THE TRINITY IS ONE (Plus Two)
J.H. McKenna, Ph.D.
Senior lecturer of religious history at UC Irvine
The math is elusive. It was figured with sharp pencils.
God is three and yet God is one. So said a 3rd-century African theologian who coined the term ‘Trinity’ and bequeathed it to 1,800 bishops gathered in 4th-century Anatolia to compose an obligatory Trinitarian creed, a creed that is still recited from the tip to the toe of planet earth.
Father, Son, Spirit.
Three-Is-One never sat well with monotheists like Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Bahais, and Caodais. Three-Is-One never sat well with polytheists either. Or atheists. All suspected the Trinity to be a petite polytheism. Petite because most polytheisms involve hundreds or thousands of Gods and the Trinity is just a small pantheon of three Gods.
Even for some Christians (!) it’s difficult not to visualize the Trinity as three distinct entities. Here’s why.
First, the Trinity is referred to as ‘three persons.’ Second, there is a division of labor among the persons of the Trinity: Father begets, but Son and Spirit do not beget. Son incarnates, but Father and Spirit do not incarnate. Spirit emanates, but Father and Son do not emanate. Third, the Son is described as ‘sitting at the right hand of the Father’ in heaven, which is likely a metaphor for shared power but lends itself to an image of at least two entities. Fourth, there’s the matter of Jesus stealing out to deserts and hilltops to pray to God, which brings at least two beings to mind. Fifth, and the most compelling, there’s the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. That painting was not ‘art for art’s sake.’ It was theologically didactic, a pictorial catechism.
Let’s not argue the legitimacy of a three-in-one God. Let’s allow that Christianity is monotheism. Let’s pursue another path and interrogate the Christian reaction to the view that the Trinity involves three distinct Gods. That reaction exposes a particular Western bias.
I once witnessed an exchange wherein a Hindu college student said calmly to a Christian college student, ‘I’d say you are a polytheist’ and the Christian, instantly heated, responded, ‘I’m offended you’d accuse me of that.’
What is it that is revealed in this response? Well, being ‘offended’ announces a bias – against polytheism. If there were no bias, there would be no heat, no offense. Suppose someone says to me, ‘I’d say you are Swedish.’ And I respond hotly, ‘I’m offended you’d accuse me of that.’ My offense and my interpretation of your statement as an ‘accusation’ expose my bias against (hatred of?) the Swedes. I should offer a tranquil response: ‘I’m Irish, actually.’ And there should be a serene response from a Christian who is thought to be a polytheist: ‘I can see why you might think me a polytheist, but I actually consider myself a monotheist. Let me explain.’
Our Western monotheistic bias against polytheism forgets that any reason to believe in one God can be used as a reason to believe in many Gods. Design in nature could suggest multiple designer Gods, since our experience of creativity teaches us that many separate inventors make many distinct things, like guitars, cars, freeways and scarves: one person did not make all of these items. Miracles could be attributed to many Gods instead of just one. Moral Commands could easily spring from a committee of Gods rather than from one God. And why couldn’t there be many Uncaused Causes for the universe, instead of just one uncaused cause? Many Gods, not just one, could inspire the writers of Holy Books. And the appeal to Intuition expressed in the sentence ‘I know in my heart of hearts there’s one God’ works equally well for the sentence ‘I know in my heart of hearts there are many Gods.’ (The appeal to intuition even works for ‘I know in my heart of hearts there are no Gods.’)
Our Western bias against polytheism forgets too that the Western heaven is teeming with godlike creatures—millions or billions of angels and archangels—the very idea of which suggests a suppressed affection for polytheism. Monotheism could not wholly rid itself of the human attraction to multiple Gods, and so monotheism crowded its heaven with godlike entities, and it later added earthly saints to the heavenly roll, saints who wielded godlike powers.
Polytheism was believed by ninety-five percent of people for thousands of years before monotheism arrived on the scene. Polytheism never died out, even when monotheism was at the height of its ascendancy. And today, perhaps two billion people are polytheists.
Though polytheism has been slandered in the West, once we realize that polytheism is not less logical than monotheism and is not an inferior idea, then some people might embrace a petite polytheism and call it Trinity.
One plus one plus one can equal something other than one. One plus two, without embarrassment or offense, can equal three.