Bruce Charlton has noticed an essay by Mormon author Orson Scott Card, in which Card has a “Traditional Christian” and an LDS believer arguing over the nature of the Trinity. The Christian says the Trinity is like three parallel lines that everywhere touch each other, while the LDS says that it is like three disparate parallel lines.
Both these geometrical analogies are of course radically defective. That of the “Traditional Christian” fails to express threeness, while that of the LDS fails to express oneness. They illustrate the difficulty of trying to explain the being who is the very basis of explanation as such. If God is the origin of all that is, then he can’t be explained in terms of anything else. We should hardly be surprised that he can’t be accommodated by the abstractions of Euclidean geometry (especially since it is inadequate even as a formalization of our universe). If you’ve got an explanation of God, then what you’ve explained ain’t God. Nor would a God that you could fully understand be quite satisfactory to the religious impulse, for such a God would be in at least one way smaller than our own minds, and thus scandalous to worship.
Bruce has lately, rightly said that it is crucial to think of God as a living, concrete actuality, rather than a philosophical abstraction – that philosophical abstractions, interesting or helpful though they might be as heuristics, must not be confused with the real thing, and can obscure the real thing from our sight. I doubt that there is anywhere a philosopher or theologian who would disagree.
Analogies can help the understanding, and indeed one might almost say that the feeling of what it is like to understand is just a feeling of likeness between some thing that is familiar to us and another that is not. But the inapt analogy can create a mistaken feeling of recognition, and thus fool us into thinking that we recognize when really we don’t. Analogy to abstract concepts amenable to complete specification in a formal scheme, like those of geometry, are bound to be inadequate to the understanding of life as lived, or of any part thereof; for the complete formal specification of a concrete actuality is not completable in a finite number of steps. Better then to draw analogies between concretes, bearing in mind that any descriptions of concretes, or of their behavior, are rather indications than specifications.
Say for example that you were setting forth on a trip through a wholly unfamiliar wilderness in Mongolia. It would be one thing, and that wholly justified, for you to say, “this is rather like southeastern Nevada.” Such a recognition could appropriately inform your decisions as you made your way. It would be quite another and foolish thing to pull out a map of Nevada so as to find the nearest fresh water.
This is why Jesus says that, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a vinyard,” rather than saying, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a constrained generating procedure.”
There are two sorts of concrete actualities that have been helpful to me as analogies for the concrete actuality of God: magnets, and lives. The former is simple: the Father is like the north pole, the Son like the south pole, the Spirit like the electrical field that curves about their axis. The magnet is one substantial being, yet it is three distinct things, none of which is the same as either of the others, and each of which is an essential element that contributes to making the magnet a magnet, rather than a simple rock. If either pole were lacking, it wouldn’t be a magnet; likewise, if the electrical field rotating about the magnetic field of force between the poles were absent, it wouldn’t be a magnet (because the absence of the electric field would itself constitute the absence also of the magnetic field, and thus the absence of the poles). I discussed this analogy a bit here.
The magnet helps us understand the essential integrity of the three Persons of God, because it refers to just such an integrity of three in one, quite straightforwardly operative in an everyday phenomenon. But it doesn’t explain God. After all, we don’t have an explanation of the magnet, either. All we have is a very careful description of how the magnet behaves.
The other analogy that has helped me is to the life of a person. I am different now than I was a moment ago. The two moments of my life are quite distinct: e.g., in one, I had not yet fetched lunch, and in the other I had. There is more to the latter moment than to the former, for it includes all the history that the former moment does, and adds to it. If you were to scribe the two moments as a Venn diagram, the former moment would be a circle enclosed by the circle of the latter moment. The data sets of each of the two moments intersect, but are not a unit. Yet the two moments are moments of the same life. There is something about the relation of inclusion that makes this so.
I am quite different from the me of 1959; yet I am that same me. Nothing could be more familiar, or confusing.
We see the same dynamic operating in the part/whole relation. The atoms of my body are parts of me, and their participation in my life has direct causal effects upon their histories; yet they are still the same in and of themselves that they were when they were parts of, say, a wafer of bread. E.g., before I ate the bread, the atoms just sat there in the loaf, and didn’t wander about the landscape. But now that I have eaten them, they do. They are the same atoms that they always were, and if you were to examine them you would find they had the same masses, the same atomic numbers, and so forth, that they had before I ate them (were it otherwise, they would not be much good to me as food). Nevertheless, their inclusion in me makes them behave quite differently than they did when they were just a part of a bit of bread. I have discussed this phenomenon in relation to the Real Presence of God in the elements of the Mass (and, ergo, in us when we partake of them – when God is included in us, and we in him). It pertains also to the Incarnation of God in man, on the one hand, and on the other in relation to the general human participation in the divine life effected by that Incarnation. God now participates in Manhood, and so therefore men can now participate in godhood.
I don’t know for sure, but I doubt there can be any explanation of the part/whole relation, or of the more general notion of inclusion of one thing by another. We all think in such terms at every minute, in understanding our past as in fact just ours. We are familiar with these relations from the inside. We can specify such relations formally. Such specifications allow us to describe how they operate, what they do and what they tend to produce. But as with any of the relations we apprehend among things – especially, causal relations – the ultimate nature of those relations in and of themselves is mysterious to us.
Back to the Trinity, then: the relation of a moment in the life of the Son to his Father and to the Spirit is like the relation of one of our moments to those of its past. The moment of the Son somehow includes those of the Father and the Spirit; and vice-versa. All are parts of each, and each is part of all.
Again, these are not explanations. They are, at bottom, ways of recognizing the form of one mystery by analogy with familiar aspects of our lives that, on close inspection, are revealed as equally mysterious. The roots of every dear familiar thing – even such as parallel lines – lie deep in unfathomable mystery.