Before I published God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky I had written several times as much on theological questions. One topic was the Trinity. Since a comment came in on that, I’ve decided I need to write some blog posts on it.
Today I’ll just say that the Trinity is not unique to Christianity. There are Buddhist and Hindu trinities, many Hellenistic pagan trinities, and who knows how many other religious ones, among them Goddess trinities. As many thinkers have stated, the universe tends toward three-fold structures: animal, vegetable, and mineral; maiden, mother, and crone; larva, pupa, and butterfly; solid, liquid, and gas; past, present, and future; the primary colors of red, yellow, and blue; and Hegel’s thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Alert readers will discover many more examples.
I expect I will return to this topic intermittently. ********
It stuns me that as early as the second century some Christians understood what many at the beginning of the twenty-first century seem incapable of understanding: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are images and symbols, not facts.
Valentinus was a gnostic leader whom Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons in southern France, considered so threatening that late in the second century he wrote five volumes refuting him. Valentinus pointed out that names for God such as judge and king are not the same as what he called "the depth," and his followers understood that depictions in scripture do not capture the incomprehensible, mysterious depth we call God.
The author of the gnostic Gospel of Philip stated that
[names can be] very deceptive, for they divert our thoughts from what is accurate to what is inaccurate. . . . So also with 'the Father,' and 'the Son,' and 'the Holy Spirit' and 'life,' and 'light,' and 'resurrection,' and 'the Church,' and all the rest . . .
Christians ridicule believers in non-Christian deities, but we also worship idols when we treat our religious symbols as if they were concrete objects that might be seen and touched. As if they came from history instead of the imagination. As if they were absolute definitions instead of images. As if discussions about them could produce provable information. As if, when we die, we'll meet a male individual with the name “Father.”
The picture of three gods in the sky is so vivid that theologians envisioned distinct roles for them and had debates about which person did what. Was the Father suffering on the cross along with his Son? Did the Son have a hand in generating the Holy Spirit? Proper forms of prayer were discussed. Should it be to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit or to the Father with the Son and the Spirit? These are trivial questions like "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" that medieval Churchmen are ridiculed for discussing.
Ordinary Christians are more apt to wonder, as did one of my fellows at the School of Theology,
How did the Son feel when the Father told him to die for humans?After hearing this astounding evidence of naïvete, I started saying more boldly what was rising inside me: God is not three guys in the sky!
Seminarians can be completely caught up in the myth and no one informs them during their training for the priesthood that it is myth. The Church uses the symbolic terms as if they were absolute definitions, with the result that intelligent people think our God-images are God. Unlike the Hebrew people of the Old Testament, we no longer envision “the Lord” as a tribal mascot who orders the slaughter of our enemies, but we also profane the Holy One with our gods.
Social implications of Trinity (June 14, 2009)
I cherish the memory of sitting in his class at the School of Theology when the renowned Godfrey Diekmann OSB confessed to us that he wondered whether there were more persons in God than three. And it was a confession—he asked us not to spread his surmise, afraid of negative reaction.
I wouldn't be surprised if I were the only student in the class who remembers the moment. It was memorable to me because I was chaffing at the seminarians’ incessant father/son/he/he/him/his talk, exactly as if the ultimate mysterious power of the universe were 3 guys in the sky.
A religious sister with whom I shared this asked what I thought prompted him to say that. I wish I had asked him to elaborate. I can only guess that he was realizing the inappropriateness, the inadequacy, of taking Father/Son/Spirit literally, realizing that the Trinity stands for more than these three names, that it’s not 3 specific entities. This realization is common among theologians, and Godfrey was meditating on it mystically.
My questioner also wanted to know what I meant by saying that other language for Trinity could be “I, you, and others.” It's a way of realizing that, while I relate to you or to anyone else, there are many others. Another image used is that of three matches making one flame. The Trinity is simply an image, a symbol to describe the reality of the universe—all the different units united in one. The All includes the many, diversity united in one whole and the parts relating to each other, never completely separate.
Now we arrive at social implications of the Trinity. All are in the whole enterprise together—what happens in one part of the globe affects every other. Unstable countries roil international waters—Somalia lacks a government and breeds piracy. The U.S. mortgage crisis destabilizes the global economy. The Amazon rain forest cleanses the world’s air, and polluting industries of any one country pollute the whole world. The poor deprived of medical care infect everybody else.
But why 3 and not 4 or more? The universe seems to have 3-foldedness in its structure. For examples and further reflection, go back to the beginning of this post and other “Trinity” posts in my index.