In her introductory book on Neoplatonism, Pauliina Remes makes the following observation about the Neoplatonic conception of “the One,” the philosophical principle explaining the origin, unity, and ultimate end of all things:
The role of the One in metaphysics becomes threefold. We have seen that the One is an efficient cause of everything there is in the universe. It was also established that it is the ultimate explanation of everything’s unity and existence. Finally, since everything reverts back to its origin, the One is the final cause of everything that exists.
It’s easy to see why the early church thinkers incorporated Neoplatonic ideas into their own emerging story about God. Christianity’s central “metaphysical problem” is how to reconcile its Jewish heritage of the oneness of God with the distinctions between Creator, Christ and Spirit that arose out of Jesus’ life and ministry and the experience of his followers. So is God one? or three? Is God a unity or a plurality? How does it all fit together?
It would take the Christian community several hundred years to hammer out a generally accepted answer to this question, that relies on an appreciation of mystery and paradox to see God as comprising three persons, yet one God. And Neoplatonism, that pagan Greek philosophy, turned out to be a surprising ally in this centuries-long process.
God as an efficient cause of everything there is? This points to the Father. God as the ultimate explanation of everything’s unity and existence? Here we see the Holy Spirit. God as the “final cause” or ultimate destiny of all that exists? This points to the embracing love of Christ.
Granted, the Neoplatonists, as well as their interpreters today like Remes, are not speaking about God in any kind of personal sense. Indeed, for the purely philosophical student of Plato or Plotinus, the Christianization of the One represents almost a dumbing down of the metaphysical precision with which the philosopical concept of the One is understood. But Christianity is first and foremost a religion, not a philosophy; it is designed to reform the heart’s capacity to love, and any use of cognitive skill or abstract thinking must serve that end. So for Christians, this notion of “the One” functions, as it were, as a clue to the mystery of the Holy Trinity. But only a clue. For Christians, the Trinity is not about three “roles” of God, but rather three persons who have their own roles. This is essential, for roles do not have relationships, persons do. The key to understanding the Trinity is in recognizing that God has inter-relationship inherent in God’s unity. In this way, Christianity celebrates the insightful wisdom of the Neoplatonists, but also takes it further — out of mere philosophy and into the mystery of love.
Today, many folks are worried that some Christians (whether renowned thinkers like Thomas Merton, or ordinary folks like yours truly) are drawn to the wisdom and teaching of traditions outside of orthodox Christianity, whether that means Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta, indigenous spiritualities from around the world, and so forth. While I can appreciate the fervor of those who wish to keep their faith experience pure and spotless before God, I think closing the borders between Christianity and the other great wisdom traditions is not so useful. Just as the earliest Christians learned so much from the Neoplatonists and the other pagan Greeks, we have much to learn today from the great contemplatives and visionaries found in cultures the world over. We need not abandon our fidelity to Christ by seeking truth and goodness and beauty wherever such treasures might be hidden. On the contrary, it is my experience that open and honest conversation across traditions will serve to strengthen an authentic devotion to the mystery of the Trinity.
A thousand years or so after Plotinus, Julian of Norwich in her Revelation of Love saw the mysteries of the Trinity in her vision of a tiny object: “something small, about the size of a hazelnut, that seemed to lie in the palm of my hand as round as a tiny ball.” As she marveled at this tiny wonder, she was told that it signified “all that is made.” The entire cosmos, viewable as a tiny object, no bigger than a common filbert. Like William Blake, she was holding “infinity in the palm” of her hand. Struck by how delicate this tiny object was, she “felt it was so small that it could easily fade to nothing.” But she heard spirital words of reassurance that said, “This lasts and will go on lasting forever because God loves it. And so it is with every being that God loves.”
Out of that foundational assurance of Divine love, Julian saw three properties in relation to the hazelnut-sized cosmos: “First, God had made it: second, God loves it; and third, that God keeps it.” She could just as easily have written: the Father makes it, Christ loves it, and the Spirit keeps it. But by writing it as she did, she avoids any kind of modalistic idea that dismantles the unity of God in favor of the unique action of each person. See, this is the tricky part of a trinitarian faith. God is three persons, and God is one God. Our language almost always undermines this central understanding of the Christian faith. We speak of the unity and we miss the relationship; we speak of the three persons and our words conceal the oneness. This, perhaps, is a clue as to why the natural habitat of the Christian mystic will forever be in the silence.