were to try to explain to us what a cube looks like? He would say, I presume, “Well, it’s square, only more so.” And better than that I defy him to do.

In fact I can show you exactly what I mean, if you are not one of those people who detests math, and especially if you are somebody who already has studied about vectors and therefore knows about four-dimensional space. Straight line segments, squares and cubes are all really the same thing, just in different dimensions; and there is a fourth-dimensional version called the hypercube. If you know what a hypercube is, then I challenge you to picture it in your mind. (You’ll fail, of course.) If you don’t know what a hypercube is, and don’t want me to go into an explanation of four-dimensional space, then all I can tell you is...Well, I can tell you that a hypercube is more cubical than a cube is, and I can tell you that a cube is just a slice of a hypercube, as hypercubical as it can be in a mere three dimensions. Can you picture it now? Didn’t think so.

Yet just because we can’t visualize a hypercube, that doesn’t mean that we don’t know lots of true things about it (such as that the hypervolume of a hypercube with sides 1 foot long is 1 quadratic foot) or that hypercubes aren’t very useful things to know about. Scientists and mathematicians and computer programmers know of all kinds of different four-dimensional “spaces” where hypercubes live, and they use hypercubes all the time. We just can’t get a good picture of a hypercube inside our heads, that’s all – but then, we can’t get a good picture of the atom inside our heads, or of the inside of a black hole, or of all kinds of other things that we know about.

Now the whole trouble with picturing the Trinity is that the Trinity exists in more dimensions of personality than we do. If we think of a person as a square, then the Trinity is a cube. So while we can know a lot of true things about the Trinity (just like we know true things about atoms and black holes and hypercubes), trying to picture the Trinity is really quite a hopeless business.

We can see a bit of what it means to say that the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost are three separate Persons while still being one God, if we think of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost as squares and the Godhead as a cube. (Of course a cube has six sides, not three; but that’s just to say this isn’t a perfect analogy.) We can see, too, a bit of what it means to say that Jesus was “fully God” and “fully man.” Imagine that this world is a plane (like a table top) and the people in it are like plane figures (triangle and squares and circles and such), and the Trinity is like a sugar cube sitting on the tabletop. Then the square that is Jesus could be both fully God – there’s no part of Him that isn’t in the cube – and fully man – there’s no part of him that isn’t on the table top. And we can see how even if somebody else (some other shape on the table top) managed to become perfectly like Jesus (that is, perfectly square), that person still wouldn’t be God because he wouldn’t be part of the God-cube. But that person would be “in the image” of God – he’d be a square person.

It’s best to remember, though, that even when we’re talking about just one Person of the Trinity, we’re already talking about something we can’t imagine. We human beings aren’t even shapes – we’re just lines. We’re one-dimensional persons. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are each two-dimensional Persons; they are each personal like us, only more so, and a perfect human being is as Personal as he or she can be in a single dimension. The Trinity is a three-dimensional Person; it is Personal like the Persons of the Trinity, only even more so still, and each of the Persons is as “Trinital” as it can be in a mere two dimensions of personality.

When God-the-Son decided to become a man, He wouldn’t all fit into our one dimension of personality (limited and finite and temporal and all as it is). So Jesus, the Jew of Nazareth, is like one of the lines in the square that is God the Son, Himself one of the squares of the cube that is the Trinity. He was born in the time of Caesar Augustus, and yet, “before Abraham was, I am.”

The thing is, Jesus the man of Nazareth is fully divine. And I must warn you very sternly that if you want to know who God is, then Jesus is the best image we have. For after all, a sugar cube is much less, really, than a human being is. In describing the Trinity as a sugar cube we are really describing the Trinity as less than a person, not more, just as people who think it's more spiritually advanced to talk about "the Divine" instead of "God" are moving further from the truth, not closer. God’s mercy is unimaginably more complex and rich and marvelous than the mercy Jesus showed; God’s love is unimaginably more complex and rich and marvelous than the love Jesus showed; all this is true. But if we try to “improve” our picture of God’s love so that it is “more-dimensional” than Jesus’ giving up His life for us, what we really do is make the picture worse. (In the same way, if you try to imagine a God who is “more than personal,” you find yourself imagining God as a gas spread out through space or as something else taken from the world of human experience – that is, as something less than a person, not more. If you want a positive picture of God, then Jesus is as good as it’s ever going to get.)

The reason we Christians insist so sternly that Jesus was fully God is not because we want people to try to imagine a deeper love than Jesus’ and say, “That’s really what God’s love is like.” It is precisely because we want to emphasize that, for human beings, Jesus’ love is the ultimate image we have of the love of God. Jesus was fully God – you can’t get more divine than Jesus was. So you can’t get a better picture of God than Jesus -- He is, if I may put it this way, as God as it gets. “Show us the Father,” Jesus’ disciples asked him once. But he answered, “How can you ask me to show you the Father? If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.”

Now, when I say that, the natural response is, “Oh, well if that’s all you mean, then why not just say, ‘Jesus is God’ and be done with it? Why do you have to drag in all this other nonsense about other Persons?”

Of course, the answer to this is that Jesus constantly talked about having to do the will of the Father, and since a creation is not the boss of the creator, this means the Father has to be God, too. And then Jesus also talks about the Spirit, in terms that make it clear that the Spirit is God as well. Yet he talks about the Father and the Spirit as if they were different people. And so we find ourselves with three different God-people: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. But they can’t be three Gods, because God had spent a couple of thousand years sternly informing the Israelites that there was only one God. Thus the Church eventually came to realize that a human being is indeed a person “in the image of God,” but that God is a personality in an unimaginably richer sense than we one-dimensional people can imagine. What it is like to be such a Person...well, we can’t imagine it and won’t ever be able to.

What are the roles of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit?

For those who are not artists (and I mean no criticism by that), you can just think of it like this: the Father decides what needs to be done, the Spirit gives the Son the power to do the will of the Father, and the Son does it. In the life of the individual Christian, the Father sets out what he wants the Christian to do, the Son intercedes for us so that the Father “adopts” us as sons, and then the Spirit gives the Christian the power to do the will of the Father. Many, many, many Christians over the last 2,000 years have gotten along fine with no more detailed Trinitarian theology than that.

If you would like a rather richer explanation, and you have a little experience in creating art, then I recommend Dorothy Sayers’s very thought-provoking The Mind of the Maker. She argues that artists are themselves little trinities; that human artists create their own art by means of an internal “father,” “son” and “spirit;” and that in imagining creation as a play that God has written and in which he appears at the climax playing Himself, we discover that many apparently troublesome things like the seeming conflict between “free will” and “predestination” are not troublesome at all – they are the everyday experience of creative artists who passionately love their work and desire its perfection. It is a remarkable book. But I don’t know how much good it would do an audience of teenagers, few of whom, even if they have the artistic temperament, will yet have much experience in creating art of real quality. I certainly wouldn’t attempt that sort of explanation in your Interfaith group.

What difference does it make in my life that God is a Trinity?

This is something you’ll have to think out for yourself -- but as I say, if you don't get around to answering this question, then any time you've spent thinking about the Trinity is time wasted. If you put ten Christians in a room you could probably come up with fifty different relevant applications without even thinking too hard. But here are a few examples, to get you started. They aren't the right answers; just four right answers out of no doubt innumerably many.

1. Because the Persons of the Trinity have loved each other for all eternity, it really is true to say that God is Love. And since one of those Persons came and died for us, and the others allowed Him to, we can be 100% confident that God loves us, personally and passionately. If it doesn't reassure you to know that God shows His love for us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us...well, then I don't know what could reassure you.

2. As I said earlier, because Jesus was "as God as it gets," people who turn away from Jesus to look for "alternative views" of God are always moving away from the truth, not toward it. If you go find an alternate image of God rather than Jesus, you may find one more to your personal taste, but it will be less accurate and easier for Satan to mislead you with. If you don't like Jesus (assuming you've actually met Himself rather than the more or less scurrillous portraits drawn by His enemies and frequently by His more foolish friends), then, um, sorry, but you don't like God. It's not a Hindu's fault that he's grown up with a less accurate model of God than the model presented by a godly Christian teacher, any more than it was the fault of medieval astronomers that they worked with Ptolemy's model of the solar system rather than Copernicus's. And I don't imagine that God will hold it against the Hindu in any vindictive sense. But that doesn't change the fact that the Hindu is working with a bad model and bad models generally don't lead to good results. I mean, even though I'm sure there are modern physicists who are jerks and medieval astronomers who were awesome people, still, if you took off on a rocket ship into outer space intending to go to the moon and used Ptolemy and Aristotle for your guides instead of Copernicus and Einstein, you'd have some surprises in store for you and they wouldn't be pleasant ones. People who decide to take for their guide the Buddha or Mohammed (peace be upon him), rather than St. Paul, are likely to be storing up some unpleasant surprises for themselves -- and I say this despite the fact that I'm pretty sure I'd've liked Siddhartha a lot and would have thought St. Paul was an arrogant jerk.

Not that I think you should necessarily point all this out to your interfaith group, as the likely result would be that somebody would rise up and smite you down with a three-ring binder or something. But just because there are truths that some people aren't yet ready to hear, doesn't mean they aren't still true.

3. Here's one Americans just hate...I mean, we hate this one. (I know that lots of us hate the previous one, too, but we all hate this one.) So what? Doesn't make it any less true; it actually probably means it's something we Americans especially need to hear: Since the Son has always been in submission to the will of the Father, even though they are both equal in divinity and dignity and worth, we know that authority does not mean superiority and that doing another person’s will instead of our own does not imply that we are inferior. This runs absolutely counter to one of the fundamental tenets of American culture, which sees submission to the will of another as being an essentially negative and degrading thing. I've actually heard it described as "intrinsically dehumanizing" (!) by people intelligent enough to have gotten accepted into Princeton. But because of the Trinity, and because of the example set for us by the Father and the Son, the Christian knows that hierarchy and authority and submission is part of the fundamental essence of reality and that if we are to be like Christ – Who was very God – then we must submit to valid authority, just as He Himself did. The fruit of the Spirit most misunderstood in America is gentleness; but the command of Scripture most detested in America seems to me to be, "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." The doctrine of the Trinity shows us how utterly non-negotiable that particular unpleasant command really is. It’s not negotiable for God the Son Himself; and we think we can dispose of it for ourselves?

I hope all this is helpful. Let me know if any part of it doesn’t make sense. (Okay, I was talking about the Trinity; so almost certainly none of it made sense...oh, well.)


P.S. In case you're not the kind of math nut Erin [another of my favorite teenagers] is, here's a quick definition of what a hypercube is. A hypercube in n dimensions is a figure that, with appropriate translation and rotation of axes, can be said to consist of all the points meeting the following condition: all the components of the vector from the origin to the point are between 0 and a fixed value s/2 inclusive. In such a case s is considered the length of a side. In a single dimension, this is the line segment from -s/2 to s/2 inclusive. In two dimensions, this is an s by s square. In three dimensions, this is an s by s by s cube. In four dimensions, this is an s by s by s by s hypercube. You can keep going as long as you like.


At 4:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just stumbled upon your blog, and WOW I found a good one! Your help in describing the Trinity was excellent; it was captivating as well as informed. And I couldn't agree more that many try to trap us when they ask questions that can't be answered or explained. While I truly did enjoy reading your text, I would submit an easy answer to help our youth in their many debates about the Trinity: "an EGG" An egg has three seperate parts but is itself one thing. Not as eloquent as your's but just as useful.

At 5:24 PM, Blogger Ken Pierce said...


Actually, I agree that your explanation is a better one to use with most kids. It happens that the particular young lady to whom this was originally addressed, is unusually bright. But most teenagers would get lost as soon as the math starts; so I think for youth ministry in general it's wiser to stick with your explanation.

At 9:10 PM, Blogger Carson said...

I wanted to talk about Carl Sagan's "Flatland" (but now that I think about it, it's not his at all, he just referred to it in Cosmos) in my comments on the original post, but I didn't. I'm glad you did.

Even if my eyes did glaze over at the math!

At 9:10 PM, Blogger Carson said...

Oh, and I love your blog template. (honestly!)

At 11:55 AM, Blogger Patrick O'Hannigan said...

Great explanation, Mr. Pierce. I found you through the Baroness, and will be linking to this post. You might also like my own thoughts on the subject, posted here.


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