Saturday, 2 May 2009

Thoughts on Trinity

Last Sunday I had a conversation which seems to have changed my understanding of the Trinity.

I don't claim that this is a new idea, or an orthodox idea, or a correct idea or even an idea that I haven't encountered before. But for some reason it stuck and I'm finding it significant. I'm going to try to explain what I remember of it. I wasn't able to find the words at all on Sunday so this might be a mis-remembering, and at best there's going to be some heavy paraphrasing. I said in a comment on Margaret's blog that I only understood something at the edges of my brain, where the words won't go. I think now that I wasn't accurate: it's the core of my being where the words won't go. The words are the edges, they're the result of deeper things and can influence deeper things but the still small voice is wordless.

Anyway, last Sunday...

I'd just sung and played Evensong in a rather adorable church. We were talking as we packed up, and I mentioned to another musician that I'd never really got on with the Trinity, couldn't wrap my brain around three being one being three.

"But you have a mind," said M, "and a body," and her hand rested gently on my shoulder a moment, "and you have a soul. Each of these things is uniquely yours, definitely you rather than anyone else. None of them is you in your entirety. The Father is the Mind of God, the Son is the Body of God, the Holy Spirit is the Soul of God." And then the conversation moved on to other things.

I don't know why this stuck; maybe it was the way M spoke, shining with quiet wisdom. Maybe it was the singing. Maybe it was the unexpected setting, the oh-by-the-way relaxation of discussing it so casually instead of getting tied up in knots. I don't know. I just know it stuck.

For as long as I can remember, I have had a much easier time relating to the Father/Creator and Spirit/Ghost than any of the doctrine regarding the Jesus as the Son of God... that which is so integral to Christianity. But insofar as Christ is the Body of God, insofar as the church and all humanity is called to be the Body of God, to do the work of God, in some sense this works.

I don't know how I reconcile that with Jesus the human being as the Son of God. I cannot shake the feeling that human body is too small a container for the infinite. But the business of Jesus being on Earth in that form rather than with all humanity as His body seems to be an event in time, and I'm not all that sure that time is relevant for God the way it seems to be for humans. If God loves us, that love has not changed; the crucifixion and resurrection were a result of that love, a demonstration of that love, but not something that somehow changed our status as God's creations, God's children. These historical events were not something that changed our invitation (responsibility? compulsion?) to show to each other the love that God has for us. I suppose in some sense you could say that though they happened (if you trust Scripture/your experience/whatever enough to believe they happened--another matter entirely) in historical time, they've always been reality, always will be reality. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.

If that's the case, whether the historical facts are accurate is rather on the irrelevant side.


Acolyte4236 said...

Here are some comments to help clarify things for you.

If you have trouble understanding Trinitarianism, it might be beneficial to try to learn from reading others.

That said, the doctrine is not three beings as one being, but one being who is three persons. God is one as to nature and three as to person. Your musical associate is offering not Trinitarianism, but a kind of Modalism. The persons of the Trinity are not “parts” of God like your soul is a part of you. Rather they are three “who’s” not three “what’s.”

The Father, Son and Spirit in Trinitarianism all together create, redeem, etc. This is one reason we infer that they are on God, since their activity is one.

The humanity of Jesus doesn’t contain his deity, rather his divine person assumes or takes into itself the human nature.

Song in my Heart said...

Thank you for your comments.

I have read fairly widely in my attempts to understand the Trinity. I have learned that it confuses many people, and that I am easily frustrated and probably not reading at the right level. At the moment such reading is on hold as I am in the final weeks of completing a music degree, but do you have any specific recommendations?

I have difficulty with the idea of three persons being one on the grounds of their nature or their actions. When I play in a trio, there are two other musicians and we make together an ensemble, but we are each playing our own part, not all three of us playing the same thing. We have, as persons, an autonomy that seems impossible in true unity. To think of God this way I would have to use a different definition of "person" than I am used to.

Acolyte4236 said...

Well I’d need to get an idea of what you read to assess your reading level to recommend literature that would be helpful to you. Some background literature to the technical vocabulary can be had in, A Very Short Introduction to Plato, and Ackrill’s, Aristotle the Philosopher. Anatolios, Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought, and Barnes, The Power of God, are two very good monographs on Trinitarian theology. Hanson’s, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, is probably the most exhaustive history/theological treatment of the Nicene/Arian controversy. And then there’s nothing like primary source material like say Gregory of Nazienzen’s Five Theological Orations. Peter Toon’s, Our Triune God is also a good shorter treatment.

The problem with the concept of person you are using is that it is not precise enough. The common English usage of person picks out the idea of an individual being rather than a person or hypostasis proper. The distinction is easy enough to grasp though. There is a difference between what you are and who you are. Whoness and whatness are not the same things. The example you give is of three beings acting conjointly. They are separate but the same in kind. Trinitarianism posits not only that the F,S and HS are of the same kind but also the same being. The persons of the Trinity then all will freely the same things together.

Song in my Heart said...

I suppose I should qualify my "fairly widely" as "fairly widely for a non-Christian with little formal training"... but I've read Karen Armstrong's "A History of God" and Jonathan Hill's "History of Christian Thought". I've been trying to read "The Trinity: a Guide for the Perplexed" by Paul M Collins but struggling with it quite a bit and have put it down for the time being. Many of the other books I've read touch on the Trinity briefly but don't really attempt to explain it. Many thanks for your recommendations; I will refer back to them when I have some more time to study in a few months.

Returning to the flawed example of a musical trio, all three players do freely will roughly the same thing together--to create or recreate the music. There have certainly been moments in performance for me where I am still me but my selfhood seems to be subsumed into a larger unity, a larger purpose. It happens most often for me in singing, I am a singer, an individual member of the choir but somehow I am the choir. My understanding is that this is a relatively common experience. In fact it is that experience which keeps many of us performing. I don't know if that's at all relevant here.

If the F, S and HS have the same will, do they also have the same actions? Is thinking in terms of actions even a valid approach, or is it fair to presume that God does what God wills in all things? And why a Trinity at all? Why not four persons or eleven persons?

Thanks again for your patient comments. If my thinking on this seems juvenile it's probably because it is.

Something about the whole thing makes my brain itch, so that not understanding is far more uncomfortable than most things I don't understand. I'm reasonably happy, for example, to let my optician understand the finer details of how my eyes work and just prescribe me the spectacles I need; I like to cook but am happy to eat in a restaurant where food is prepared in ways I cannot begin to know how to replicate. But there is a part of me that is not content to let others understand this for me--I want to know for myself. I don't know if that will go away after I reach a certain level of understanding. It often goes away when I sing but I cannot sing my entire life (much as I'd like to, much as I try to on some level).

Acolyte4236 said...

This gives me a better picture. The Collins book is ok, but I’d go with a few other books that might help fill in some gaps. Alister McGrath’s book, The Trinity, is basic to intermediate without being simplistic. I’d also recommend Toon’s book as before along with perhaps Fiztsimmons-Allison’s, The Cruelty of Heresy. The other books I mentioned I think might be too academic at the moment, though if you are serious, they are certainly worth saving for the moment.

I don’t take Karen Armstrong seriously either in accuracy or theologically, so I can’t recommend her work.

As for the musical trio, the difference in the three freely willing individuals and the Trinity is this. They will as individuals, separate beings with separate instances of power of choice. In God, there is only one power of choice used by the three persons. This is why St. Patrick employed the analogy of the Shamrock. The crucial distinction again is between person and nature, whoness and whatness. One doesn’t trump the other. Unity and plurality are not at odds.

In general yes the F,S and HS all act together. There are a couple of reasons that Christians have given for a Trinity instead of a quaternity. First god reveals himself as such and not the others. Christian theology is constrained by what God discloses to us. Second, a triad of persons is enough to represent all of the different kinds of relationships of unity and difference-all three together as well as each distinct from each other and two distinct from a third. A fourth member would just function as another “third” in representing sameness and difference.

Your questions are not in fact juvenile but are in fact intuitive questions that come up in the history of Christian theology. And besides, everyone starts somewhere. I didn’t wake up and just know this stuff, it took work and time.

I wonder though why you would classify yourself as a non-Christian? If you are not comfortable discussing this, thats fine, but I thought I'd ask.

Song in my Heart said...

Thanks again for your patience and your comments.

I wonder though why you would classify yourself as a non-Christian? If you are not comfortable discussing this, thats fine, but I thought I'd ask.

The short answer is that there are too many bits of the Apostle's Creed I can't bring myself to believe.

Acolyte4236 said...

No need to thank for patience. I commend you for being honest and willing enough to deny belief because you do not honestly adhere to its main tenents. I wish more people would be honest enough to do so.

That said, I would be willing to discuss and explore them with you for a bit, if you are in turn willing to do so. I obviously can't bring about a belief committment in you, but perhaps discussing it might help you see past certain problems or see things in a new way. If you'd prefer another venue that isn't so public we can figure something out. Its up to you.

Song in my Heart said...

I'm certainly up for discussion and exploration; I may need to take things quite slowly because of my academic commitments and various forthcoming life events.

Here is fine if you like; if it starts to feel too public to me I'm happy to move to e-mail but in general I am comfortable being reasonably open here as long as I can be general about identifying myself. One of the reasons I started this blog was to have somewhere to explore and discuss matters of faith.

I am curious about how you found my blog and this entry. Your first comment came somewhat out of the blue after I'd spent a few days wondering if anyone was going to say anything in response.

Acolyte4236 said...

I am in no hurry so slow is fine. Email is a possible venue should you wish to move it there. My email is on my blogger profile. Hopefully you can bear with my being on the other end of that separated language as well. (I'm a Yank.)

I found your blog putzing around on the tag surfer. My comments came out of the blue because they did. I doubt either of us would have read each other's blogs on our own.

So, what shall we put on the table first?