Sunday, June 3, 2012

Mysteries: For Trinity Sunday

First, please allow me a rather lengthy self-quotation, from an essay I posted three years ago at Eternity Road:

First, I have one gear, and it's very, very high. I can't move slowly. At any moment I'm either sitting completely still or moving at a speed that makes other people wonder if I'm running from the law, or if there's a sale somewhere nearby that they ought to know about. On occasion, that trait has gotten me into serious trouble. However, it appears innate; no one's attempts to dampen it -- and there've been many -- have had the least success.

Second, I have an unlimited need for answers. Call it a hunger of the intellect, as compelling as that of a man who's gone a week without food. The unsolved problem is a challenge before which I very nearly can't hold still. It's what propelled me into the sciences; it's what's moved me to study politics, economics, warfare, rights theory, game theory, cybernetics, aesthetics, and every other subject I've ever addressed; and it constitutes the greater part of what drives me today, no matter what I do.

Combine those two in a single, ultra-high-performance chassis and throw the compound into a "mystery religion." What do you suppose you'll get?

Now, now, let's not always see the same hands!

***
"God made the angels to show Him splendor, as He made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But man He made to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind."

[Robert Bolt, A Man For All Seasons]

Some years ago, when my gift of faith reasserted itself and I returned to the Church, I realized that I had yet to confront the core mysteries of Christianity, much less to accept them as beyond question. That sort of acceptance is more difficult for me than anything else I could name.

Being what I am, I had to allow my intellect its time at bat. Allowing unconditional pronouncements from a self-authorizing source to pinch-hit for my reason would have been unthinkable. Insistence by such self-nominated authorities on prefabricated dogma was part of what had separated me from God as a young man; I wasn't about to let that happen again.

Some of the Christian mysteries rest on particular postulates about the nature of God: His omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and omnibenevolence. If you can bring yourself to accept the existence of a Supreme Being -- which I do -- those characteristics are consistent with His Supremacy. So such mysteries aren't much of a problem.

But not all the Christian mysteries are that simply resolved. The one we celebrate today is one such.

Today is the Feast of the Holy Trinity, upon which Christians celebrate and praise the Three Persons of God. No tenet of Christianity involves more intellectual suspension of disbelief than that one. Christ born of a virgin? Naah, too easy. Resurrection of the body? Child's play. God knowing all yet Man having free will? Once you stop thinking of time as we perceive it as the only sort of time there is, that one cracks in a jiffy. But three Persons, yet one God?

Give me a minute for that one.

***
Your deeds can open the door for your words; nothing else will. And when that door is opened to you, you must speak. You must tell your story -- without embarrassment or fear -- and you must learn how to reassure others who haven't "gotten there" yet that their stories still have a few chapters to run. -- Duyen Ky

It strikes me as odd that the invention of abstract categories, the foundation upon which all other reasoning rests, should be traceable only as far back as classical Greece. That concept, so critical to organized thought, makes its first appearance in recorded history in the writings of Plato and Aristotle, philosophers with radically different attitudes toward it. The Aristotelian approach, based upon his approach to definition, is the underpinning for virtually the whole of Western analytical thought.

But categories and definition have their limitations too. Indeed, they're premised on the existence of limitations to all things that are less than the totality of existence, the All. A category must have a genus and a differentia, else it is without definition, and therefore useless. You cannot reason about something unless you can say both what it is and what it is not.

But it follows from those requirements that the All as we know it, and whatever might envelop it from some higher plane we cannot access, are beyond all our categories. We might learn something of it -- we might be able to say with fair confidence that certain assertions about it can or cannot be true -- but we cannot grasp it whole, for we are too small for it. The old Qualifying Exam gag, "Define the universe. Give two examples," has much point.

This seems to me to be the case with the arguments over the Trinity: whether it's factual or metaphorical; whether the Persons are merely manifestations of an unchanging Unity, or whether we ought to throw the whole thing aside as beyond resolution by human reason. But for one to whom comprehension seems a necessity, the frustration involved is very hard to bear.

***

Doubt is inseparable from faith. We cannot have either one without the other. Most persons, the overwhelming majority throughout history, have not merely had faith but have wanted to have it. If we desire faith we must learn to tolerate and endure that which makes us doubt.

In that connection, the Trinitarian conception of God might be the most important of all the posers presented by Christianity.

But in the Gospels we read of manifestations of all three Persons to human perception. We read of God the Father speaking of Jesus as "My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." We read of Jesus's miracles, and His Passion and Resurrection. We read of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Mary and the eleven Apostles, granting them the gift of tongues that every man might hear them in the language most familiar to him. These aren't mysteries themselves, but narrated events the accuracy of which one must take or leave as they are.

If the events recorded in the Gospels occurred as they're set down there, the Trinity is real. Or some super-race with a really good cloaking device and a cruel sense of humor is playing a two-thousand-year-long joke on us. You pays your money and you takes your choice; I've made mine.

***

Trinity Sunday often brings out the worst in a Mass celebrant. Far too many priests attempt to explain the inexplicable: to make lucid to minds inextricably locked into temporal bondage a phenomenon that pertains to a supra-temporal Entity. I've endured several such sermons, and have tried my best not to cringe.

Rather than tackle the how of the Trinity, which is impervious to mortal understanding, perhaps we should confront the why: Why did God elect to manifest three divine Persons, rather than to maintain the Unity that seems intuitively obvious about a Supreme Being?

C. S. Lewis once tossed off a comment about how the Trinity allows God to incorporate love right into His nature. As an obscure writer of little-known novels and stories once said, isn't it pretty to think so? But in a rare episode of dissent from the views of the greatest lay Christian apologist of recent years, I think that's fundamentally irrelevant to the Divine purpose in this connection. Being an old engineer, I prefer a functional approach.

Personhood is about personality.

The three divine Persons have dramatically different Personalities, at least in the appearance they present to Man:

  • The Father: The Lawgiver, who has decreed the laws that govern all things, who sees all ages as a single gestalt, and who will preside over our ultimate fates.
  • The Son: The Emissary, who points us in the way we should go and intercedes for us before the Lawgiver’s judgment.
  • The Holy Spirit: The Defender, who empowers us to restrain ourselves from what is wrong, and steels us to confront and accept our duties, however trying they may appear.

These three Personalities regard Man from the standpoints appropriate to their respective roles in the creation, maintenance, and ultimate disposal of all things. We experience them in that way: through the functions each has taken up, and the attributes they manifest in fulfilling those purposes. This is a part of the divine Gift to Man, which makes our relations to and with God more comprehensible, and thus more reassuring, than would otherwise be the case.

One of the least appreciated phrases in theology is the one that would provide the most assurance in the face of this mystery: Holy Trinity. For holiness always pertains to wholeness: unity, integrity, and internal consistency. The Three are holy because they are, from the supra-temporal standpoint, also One.

Persons of other creeds have often denigrated Christianity on the basis of the Trinity. The above is my answer to them, with the following as a grace note:

"You, who claim to know God so much better than I, have committed a critical error: you have arrogantly imposed one of your limitations upon Him. But He stands above you, not only in this way but in many others your limited vision would deny. A temporal creature attempting to comprehend the infinite and the eternal should exhibit more humility. May God guide your thoughts and your steps henceforward."

May God bless and keep you all.

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