The God I Believe In: Part Trinity

As I’ve said elsewhere, God for me is many things personal, transcendent, etc. As I have matured, I’ve struggled with the images taught to me in Catholic school. They seemed to conflict and the simplistic explanations given did nothing to make them more believable to me. It wasn’t until I had read more deeply into the theology of the Trinity and of the thinking of the three Eastern bishops who were instrumental in shaping it, i.e. The Cappadocians, that I gained a fuller understanding which allowed me to believe again.

(Version 2.0)

I want to know how God created this world. I’m not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts, the rest are details.

 It seems to me that the idea of a personal God is an anthropomorphic concept which I cannot take seriously.

Albert Einstein

The agonizing moments through which I have passed during the last few years have also drawn me closer to God. More than ever before I am convinced of the reality of a personal God…To say that this God is personal is not to make him a finite object besides other objects or attribute to him the limits of human personality; it is to take what is finest and noblest in our consciousness and affirm its perfect existence in him. It is certainly true that human personality is limited, but personality as such involves no necessary limitations. It means simply self-consciousness and self-direction. So in the truest sense of the word, God is a living God. In him there is feeling and will, responsive to the deepest yearnings of the human heart: this God both evokes and answers prayer.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

As I’ve said elsewhere, God for me is many things personal, transcendent, etc. As I have matured, I’ve struggled with the images taught to me in Catholic school. They seemed to conflict with one another. The simplistic explanations given to harmonize and justify them did nothing to make them more believable to me. The just made for more questions.

For example, I always believed that God is inscrutable. As a child I would imagine God as a wispy cloud stretching into an infinite darkness. So how could the priests and nuns be so certain that such an inscrutable God was exactly as the Trinitarian formula states? How could they say others such as Jews were wrong?  The old saw of “It’s a mystery,” seemed to reek of indoctrination dodging the question so I simply ignored it.

As I grew into adulthood and got more educated on the subject, I full on rejected the Trinity. As a dogma that resulted from a bitterly violent and protracted conflict among Christians over the divinity of Christ vis-a-vis God, it had little spiritual value or power for me. To make matters worse, the conflict calcified positions to the point where The Trinity became identical with God. Historically, this has led people make God very describable, neat and clean. Today you’ll hear the Trinity explained with images of a three leaf clover or water in three phases or a pie cut into three pieces. These metaphors, while containing a bare kernel of truth, are so simplistic and ham-fisted that I would’t be surprised to hear them called blasphemous in some theological quarters. We have gone from indescribable mystery to metaphors for a metaphor for God which makes them rather untrustworthy symbols of “Him” or even our understanding of Him.

It wasn’t until I had read more deeply into the theology of the Trinity and the authors of the dogma that I gained a fuller understanding that allowed me to believe again.

They were Basil, Bishop of Caesarea (ca. 329–79), his younger brother Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa (335–95) and his friend Gregory of Nazianzus (329–91). The Cappadocians, as they are called, were all deeply spiritual men.

Armstrong, Karen (2011-08-10). History of God (Kindle Locations 2579-2580). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

This was mostly because their explanation of the dogma reflected my spiritual understanding of God. By this time, I was convicted that God was indeed inscrutible and beyond human thought, concept or understanding. As Einstein who disbelieved in a personal God said:

Your question [about God] is the most difficult in the world. It is not a question I can answer simply with yes or no. I am not an Atheist. I do not know if I can define myself as a Pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. May I not reply with a parable? The human mind, no matter how highly trained, cannot grasp the universe. We are in the position of a little child, entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written those books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of the human mind, even the greatest and most cultured, toward God.

So what still puzzled me was how to regard these Three Persons. They really weren’t all that beyond thought, concept or understanding. Were they idols? What does it really mean to intellectually assent to the Trinity? To begin to answer such questions I had to learn the difference between the terms dogma and kerygma.

 The early Greek rationalists had drawn attention to this: Plato had contrasted philosophy (which was expressed in terms of reason and was thus capable of proof) with the equally important teaching handed down by means of mythology, which eluded scientific demonstration. We have seen that Aristotle had made a similar distinction when he had noted that people attended the mystery religions not to learn (mathein) anything but to experience (pathein) something. Basil expressed the same insight in a Christian sense when he distinguished between dogma and kerygma…

Kerygma was the public teaching of the Church, based on the scriptures. Dogma, however, represented the deeper meaning of biblical truth, which could only be apprehended through religious experience and expressed in symbolic form…

Basil was … simply calling attention to the fact that not all religious truth was capable of being expressed and defined clearly and logically. Some religious insights had an inner resonance that could only be apprehended by each individual in his own time during what Plato had called theoria, contemplation…

If they did not “see” these truths with the eye of the spirit, people who were not yet very experienced could get quite the wrong idea…

As Basil said, these elusive religious realities could only be suggested in the symbolic gestures of the liturgy or, better still, by silence.

Armstrong, Karen (2011-08-10). History of God (Kindle Locations 2582-2588, 2597-2600, 2606-2607). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

And in my humble opinion, we in the Western church all too often get the wrong idea. Trying to make the Trinity logical and graspable for the pagan barbarians was a mistake. To attempt to demand intellectual assent to the dogma when the Church held temporal power was one of her greatest sins. Ironically, Basil’s conviction that only experience can be a means to believing dogma is how I came to understand the Trinity even before reading Armstrong’s book. I readily saw how God was experienced as Father, Son and Holy Spirit but I was stubbornly unwilling to reduce God to a three leaf clover. God is not so small. My intuition was correct completely independent of the Cappadocians. My theoria so to speak came from Bible study, faith sharing with other Christians, and participation in the Mass, particularly in the Eucharist. I was learning to apprehend the Trinity as we do in the martial arts. In order to know something, a kicking technique for example, you must do it no less than 100 times and 10 repititions equals one “time.” Practice leads to knowledge.

But for all this, I still had trouble with the Three Persons, pies and all that, because i intuited an idolatry about them. I was right.

 As Gregory of Nyssa said, every concept of God is a mere simulacrum, a false likeness, an idol: it could not reveal God himself. Christians must be like Abraham, who, in Gregory’s version of his life, laid aside all ideas about God and took hold of a faith which was “unmixed and pure of any concept…”

The Cappadocians employed a formula that Athanasius had used in his dispute with Arius: God had a single essence (ousia) which remained incomprehensible to us—but three expressions (hypostases) which made him known…

But the Cappadocians insisted that there was an important difference between ousia and hypostasis, which it was essential to bear in mind. Thus the ousia of an object was that which made something what it was; it was usually applied to an object as it was within itself. Hypostasis, on the other hand, was used to denote an object viewed from without. Sometimes the Cappadocians liked to use the word prosopon instead of hypostasis. Prosopon had originally meant “force” but had acquired a number of secondary meanings: thus it could refer to the expression on a person’s face which was an outward depiction of his state of mind; it was also used to denote a role that he had consciously adopted or a character that he intended to act.

Consequently, like hypostasis, prosopon meant the exterior expression of somebody’s inner nature, or the individual self as it was presented to an onlooker. So when the Cappadocians said that God was one ousia in three hypostases, they meant that God as he is in himself was One: there was only a single, divine self-consciousness. But when he allows something of himself to be glimpsed by his creatures, he is three prosopoi. Thus the hypostases Father, Son and Spirit should not be identified with God himself, because, as Gregory of Nyssa explained, “the divine nature (ousia) is unnameable and unspeakable”; “Father,” “Son” and “Spirit” are only “terms that we use” to speak of the energeiai by which he has made himself known. Yet these terms have symbolic value because they translate the ineffable reality into images that we can understand. Men have experienced God as transcendent (the Father, hidden in inaccessible light), as creative (the Logos) and as immanent (the Holy Spirit). But these three hypostases are only partial and incomplete glimpses of the Divine Nature itself, which lies far beyond such imagery and conceptualization. The Trinity, therefore, should not be seen as a literal fact but as a paradigm that corresponds to real facts in the hidden life of God.

Armstrong, Karen (2011-08-10). History of God (Kindle Locations 2609-2612, 2626-2627, 2633-2649). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

So I was right to be circumspect about the Three Persons. They are true in that they are useful in getting us to relate to and experience God but no more. I found the same reality to be of use when teaching technology. I would use metaphors that would spark conceptual understanding. In fact, a fellow instructor and I would quip when teaching about a particular technology, “It’s not true, but it’s useful.” This is much like when elementary physics is taught and the element hydrogen is pictured as an electron orbiting a proton.  Electrons and protons aren’t particles, they have wave natures as well, but we still use the model because it’s useful. It works.

While my intellectual problems with Trinity were resolved, my spiritual ones lingered. I still didn’t have a sense of mysticism, so I just filed the Three Persons away marked “Relate to God.”  Recently, I picked up Armstrong’s book to reacquaint and delve more deeply into God since I had been reading about mystics and the science of mystical experience.  Because of that additional reading the following passages from Armstrong’s book became much more comprehensible to me.

Ultimately, however, the Trinity only made sense as a mystical or spiritual experience: it had to be lived, not thought, because God went far beyond human concepts. It was not a logical or intellectual formulation but an imaginative paradigm that confounded reason. Gregory of Nazianzus made this clear when he explained that contemplation of the Three in One induced a profound and overwhelming emotion that confounded thought and intellectual clarity…

In an earlier sermon, Gregory of Nazianzus had explained that the very incomprehensibility of the dogma of the Trinity brings us up against the absolute mystery of God; it reminds us that we must not hope to understand him. It should prevent us from making facile statements about a God who, when he reveals himself, can only express his nature in an ineffable manner. Basil also warned us against imagining that we could work out the way in which the Trinity operated, so to speak: it was no good, for example, attempting to puzzle out how the three hypostases of the Godhead were at one and the same time identical and distinct. This lay beyond words, concepts and human powers of analysis…

The Trinity reminded Christians that the reality that we called “God” could not be grasped by the human intellect. The doctrine of the Incarnation, as expressed at Nicaea, was important but could lead to a simplistic idolatry. People might start thinking about God himself in too human a way: it might even be possible to imagine “him” thinking, acting and planning like us. From there, it was only a very short step to attributing all kinds of prejudiced opinions to God and thus making them absolute. The Trinity was an attempt to correct this tendency. Instead of seeing it as a statement of fact about God, it should, perhaps, be seen as a poem or a theological dance between what is believed and accepted by mere mortals about “God” and the tacit realization that any such statement or kerygma could only be provisional.

Armstrong, Karen (2011-08-10). History of God (Kindle Locations 2661-2664, 2672-2678, 2683-2689). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

And that really is the final word for me. We should not hope to understand God, but we can know Him. And by know, I mean intimately as in sexual union. This is what is meant by “knowledge of God” in black Christian faith. The paradox of the Trinity, like a Zen koan, breaks us out of the illusion that God is like us and that our feeble understanding can in any way exhaust or even approach God’s reality. Anything else, is a dangerous even lethal idolatry as many dark chapters in history, from witch trials to inquisitions, have demonstrated.

So when I recite the Nicene or Apostle’s Creed, I do so with these things in mind. When I say Jesus is God, I do the same. It keeps me humble and keeps me from making facile statements or prideful denials of other faiths or looking with condescension upon others. Because I really do believe in the Trinity exactly as the Cappadocians describe it.

One thought on “The God I Believe In: Part Trinity”

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.