Holy trinity

Holy Trinity: some analogies to help us understand

CS Lewis made a famous analogy of “flatland”, squares and cubes in his Pure christianity. He said that the inhabitants of the plain could not imagine a two-dimensional plane, and that those of this world without a third dimension could not imagine the third. Yet all three do exist, and a cube has a “unit” just like a plane (a square, in this case) and a line. In our world, a being is a person.

But why should we think that our experience is the totality of reality? What is inherently impossible about a Being who subsists in three persons (Being and Person being two distinct categories, so this is not an automatic contradiction)? The Holy Trinity is not at all impossible a priori (philosophically speaking, and in terms of simple logic).

It wouldn’t be the first time, after all that science, math, or logic has confirmed (or at least turned out to be entirely coherent with) Christian dogma. Einstein’s theories of relativity made the conception of a timeless being as we know him more reasonable and “scientifically respectable” (a friend of mine who loves Isaac Newton and disapproves of Einstein, actually thinks that God is in time, which is heretical from a Biblical and Catholic point of view).

Likewise, the non-eternal universe that had a (rather inexplicable, in materialistic terms) beginning is now a scientific and cosmological orthodoxy, thanks to the Big Bang theory.

For us, a Being is a person, but how can we logically (or axiomatically) exclude that the Being and the person are not always in a one-to-one relationship? So I think the plain analogy is quite relevant, precisely because it touches on this difference in perception and defined realities which is the preliminary axiomatic consideration even before coming to logic. The flatlander says there are only two dimensions, so talking about a third dimension is meaningless and incomprehensible to him.

In the same way that a flatlander cannot understand a third dimension and a cube or a box or a cylinder or a pyramid shape, we cannot understand a God who is not limited to one person, as we are. , but subsists in three people. We cannot imagine it, starting from categories which are not familiar to us, but that does not make it logically impossible.

Lewis argued that this is how we are with regard to the Holy Trinity. We cannot imagine that a Being (same God) exists with more than one Person. But who can say that we understand all of reality and that there is nothing more?

We know that there is a third dimension and that a cube has a unit in a “larger” sense than a square has a unit. It’s more complex, but it’s still a single entity. We cannot understand with our thinking skills alone how God could exist in three Persons. It’s just very hard to grasp, and has to be accepted mostly by faith.

Revelation claims it is a communication from this larger world. We come to the Trinity by revelation, not by natural reason. But it is not inherently contradictory if we admit the possibility of three people in one God, and do not exclude it first.

This is how we can say that the Father is not the Son, etc., and not be contradictory, because it is not polytheism that we are talking about, but rather a distinction between Person only.

Make a very imperfect analogy, I am a father, a son and a husband. All of these things are me (but not all of me; like I said, it’s imperfect):

A. Dave is a son.
B. Dave is a father.
C. Dave is a husband.

I can be the three things, but that doesn’t mean they are identical to each other:

a son inasmuch as the son is not a father inasmuch as father, (etc.)

The concept of “Dave” (the whole of my being, me or whatever term we want to use) includes all of these things (and many more) as a whole concept, without contradiction:

1A) Dave is a son of Graham and Lois Armstrong.
1B) This Graham and Lois Armstrong’s son is Dave
Armstrong. So “son” = “Dave”.

2A) Dave is the father of four children: three boys and a girl.
2B) This father of four children: three boys and a girl is Dave. So “father” = “Dave”.

3A) Dave is Judy’s husband.
3B) This Judy’s husband is Dave. So “husband” = “Dave”.

No contradiction is involved. This father and this son and this husband are all me, but it does not follow that a father equals a son: that they are the same with respect to each other; no, they are different in this relational sense.

Therefore, if I can be the three things simultaneously and remain the same person, but the son, father and husband remain separate categories, why is it contradictory that God contains three persons (analogous to my three relational attributes) and remains one God, and also so that the three persons are distinct from each other, yet each being God?

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ADDENDUM: In May 2018, an atheist asked me, “If the analogy between Flatland and dimensions is helpful in understanding the Trinity, why is it not in the Bible?

I would say because it is written in a pre-scientific language, not a philosophical one. It therefore simply states (either directly or by direct deduction):

1. God the Father is God.
2. Jesus is God.
3. The Holy Spirit is God.

Overall, he doesn’t attempt a more sophisticated analysis of this. There are three divine persons, and they are all said to be God; yet there is only one God (monotheism). The Bible and Hebrew culture and subsequent Christian theology often express strong paradoxes, such as ultimate mysteries.

But this is no more “contradictory” than the three-dimensional cube is contradictory with the two-dimensional flat square. Ancient Jews and Christians would accept the mysteries of the faith as paradoxical (but not contradictory). Thus, Christians could accept the Holy Trinity on the basis of the biblical revelation which taught it. It was understood that we could not fully understand all, because God is as much above us in comprehension and complexity as the stars, and we should not wait that we would.

The flatland / dimension analogy with the Trinity was basically a way of explaining to skeptics who already don’t believe it, that the Trinity is not necessarily / unmistakably contradictory, as it is claimed. It is simply another “dimension” that goes beyond our current experience.

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(initially 9-7-05)

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Photo credit: A tricolor trefoil knot. Image created by Jim.belk (9-26-09) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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