Weblog of a Christian philosophy student

Weblog of a Christian philosophy student. Please feel free to comment. All of my posts are public domain. Subscribe to posts [Atom]. Email me at countaltair [at] yahoo.com.au. I also run a Chinese to English translation business at www.willfanyi.com.

Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Monday, December 05, 2005

Thinking On The Trinity

Thinking On The Trinity

The trinity is one of the most difficult to understand doctrines of Christianity. It is also arguably the doctrine on which the most heresy falls. Essentially it states that God is three in one. That God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are in fact, not three separate Gods but one unified God. Each is fully God however, yet all are individual beings and also completely unified into one being.

My thoughts on the trinity are no doubt interesting as I've come to see it as a very good explanation for what I consider to be a rather interesting question on matters of theology. Specifically - why is God moral?

Unlike logic and mathematics, morality is at least conceivably dispensable. That is, it is possible to conceive of a sentient being who has no sense of morality whatsoever. The rules of morality neither seem to have any compelling origination in logic - one need not understand not to murder by understanding the principles of arguments or mathematics. Attempts to provide such justification (i.e. a categorical imperative) most likely fail because they don't provide any compelling reason why I must be good. And of course, if there is a compelling reason to be good (like to avoid punishment) then it is no longer 'goodness' per se.

In fact, it is very easy to believe that there is a God, but a God who has no sense of morality whatsoever, an amoral deistic God. So I realised one day that in fact, if we are talking about God, then it makes sense to give some kind of account as to why 'God' is moral, what is the basic ontological reason why fundamental properties of existence are right and wrong.

There are two pictures of the trinity I hold in my head. The first one is an ideal of the trinity as the ultimate cooperation. God the Father, Son and Spirit are beings who are so close to each other in their essences that they comprise in fact, one person. In fact, they are so close that they are indeed, in their very image a single individual. They are not in fact, constitutionally capable of not loving each other, or not being with each other. They are bound, by their own existence as a trinity to love and cherish each other. Their love for each as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is a principle of the working out of their existence as a trinity.

Besides this mystical commentary, it is also quite noticeable that if God is such a trinity then we have a very good explanation as to why that particular God is moral. If we can describe love as a connection, then if two sentient beings are connected, freely and wishfully then we can call that love. If a man and a woman are close together and connected, out of their own choice then, depending on the closeness of that connection we can say to a degree how much they love each other. What the trinity can represent is a necessary connection between three sentient beings that is so close that it is pure love - a pure connection into one being. So the ontological relationship between people and love, that is spiritual connection between people is essentially founded in the relationship in the trinity. Humans spiritually connect in a poor image of how the Father, Son and Holy Spirit necessarily connect. Therefore it seems quite plausible that our own ideas of love and duty could come from such a trinitarian God, a God making us in his image to connect with each other. Since love is the essence of this God, then it also seems plausible that this God would be disposed very heavily to act in a similar way towards creatures not of itself and that it creates, as love is the way in which it understands sentient relations.

Of course - this doesn't completely answer the question. In fact one might even say my explanations only push the problem further back. Instead of asking why is God moral, we instead must ask why is it there are three beings in one who exist as a trinity? What a priori reason to we have for thinking a God must needs be a trinity?

This brings me to my second mental picture of God, which is that of a necessary outworking of sentience itself. A particularly notable insight of Anselm, who struggled to understand the trinity was a way of conceiving the trinity, in a way that not only would God be a trinity, but, if properly defined no religion could but have a God who was a trinity, and there could not any sentience at all without being themselves trinities. Such an explanation of Anselm would, given a plausible reason for sentience finally establish the reasonableness of Christian belief in a trinitarian God.

I originally heard of Anselm's theory on this website here, and I will quote the relevant parts which I think are quite well-put.

Interestingly, Anselm's argument for the Trinity relies upon the strongest affirmation that there is only one unchanging, eternal, indivisible, supreme God.

God, Anselm says, cannot be divided into parts. Why? Because if you divided God into equal parts, he wouldn't be supreme. Supreme means "above all else," so if God had an equal - or equals - he wouldn't be supreme. Only one can be supreme. But maybe you could divide God into unequal parts; say, 70 percent and 30 percent? Doesn't work. 70 percent of infinity is infinity. 30 percent of infinity is infinity. And infinity equals infinity, so you're back to having equal parts. If God is supreme and infinite, he simply cannot be divided.

Nor, he adds, can God be added to (Infinity plus a billion is what? Yup, still infinity.)

So, with that in mind, let's start with a question:

Can you imagine yourself?

Perhaps you saw yourself in the bathroom mirror this morning and can remember what you look like. You know how tall you are and how much you weigh and your beliefs and that your toenails need clipping. So if you close your eyes perhaps you can imagine yourself. Roughly.

Now consider God. Could God imagine himself? Of course! And not only could he imagine himself, he could imagine himself perfectly. But what would a perfect image of God be? A picture on the wall? A 3-D model? A spreadsheet of data about God? An angel. No. If God perfectly imagined Himself, the image would be... God. Anything less would an imperfect image.

Does this mean there are two Gods? Nope. There can't be. Infinity plus infinity is still infinity. Also, if God were to imagine himself as separate from himself, then his image of himself would be imperfect, because he is not separate from himself.

And so there you have the Father (the one imagining) and the Son (the one being imagined). Each of them is fully God, yet each is a different person.

Between the Father and the Son there is also a relationship - a spirit, a Holy Spirit.

One might be tempted to say this relationship, or Holy Spirit, is a part of the Father and the Son, or a part of God, just as you might say that a relationship you have is a part of your life. But remember, God cannot be divided into parts.

So this relationship is not a part of God; it is God.

Thus we have the Father (who in our illustration imagines himself), we have the Son (the one who is imagined), and we have the Holy Spirit (the relationship between the Father and Son). One God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

So in this sense, we have a necessary outworking of sentience into a notion of a trinity. Any sentient being is capable of imagining itself, and that perfect imagination of oneself, one's self-image is one's self. The third part of a sentient trinity is provided by the enactment of the activity just described.

Now there are obvious problems with this idea, which I'll now run through. Well first of all it does seem to denigrate the idea of the Son being a full person on equal standing with God the Father, if God is simply that which is imagined. When we imagine ourselves, our thoughts are not strictly 'part' of ourselves, my thoughts are less than I am. So that would appear to present a problem. But on the other hand, one could argue some kind of ontological 'realness' given to God's image of himself (a la ontological argument) by God's imagining perfectly, yet that is probably insufficient as it would rely on the speculative premises of the ontological argument - that thinking can truly define something into reality.

However this idea could be modified further. Suppose that the Son isn't just the Father's self-image, what God thinks of himself. Rather the 'Son' in this context, the 'Word', is actually the enactment of the Father's thoughts, feelings etc.. what the Father generates in terms of thinking is the Son. God has a perfect ideal and quintessence of himself which is eternal. But the changing living feeling enactment of that perfect image is the Son. Whereas the Father is more like a perfect structure of perfection, the Son is more like the enactment of that structure of God in creation (creation is after all, in the Son.)

Of course, this leaves the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit in this context could be defined as that relationship, that brings what is generated with what generates. The relationship between the two, by which the unchanging perfection of the Father can meet with the active perfection of the Son.

This analogy could be described as saying that God the Father are like the blueprints and materials for a house, the Son is like the house, and the Holy Spirit are the builders, but the blueprints and materials, house and construction all exist happen simultaneously and eternally. On the other hand perhaps the analogy could be like the Father is the brain, the Son are the thoughts, and the Holy Spirit is the relationship between the two (the pathway between abstraction and concrete physicality). Perhaps it could be said that the Father is the eternal unchanging being of God, the Son are the thoughts or whatever that being generates, and the Holy Spirit is that relationship. Above all else, this provides an intriguing additional analogy of the trinity we might use to describe it. It also has the advantage of being a part of every thinking being, so we no longer need to describe the trinity of God as an extra term in Christianity - it is a given.

Now to finish off, I might say that both models are in a sense, good attempts by themselves. In the second mental image any thinking being conceived in a certain way would be a trinity. In the first a trinity is definitely moral. A reconciliation between the two would of course answer questions of a moral God definitively. But that is tantalizingly out of reach.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Problems of Prayer

Problems of Prayer
Edited 3/3/08

There are some problems presented regarding prayer that are sometimes given. In the first place - 'Does God change his mind to answer prayer?' A problem often given to philosophy of religion students. The second is the hurt from unanswered prayer, and whether we can explain the apparently similar sufferings of those who pray and those who do not. I will analyse these issues as best I can and present a solution here.

In regard to the first problem, God is omniscient (in addition God is timeless which can also present problems to a God changing his mind.) If God is omniscient he knows the entire future and thus would never need to change his mind about anything - as nothing can surprise him. But if he never changes his mind then it doesn't matter if we pray or not. Thus in the final analysis, prayer would seem to be useless.

The flaw in this argument is that it is not necessarily the case that God needs to change his mind for prayer to be useful. And the reason for this is in analysis of the concept of 'possible worlds'. Let us say that for a possible world, a God exists in it who foresees everything in it. Suppose in that world a person suffers a hurt and prays to God about it. Now, in this world from the very conception of God's thoughts God knew that this person would hurt and pray to him, therefore he has it fixed in his mind to help that person at the appropriate time. No problems here so far.

However let us say in another world a person suffers a hurt and does not pray to God about it. God, not being the type of God to interfere without prayer, foresees these events from his timeless being and thus does not act to help this individual. In this world, God foresaw from the very beginning this person would suffer harm but decided to do nothing because the person didn't pray. So in this world, God does nothing to help a person and does not change his mind.

However if both these possible worlds are the result of a free choice by the individual in question - to pray or not to pray then prayer must have an effect. Because in both possible worlds split by that person's choice, the existence of divine aid is strictly dependent on whether he decided to pray.

The answer how is in the idea that God's actions are contingent on the events in our world. But for God's actions to be contingent on events in a possible world in no sense requires the idea of God changing his mind. God can eternally foresee the future and thus eternally make up his mind on events in that future - hence a future with or without prayer can be differentiated. With prayer, God foresees and decides to act, without prayer, God foresees and decides not to act. Therefore properly said the problem is dissolved, because it is in no way necessary for prayer to have an effect to have God change his mind.

Now there is another objection to this notion of prayer and God changing his mind that is different from that one. This objection is that if God is good and impartial, which all Christians firmly believe, then we would not need to ask God in prayer for anything, because he would already do what he could to answer it without needing to be asked. This is supported somewhat in the Lords Prayer:

6:7 But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. 6:8 Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.

The answer is of course - if God is omniscient we wouldn't need to prayer, he is good and will answer our prayers even if we do not pray. But more controversially, one could even say that God is indiscriminate in doing good in the world. For example, take this verse:

5:44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; 5:45 That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. 5:46 For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? 5:47 And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? 5:48 Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

If God is being self-consistent here, we must say that God must do good to both righteous and unrighteous, Christian and non-Christian. So in fact the result we have here is that, first of all God helps people without asking, and secondly the God helps everyone without asking.

Well, for philosophical reasons also we should believe this. A good man, if he sees that I am in pain will, if there is some obvious antidote do what he can to help me. A good God would foresee our pain and do what he could to answer any prayer we could conceivably ask. Therefore it is quite obvious that we have profound philosophical reasons for believing God would want to help everyone and help people without asking, indiscriminately.

Now of course, this leads into the problem of evil. But as Christians we don't think that there is a problem of evil, because we believe there is some kind of theodicy. A total explanation for evil in our world. And a theodicy would of course entail that there must be some evil in our world for a greater good. So Christians believe that there is some evil that must be and cannot be answered in prayer because God has a greater good in keeping it.

The point is that let us say that, first of all, God helps everyone even without asking, and that secondly there is some necessary evil in the world. Well surprisingly, the result is that if there is such a world, we could not tell that world from a world in which there was no God. And this is because, if there is a world where God helps everyone indiscriminately and there is some evil that must be, then what we would observe would be a world where there is some evil that indiscriminately hurts people, good and bad, righteous and unrighteous. This world is very much like ours. And of course, if there was no God then the same would entail, but there would of course, be far more evil as there would be no theodicy. But we can't actually tell what world we live in - because we can't tell what evil is being eliminated by God via prayer or his own goodness. We can't tell if the amount of evil in our world is similar to a world with or without theodicy because we have no alternative world to compare it with - we only have this one. Therefore I can conclude that there is no hypothesis that explains the situation in our world better than the hypothesis of a God who indiscriminately helps people and has a theodicy for evil.

Now the pastoral theme becomes apparent - which is that if our prayer has no effect then we needn't worry. If the world I am describing is correct, then God is good enough to answer the prayers of everyone, even those who do not pray, so we can't measure our prayers versus those of others. And secondly God helps everyone therefore everyone would seem to suffer the same. And thirdly there is some necessary evil in the world which explains why we suffer what we do. This hopefully relieves some tension from unanswered prayer.