Sunday, June 11, 2017

For Trinity Sunday: A Sunday Rumination

     Today is Trinity Sunday, one of the three feasts that cap the Easter season. It’s customary on this day to reflect on the “mystery of the Trinity:” that is, that there are three distinct Persons yet a single God. It’s one of the aspects of Christian thought that Christians have puzzled over and non-Christians have scoffed at for centuries.

     Yet the mystery is not as mysterious as it seems. Rather, it’s bound up in the supreme mystery, the one Man’s mind is too limited to comprehend.

     Ponder the following snippet from Shadow Of A Sword:

     “I never really got that part,” Christine said.
     Ray nodded. “Understandably so. It seems paradoxical. I don’t really think we’re expected to ‘get’ it. Just accept it on the evidence.”
     The room had grown dim. It had gotten quite late, but neither Ray nor Christine was in any hurry to conclude their chat.
     “What makes it hard for most people,” Ray said, “is that we tend to think of God as just a very powerful temporal entity, like some sort of super-magician. But He’s not. He created time. He looks down on it from above, the way you or I would read a map. He knows the path we follow because He knows all the paths we might follow, and what might flow from every one of them.” He sat back and reflected for a moment. “So our time-dependent language about ‘choosing’ and ‘knowing’ gets us into trouble when we try to apply it to God.”
     “You know,” Christine said, “that would go a long way toward explaining the Trinity, too.”
     “Hm? How so?”
     “Well, why is the Trinity a tough nut to crack? Because people can’t be in more than one place at a time, right? Wherever you go, there you are, and you’re still you.”
     “Uh...” Am I getting in over my head here? “That could be part of it.”
     She leaned toward him, intensity and delight merging in her expression. “But if you take the Gospels as factual, then the evidence says there were three divine Persons, even if that’s tough for us time-bound types to imagine. You don’t have to figure out how you could pull it off. You just have to allow that He can do that sort of thing even if we can’t!”

     Christine’s take on the Trinity is, of course, my own: the mystery isn’t in the Trinity, but in the nature of God. God, the supratemporal Supreme Being who created time and wrote the laws of our universe, is not knowable in His entirety by a human mind. What He can do – including “trinitizing” Himself – goes far beyond any man’s capacity to understand.

     The exchange causes Father Raymond Altomare, Christine’s interlocutor in the passage above, to experience something of a personal breakthrough:

     Ray opened his mouth, closed it without speaking. Christine frowned.
     “Did I say something wrong, Father?”
     “Not at all, dear,” he said. “In fact, I think you’ve been teaching me my trade.” He grimaced in rueful remembrance. “I used to think more about these things when I was a teen. Talks like this one were why I wanted to become a priest. Then I got caught up in all the social activism nonsense that infects the church these days. You know, the stuff Father Schliemann disdained and that I tried to bring here with me.”
     The stuff that drove you away.
     “The social welfare crap is a lot easier than being a man of God,” he said. “That’s probably why it seduces so many priests away from their real responsibilities.” Ray rose and ambled aimlessly around the sitting room. “After all, when you spend your time distributing food, or clothing, or fliers for some rally or demonstration, you know exactly what you’re doing. You can count up your results, even if it’s just in pounds of bread or sheets of paper. Preaching the Christian faith, proclaiming the love of God and the importance of Christ’s New Covenant, getting people to accept that it’s vitally important even though you can’t prove it, is a lot harder to enter into a spreadsheet.”

     One of the aspects of Christianity that makes it intellectually exciting is exactly that: its message of unconditional love and forgiveness is coupled to a mystery the mind can paw at endlessly but never unlock: the mystery of God’s nature and – because we think in time-dependent terms – His reasons for creating the world and putting us in it. Far too many clerics have, in Stephen King’s words, “put both feet in this world,” essentially abandoning the doctrinal elements of Christianity that make it endlessly fascinating to contemplate...because it’s too challenging for them to explain!

     It’s not necessary that He have reasons for Creation that we would understand. Neither is it required that we understand His triune nature. C. S. Lewis, as usual, has an intriguing take on it:

     The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. "To be" means "to be in competition".

     Now the Enemy's philosophy is nothing more nor less than one continued attempt to evade this very obvious truth. He aims at a contradiction. Things are to be many, yet somehow also one. The good of one self is to be the good of another. This impossibility He calls love, and this same monotonous panacea can be detected under all He does and even all He is—or claims to be. Thus He is not content, even Himself, to be a sheer arithmetical unity; He claims to be three as well as one, in order that this nonsense about Love may find a foothold in His own nature. At the other end of the scale, He introduces into matter that obscene invention the organism, in which the parts are perverted from their natural destiny of competition and made to co-operate.

     [From The Screwtape Letters, of course!]

     This is eminently plausible, though there’s no way to “prove” it. A passage of stunning beauty in Julie Hall’s novel Huntress expresses Lewis’s idea in a more personal way:

     “I created your inmost being and knit you together in your mother’s womb. My eyes saw your unformed body, and all your days have been written in My book before even one of them came to be. Shall I continue, dear Audrey, to tell you how great My love is for you? Shall I tell you how I have always known the plans I have for you, plans to prosper and not harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future? Shall I remind you how you came and prayed to Me and how I listened? How you found Me because you sought Me with your whole heart?”
     Words I had once known came up from a deep place within my heart: How great the love the Father has lavished upon us, that we should be called children of God.

     A Being willing and able to create whole universes – and we can’t be sure ours is the only one, now can we? – and populate them with creatures whose wills are as free as His own, and whose natures cause them to love and to yearn for love, could plausibly choose to express love within His own nature. It’s consistent with establishing laws that permit us to learn, grow, and prosper. It’s also consistent with assuming the guise of a Man and allowing others to torture and execute Him, merely to establish His Authority.

     And though it’s ultimately beyond our power to comprehend in its entirety, it’s as exciting as all the temporal conundrums of life rolled into one.

     Happy Trinity Sunday to all my Gentle Readers. Be sure to make the Sign of the Cross often, today and every day. And may God, in all Three Persons, bless and keep you all!

1 comment:

Scott said...

"The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing"

I'm going to have to remember that one the next time I see someone going on about A not being not-A or the rectification of names...