Trinity, schminity

I was listening to Hank Hanegraaff’s Bible Answer Man today while driving. He was trying to explain the Trinity to a caller. It seemed weird, as if Hanegraaff was describing something he didn’t understand to someone who was struggling even harder.

You have to admire Christianity, in a backhanded way. There are no end of lunatic religious stories available in the world ( Xenu, anyone?), but I don’t know of anything that compares to good old fashioned Christian theology when it comes to specializing in the outright incomprehensible. The Trinity, for example: three persons, but one godhead, whatever the hell that might mean. The Christians certainly don’t know. It’s a mystery of the faith.

Well, fine, I might say, every religion should be allowed one incoherent item of dogma. But even the Trinity, which appears to be as bad a piece of nonsense as is possible, is not enough. The Christians have to go for overkill. On top of the Trinity, Jesus has to be both fully man and fully God. I see. But wait, it’s not over. There’s transubstantiation. To all appearances, the wafer remains a wafer and the wine wine, but it’s really the body and blood of Jesus. Oh, and there’s this bit about “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Take that, readers! Make sense of it if you can! Obscure, incomprehensible, and self-contradictory all at once! And on and on and on.

The ancient metaphysical stuff almost makes modern liberal theological contortions respectable. After all, you get the impression that the modern stuff is mostly asinine “well God can be made compatible with all that too” excuse-making. It may be wildly implausible but perhaps there may be something vaguely possible hiding in the verbiage. These days they merely try to rot your brain, not blow it to bits.

I now appreciate the way orthodox Islam came to distrust Greek philosophy. Good move, I think. If you avoid the Greek philosophizing, you still end up with drivel. But it’s good, honest drivel. Muslims have not tended to write long books and start heated arguments concerning the nature of Muhammad. (Some sects do give in to the temptation, but the orthodox usually squish them.) A much more worldly and sensible religion, in other words.

Insane. That’s what the bloody human race is. Insane.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • OrneryPest

    Oh, but it’s a sacred mystery we’re not supposed to ask about! Another sacred mystery is how God can be the Uncaused Cause with no explanation of how he, but nothing else, can be uncaused and no description of any causative powers!


    Trinity was one of the ways they could incorporate polytheism into a monotheistic religion.

  • Jason

    I guess I am not as surprised as you are about people believing in ridiculous things. However, I don’t understand how an educated intellectuals believe in these things. You as a professional academic might know about this better. I’ve met learned men and women who are very intelligent, yet they somehow shut down their faculty of critical thinking when it comes to their religion. If you get a chance, please share some thoughts regarding that matter in the future. Thank you!

  • BlogNamasté

    I was online looking for a secular appreciation of C.S. Lewis and his work and stumbled upon this blog’s posting titled, “New edition of Beversluis on C.S. Lewis”.

    It enticed me to look at your most recent post.

    I have to first confess that I have no love for dogmatic religion or dogmatic spiritual journeys. I also would not describe myself as an atheist because I don’t think that particular approach to engaging the human experience is compatible with what my experiences as an artist have shown me.

    I agree with you that attempts to “explain” the Holy Trinity in rational terms are ridiculous, but as an artist I can appreciate the idea of the Trinity as being poetic in nature.

    I have always felt that the problem with religion is the dynamic between who writes it and who reads it. It has always been my feeling that religion is a phenomenon that occurs when stooges read poetic works attempting to address the mysteries of life.

    Artists and poets use concepts like the Trinity in a very different way than a scientific mind utilizes a theory.

  • Sheldon

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • Sheldon

    Oops, comment edited.

    I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness, (I am now an atheist), and so was spared the absurdity of the trinity. They believe that God is the father, Jesus is his son, and the Holy Spirit, all separate spirit personalities.

    Instead I was taught other absurdities like young earth creationism. And, that if I was a good boy, I would survive armageddon, and then live forever and have a pet lion! :)

  • Andrew Atkinson

    The most common of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.
    – H. L. Mencken

  • Roy Overmann

    “Mystery”, of which the Trinity is one, is one of the way xianity “armors” itself against refutation. You see, of course you cannot rationally explain it. God is beyond human understanding. (However, we do know he didn’t like homosexuality.)

  • Bradley Bowen

    "The Greek fathers spoke of three *hypostases* (entities) in one *ousia* (being or substance), which became in Latin three *personae* in one *substantia*. The term for person, however, in both Greek and Latin, did not carry the strong sense of individual self-consciousness found in the contemporary term." – Pocket Dictionary of Apologetics & Philosophy of Religion (by C. Stephen Evans)

    One thing that makes this idea a "mystery" is the combination of unclear abstract ideas: "entity", "being", "substance" and "person" ("one" can also be problematic).

    Any of these abstractions by itself can get your head spinning, but take two or three and put them together in a sentence, and you have yourself a "mystery". (One of my philosophy professors could quickly generate long strings of abstractions in intentionally meaningless sentences that would sound very significant and erudite).

    I was a child, a teenager, and am now an adult. I was a person at each stage of life. As an adult, I am a "different" person than who I was as a teen and as a child. Am I three persons in one being? Perhaps. It depends on what you mean by "person" and by "one being".

    I'm not clear on what the ancient Greek theologians had in mind by "one being", but some simple observations do provide support for the idea of multiple divine persons existing as "one" in some sense.

    As finite creatures with finite and fallible minds, we can only have a partial and limited grasp of reality. Thus, humans disagree in part because we only see part of the truth. An infinite and infallible mind would not have such constraints and thus one would expect that all infinite minds would be in complete and total agreement, at least on the facts and their implications.

    If Socrates is right that Goodness is derived from Knowledge, then all infinitely knowing beings would be perfectly good beings, and so all infinite minds would not only be in absolute agreement on the facts, but they would all be in absolute agreement on what actions to take.

    So, it would appear that all infinite minds would be in perfect agreement about what is the case and about what actions should be taken. That is a kind of "oneness" that we limited, finite, and fallible humans cannot experience, but can understand and appreciate.

    I am talking as if we all had a clear grasp on the idea of an "infinite mind", but, of course this is also a combination of abstract and perplexing ideas, so the conclusions above don't follow as easily as one might initially think.

  • R

    “So, it would appear that all infinite minds would be in perfect agreement about what is the case and about what actions should be taken. That is a kind of “oneness” that we limited, finite, and fallible humans cannot experience, but can understand and appreciate.”

    However, this is not the three persons but one substance issue, I think.

    Also, I’m not sure what it means “to be in agreement” for these hypotethical infinite beings. For persons, “to agree” is a process, but for the infinite beings, “to be in agreement” is just another way of saying that truth cannot disagree with truth (obviously).

  • R

    Dear Taner,

    I agree, it’s insane.

    Sometimes, it would seem that christianity is some kind of philosophically/rationally-based religion. Many of the issues argued between theists and atheists involve philosophical ideas such as the creation of the universe, the fine-tuning, the final cause, the destiny of the universe, etc.

    However, these are not the main points of christianity. Early christians couldn’t care less about such matters. Jesus didn’t teach about the beginning of the universe or the rationallity behind it all à la Spinoza. No, Jesus was a moral teacher, a religious reformer, an end-of-the-world preacher, a magician, a miracle-healer, etc. But not a philosopher nor a scientist. And christianity is a mistery religion, mainly concerned about what happens after death, involving some highly fantastic myths, like the idea that a god had to die in order for sins to be forgiven (what on earth means all that?).

    The preacher at church performs a magical trick, that transforms bread and wine into meat and blood. It’s not a metaphor, it’s really a transubstantiation. It’s just magic!. And it’s very silly, but they believe it without question!. They are definitely insane.

    That’s the reason I get so annoyed when the main issues argued with christians are the cosmological argument or the fine tuning, whereas the actual tennets and practices of christianity are so damn silly!.

  • K-Dogg

    this is an old blog of yours so i don’t know that you’ll even get this comment. doesn’t matter.

    just thought i would clear something up here. the transubstantiation is something that Catholics, and i think, Lutherans believe in. i am a Christian and i do not believe in this “magic trick” as you say. this idea obviously came from the last supper and Jesus meant it to be a metaphor. he told us to remember his sacrifice in this specific way. when i go to church and eat bread and drink wine, it is still just bread and wine.

    also, the explanation of the trinity is a hard one to understand and is, as you say, a mystery. big deal! there is no way to have all answers. however, the trinity does not make the faith any less believable.

    i don’t doubt that all of you are smart people. there are many mega minds on the side of Christianity too, or any other faith for that matter.

    to Jason, i wonder too how many educated intellectuals believe that it doesn’t take faith to say that there is no God. in my eyes, it takes greater faith to believe there is no God rather than to believe the Bible and what it says. there are too many reasons to name why the Christian faith is something worth believing in. there are just as many volumes out there on this issue as there are on your belief, possibly more.

    i am not some sort of phd, or guru, but i would be hard pressed to look at the complexity that abounds just within our body, let alone our universe, and say that it just happened. no rhyme or reason, it just happened. maybe, i am oversimplifying your view. i don’t know.