God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky
Language about the Trinity confuses people because meanings of words change. “Hypostatic union” is indeed defined as two natures, divine and human, in one person—Florian was correct about that. And “Trinity” refers to three persons in one God.
The center of confusion is the word “person.” We moderns envision persons as individuals, but that’s not what the theologians who formulated the doctrine of the Trinity had in mind.
When the word "person" first entered the doctrinal debate, it meant a mask or role—what an actor on the Greek stage put on—and it did not mean a distinct personality or a separate "I" as it does today. Persona may be closer to the original meaning than “person.” Theologians use the words “aspects” or “modes” or “personalities” to stand for “persons” of the Trinity, but what most Christians have in mind is closer to “gods” than “aspects” or “modes.”
When we think of “three Persons in one God” we have in mind more individuality and less unity than the council formulators intended. They, for instance, declared that every divine action in the material world is done by all three Persons together. This would put the Father on the cross, as Trinitarian theologians have stated.
The three gods of popular imagination clash with theologizing on the Trinity. Augustine created an analogy using the psychology of human persons, saying each personal self performs three actions—memory, knowing, and loving. Richard of St. Victor saw the First Person as Lover, which needs a Second Person, the Beloved, as the object of its love. Their mutual love spills over and is shared by a Third Person. Another theologian saw the three as the I, Thou, and We of love. This idea has also been expressed as self, other, and community.
These appealing explanations lend energy to the symbol and reflect the dynamic, interrelating universe. They are closer to the Trinity described by the original formulators of the doctrine than to the trinity imagined by most Christians today.
As these examples show, the Trinity in its orthodox understanding refers, not to three male individuals, but to concepts and relationships. All Trinitarian theologies stress the folly of reading the symbol literally as three distinct human-like persons, but this is what the exclusively male language perpetuates. It stunts the Trinity's potential for meaning.
A writer in my Catholic Dictionary of Theology asserts that the influence of Greek theology on Christian theology "is undeniable." Many writers today acknowledge that the doctrine reflects a particular time and place, as Kathleen did in her comment here. Dualism in the fourth century imagined a vast gulf separating divinity from humanity so that the god-man Jesus became a GREAT BIG DEAL. Traditional Christians like to ask rhetorically, “How could a mere man be divine?” applying the mystery to one single man.
But a new wind blows today and it comes from the insights of mystics, helped by Buddhist and Hindu spirituality. Today we stress the divinity within all human beings and in all of creation. In that light we see that the hypostatic union refers to us all. The great mystic and Dominican preacher Meister Eckhart preceded us by 700 years when he said boldly,
The just person is the Son himself.Here is food for meditation.
The Father gives birth to his Son without cease, and I say more: he gives birth to me his Son and the same Son.
God and I we are one.
I got overwhelmingly affirmative email responses to this post. They highlight the contrast between inclusive and exclusive, one accepting truth in all its rich, variegated forms, the other rejecting stories different from our own. But the narrow, constricting view limits Divinity, which reveals Itself in many forms—the very point of the Trinity.
A religious sister who asked about Diekmann’s comment and wanted to hear more about the Trinity (June 14 post) wrote:
I really appreciated your explanation of trinity to me. I especially like how you describe the resurrection and ascension, as well as the relationships we have. . . . Joseph Campbell says God is not a person.I appreciate her reference to Joseph Campbell because no one has done more to help cradle Christians out of narrow literalism while directing them toward a deeper spirituality. I’m sure Campbell meant that God is not a humanlike individual. Sister threw in a significant reminder:
You probably know that Campbell was a consultant to the Star Wars movie writer.I wonder if Campbell is the one who supplied the word “Force” for the movie. I think terms like Life Force, Higher Power, and Energy should be used more and that the pronoun It should be used more often than either He or She. He and She tend to conjure up idols.
Some people who hear the objection to God/He, immediately assume the only alternative is God/She. But the reason for introducing God/She is to mix the images. We need to use all genders—She/It/He—to jolt us into awareness that our familiar God-images vastly underrate Infinity. It’s Something much larger than our puny human reasoning can fathom.
Thank you to all who respond to my writings. Now information to show that a divine trinity is not unique to Christianity.
Buddhism has Three Jewels; Hinduism has the gods Shiva, Vishnu, and Shakti. Gnostic Christians included the feminine in their Trinity—Father, Mother, and Son. Female-centered religions honored maiden, mother, and crone as together making up the triune Goddess they worshipped.
Anthropologist Robert Briffault reports that the Arabian Goddess was triune and known as three Holy Virgins. Ishtar, the Babylonian and Assyrian Goddess known as “Queen of Heaven,” was triune. The Celtic Goddess Brigit was triune, represented either as sisters or daughters. She ruled the British Isles, France, and Spain.
Augustine of Hippo taunted "his pagan countrymen with the absurdity of the notion that the goddess could be one person and at the same time three persons." As Briffault noted, this was a bit of "scathing irony," because Augustine's contribution to Christian trinitarian theology is well-known.
More startling examples of trinities in pre-Christian religions come from Briffault:
Countless triads of Greek goddesses, such as the three Charities, the three Horai, the three Syrens, the three Hesperides, the three Gorgons, the three Erinyes, are primitively scarcely distinguishable from one another....Christians liked to blame the devil when they encountered facts that challenged their beliefs. Faced with a ritual in the mysteries of Mithra similar to the Christian Eucharist, Justin Martyr in the second century blamed demons, saying they knew of Jesus’ coming and set up copies ahead of time. He had to make the claim this way because the Christian rite developed after the pagan rite. In like fashion, later Christian missionaries faced with non-Christian trinities blamed the devil. These are the words of one incensed because his charges already worshipped a trinity:
The Muses were originally also three in number, and were deities of the night heavens, governing the stars. . . . triads of Hellenic goddesses were regarded at will as one or three. They were triune, or three in one.
Like them, the great goddess of the Semites was worshipped at Mecca in threefold form as three sacred trees, and was spoken of as the Three Virgins.
In Phoenicia and Carthage, as in Krete and ancient Greece, the great goddess was represented by three pillars. . .
Threefold deities are prominent among the races of Northern Europe and among the Celts. Thus Brigit, the Norns, the Walkyries had the threefold character. . . . Similarly the ancient Mexicans worshipped their gods as a trinity denoted by three crosses. The heathen Slavs similarly represented their deity with three heads. The Nordic gods were worshipped at Upsala as a trinity.
. . . the Indians did worship an idoll called Tangatanga, which they saide was one in three, and three in one. . . . I saide that the Divell by his infernall and obstinate pride (whereby he alwayes pretendes to make himself God) did steale all that he could from the trueth to imploy it in his lyings and deceits.I find similar befuddlement yet today. Blaming the devil has come out of fashion, but I see strict Christian believers avoiding, disbelieving, explaining away disconcerting facts about other religions. As I stated in Trinity, the universe expresses a three-foldedness in its structures, and I’m thrilled that many religions reflect this holy mystery. Sharing the Mystery is something to cherish, not avoid. We Christians have gotta stop claiming to be Number 1.