Monday, 13 May 2013

The Holy Trinity explained! - by Orson Scott Card



Here's a theological argument between a traditional Christian (TC) and a biblical Christian (LDS):

TC: The Trinity consists of three parallel lines, which touch each other. 

LDS: If they touch each other, they're not parallel. 

TC: Nevertheless, they are parallel, and they touch. They touch at every point. 

LDS: If they touch at every point, they're the same line. Not three.

TC: They touch at every point, yet there are three.

LDS: That doesn't make any sense. Lines can't be different yet the same, parallel yet intersecting. The words stop having any meaning when you say such things.

TC: That's because you have a finite, mortal mind, which cannot comprehend the nature of geometry.

LDS: That's just crazy. The Trinity is three lines, completely distinct, perfectly parallel, so they go infinitely in the same direction. That's simple, it's clear, and it's true. In fact, we've seen the lines.

TC: That's blasphemy! You can never see the lines! They're only imaginary!

LDS: Your lines are imaginary. The lines we've seen are real.

TC: Then you are not Geometers!

And that's where the discussion always ends.


I side with the LDS-ite in this debate - because, even if I might disagree with this sufficiency and precision of this formulation of the Trinity, I can at least understand what it is I am disagreeing-with! To agree or disagree with the TC definition of the nature of the Trinity is to assent to, or dissent from, the content of a sealed black box which might contain anything or nothing, or both everything and nothing... 



Adam G. said...

As a Mormon missionary, I thought that the traditional doctrine of the Trinity was manifest nonsense. Later, I discovered that nearly every traditional Christian exposition of the Trinity I ran across was modalist (e.g., the God is water, the three members are ice, running water, and steam). The actual doctrine of the Trinity is much less difficult to understand because it says much less than most people think. It is simply a denial that the three persons of the Trinity are really just one person wearing masks or something with another denial that the three persons of the Trinity are different enough or separate enough that they can be meaningfully viewed as three separate Gods. In other words, the trinity doctrine, like most theological doctrines, can be thought of as a response to a problem or a question.

Problem: is Christ just God the Father pretending to talk to himself? No way. They're like, different people man. So you're polytheists? Oh, no way, man. That's the Trinity.

I've read an amusing essay claiming that the Mormon position is solidly Trinitarian, since we claim that the Godhead all have the same ontological basis, or "being."

Bruce Charlton said...

@AG - Negative theology (not one person, not many separate gods) is not wrong, but it is useless - for most people most of the time.

The Crow said...

Using words to explain the Divine :)
We are unable even to explain each other.
The only concept a human needs to grasp is: It Is.
Accepting this, the human manifests It.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crow - that's like negative theology cubed! Not a faith to motivate and sustain life.

The Crow said...

On the contrary, Bruce.
The only real worship is reverent living, with no time lost to circus.
This God, did he not give us life that we might live it? Or did It give us life that we might explain It?
It probably requires no explanation, least of all, from us.
But we will never see eye to eye on this one.

Agellius said...


Exactly. But try explaining that to Bruce Nielson. : )

Anonymous said...

I took a membership class at the church I used to go to and we were asked to explain the Trinity. I used three spheres instead of three lines, I used three spheres. But I can't coherently explain the Trinity and I don't think anyone who hasn't gone to divinity school can.

The divinity school version is too abstract, and the Mormon version seems to be too concrete. I personally think that it is better to think of the Holy Spirit and Logos as parts of and subordinate to the Creator and yet essential parts without which the Creator is not the Creator.

None of which really helps people with existential questions, which is the real point, of course.

Agellius said...

"Negative theology (not one person, not many separate gods) is not wrong, but it is useless - for most people most of the time".

Whether you consider it useless or not, and whether it's negative or not, is not really the point. The point is whether it's true or not. Is it true that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are more than one God? Is it true that they are merely one god pretending to be each other?

If the true answers happen to be hard to understand or "not very useful", that can't be helped. The truth is what it is.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ag - Yes, but I believe that scripture tells us that the necessary saving truths can be understood (indeed are *best* understood) by children and very simple folk.

These difficult abstract formulations such as negative theology are sometimes the only things that (we) intellectuals can get themselves (ourselves) to believe - and that is their value (I'm thinking here of someone like Charles Williams who seemed only to be able to believe things too difficult for 99.999 percent of the population) but they are inferior to the simple truths.

For example, in trying to understand the morality of God - for example in relation to the problems of explaining pain and suffering - then we should start from the understanding that God is *better than Man* - that God's morality includes, surpasses and perfects human morality but is of the same kind.

In contrast, attempts to explain the existence of pain and suffering in terms of God having a wholly alien and incomprehensible morality (a different kind of morality) are actually anti-Christian (even when sincerely well-intended).

Our God is to be loved, which means substantially known and understood (as a child knows and understands his parent) not submitted to as an alien and incomprehensible being whose actions are good-by-definition.

(Or, as it was phrased by Charles Williams, it is a case of 'God is Good' for Christians - and not a case of 'Good is God'.

Kristor said...

As usual, Bruce, you have got me thinking. I have posted the results over at Orthosphere [], mostly because they run on too long for a comment to this thread.

Agellius said...

"I believe that scripture tells us that the necessary saving truths can be understood (indeed are *best* understood) by children and very simple folk."

Assuming for the sake of argument that scripture does say that, I don’t see why “the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are not the same person”, or “the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are not three gods” is beyond the grasp of “simple folk”.

It’s true that when you delve into the implications of these things, they can get mysterious and hard to understand. But when people start pondering things that deeply I wonder whether they still qualify as “very simple folk”.

The fact is that innumerable children and very simple folk, through the centuries, have been raised with the Trinity and have done just fine with it. They take as much of the doctrine as they can deal with and leave the rest alone. They realize it’s over their heads, but due to their childlike faith, trust that those who know better, know better.

After all, what is childlike faith but the willingness to submit your judgment to that of others without suspicion or cynicism; and the humility to admit that your own inability to grasp something fully, need not equate to its being false?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ag - Just a minute - I never said the Trinity was false - just that the way it was described in Mainstream Christianity was so abstract as to be nonsensical or useless.

It seems extremely likely that most simple and devout Christians throughout history have understood the Trinity pretty much the way Mormons do - it is the obvious inference from reading or hearing the Bible.

What is important about the aspects of the Trinity? That they are personages, person-like - because we can only imagine loving and being loved by persons.

What is the pitfall of that? - well, that some people might suppose the Trinity to be like three potentially conflicting individuals - like the Greek gods.

How can that misunderstanding be pre-empted? Well, not by the Athanasian Creed! But by emphasizing the absolute and inevitable harmony and cooperation between the personages, based on love.

That is all that need be done, and pretty much all that should be done.

I think a further distortion has come from the attempt (especially relating to the Great Schism) to impose an equality between the three parts of the Trinity which is apparently contradicted by scripture - because when the Father sends the Son and the Son prays to the Father and asks the Father (also the Holy Ghost is 'sent'), the asymmetry and inequality is striking - and elaborate theologizing is necessary to obscure this.

William Zeitler said...

The reference you use to geometry is smack-dab in the middle of an amazing episode in mathematics, which I think is germane to this discussion. The problem was Euclid's "5th postulate"--that given a line and a point off the line, that there is only one parallel line that passes through the point. This has bothered mathematicians for centuries--is it really consistent with the other postulates? Can it be derived from the other postulates? Then Lobachevsky in the 19th century tried an 'reductio ad absurdum' proof--assume that through the point there is NO parallel line, then show that results in absurdity, thereby demonstrating the truth of the original postulate. But it didn't work out that way: the result was a strange but completely self-consistent non-Euclidean geometry. His new geometry prompted a lot of acrimonious debate in his day.

Riemann followed suit and developed another geometry assuming there are INFINITELY many lines through the point that are parallel. And lest you think this is all an exercise in sand castles, it turns out that Riemannian geometry works perfectly for General Relativity, and is still in use for that purpose today.

To me it's an extraordinary demonstration, once again, that we can be overconfident that our metaphors encompass the whole truth.

Wikipedia's article on Non-Euclidean Geometry is a perfectly good place to start if you want to know more.

Adam G. said...

"The fact is that innumerable children and very simple folk, through the centuries, have been raised with the Trinity and have done just fine with it."

My own experience is that this isn't really true. Most people have a hard time holding an apparent contradiction in their head without some good explanation for it, so in practice most of the non-theologian Christians that I talk to are either functionally socially trinitarian (Mormon-like) or functionally modalist.

Chevalier de Johnstone said...

It seems to me that the fallacy here is in the perception of reality as definitively material; both Card's LDS speaker and his "Traditional Christian" reject the platonic idea of an immortal soul. The key statement is made where card has the "TC" say, "That's because you have a finite, mortal mind, which cannot comprehend the nature of geometry."

But this is not true; we have infinite, immortal minds which can comprehend the divine nature of the universe: these are housed temporarily in flawed mortal brains which do not have the physical capacity to realize the full power of our minds; through the power of the Holy Spirit we are to be ultimately transformed into those perfect reflections of our true spiritual nature which we are divinely designed to be. Jesus did not "become" a person by being born to Mary; Jesus is the only truly realized person, and shows the way for the rest of us to cast of our mortal shackles which make us poor reflections of the persons we are meant to be.