Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Reflections for Trinity Sunday

The Trinity explained in stained glass.

The existence of God is self-evident and accessible to both reason and experience. Enough said.

But what of his Trinitarian nature? Seems “counter-intuitive,” doesn’t it?
When we look about at nature, saving the shamrock, we see it is binary: most living things are bilaterally symmetrical. That in itself is a strong indication of design, which is to say intelligent design. It seems only accurate, therefore, to say that the Logos of creation is binary. Day and night, heat and cold, light and shadow, male and female, Aristotle’s A and not-A, good and evil, right and wrong.

But when we analyze it at a deeper level, an inevitable threeness seems to be revealed. As opposed to individual beings, time itself is more mysterious and abstract—closer to the underlying logos of all. And we find it, no matter how you slice it, resolving into three parts: past, present, and future. Existence, similarly, even closer to being the essence of all things, has three parts: creation, duration, and cessation. Leaving aside hypotheses of higher physics, all of space, the entire visible, physical universe, is composed of three aspects: height, width, depth. All actions have three elements: subject, action, and object. All perceptions, all possible experiences, also have three elements: perceiver, perception, and perceived. All logic, all thought, similarly resolves to trinity: major premise, minor premise, conclusion. Can’t get around it: the number three is the essence of all existence.

It seems only sensible, therefore, to assume a threeness to God. It would actually be assuming God is uniquely not in some sense triune, that would seem arbitrary and need to be defended.

It might be argued that supreme unity is a necessary aspect of perfection—and this is fair enough. There can be only one perfect being, as there can be only one “greatest” and one “best.” But there is another side to this argument: If the created world had a beginning in time, it follows that there was a time before it existed. If God exists eternally, it also follows that there was a time when he existed, and the universe did not.
But that means there was a time when God was less than he is now; and that God can change. Once he was not yet a creator, and later he was.

Automatically, you have two Gods, one more perfect or complete than the other. Yet this is a logical impossibility.

The only logical way around this seems to be to assume that God is in some sense not a unity—but “eternally begetting” an element of himself, the Logos, a basic plan or incipient essense of creation. Hence we are forced to conclude that, within the divine unity of being, there are at least two distinct aspects. So why not three?

The Hindu Trinity: Brahman, Vishnu, Shiva

Christianity is not the only faith to perceive this. India’s traditional religion, Hinduism, too, assumes a Trinity, the Trimurti: Brahman, Vishnu, and Shiva, who can be fairly easily correlated to the Christian Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Taoism, the ancient religion of China, also has a divine trinity. Buddhism, not big on Gods, speaks of the “Threefold Path” to salvation: The Buddha, the Sangha, and the Dharma; and also features a common motif of three supreme Buddhas, although the identities of the three members seem to vary.

The Trinity also seems to exist in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word most commonly translated as “God” or “Lord God” in English Bibles is, in the original, “Elohim”--which is a plural. To how many persons does it refer? That’s made clear in the story of Abraham. When “Elohim” visit him and his wife Sarah in their tent, and share a meal with them, in Genesis 18, they are three. They are commonly referred to in English translation as “angels,” but they are “Elohim” in the original.

Modern Russian icon of the "Old Testament Trinity"

The same three are present at the creation:

1In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. 3Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

Note that there are three divine elements here, all existing before the creation of the world: a creator God (the Father), the Spirit of God (the Holy Spirit) and the word of God (“Let there be light”) or Logos (the Son), through which the act of creation takes place.

Three persons in one God.