Philosophy and the Trinity: From Thinking about Oneness to Experiencing God’s Love

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.

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  • Yewtree
  • InfiniteWarrior

    “[T]he philosophical principle explaining the origin, unity, and ultimate end of all things” is, perhaps, one of the most dangerous in that it’s given birth to the linear, first-cause-to-ultimate end, “God, the Clockmaker”, techno-logical, storybook thinking that causes so many people to perpetually anticipate “The End”. Carefully handled and understood in its proper context, however, it has facilitated a shared understanding of an eternally blossoming One to Many, Many to One relationship in which we are The Embodiment of Love.

    I very much like your conclusion that “the natural habitat of the … mystic will forever be in the silence”, which the Buddhists call “the space between our thoughts”. I believe it’s something akin to Aurobindo’s “supramental consciousness” we have been evolving toward as a species, but this has its own potential and very serious pitfalls, as you’ve described in prior posts and comments regarding the emergent Integral. There is already a great deal of dualism and elitism surrounding hierarchal notions of evolutionary stages in our growth with some believing they are already and always “supramental” (or “teal” and above in Wilbur’s “model”) while everyone else is subordinate or inferior in this regard.

    This is simply not how life unfolds and I think it really is just a matter of cultivating a heart-centered awareness/consciousness and that is something available to everyone all the time.

  • Carl McColman

    I understand your ellipsis; indeed, the natural habitat of any mystic, Christian or otherwise, is in the silence.

  • Shadwynn

    While I love and am eternally fascinated by the concept of an interrelationship within the Holy Mystery when viewed as Trinity, I nevertheless innately shy away from the term “persons”. I find that using third century philosophical terminology as the most contemporarily accurate and revealing way to describe the interior intimacies of the Godhead, can be puzzling,if not misleading, since the word “person” has its origins in the Latin, meaning “mask.” So what lies behind the masks of what some call the Trinity? MYSTERY. I am content with that.

    Jesus was a Jew, and as such, probably shared the Unitarian stance toward an understanding of deity. The synoptic Jesus did not hesitate to express his Jewish piety when someone called him “Good Master,” and he responded “Why are you calling me ‘good’? There is only One good, and that is God.” So it would seem that in his own self-understanding, he did not equate himself with deity. (This, of course, does not rule out the possibility that if Jesus was in any way “incarnate,” then such full incarnation would have circumscribed his comprehension of the depths of his own true nature. The Jesus of John’s gospel is a whole other ball of wax for another discussion.)

    On the other hand, the early Christians had a hard time discerning the dividing line between the human Jesus and the God whose activities he manifested. Hence, the beginning of the Christological controversies. At one time or another, devout Christians have embraced Adoptionism, Arianism, and Athanasian orthodoxy; a sign that the Church’s understanding of Jesus and his relationship to God has never been “cut-and-dried,” despite the proclamations of councils trying to enforce their attempt at a monolithic facade.

    So in the end, we are still trying to better grasp a working comprehension of the Mystery we call God (as exemplified by this blog site). There are so many places blind men can touch on the elephant before them. The key for them is not to assume they have grasped the entire animal. The key for us is to never assume we have authoritatively grasped a definitive understanding of the Deity in the imperfections of human language. Is God a “person” or “persons” in any literal sense? I doubt it. But is God inclusive of the limited concepts we attempt to articulate with such a word? Probably…and more. Is God characterized by interrelationships of Self-communion within the Infinite Mind? Probably…and more.

  • Jeff

    I had a pagan/eastern/new age outlook before becoming a Christian in my twenties. One of the reasons I accept the classic Trinity is for reasons of poetry. In knowing the Three Persons I have been a dolphin exploring a wondrous strange sea.

  • noel

    yeah, i think it useless to try understand trinitarian stuff using physical thinking

    give another bit from julian or eckhart to satisfy

    like i guess jesus’ reference to trinity were meant for childlike minds as he revealed all to those who could become like little children

  • Shadwynn


    I really like your answer because it confirms the truth of a sentence written by the famous Unitarian-Universalist author and pastor, Forrest Church. One of his last books written just before he died last September was entitled Love and Death. Towards the end, he penned this sentence: “Theology is poetry, not science.” The truth of that statement makes it much easier to see the wisdom and beauty in theology when we stop viewing it as a collection of infallible, religiously academic axioms. Of course, being a poet myself enabled me to appreciate this insight with a deeper resonance!

  • Jeff

    Thanks, Shadwynn, for your comment. I also like the Father, Son and Holy Spirit because of all the transcendent fun.

  • Infinite Warrior

    So it would seem that in his own self-understanding, he did not equate himself with deity.

    How, then, would you characterize statements such as “I and the Father are One” and “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”? (Just curious.)

    Definitely, he never equated his human ego with Deity that I’ve found in the sacred texts of Christianity. His self, on the other hand, is a very different story.

    The early Christians had a hard time discerning the dividing line between the human Jesus and the God whose activities he manifested.

    Likely because they knew there wasn’t one.

    I don’t want to mischaracterize your comment. I believe I understand what you meant and I don’t think you intended “dividing line” in the context I’m about to use it. :)

    This theme — that any line of demarcation between us and “God” is an illusion born of our own thought processes — is prevalent throughout Christian literature as it is in most, if not all, other sacred texts. There is no dividing line, which is why mystics describe God as “closer than breath”.

    It is for this reason that contemporary teachings of “false self” and “true self” somewhat disturbs me. There is only self and ego. One is “true” (real); the other is transitory and illusory.

  • Ephemeral Thoughts

    We need not abandon our fidelity to Christ by seeking truth and goodness and beauty wherever such treasures might be hidden.

    That reminds me of this:

    “It seemed to me certain, and I still think so today, that one can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth. Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.” — Simone Weil

  • Infinite Warrior

    “Theology is poetry, not science.” ~ Forrest Church

    If only that were true. It may sound poetic (perhaps due to the use of the word ‘poetry’), but the suffix “logy” is generally used to indicate “the study of”, which is science. Ergo, theology is a science and the tendency in science is toward analysis, which is to say a literal division of wholes into parts.

    The suffix is also used to indicate “speaking of”, however. Speech is a subject of import in the work of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy to which I was introduced via another blog. If not already familiar with it, others may find it interesting as well, considering the limitations of language is fast-becoming a prominent theme in interdisciplinary dialogue.

    Theosophy is a term with a few negative connotations, but at least one that doesn’t make me shudder at the prospect of analyzing the ineffable. “sophy” has its roots in the Greek for “wisdom”, which seems to me far more valuable than “knowledge”.

    Poetry does convey the essence of the ineffable much better than either -logies or -sophies, imho. Perhaps I would agree with Mr. Church had he said ‘theology is the study of poetry’… in motion.

  • Shadwynn

    Infinite Warrior,

    For me (and, I believe, a lot of people), theology, whatever the literal meaning or entymology of the word, is a striving to define the Ineffable; a virtual impossibility being only very partially grasped by a stretching of the inherent limitations of language. So whether they be creeds, mantras, hymns, or scriptures, I see them all as expressions of sacred poetry; and as we know, the study of poetry is virtually devoid of absolutes and certainties. Poetry hints at, points to, and clothes Truth with metaphor. It is not a science of certainties.

    As far as your last interpretation of Rev. Church’s sentence, I am fine with that. I was quoting it from possible faulty memory, anyway. So I think what you wrote was a fair interpretation of what he meant.

  • Shadwynn

    Infinite Warrior,

    As I mentioned in a previous post, I am in agreement with most scholars who do not view the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John (most especially those long discourses) as literal renditions of actual dissertation, but as interpretive literature expressing a late first century theological understanding of Jesus current in some circles of the early Church. I highly doubt if he literally spoke those words. However, even if I was to concede these statements as being original with Jesus, they are open to numerous interpretations, both theological and metaphysical. The “I” in “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” can be seen variously as the consciousness of the Cosmic Christ, the pre-existent Logos, or whatever other descriptive appellation we may choose to use. It is not necessary to limit it, or to apply it exclusively to the human person speaking the words.

    As far as the subject of “dividing lines” between human identity and deity, the majority of the earliest Christians were Jews who emphasized a very major dividing line between the two, whereas the rank-and-file pagans of the day saw no problem with the occasional visitation of gods in human form; and then, of course, there were some philosophies among the intellectually elite of the Gentiles who tended toward speculations of mystical oneness, as you describe. So indeed, there were varied and conflicting ways of viewing the nature(s) and identity of Jesus. I was speaking from a historical perspective. You seem to be speaking from a personally committed metaphysical stance on the issue of ultimate identities and natures of divinity and dust. I take no such stands with any degree of certainty. I am satisfied with my heart-felt affirmation of the Ineffable, and content to speculate out of human curiosity and spiritual yearning for greater communion with the Paradoxical Presence we call God, without making the mistake of assuming the current interpretations I may feel the most resonance with are necessarily the final verdict on the Great Metaphysical Mystery.

  • InfiniteWarrior

    You seem to be speaking from a personally committed metaphysical stance on the issue of ultimate identities and natures of divinity and dust.

    I’ve found great solace the past few years in the understanding that seeming and being are not one and the same. I do think that our “true nature” as primarily perceiving rather than incessantly thinking beings is largely, if not completely, covered over and forgotten via processes of education, socialization and propaganda; am uniquely interested in philosophical parallels; and curious especially about what so-called laypeople think (temporarily or otherwise) on profound subjects as well as how they’ve come by their understanding. It’s been my experience that most are far more interested in facts than truth. So, I appreciate your exposition. It’s very enlightening.

    Intriguing parallels to such statements as those attributed to Jesus abound in the “mystic” traditions of many cultures such as the realization of Mansur al-Hallaj, who was also summarily executed for proclaiming “I am Truth”. This sort of Self-realization and identification with the Divine rather than the individual ego historically has been frowned upon by “the intellectual elite” of any given time. It is, however, making strong headway in ours, especially in the work of A.H. Almaas, et al, which I find equally intriguing.

    Thanks for your time.

  • Shadwynn

    Infinite Warrior,

    I find your statement about our true selves being far more perceptive in nature than rational (i.e., intellectually obsessed) to be a very insightful observation. And it raises the question of perception’s relationship with contemplative awareness. A lot of avenues to explore there!

    Yes, I am aware of al-Hallaj. I have read some about his life and unfortunate matyrdom. Such a fascinating figure!
    And I agree with you that the statements of “I am-ness” by many mystics point to a Reality that ultimately inhabits the core of our deepest being, but beyond that, I’m short on specifics… :-)

  • Infinite Warrior

    our true selves are far more perceptive in nature

    It’s a feeling I strongly share with the author (and likely all the readers) of the aforementioned blog, a friend of whom also introduced most of us to Almaas’ work. Alas, that blog — which contained some of the finest weaving of parallels it’s ever been my privilege to read — has gone off the Internet air, so to speak.

    I find it encouraging that all us “lay folk” are engaged in dialogue of our own. It’s quite a change from the historical tendency of the “elite” to force through agendas arrived at in committee. One has to love it. :)

  • Jeff

    Favorite quotes on the Trinity from The Orthodox Way by Kallistos Ware

    “Why believe God is three. Is it not easier to believe simply in the divine unity as the Jews and Mohammedans do? Certainly it is easier. The doctrine of the Trinity stands before us as a challenge, as a “crux” in the literal sense. It is in Vladimir’s Lossky’s words “a cross for human ways of thought” and it requires from us a radical act of metanoia – not merely a gesture of formal assent, but a true change of heart.”


    “Why should God be a communion of three divine persons neither less or more? Here again there can be no logical proof. The threeness of God is something given or revealed to us in scripture, in the Apostolic tradition and in the experience of the saints throughout the centuries. All we can do is to verify this given fact through our own life of prayer. . . . . . . . . . . Through our encounter with God in prayer we know that the Spirit is not the same as the Son.” (emphasis in the original)

    We experience God as Three in One and we believe that this three fold differentiation in God’s outward activity reflects a threefold differentiation in his inner life. The distinction between the three persons is to be regarded as an eternal distinction existing within the nature of God himself. It does not apply merely to his exterior activity in the world. Father, Son, and Spirit are not just “modes” or “moods” of divinity, not just masks which God assumes for a time in his dealings with creation and then lays aside. They are on the contrary coequal and coeternal persons.

  • Infinite Warrior

    The doctrine of the Trinity stands before us as a challenge, as a “crux” in the literal sense. It is in Vladimir’s Lossky’s words “a cross for human ways of thought”….

    Naturally, a cross is four-fold. I’m reminded of Rosenstock-Huessy’s insistence that our consciousness is oriented at the center of a crux of time and space. This he called the “cross of reality”.

    [Rosenstock] argues that dialectical thought is triadic, but anything that really happens and makes itself manifest…is at least quadrilateral. It must be something in space and time, and hence conform to the inner/outerness or subjective/objective matrix of space, as well as the trajective and prejective-ness of time.

    In The Christian Future or the Modern Mind Outrun, Rosenstock writes:

    The Living God…must be forever distinguished from the merely conceptual God of philosophers…. To approach Him as an object of theoretical discussion is to defeat the quest from the start. Nothing but the world of space is given in this manner. Nobody can look at God as an object. God … is the power which makes us speak. He puts words of life on our lips…. We have no other authority for our faith in God but the living soul of man…. p. 94-95

    I’m not sure why Christian writers so often come off as anthropocentric (perhaps we all do at times) but Rosenstock was uniquely concerned with human speech and its sociological implications.

    Though I can’t quite agree with all of his theological interpretations, that his “four-fold matrix” includes the dimension of time may well be one of the most important contributions made to contemporary thought. Time certainly has taken center stage since — from a resurgence of interest in Jean Gebser’s Ever-present Origin (which I’d never even heard of until recently) to the plethora of current titles revolving around the “Power of”, “Unfolding”, “Naked” Now. (Surely, we’ve all received the message to ‘be present’ and ‘pay attention’ at this point, but I suspect we’ve nonetheless not seen the last of the ‘Now’ books. :) )

  • Ron Krumpos

    There are “trinities,” of sorts, in various religions. This summarizes five:

    Mahayana and Vajrayana vehicles of Buddhism speak of Trikaya, or three bodies: Nirmanakaya is the Buddha in human form, Sambhogakaya is celestial Buddha and Dharmakaya is the formless essence, or Buddha-nature. The Theravada primarily addresses the historic Buddha. The “Three Jewels” are the Buddha, the dharma (his teachings) and the sangha (the community of monks and nuns).

    Christianity has its Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit referring to God, Jesus Christ and their spiritual bond of unity (some say the Godhead). Interpretation of the essential nature of each, and their relationship, differed among the churches. In Christian mysticism, the three ways of the spiritual life are the purgative in being purified from sin, the illuminative in true understanding of created things, and the unitive in which the soul unites with God by love.

    Hinduism’s trimurti are the threefold activities of Brahman: in Brahma as creator, in Vishnu as sustainer and in Shiva as destroyer. Saccidananda are the triune attributes or essence of Brahman: sat, being, cit, consciousness and ananda, bliss. The three major schools of yoga are bhakti, devotion, and jnana, knowledge and karma, the way of selfless action. Raja yoga can apply to, and integrate, all three in mental and spiritual concentration.

    In Islam, nafs is the ego-soul, qalb is heart and ruh is spirit. Heart is the inner self [soul], hardened when it is turned toward ego and softened when it is polished by dhikr, remembrance of the spirit of Allah. This is a three-part foundation for Sufi psychology. Initiation guides them from shari`a, religious law, along tariqa, the spiritual path, to haqiqa, interior reality. It is a gradual unveiling of the Real.

    In the Kabbalah of Judaism, sefirot – sparks from the divine – have three fulcrums to balance the horizontal levels of the Tree of Life: Da`at (a pseudo-sefirot) is knowledge combining understanding and wisdom; Tiferet is beauty, the midpoint of judgment and loving kindness; Yesod is the foundation for empathy and endurance. They also vertically connect, through the supreme crown, the infinite and transcendent Ein Sof with its kingdom in the immanent Shekhinah.