“All men by nature desire to know.” So Aristotle begins his study of first philosophy, or the basic questions of existence and reality. In time this treatise was given the rather unfortunate title of “The Metaphysics” because it was placed “after [meta] the physics” in an ancient collection of Aristotle’s extant writings. And then “metaphysics” developed a life of its own, often divorced from concrete human experiences. In Aristotle’s intention, however, his opening sentence-- “All men by nature desire to know”--is the keynote of the work, and is indeed grounded on human experience. Aristotle’s profound insight, contained in the opening sentence, could be fleshed out a little this way: “All human beings, in so far as they are human beings capable of doing what is truly human, desire to know the ultimate cause or source of all of reality.” Hence, in simpler language more familiar to many Christians, Aristotle is declaring that “All human beings desire to know God.” For it is not about an athletic event, a business contract, a politician’s words, the latest weather event, the life of Alexander the Great, or whether water exists on Mars that all human beings want to know, but about that ultimate source and nature of reality which by tradition Christians call “God.” Human beings want to the know the truth about reality, and the truth cannot be known without knowing the ultimate cause of everything that exists.
Just as the title and word “Metaphysics” in time helped to obscure the underlying questions explored by the philosopher, and at worst helped to enmesh thinkers in some abstract intellectual word games, so Christianity has often become entangled in words and doctrines which may confuse human minds who in reality desire or used to desire to know the truth, rather than “dwell in the darkness and the shadow of death.” Men become confused, benumbed, intellectually disinterested when they are inundated with words they do not understand. “Keep it simple, stupid” (KISS) is not just a contemporary slogan, but generally good advice to all of us who do indeed desire to know the truth about what matters most. There is indeed a place for making clear distinctions and even coining words to explain phenomena, but one needs some sense of the whole, some grounding in what is, before he or she can understand more subtle distinctions and meanings.
Language about God, about the Divine, lends itself to confusion and verbal difficulties because in truth, in reality, that which we call “God” is ever beyond our understanding. If I remember Heracleitos’ insight, it is easier for an ant to understand the human mind than for a human being to understand God. Because of the supreme difficulty in speaking intelligently about ultimate reality, about God, some people just give up, and are content to use words they really do not understand. Among thinkers who ought to help throw light on the large questions of existence-- and most especially on the question, “Who or what is God?”--a strong tendency since the Enlightenment has been to claim that nothing true can be said about God at all, that all such talk is “meaningless,” and perhaps even that “God has no meaning,” because “there is no God.”
These clever intellectuals find it easier to stop questioning, to stop seeking the truth of ultimate reality, than to do the hard work of learning to make the right distinctions, to ask the right questions, to try to understand what is most difficult for us: to know the source of all that is. As I recall reading in the writings of the young Karl Marx, when it comes to the ultimate questions, “Why do I exist?” and “What is reality?” Marx just asserts: “Do not think, do not question. All such questions are abstractions.” And in the same context he goes on to declare that “Socialist man” would not ask such questions, but know that “human beings create themselves through their own labor.” From ultimate reality and God, the problems of reality are reduced to the study of man and his place in nature. Period. To ask about “God” in such thinking is “illusory,” “a false problem,” “alienation” from one’s “true self.” And that, in a word, is “modernity,” when man replaces God as the ultimate cause of all that exists, and human things are elevated above the Divine as the ultimate object of the mind’s natural desire to know.
It is foolish, however, to take our bearings from ideologues who refuse to ask the basic questions. Rather than blindly follow “enlightened intellectuals” who give up and decide to terminate their study at problems of language or communication, our human task is to press on through language, through mere “false problems” to the truth of experience. And if anyone with common sense has experienced anything in life, it is that one does not create himself, that each of us finds ourself existing in an utterly mysterious world not of our own making. From early experience in our lives, we know that we are parts of a mysterious whole which remains largely beyond our grasp, control, understanding. In the words of a poet, “We see the light, but we know not whence it comes.”
Among those who have attempted to speak about the ultimate source of reality, about the cause of the process of existence in which we find ourselves, there seem to be two main approaches. One approach generally begins by accepting the truth of formulations given in tradition, in “Scripture,” in a book understood as “revelation,” or in certain “church documents,” and then proceeds to clarify what is said. This approach may be called “doctrinal theology.” It has its place, for it speaks in terms which are readily accessible, and which connect the hearer to a long and revered tradition. The other main approach is derived from experience, and seeks to understand experiences of particular men and women who in some ways “tasted” the mysterious reality called “God.” To employ this approach well, one must either be a mystic or be imaginatively open to the truth of mystical experience. This approach has often been called “mystical theology.” Thus, there are two main types of theology, or discourse on God: doctrinal theology and mystical theology. And it seems fair to suggest that each has its proper place and limitations.
When the Nicene or Apostle’s Creed is recited, one is hearing an example of doctrinal theology, at least parts of which were originally grounded in the truth of mystical experience. For example, to say that Christ is “God from God, light from light,” is for most of us merely an assertion, albeit one we consider true. Not included in the Creed is the source of these expressions, which may well have been in the souls of certain human beings who believed and experienced the reality called “God” in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. When St. Luke’s Gospel tells us that Peter cried, “Depart from me, Master, for I am a sinful man,” it gives us a profound formulation; the reader or hearer is left having to do the work of imaginatively reconstructing the experience of Peter that lead him to this utterance. Put the matter this way: Do you think that Peter was merely uttering words, and hence requiring no further thought to understand them? Or, was Peter perhaps experiencing the presence of the living God in Jesus causing him to blurt out? In other words, what was Peter actually experiencing? What did he sense or “see” that lead him to call Jesus “Master” (despotes), and caused him to feel so unworthy to be in Christ’s presence?
A better example of the distinction between doctrinal theology and mystical theology can be found in the way the Creeds handle the Resurrection of Christ. In effect, the Creeds simply assert words such as “On the third day he was raised from the dead.” That is, as it were, a “factual statement,” a bald declaration of something that “happened.” Doctrinal theology would accept the statement as true, and expect a Christian to believe the formulation, “accepting it on faith.” The approach of mystical theology is different. One notices that the formulation in the Creed is verbally lifted from the Apostle Paul’s “First Letter to the Corinthians,” chapter 15. But in that context, St. Paul does not just assert that “Christ was raised on the third day,” but immediately adds a decisive phrase: “and he appeared to Kephas (Peter), then to the Twelve...and last of all to me.” Paul explicitly links “raised” with “appeared,” so we can see that he is grounding the assertion “he was raised” not on mere words, but on reality as it presented himself to Peter, to the other Apostles, “to more than five hundred,” and “last of all,” to himself. In other words, for the Apostle and for mystical theology in general, “Resurrection” is not abstracted from experience and merely a verbal assertion, but is firmly and exclusively grounded on the truth of reality as experienced by someone, by a number of particular human beings. Reality about which one speaks, according to what I am here calling “mystical theology,” (or in the case of the Apostle Paul, mystical experience) is reality as experienced in and through a real human being, and the truthfulness of the formulations is grounded in the experience, as are the limitations of the assertions. In other words, what could “the resurrection of Christ” possibly mean if Peter, the Twelve, and especially the Apostle Paul (whose original sources we have) did not in reality have the experiences they claim to have had? To put the matter more bluntly, if the Apostle Paul and the later Gospel-writers (evangelists) fabricated their experiences (or those they report, in the case of the evangelists), how could one say in any meaningful way that “Christ was raised from the dead”? Rather then the truth of experience expressed in a verbal formulation, we would have mere words on a page, divorced from life, and indeed lifeless and not life-giving. But to say that “the Church is apostolic” means that the faith of later generations is grounded on the spiritual experiences of the Apostles, and not on mere “biblical” formulations, or on “the Bible.” Faith is grounded on reality as experienced by another, and shared: by Moses, by Jeremiah, by Jesus, by the Apostle Paul. Being open through faith to reality as expressed by the mystic or divine-experiencer, one may continue living in that same truth of experience. Hence, Christ continues to live in those open to the experience of the apostles to whom “he appeared” as “raised from the dead,” and who communicated the experience to others.
How doctrinal theology approaches the mystery of God symbolized by the word, “Trinity,” is not my present concern. The danger of a doctrinal approach would be to begin with the word “Trinity” and various formulations of the doctrine, and then try to clarify what they mean. I leave it to others to try to explain how God is “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” or how “God is one and three,” and so on. Some attempts may be more successful and insightful than others.
For my part, when I hear the language symbol “Trinity,” I wonder: What experiences gave rise to this symbol? What--if anything--is the truth of reality being expressed? Rather than seek the origin of the term “Trinity” in documents (such as the writings of Tertulian, who coined the word “Trinitas” in Latin), I return to the earliest Christian sources, and wonder: What experiences did writers of the New Testament have that could later be summarized in the symbol “Trinity?” Or is there perhaps nothing in the writings of St. Paul, the evangelists, the author of Hebrews, and so on, which could reasonably be termed an experience of God in a “trinitarian” way? Did later theologians betray the early Christian experiences of God by introducing the term “Trinity?” (That is what one hears from various groups often called “cults” within the Christian movement.) For some say, in effect, “If the word is not in the bible, it has no place in Christian life or belief.”
I see no just reason for limiting discourse on the Divine to the terminology employed by the first generation of Christians (who gave us the bulk of the New Testament). They themselves borrowed most of their “religious vocabulary” from their Jewish culture, and some from the larger Hellenistic world. Note that from the outset of this essay, I have borrowed from Greek philosophers, who wrote about “the first cause,” “the ultimate source,” “the last end,” and so on. That is philosophical language, and not scriptural. Because the word “Trinity” occurs nowhere in “the Bible” need not at all be sufficient reason to avoid its usage. On the contrary, centuries of Christian usage--including in works by some of the most profound theological minds that ever lived--suggest to me to proceed by assuming that the term “Trinity” intends the reality called “God,” and contains within it something of a summary of Christian experiences of the Divine. Whatever helps to illuminate the divine Mystery is beneficial and “useful for teaching.” “Trinity,” especially understood in light of engendering experiences of divine reality, surely has much meaning.
I turn to the New Testament not because the documents are “in the Bible,” but because these earliest Christian sources contain within them an abundant wealth of fundamental spiritual experiences. If indeed one wants to ground his theological understanding on the truth of experience, as I seek to do, then one must have recourse to the documents closest to the experiences. In the Christian tradition, such documents surely include the letters of the Apostle Paul, Luke-Acts, the writings of “John,” other canonical Gospels (Matthew and Mark), and so on; but they also include the writings of Christian mystics, saints, and learned men and women (theologians or philosophers) through the centuries. The Christian tradition--and the more comprehensive Judaeo-Christian tradition of which it is a vast part--is extremely rich in spiritual experiences grounded on divine reality acting in human beings and letting itself be known to one degree or another. In more concrete terms, men and women who have interpreted themselves as “Christians,” as disciples of Jesus called the Christ, have provided an astoundingly rich abundance of writings in which their experiences of God, of the divine Mystery, have been recorded, articulated, explored, examined, questioned, thought about, communicated. In the bulk of Christian experience, “God” is not limited to a name given the ultimate Creator of all that is, but has been understood as fully present and active in Jesus of Nazareth, and active in the whole Church, and indeed, in all of humankind. Superb Christian writers, such as St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Theresa of Avila, and many others, leave no doubt that at least for the best minds in the centuries-old Christian movement, God is utterly active and ever revealing himself “in many and diverse ways” (Hebrews 1). There is no lack of “revelation” that God must be limited to “the Bible” or to “sacred books” of one type or another. On the contrary, that which is called “God” is ever present and active in all of reality, or else it would not be at all.
Now, among the great Christian saints, mystics, theologians, and philosophers, one finds experiences of the Divine that can be called “personal,” and others “impersonal.” And some experiences are “right now” and present, or “immanent,” and other experiences ever look beyond what can be known towards “the world transcendent God.” More simply put, God is experienced as personal and impersonal, present and beyond. In the earliest Christian writings, the letters of the Apostle Paul, for example, God is felt as intensely personal and alive in one’s soul or spirit. This divine presence can speak, and say things such as “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (II Cor 12),or “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mark 1), or “Abide in me, and I in you” (John 15); or heard through Deutero-Isaiah as “I love you,” “You are mine,” and so on. Or this divine Presence may ask questions, such as “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” or “Have I been so long with you, and yet you do not know me” (John 14), or “O you of little faith! Why did you doubt?” or “I am with you always, even to the end of the age,” and so on. Generally, this divine Presence experienced in the living reality of one’s soul or spiritual life is called “Christ,” or “Jesus,” or “the LORD,” in continuity with LORD (YHWH, Yahweh) from the Hebrew Scriptures. Indeed, the earliest Christian “creed” of which we know is the simple declaration, “Jesus is LORD,” Jesus is Yahweh-God. In a word, “Jesus” or “Christ” is God experienced as personal and really present in the believer.
Experiences of divine reality, however, are not limited to God as personal, as addressing the open mind in its depth. God is also experienced as impersonal, known through its effects: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness...” (Galatians 5). The indwelling presence of God brings one the experience of “the forgiveness of sins,” of being “reconciled” or “rejoined” to God, of “the peace of God which surpasses all understanding.” And above and through all such experiences, the divine Presence is called “the Holy Spirit,” the reality of God actually felt in the soul of the believer. Although terminology about divinity was still fluid or flexible in the first centuries of Christianity, usually “the Holy Spirit” was used for the impersonal but precious divine effects, and “Christ” as God personally revealing Himself in the open soul.
Now, if Christian experienced had limited itself to the divine as experienced, it would easily have become a mere branch of ancient Gnosticism. The essence of Gnosticism is knowledge, the certain conviction ultimately that “I am God,” or “God and I are one,” or “I know from whence I have come, and to where I am going,” or “God has revealed Himself to me,” as “God unveiled” (revealed). The Apostle Paul and John the evangelist struggled to clarify the truth of Christian experience as other than Gnosticism. Hence, for example, we read in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, “Knowledge [gnosis] puffs up, but love [agape] builds up” (I Cor 8). The “faith that works through love” (Gal 5 or 6) is an openness to God, a radical selfabandonment to the divine Presence, that allows the divine to accomplish its will in and through the human person in achieving good here and now. Gnosis degenerates into self-trust and utter self-love, or self-absorption; faith in the Christian sense (“the substance of things hoped for, the proof of things unseen,” Hebrews 11) requires a living movement from oneself into the mystery of the unseen, ungrasped, and surely uncontrolled God. The name the early Christians give the mystery of God-ever-beyond the human heart and its limitations is “Father.”
Hence, Christian spiritual experience is at once the experience of God as personal (Christ) and impersonal (Holy Spirit), and as present in the soul (Christ, Spirit) and as beyond all human understanding (Father). Herein, I would say, is the meaning, or at least an accessible meaning, to the truth of God expressed in the ancient symbol, “Trinity.” The beauty of this trinitarian knowledge of the Unknown God is that it allows both for divine self-revelation, and for divine Mystery beyond all knowing; it allows the divine to make itself known as personal (“I love you”) and as impersonal (“the peace of God surpassing all understanding”). Above all, the symbol “Trinity,” properly or at least approximately understood (as in this brief essay) both points the human being to the truth of divinity experienced, and to the ultimate reality of God beyond all that one can see, touch, feel, or know in any way.
“The Tao that can be expressed is not the Tao.” Yes and no. The God who can be expressed is not God--and yet, is God, even while pointing beyond the divine as experienced towards the depths of the Unknown God. The symbol “Trinity” at the same time presents God to the inquiring mind and points to the Divine Beyond. Paraphrasing the words of the Apostle Paul, “If you think you know God, you have not known as you ought to know.” For “you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (I Cor 3). And what truly matters? “That God is all and in all.”
[Note: This brief essay is a draft, and needs further clarification and development, as time permits.]