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.


Anonymous David said...

A couple of things to note:

There is a difference between an individual and a person. Whereas an individual is to some extent isolated from other persons, a person is in communion with other persons. Since there is a single divine will (that of the Father), and not three different wills, it is more accurate to describe God as a communion of three persons who share in one essence, than three individuals who are unified into one being.

You will note that I said the single divine will is that of the Father. In Orthodox Trinitarianism, the Father is, as you put it, the "brain" -- He is the mind, the one unoriginate cause of both the Son and the Spirit. When He creates, the Father does so by His Son and through His Spirit. St. Irenaeus called the Son and the Spirit "the two hands of God the Father."

What, then, makes each person of the Trinity fully a person and not a projection of the Father or "a relationship" between the other two persons (forgive me, but that is, I think, a crude understanding of the Holy Spirit)? For one, the persons of the Trinity, according to St. John of Damascus, differ only in "being unbegotten, the begetting, and the procession."

The Father's unique role is that He begets the Son, and the Spirit proceeds from Him. Thus, He is the "fountainhead" of the Godhead. The Son's unique role is that of the Logos, the revealing of the mind of the Father. What good is my message if I keep it to myself? I must speak in order for my message to take effect. Every time God reveals Himself, that revelation comes through the Son and is in the power of the Holy Spirit. And of course that brings us to the Spirit. He is not just a relationship between Father and Son. His main task is to bear witness to Christ, in power. His bearing witness to Christ ultimately results in a revelation of who God is, because Christ reveals God to us.

I honestly think that Anselm's conception of the Holy Trinity is nothing more than a philosophical mind game with complete and utter irrelevance. I am not sure why you are asking the question of why God is moral. Morality, to me, seems to be the natural state of things. Things are naturally moral, and when they move away from a moral center they lose hold on their nature -- that is, what they are intended to be. I think God is not simply moral. He is morality itself, in the same way that He is not simply loving but the source of all love, and true, complete, perfect love itself.

Then again, I may be speaking past you, and you might want to clarify what you mean by God being moral.

Blogger Joveia said...

Well there are interesting Christian explanations as to explaining the trinity, but outside of Christianity it is important to note that no concept of God has any compelling support for it that includes a trinity.

The main thing with morality, is that it is apparent that there can exist a God who is amoral and deistic. This presents a unique problem for Christianity, because as long as there is the possibility of a god who is amoral and deistic, then theistic arguments cannot argue for Christianity, because evil and its continuance will always make it more reasonable to believe in such an amoral God over one who would desire to remove evil. So I see it as important to establish without appealing to set religious beliefs the morality of God.


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