The Holy Trinity: A Simple Explanation for Children

Son: Dad? How can God be three in one and one in three? That seems crazy.

Father: Criminy, son. Can’t you ask me an easier question, like how an electron can be a particle and a wave at the same time?

Son: Right now, it’s the Trinity I’m worried about.

Father: OK, I’ll take a shot at it. The first thing you should be clear on is that God is not both three and one of the same sort of thing. That would be like saying that I had three oranges that are one orange, or three lines that are one line. It would be a flat contradiction.

Son: So you mean that he is three in one way, and one in another?

Father: Yes.

Son: OK. But what are the two ways?

Father: Well, take a string quartet. On the one hand, it’s four men. On the other, it’s the Guarneri Quartet, a single item. Clear?

Son: Sure.

Father: OK, good. Forget that notion. The Trinity means nothing of the sort.

Son: Great. I guess that would have been the easy way out, huh?

Father: Right. No such luck. But it does give us our first clue. Like the four men of the quartet and the quartet itself, the three Persons of the Trinity are different sorts of things than the One being of God. It’s just that in the Trinity, the Three are not separated from each other into different things, like the men of the quartet.

Son: What are the different types of things in God?

Father: Well, God is one in being – that is, he is one actual thing – in which there are three Persons. The difference is between a thing that has a personal aspect to it, and the person who is the personal aspect of that thing.

Son: I don’t get it. If a thing has a personal aspect, then doesn’t that mean that it is a person?

Father: Not quite. I mean, yes; but there is more to it than that. Think of yourself. There is the person of you, and then there is the thing of you at a given time. The thing of you is more than just the person of you. It is also a sack of fluids, of a certain size and weight, organized in a certain way, and so forth. Sometimes it is sick, sometimes asleep. It might even be in a coma. The person of you is just one aspect of the thing we all call “David.”

Son: I’m not so sure of that. Isn’t the person of me always the same thing as the whole of me?

Father: No. When you were two, you were the same person you are now, right?

Son: Yeah.

Father: Well, does it make sense to say that the *person* of David was three feet tall when you were two, or does it make more sense to say that the *body* of David was three feet tall?

Son: The body, I guess.

Father: Right. You are the same *person* you were then, but you now have almost completely different properties as a *concrete being* than you did when you were two. Just look at you now: a strapping young lad. Back then, you were just a baby in diapers. Not only are you bigger and stronger, but almost all the particles that made up your body at age two are gone. It’s like the difference between an acorn and a mighty oak. The acorn and the oak are not the same thing at all, are they?

Son: No, not really. I suppose you’re going to talk about the caterpillar and the butterfly next.

Father: A good bet. You’re right. Same sort of thing. But then, when you think about it, the same sort of analysis holds between any two moments of your life. What you’ve got with a human person is a single life, distributed across a whole series of different beings, that exist in different places in the universe. I mean, when you think about it, the me and you of right now are many thousands of miles away from the me and you of just a moment ago, thanks to the velocity of the Earth and our Solar System through space.

Son: Right. If we were to go back in time even a minute, we’d find ourselves in outer space.

Father: Yes! The you of right now is in a completely different orientation to the whole universe than the you of a moment ago. Considered in those terms, there’s almost nothing about the you of now that is like the you of a moment ago.

Son: Yet I’m still me. So, OK. What *is* a person, anyway?

Father: That’s a pretty big question in its own right. For the time being, let’s just look at the origin of the word. It comes from the Greek prosopon, by which the Greeks meant “mask.” A prosopon was a mask worn by an actor in a Greek drama, to signify the face of the character he was playing. So prosopon means, not just the literal mask, but also the outward appearance or aspect of a thing, as distinct from its inward substance. The face of a person, then, is in a sense his prosopon. And in fact, one of the things that “person” meant in old-fashioned English of even a few decades ago was appearance, aspect or face.

Son: So are the Persons of the Trinity just three different outward aspects of the one God?

Father: No. God does have different appearances to us creatures, depending on our situation; but the Persons are not “nothing but” those different appearances. That’s actually a pretty serious heresy, called modalism.

Son: Well then, why does the Church use the word “person” for the Trinity?

Father: Let’s dig deeper into the word. Prosopon is made up of two parts. First is the prefix pro, which stands for a bunch of different things: at, near, by, to, towards, with, with regard to; so, our nearest English equivalent is probably “for.” Second is the word ops, which also means a bunch of things: to see with the eyes, to perceive, to experience, to know, to beware, to care for or take heed of, and so forth. These are its primary meanings. Only secondarily does it mean what we take it to mean when we think of an actor’s mask: to be seen, to show oneself, to appear. And that this meaning of “appearance” is secondary makes sense: only if you are angry on the inside, for example, are you likely to appear angry on the outside.

Son: So, prosopon means …?

Father: Well, it seems to mean something like, “thing for seeing with the mind, for perceiving or knowing.” And then it also means, “thing for appearing or showing oneself.”

Son: I look out through my face, or with my face – and my face looks like the sort of person who is looking out through my face, so that if I am looking out while feeling angry, the face I look out through is likely to look angry to other people.

Father: Yes.

Son: So a person, like a face, is a thing for seeing the world – a thing that sees, and knows, and experiences. And, like a face, a person looks to others like the sort of things that it sees in the world. It puts out to the world what it sees.

Father: Yes.

Son: So to an angry person, the world looks angry. And if the world looks angry to you, you are probably going to feel angry yourself; and so then you will look angry to the world. Same with a happy person, or a sad person, or a really excited person.

Father: Yes.

Son: So the person of me is the one who is seeing the world, reflecting back what it sees.

Father: Yes. And the way that the David of today and the David of twelve years ago can be the same person, even though those two Davids are quite different things, is that the person of David is a certain consistent way of looking at the world, that is just yours. Every parent has seen this. A child of two has the same basic attitude toward the world as that same child at eight, at ten, at twenty.

Son: So that’s how my person is consistent from before birth to right now. I can see that. Things have happened to me that have changed parts of my attitude to the world. I’m older and less innocent. Some pretty bad things have happened to us, and that has changed my idea of what sort of place the world is. But I still feel basically the same way about things. I’m still me, and I recognize in myself today the me that I remember from when I was little.

Father: Me, too. One way of thinking about it is that the you of today includes everything of the yous of all your yesterdays.

Son: I see. That’s just a different way of saying that I am the same as the boy of the Burrito Incident. [smiles in happy recollection] That boy is the same as me. He is inside me.

Father: [chuckles] Right. You are the same person, appearing in lots of things over time. Each of those things is subtly different from all the others, but what they all have in common is the person of you. The boy who laughed so hard during the Burrito Incident is here right now, even though his body is gone, along with the Incident.

Son: What about God?

Father: You are one person in many things. God is three Persons in one thing.

The Shield of the Trinity

The Shield of the Trinity

Son: OK. You say the words, but I don’t see what they mean. How can you have three Persons in one thing? Why only one thing?

Father: Well, it’s only one thing with God, because if there were more than one thing that was God, that would raise the question which one was superior. And that one would be the only one we could call God, properly speaking, because the others would be dependent upon it.

Son: All right, so God has to be one thing. How can you have three persons in one thing? I know it isn’t like the string quartet.

Father: Right. It’s like the person that is you today, that includes the you of yesterday, and that includes the you at the time of the Burrito Incident. The you of today includes those other yous, but not in the way a box contains a ball or a collection of fruit includes an apple, nor in the way that a computer includes a CPU and some RAM. The you of now includes the you of yesterday by knowing him and reiterating him – doing him over again, albeit with some additions. The you of yesterday is in the you of today, not like the yarn is in the basket, but more in the way that the basket of yesterday is in the basket of today. If the basket had been stained yesterday, then the basket of today would be stained, too.

Son: OK. I think I see. And the basket of day before yesterday, that was not yet stained – that’s in the stained basket of today.

Father: Right.

Son: And that’s how the Son includes the Father, and the Father includes the Son. And it’s the same between each of them and the Holy Ghost.

Father: Correct. Now, with you, there can be one person that includes lots of things. But with God, all those inclusions have to be within one thing. So the Divine Persons are all within one thing. Each of the Persons includes both the others. But their relations of inclusion are all within the one thing that is God.

Son: Why is there more than one Person in God? Why are there inclusions in God?

Father: Well, if God were just one Person, he wouldn’t be able to know anything about himself. He would just be, and would know everything *except* himself. That seems like a silly idea. It seems that in order to be the ultimate being, he would have to know everything. And to be omniscient, he would surely have to know himself, too. So he has to look at himself. And that can only be done by a person, a thing for looking or knowing. So the Father has to have a Son, a mind who knows the Father, and is the perfect image of the Father. Then the Father, in knowing the Son, would automatically know what the Son knows of the Father. So that way, the Father could know himself.

Son: What about the Holy Spirit?

Father: Well, just as the Father needs to know himself in the Son in order to know himself at all, so the Father and the Son need to know their knowledge of each other as it is known to a third, in order to know that knowledge themselves. The Son is the Father’s way of knowing himself. The Spirit is the way that the Father and Son know that they know each other.

Son: OK, so let me see if I get this. First there is the Father, and then there is the Son who knows the Father, and then there is the Holy Ghost who knows the Father and the Son knowing each other.

Father: Right, except for one thing: the word “then” should not appear in that sentence.

Son: How come?

Father: Because God is one single thing. He is all at once. The Father is not wholly the Father without his knowledge of his Son’s knowledge of him, nor is he fully the Father without his knowledge of the Holy Ghost’s knowledge of the relationship between the Father and the Son. So, it is not as though there was a time for a while when there was only the Father, without the Son or the Spirit. No, you can’t get the Father at all without getting the Son and the Spirit. It’s a package deal. So all three Persons are eternal, and equal: you can’t have any one of them without having all three.

Son: OK. So there is one being, God, and he has three different things for knowing, three different things that know. Does that mean that the Persons are three different minds?

Father: I think it does, yes. There are three minds in the one being of God.

Son: Thanks, Dad. I think I understand.

Father: You don’t. I don’t, either. We understand our own concepts, maybe. Maybe. That’s a very different thing than understanding God. At best, all we have done here today is clear up the confusions created by our own use of language. But once you’ve cleared away all the conceptual confusions that get in the way of seeing God, you still have to turn and look at him yourself – you have to get your prosopon in gear.

The Angelic Men of the Trinity Feast at Abraham's Camp in Mamre

The Angelic Men of the Trinity Feast at Abraham’s Camp in Mamre

There is in God, as there is in us, a sort of ‘circulation’ (circulatio) in the operations of mind and will: for the will returns to that which understanding initiated. But with us the ‘circle’ (circulus) closes in that which is outside of us: the external good moving our intellect, our intellect moving the will, and the will returning through its appetite and love to the external good. But in God, the ‘circle’ is completed within himself: for when God understands himself, he conceives his Word which is the ‘rationale’ of everything known by him, since he understands all things by understanding himself; and through this Word, he ‘proceeds’ to the love of all things and of himself . . . And the circle being completed, nothing more can be added to it: so that a third procession within the divine nature is impossible, although there follows a procession toward external nature.

–St. Thomas Aquinas, De potentia, q. 9, a. 9.

64 thoughts on “The Holy Trinity: A Simple Explanation for Children

  1. Brings to mind one of Bonald’s earlier posts.

    While I have a soft spot for Aristotleico-Thomism and Hylomorphism, the introduction of the concept of a ‘person’ distinct from hylomorphic beings/substances/things can quite compellingly explain the Trinity. But then again it opens up the interaction problem which hylomorphism closes (along with others, I’m sure, but I’m not qualified enough to speak on them): how does the immaterial ‘person’ interact with the being?

    Just throwing out some thoughts here.

    • Well, note that in the post I was careful not to say that the person is some other sort of substance than the thing of which it is the personal aspect. I don’t see that such a distinction is necessary. To some entities there is a human aspect or a red aspect or a massive aspect, to others not; likewise, to some entities there is a personal aspect, to others not. It seems to me that the personal aspect of a thing is pretty much like any other formal property it might have.

      But, even if there is a distinct sort of substance that is personal, and which is a totally different sort of substance than that of the rest of the human being, the “problem of interaction” is one of those problems that vanishes on examination. Or, at least, it is seen to be pervasive. Tim McGrew likes to ask critics of dualism how the problem of the interaction of the res cogitans with the res extensa is any worse than the problem of the interaction of two items within the extensive domain. The bottom line, as he likes to say, is that *causality itself* is in the final analysis totally mysterious.

      • Gah, need to brush up on my philosophy. Anyway, sorry if this question’s a tad dumb, but what’s the ‘extensive domain’?

        As to the body of your comment, well, once again, I apologise if I’m being obtuse or misunderstanding you, but I don’t see how three personal aspects could inhere in one substance. After all, if, say, my table possesses the colour aspect blue, which precludes it possessing the colour aspects red and green. So if God possess the personal aspect of God the Father (or rather, to use a somewhat programmatical analogy, the value of the “person” variable is equal to “God the Father”), I do not see how it can possess at the same time the personal aspects of God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

        I also have a further query. If I may be so bold to critique the explanation of one far more well-versed in theology than I, I typically think of the generation of the Trinity from the nature of God as thus: God is Love. But Love is other-directed; hence the need for at least two persons in the Trinity, the Father and the Son. And from the Love between the Father and the Son proceeds the Holy Spirit. Your explanation doesn’t quite capture these sorts of special relations in the Trinity. The Three Persons are distinct in ways other than simply not being each other. Their relationship isn’t quite as symmetrical as your explanation might suggest.

      • The ‘extensive domain’ is the material world, the world other than minds. Descartes distinguished between minds and other things by arguing that, unlike other things, minds are not extended – they don’t have shapes and sizes.

        I don’t see how three personal aspects could inhere in one substance. After all, if, say, my table possesses the colour aspect blue, which precludes it possessing the colour aspects red and green.

        What if your table were white? God is Light, right? 😉

        We have mundane experience of many persons in one substance, with Multiple Personality Disorder. It’s a disorder because the various egos have poor recollection of each other, poor knowledge of each other’s experiences and activities. This obviously has terrible effects on the adaptation of behavior to circumstances. Indeed, this breakdown of experiential flow between what seem to be different functional aspects of the nervous system (different control systems, to use the language of another recent post) seems to be the heart of the disorder. Healthy humans might have multiple personalities, too – as would seem to be indicated by such expressions as ‘our better angels’ or ‘he was beside himself’ – that are integrated into a common life, so that their activities are coordinated to each other and to circumstances. In the limit of optimality, such coordination would achieve a diapason of experience and action. And such optimal states are indeed characterized by those who achieve them – athletes, musicians, mystics – as ‘flow.’

        In God the flow of knowledge between the Persons is perfect, and the inclusions of each Person by the others is said to be a Divine Life.

        So if God possess the personal aspect of God the Father (or rather, to use a somewhat programmatical analogy, the value of the “person” variable is equal to “God the Father”), I do not see how it can possess at the same time the personal aspects of God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

        Take force as an analogy, rather than color. If we translate your objection into those terms, it would go, ‘look, God can’t have an electrical charge of positive, negative and neutral.’ True; but he can at the same time exert electrical, magnetic and gravitational forces.

        God is Love. But Love is other-directed; hence the need for at least two persons in the Trinity, the Father and the Son. And from the Love between the Father and the Son proceeds the Holy Spirit. Your explanation doesn’t quite capture these sorts of special relations in the Trinity. The Three Persons are distinct in ways other than simply not being each other. Their relationship isn’t quite as symmetrical as your explanation might suggest.

        Well, the post wasn’t trying to explicate *everything* about the Trinity. It was specifically trying to show only what is meant by ‘three in one and one in three ‘

      • Hmm. So, from what I understand, you’re saying that by ‘person’, we really mean ‘personality’. Is that right? (Well, this is getting further and further from Bonald’s post linked above)

      • I suppose so. In today’s English, “personality” indicates what the Fathers meant to indicate by “prosopon.” It would be more accurate to say, “multiple person disorder” than “multiple personality disorder.”

      • Well, that clears things up, then. (Incidentally, this also resolves some concerns I had about the implications of multiple personality disorder on hylomorphism) Thanks! Keep writing these excellent theological expositions.

  2. Goodness. This is a nice conversation with a homeschooled child, but no modern child who attends public school and plays video games would sit through this. I’ve tried to have these conversations with my 9-year-old brother. It must be kept shorter. (He is not even consistently taken to my father’s liberal Lutheran church.) Over time my brother has come to accept small things I teach him, such as that no thing in itself is boring: Only boring people get bored. He actually understands it, despite its abstractness. And this child could watch Spongebob all day and basically hates books. But one day he said, “Catherine, you are kinda wise.”

    The first thing I thought to be confusing, for myself and potentially for conversations with a child down the road, is your use of “being.” When I read that word I think of ontology. So I had to manually make myself read your usage of it as the very opposite thing.

    “A person is an individual substance of a rational nature.” — Boethius

    Here, I’ll put myself on the spot, without having yet finished your entire post (I got to the prosopon explanation and officially decided it wasn’t simple):

    Good things are always fruitful, as in, they produce good fruit. A tree shows us this. Everything performs a function, and when a thing does it well, more goodness comes from it. God is perfect, so He isn’t able to ever do anything wrong. Therefore, He has always borne good fruit. Since He’s also outside of time, His fruit has come from Him forever and ever — eternally.

    We understand His “fruit” to be His One Perfect Thought. His thoughts aren’t like ours, all jumbled and messy; but, like ours, He never ceases to think. His perfect Thought, instead, is like a Word that’s so perfect we don’t even have it in our vocabulary, because it’s only God’s. Since God has always borne this fruit, we call His Word His Son, and we see the One Who Begets as the Father. He and His Son love each other perfectly, like no father and son on Earth can; and since it is perfect it has never begun nor ended, just like God never had a beginning but simply always has been. We call this Love that goes between them the Holy Spirit.

    So, we have Three “Persons,” and we know they are One because they have the same nature, eternally coming from the First, God the Father. When I say all the Persons — the Father, the Son, and their Love — are “perfect,” I mean that they are all totally full of goodness, power, knowledge, and presence. These characteristics of all Three are Their Oneness, their nature. Because this nature of total perfection only belongs to God, we know that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all God. That doesn’t mean that there are three perfect “Gods.” It means that all Three have that One circle: *points to the Shield of the Trinity diagram.* Lastly, remember that it didn’t all happen this way; it has just always been, like the snap of a finger.

    The end.

    When I say, “nature,” I tend to open my hand, fingers somewhat spread, and place it palm-down to my chest, making a flowing movement. I automatically do this to show that the nature of a being is unchanging and at the core of said being.

    So, is my “simple” explanation heresy-free? I pray so!

    • It seems orthodox enough to me, Catherine.

      I have often heard the Holy Spirit characterized as the Love that flows between the Father and the Son, but while it is true enough, it always confused me. It seemed to me to be telling only part of the story of the Spirit. Love is a motion of the will of a person, rather than a person. What I tried to get at in the post is that the loving relation between the Father and the Son – that is to say, the Father and the Son together, taken as a system – can only be apprehended *as* a system from outside that system. And to apprehend something, you need a person. So, the Holy Spirit has to be more than a relation. It has to be an ego, an I.

      Look at the Shield of the Trinity, and draw a circle around it that intersects the circles of each of the Persons. Like this:

      That outer circle you’ve just drawn represents the Godhead, the whole being of God. The circles of each of the Persons are on it, as features of the Godhead. Those Personal circles represent as it were the perspectives of each of the Persons on the Godhead. Each sees both the other Persons (and sees all three Persons in each – for, e.g., the Father sees the Son, and so the Father knows all that the Son knows; and the Son knows this Paternal knowledge in knowing his Father). Each sees also the circle at the center. The circle at the center represents the perspective of the Godhead as a whole – i.e., of the whole system of God. All three Persons apprehend it, and have it in common. The circle at the center is the life of God, in which all the Persons share, and which they all have in common. Each of the Persons is as it were a moment of the life of God, but rather than happening one after another as with our moments of life, in God they happen all at once. And unlike ours, each Divine moment is omniscient, for each includes the others, each of which knows all things. This mutual inclusion is called circumincession by the Latin Fathers – literally, “around-in-going” – and by the Greek Fathers perichoresis – literally, “dance around.” Here’s a pretty good representation of circumincession:

      So, the Shield of the Trinity is a Venn diagram of three sets that intersect completely – that are, that is to say, in union – for each of the Persons apprehends the whole Godhead. If we were to depict the three circles of the Venn diagram three-dimensionally, they would look like this:

      Each of the circumferences represents one of the Persons. None of them is simply the same thing as either of the others. But they all encompass the whole sphere, have the same rational nature, and so forth. The traditional Christian representation of this sphere is the chi-rho, which uses diameters instead of circumferences:

      The most challenging statement of your comment for me was your quote from Boethius: “A person is an individual substance of a rational nature.” Each of the Persons is an individual – not in the Thomist sense, of having been individuated, but in the etymological sense, of being indivisible – and each is obviously rational; but in God, the Persons share the same Nature and substance, whereas in creatures they do not. The diagram of the sphere above can make that a bit clearer. Each of the circumferences is distinct, but they are all circumferences of the same sphere.

      I agree that the explanation I provide in the post is not for incurious or unintelligent children. I had in mind a thoughtful, intelligent twelve year old boy, just starting to puzzle over such things. An incurious, thoughtless or unintelligent child would never begin to puzzle about them in the first place.

      • Catherine, thank you for the nice imagery. Boethius is a rock star. Poor Fortuna, though. She gets no respect.

        Kristor, your modification is a start in fixing the rampant and unabashed filioquism of this site! A start. 🙂

      • Thank you, Kristor.

        I put in Boethius’s quote because your definition of “person” confused me, and I always found his perfect (or at least simple enough to rely on in the abortion debate). Of course, I know the Three Persons and human personhood are different. I’m probably still a little lost on that.

      • By modification, I referred to “I have often heard the Holy Spirit characterized as the Love that flows between the Father and the Son, but while it is true enough, it always confused me. It seemed to me to be telling only part of the story of the Spirit. Love is a motion of the will of a person, rather than a person. What I tried to get at in the post is that the loving relation between the Father and the Son – that is to say, the Father and the Son together, taken as a system – can only be apprehended *as* a system from outside that system. And to apprehend something, you need a person. So, the Holy Spirit has to be more than a relation. It has to be an ego, an I.”

        One aspect of filioquism that bothers us is that it depersonalizes the Holy Spirit. Some Orthodox critics trace the general absence of Trinitarian-focused theology and piety in many Western traditions to this flaw. Of course, there is a long road between the Council of Toledo and New England Unitarianism, but I think that there is meat in that point’s pot. Western popular piety has mainly been a two person game, with the Charismatics overcompensating in a hyper-correction.

      • Ah, I see. Well, but that’s not a modification, really. It’s dogma.

        The Holy Spirit seems more difficult to understand, because he is not characterized in familiar terms. We have some grasp of Fatherhood and Sonship, but the Holy Spirit offers us no such purchase. Then too we have ready images from court and sanctuary for the roles of Father and Son in the economy of Heaven (in the first, the Father is the King and the Son is the Prince; in the latter, the Father is the object of worship, the god, and the Son is the Priest); but the Spirit’s role is far less specific.

        I don’t think the filioque is wholly to blame for this; Augustine struggles with the Holy Spirit, too.

        I personally think we can’t get anywhere with it unless and until we think of him as a Person, an ego. In Jesus Purusha, Ian Davie points out that the union of Brahman (Father) and Atman (Spirit) cannot be realized except in and by some Real, the Purusha, or Person (the Son): “the identity of Brahman and Atman could not be affirmed without there being a locus for its realization.” Likewise then, also, for the union of Father and Son in the Godhead: it can only be realized by a person.

      • Of course, it’s dogma on paper, but the truth in councils, constitutions, and encyclicals sometimes has a way of not penetrating the heart. My stance on Rome has long been that there is a Catholic, Orthodox flow in it, but that source competes with other tributaries from less wholesome waters. So, I tend to be ecumenically and ecclesiologically generous with the Latins though still critical (especially toward the abuses to which the “Spirit of Vatican II” reformers are prone). So, while westerners may remain Trinitarian de jure, many have ceased to be Trinitarian de facto. Unexamined Sabellianism is rampant in the “low church” sects (even in corners of poorly catechized RCs), and I think that filioquism has historically facilitated making God into an abstraction rather than addressing the Divine as a uniquely unified community of persons.

        The daily piety of an average Orthodox believer makes such unlikely. One of our most basic prayers is “O Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, Who are everywhere present and filling all things, Treasury of good things and Giver of life, come and dwell in us, and cleanse us of all impurity, and save our souls, o Good One.” (It is a superb rejection of the anti-sacramentalism that condemns “religion of immanence,” isn’t it?) I don’t wish to blow an eastern horn here, but I think that there is an Orthodox focus on Trinitarian theology, as lived in liturgical life and in personal prayer in the daily practices of the faithful, that serves as a defense against the basic theological heresies that have corrupted so many western confessions. Perhaps, the tumultuous early centuries in the East taught the Orthodox some valuable lessons.

        Furthermore, Augustine likely invented the filioque. It is his theologoumenon in which he attempts to find a rational distinction between the Son’s begetting and the Spirit’s proceeding in the life of the Trinity itself (as opposed to God’s economy with creation, where it is scripturally clear that the Son has a role in sending the Spirit). There are many pre-Augustinian patristic considerations of the Trinity’s internal relationships, though they are ambiguous about whether they apply to theology proper or to providence. However, one sees Cappadocian musings that come close to filioquism. They were speaking in and working with (neo-)Platonic models, and filioquism presents itself as an intelligible way of thinking about the Trinity for disciples of Plotinus. Notwithstanding, it is interesting to note that the theologoumena of even the most esteemed Eastern theologians never became Orthodox doctrine. Such was different in the West, where the authority of Augustine was so powerful in the Middle Ages that his personal reflections became the origin of dogma. I think that this is a major reason for the schism and for many of the West’s wayward traveling (from an Orthodox perspective). The good bishop from Tagaste cannot be blamed for historical accidents.

        Davie’s Hindu enriched reflection is interesting, but I don’t quite follow. Would you do a post expounding this idea? You are (or he is) saying that the unity between the first two persons of the Trinity should not be inferior to them, and as such that unity must also be a person?

      • Huh, that’s the first I’ve heard that Augustine himself might be the source of the filioque. I’ll have to think about that. To me, it has always made sense to think of filioquism as implicit in Neo-Platonism; not just in Plotinus, but in Philo.

        As for Davie, I am still waiting to find out more about what he says: having read an extended passage on Jesus Purusha in Stratford Caldecott’s Radiance of Being, I toddled right over to my machine and ordered it. The book is in the mail.

        But whatever Davie says, what I meant was that a togetherness of two disparate things must be itself a disparate thing; in no other way could a relation subsist, except in some subsistence. Thus Trinitarianism is implicit in monism: “Thou art that” must be true for, and thus in and by, some thing that is neither the thou nor the that of the relation (and, of course, thou can’t be understood as that in the first place unless thou and that are not the same thing, simpliciter; for in that case, the thou would not exist at all, so that all that could then be said would be, “that is that”). When we read theologians characterizing the Holy Ghost as the relation between the Father and the Son, I think that this is what they are getting at. But what they too often omit to say is that the relation itself must somehow subsist in order to be a relation in the first place.

        So, it is not that the Spirit must be a person so that he is not less than the other two persons, but that the Father and Son could not be related to each other except in and by some other person.

        I should note that when I say that filioquism is implicit in Neo-Platonism, what I mean more precisely is that the coequality of the three Persons is implicit in Neo-Platonism, due to the necessity of all to the reality of each. For consider: the Father could not be the Father without the Son, or without the relation of Father to Son in the Spirit; likewise, the Son could not be the Son without the Father, or without the relation of Father to Son in the Spirit; so, likewise, the Spirit could not reckon and realize the Father’s relation to the Son unless there was in the first place both a Father and a Son. You can’t get any one of the Trinity without all three Persons. So filioquism follows: the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. But also, the Father is completed in the procession of the Son and the Spirit, and the Son’s filiation is completed in, by and as the spiration of the Holy Ghost.

    • This paragraph is the best one I have ever read on this site, only a holy genius can write so well.

  3. Pingback: Explaining the Most Holy Trinity to a Child | Resting in Apricity

  4. I admit that I got lost in your explanation. Either the 12-year olds you know are brighter than I think, or they’re not as bright as you think.

    But there’s one step you take that I do understand and want to push back on.

    “You are the same *person* you were then, but you now have almost completely different properties as a *concrete being* than you did when you were two. ”

    As I understand it, you make a distinction between the person of me and the body of me, because my body changes (I grow up, for instance) but we don’t really want to say that I’m a different person (oh, we might say it metaphorically or rhetorically, to make a point about how my character has changed over time, but we don’t actually mean it. I don’t have to re-sign contracts every time I gain weight).

    In order to see the body that way–I have a different body now than I did then–you have to treat time as a kind of discontinuity. I don’t think you should. Your body should be understood as the physical expression of you throughout time. At any given point, the aspect your body presents at that time will be different than it presents at any other time, but the whole thing taken together throughout time is your body. Just like my bicep is smaller at some locations and larger at others, but instead of saying that I have different biceps, what I have is one bicep that presents different aspects in different points in space.

    • Interesting point. I would suggest that the human body taken over an interval of time is a temporal solid, analogous to a solid object in space. A solid such as a chair is mostly empty space, punctuated by particles. Yet it is a real solid – there is really a chair: the particles are really there (tace for the nonce on the question of the solidity of the particles, that question being, as it were, immaterial to this one), and they are really arrayed in such a way as to form a chair.

      Likewise with a life. It may be taken as a temporal solid: mostly empty time, punctuated by events, that are really arrayed – i.e., with real causal relations – in such a way as to form a life. I have read that Buddhists think there are about 40,000 such droplets of experience per second in the life of a human.

      Under this construction, the temporal extent of the actual world increases at the margin by tiny disparate events; but because these disparate events have real causal relations to their predecessors, their assemblage forms a true continuous system.

      • Yes, I can agree with that.

        I’d probably want to go further, though, and say that the destiny of the saints is to experience all times as the present so that all parts of one’s life are one, and all the changes in one’s body throughout life are one body, experienced all together.

        But either way, I think it cuts some of the ground out from under your explanation.

      • I’d probably want to go further, though, and say that the destiny of the saints is to experience all times as the present so that all parts of one’s life are one, and all the changes in one’s body throughout life are one body, experienced all together.

        There’s much good support for that notion in the literature of the Heavenly Ascent of the Merkavah mystics of ancient Israel, as well as from the reports of latter-day mystics like Eckhart. The view from Heaven seems to be of everything below it what and when soever. And it makes plain straightforward metaphysical sense: the closer your asymptotic approach to the BV, the more are you going to see things sub specie aeternitatis.

        But how any of this undercuts the substance/person differentiation within the Trinity that lies at the heart of the explanation above is not clear to me. Indeed, so far as I can see it lends support to that distinction, and to the doctrine. Could you explain what you’re getting at?

      • I don’t know if it undercuts it, because I can’t make much sense either of the concept or of your explanation of it.

        But at one point you seemed to be making a distinction between the person and the body that the little discussion we’ve just had here suggests doesn’t hold good, so to the extent you were making that distinction as an analogy to the trinity, the argument by analogy fails.

      • I don’t know if it undercuts it, because I can’t make much sense either of the concept or of your explanation of it.

        Sorry, I’m now quite lost as to what “it” and “concept” refer to in the foregoing!

        But at one point you seemed to be making a distinction between the person and the body that the little discussion we’ve just had here suggests doesn’t hold good, so to the extent you were making that distinction as an analogy to the trinity, the argument by analogy fails.

        Again, sorry: how does our recent exchange vitiate the distinction between person and body?

      • You talked about “undercutting the substance/Person distinction.” In my reply, when I talked about ‘undercutting it,’ I was referring, of course, to the substance/Person distinction you had referred to.

        Is this conversation worth continuing? You’re getting confused in some pretty odd ways.
        You argue that there is a distinction between the person and the body because the body changes and the person doesn’t. But if the body consists of all the physical instances throughout time, then the body doesn’t change and your argument for distinguishing the person from the body fails, and the attempted analogy to the Trinity therefore also fails.

      • Sorry – I’m not trying to be difficult, it’s just that you used “it” three times in one sentence, to refer to different things, and I couldn’t quite track which was which.

        You write:

        You argue that there is a distinction between the person and the body because the body changes and the person doesn’t. But if the body consists of all the physical instances throughout time, then the body doesn’t change

        But I *don’t* think that the body, properly speaking, consists of all instances of the body throughout time. It would be more accurate to say that the *career* of the body consists of all the instances of that bodily career. The body at time x is in many ways quite a different thing, and thus a distinct thing, from the body at time y. There is identity of indiscernibles, but the differences betweeen the body of David at two and his body at twelve are *extremely* discernible. There is causal integrity between his body at two and his body at twelve, but this is not at all to say that the two year old’s body and the twelve year old’s body are simply the same exact thing. Clearly they are not.

        After all, there is causal integrity between the two year old’s body and his world, but although his body and its world constitute a coherent causal system, we would never say that they are simply the same thing. Likewise, then, with causal integrities that cohere across time.

        Now, neither would I argue that the human person never changes. If this were true, then the person of David at twelve would be *exactly* like his person at two, *in every last detail.* It is not, obviously. Thus all my talk of the person of David at twelve “including” the person of the David of two.

        What distinguishes the body from the person, the substantial being from the person, is not that one of them changes and the other does not, but that they are different sorts of things altogether. The person is an aspect of the totality of the substantial being of which it is the personal aspect. There is, likewise, a massive aspect of the substantial human being, which is not simply coterminous with that substantial being. A property, aspect, part, function, or operation, feature, or defect of a substantial being is not coterminous with that substantial being.

      • The kind of bodily and personal unity I’m talking about, that a different perspective on time allows, that I thought you had accepted, is not merely causal unity.

      • Well, different perspectives on time are a notoriously squirrelly and difficult subject. I believe that temporal events take place in the context of eternity, and that under the aspect of eternity they are all happening in the now of eternity. This does not however mean they are each nothing more than an aspect of an atomic integrity. I believe differentiable events are really disparate. If they were not, then essentially all our experiences would be false to fact. Thus would make them extremely difficult to explain.

      • Can’t say I really follow you. Are you saying that the claim that the body is the whole thing as it exists throughout time means that change can’t happen from time to time? Because, if so, it seems to me that you are making a claim much like saying that the arm and the leg can’t be one body unless the arm is a leg.

        But I agree that thinking about time in the light of eternity gets squirrely.

      • If we consider the body through time as a single atomic entity – i.e., as something that in reality is *not at all divided* into separate temporally delimited events – then yes, we can’t really say that it changes through time. All the apparent “changes” would in that case be nothing more than aspects of the same item, viewed from different perspectives. We would then have to say that the time I fell through the plate glass window and the time I got married and the time I visited Ely Cathedral were not really disparate events, but rather just aspects of the same event. And this way of speaking seems to do great violence to our usual way of understanding things, which presupposes that events can reach completion, and so be really past.

        If on the other hand we view the body through time as a causally coherent assemblage of disparate events, then we get to treat those disparate events in the way we normally think of them, and we also get to treat the whole life of the body as a factor of reality in itself. The whole life of the body, or of a person, may have an overall effect on history that may be more, or other than, the effects of its constituents. Thus we could say that while the life of Alexander the Great was composed of adventures that many other lives have experienced, nevertheless the whole assemblage of his adventures had an effect on history disproportionate to the mere sum of the effects of any one of them – which sum, had those adventures been arranged differently, might have resulted in an unremarkable life. This is not much different than noticing that the trading week of the Great Crash of 87 consisted of individual trades of quite an ordinary sort, which, had they been arranged differently, might have resulted in an unremarkable week.

        The arm and leg can’t be parts of one body unless they are really parts, and disparate – really different and separable from each other. And so they are. Cut off my leg, and it will still be my leg, and my body that survives the procedure will still be my body. But that leg won’t be part of my body any more. Meanwhile my arm will continue on as before, a part of my body.

        Is the body in any sense a true whole, then, a real entity? Or is it a mere assemblage with only a notional existence? If a whole has parts, is it a being in its own right?

        This is a non-trivial question. Indeed, it is terribly vexing. I have considered it for many years, and while my views on the ontological status of composite wholes may still evolve – they don’t feel quite settled, yet – as of now it seems to me that the answer is that they are indeed concretely actual. The key criterion of actuality is whether there is a form of the item in question, or not. There is a form of my body, which could not be actualized by throwing together a mélange of body parts. There is likewise a form of Alexander’s life, which could not be actualized by throwing together a mélange of adventures. Even if they managed to cohere (as would seem to be unlikely with a mélange of body parts), such mélanges would constitute different wholes than the whole of my body or the whole of Alexander’s life.

        Returning then to the question at hand, the events comprising the life of the body are really different from each other – are different entities. Taken together, they constitute a whole, which is also an entity, albeit of a different order.

  5. Question: How can an electron be a particle and a wave at the same time?

    Answer: See Modalism. But that’s been declared a pretty serious heresy.

  6. I am inclined to agree with Adam G. regarding continuity. Yes, in some ways you are different than you were ten, twenty, or forty years ago, yet in some ways you are the same, and there is continuity with what you were. You always existed. You will always exist. You are always changing.

    The body is neither a “false” face nor a prison. The body is a holy blessing for doing sacred work. It should receive respect, protection, and care. It will one day be perfected. See 1 Cor. 15:52-54.

    • Who said anything about a false face or a prison?

      I always existed? How did I manage to complete my traversal of the infinite number of life events that preceded this present one, so as to be here now? Actual infinities are impossible to finities.

      Continuity simpliciter rules out change absolutely, as the Eleatics showed. You can’t change a thing from being just what it is into something anywise different and still have the same exact thing you started with. Any change necessarily results in two different states of affairs: the one that preceded the change, and the one subsequent thereto.

      You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

      • “Who said anything about a false face or a prison?”

        Answer: Kristor and Plato, respectively. The term mask, which is a false face, was introduced in the original post. See also the etymology of “person.” Plato and his followers viewed the body as a prison.

        You have not completed your traversal of your life events. Do you suppose your future life events will be finite in number? When was your first life event? When you are resurrected, are you the same person or someone else? If someone else, then who, exactly, is being resurrected?

        Change and continuity are paradoxical. Consider the popular saying, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The saying reflects a recognition of both continuity and change.

        The Eleatics undervalued common sense observation and were opposed by the physicalist philosophers.

      • There is no requirement that a mask be false. The dialogue in the post makes a point of the fact that the face of a man is likely to express his true feelings about things. Acting is a specialized trade because convincing dissimulation is extremely difficult to achieve.

        That Plato thought the body a prison does not mean that I do. As it happens, though, Plato’s perspective on the body must necessarily arise from his experience living as a body of death, as St. Paul puts it. The body of the sinner is indeed a body of death, and he a slave to his sin.

        But as a person may accurately convey his inward state through the mask of his face, in good faith and without any dissimulation, so the body is not a prison per se. The body is a prison to the sinner, just as the Law is his cage. For the saint, on the other hand, body and Law are the rudiments of his free creative power.

        Change and continuity are paradoxical.

        Yes; this was the great point of the Eleatics. As between change and continuity, we must choose which of them we would treat as basic, for we cannot take both of them to be basic without running into the paradox you have agreed with them in noticing. I myself choose change as basic, because my constant experience of change belies the notion that it is somehow impossible, as the Eleatics demonstrated must be the case if continuity is basic. Continuity, then, must be a derivate of change. The causal linkage among disparate, discontinuous events is real, and tight. If they were not really disparate, there could be no such linkage, no causal connection between them, for they would in reality be nothing but different aspects of the same thing. To have causal connections between things, the things need to be distinct from each other. In those linkages, then, lies the continuity of reality.

        I realize that I am not done traversing my life events. But that wasn’t the question. The question was, how have I managed to finish traversing an infinite number of life events so as to have arrived at this present event? Such a traversal is mathematically impossible. Actual finites cannot effect actual infinites.

        Try it. Count upward from negative infinity to zero: -∞ + 1, -∞ + 2, -∞ + 3 ….

        It can’t be done. You could count for an infinite number of seconds, and you would still have infinitely far to go before you got to zero. No matter how long you counted, you would then find yourself at -∞.

        So, likewise, you logically *can’t* start from infinitely far back in the past and then live all the way up to the present moment.

        You find that you have indeed arrived at the present moment. Ergo, you cannot have gotten here from infinitely far back in the past. So you must have a beginning.

  7. If your face is a true face, you have no need of a mask and no need to introduce that concept. And we should then look elsewhere for the definition of person.

    You seem to have “logically” proved that God logically can’t exist if he existed infinitely back in time. Unless, of course, He, the Living God, has not traversed any life events all the way up to the present moment. The problem is in defining time. Or maybe in the your concept of God.

    As for continuity and change, when you are resurrected, are you the same person or someone else? If someone else, then who, exactly, is being resurrected?

    As I stated, the Eleatics undervalued common sense observation and were opposed by the physicalist philosophers. They, like me, were unconvinced that the Eleatics correctly described things as they really are.

    • Leo, the mask is a *metaphor.* The Fathers of the Church did not mean to suggest that the Persons of the Trinity *really are just masks,* or that they are false. OK? In fact, the ancient Greek usage of “prosopon” to indicate an actor’s mask derived in the first instance from the ancient Greek for “face,” which is … prosopo. OK? Forget all your worries about masks and falsehood. Instead of “mask,” think, “outward aspect,” or “face.” As in, “thy Face, LORD, will I seek” (Psalm 27:8). The shewbread raised up before Hebrew pilgrims to the Temple, all of whom were required to seek the Face each year, was apparently molded into the shape of a face; it “was” the Face of the LORD.

      The priests were (normally) the only ones allowed to eat the shewbread. But Christians are all priests of the Order of Melchizedek, so we all get to partake. The Eucharist goes very deep.

      The main reason that the connotation of the mask was interesting and useful to the Fathers was that it gave them a way to understand Incarnation, *and the notion that the shewbread was – with no scare quotes – the real Face or Presence.* They needed to be able to explain to prospective converts – especially Hebrews – that the shewbread *really was the Face,* that it was the outward aspect of YHWH; and that, likewise, the man Jesus was, not just the vicar, angel and ambassador of the Shepherd of Israel, as the Israelites had always taken their kings to be, but that he *just was* YHWH the Shepherd of Israel.

      I have not in this exchange logically proved anything about what sort of life God can or cannot have. I have not been discussing him, but finite entities like us. You asserted that my life of finite events goes back infinitely far into the past. It is that assertion that I have logically disproven.

      As it happens, however, it is indeed correct that if God is a being whose life is constituted of finite moments, then it cannot be the case that the sequence of those moments stretches infinitely far back into the past. From this we ought not, however, to conclude that God is not eternal, but rather that *an eternal being is not such as to have a life constituted of finite moments.* This is why Christian orthodoxy has held from the very beginning that God’s eternal life is a single moment. “Before Abraham was, I AM.” (John 8:58) “And God said unto Moses, I am HE WHO IS (ho on): and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, HE WHO IS (ho on) hath sent me unto you.” (Exodus 3:14 (LXX))

      For God, all moments of existence are Now.

      Is it really different for you? Are any of your moments of existence, *as actually experienced,* other than right now?

      Note then that there is no conflict between God’s life consisting of a single moment, and Jesus sitting down for a nice plate of fish, eating, and then getting up to step out into the garden for a stroll. Temporal life – whether of God, or of creatures – is not in conflict with the eternal life of God. If it were, then, the eternal life of God being prior to all other things whatsoever, there would simply be no such thing as temporal existence. That there is such a thing tells us that temporal existence occurs in eternity, and as a process of eternity. All times are in God.

      When I am resurrected, I will still be the same person I am now. My life had a beginning, but it will have no end (provided I avoid the Second Death).

      I, too, think the Eleatics were wrong about the way things really are. They insisted, against all the phenomenal evidence, that there is no change. Silly! But they stuck to their guns, because they could not conceive of history as a series of discontinuous quanta. They couldn’t see how, in such a case, reality could cohere (and they had a point – it is not a trivial problem). They correctly saw that if history is a seamless continuum, there can be no change in it (this is *exactly* like seeing that if God is one thing, he cannot change).

      Their reasoning was bulletproof. The premise of continuity was not. Fortunately for us, we now know quite well how to think of history as a composition of discrete quanta, so we are not stuck with the Eleatic paradoxes of motion.

      You seem to have admitted that I have proved that a life consisting of finite moments had to have had a beginning – that, if you had no beginning, you could not ever finish wending your way through the infinite series of those finite moments and up to the present moment in which you now find yourself. The only way that you could stick with the notion that you had no beginning, then, is if you agreed with the Eleatics that, all appearances to the contrary, you never change. And that would be silly. Right?

  8. Theology, like mathematics, is determined by initial postulates and terms. Different initial assumptions (which are arbitrary and not provable) result in different mathematical systems, e.g. Euclidean geometry and Riemannian geometry. Both geometric systems are self-consistent within themselves and logical, but they differ and are inconsistent with each other.

    You have set up a system where human life can be a line segment or a ray, but not a line. I reject that system and maintain that human life can be infinite in both directions, as is the life of Jesus, our pattern, guide, and exemplar, as well as our savior and redeemer.

    For a thorough review of the idea of human pre-existence in Western thought, I recommend When Souls Had Wings by Terryl Givens. See

    • It would be interesting to see how you or anyone could explain how an infinitely long line – or any other infinite thing whatsoever – stretching from infinitely far back into the past up to the present, could ever be traversed in any number of finite steps, no matter how large. You are right: the only way that I could see doing it is by defining basic terms differently – e.g., by saying something like, “infinite doesn’t really mean, you know, *infinite;* under our metaphysics it means just ‘a really long time.'”

      But if that’s the sort of move one wishes to make, then while we would not then be disagreeing, this would only be due to the fact that we were talking about completely different things – as if I had been under the impression we had been discoursing on the nature of That Than Which No Greater Can Be Conceived, when you had instead been talking about gods or angels.

      • You seem to believe that an infinitely long path forward (eternal life) can be traversed. I have merely evoked a mirror image of a line going back the other direction, and you find that impossible or at least inconceivable. One could define God as that which remains after everything else is gone. That definition would preclude anything but God existing in the end, but would not preclude a line going into the past. Original assumptions, terms, and definitions or frames determine theology. But those assumptions, definitions, and terms are arbitrary and not subject to logical proof, nor do they necessarily reflect things as they really are. Kant believed in pre-existent noumenal humans, but shifted the discussion from a sphere “before” to a sphere “outside” the temporal continuum. But see also Eccl. 12:12.

        “That Than Which No Greater Can Be Conceived” is quite dependent on what we can conceive. But there are things, presumably a great many things, we currently can’t conceive. See 1 Cor 2:9. Once we start talking about inconceivable things, the conversation becomes too abstract to be very useful or productive.

        And the whole discussion is very Hellenistic but not very Hebraic. It is the god of the philosophers that stands in stark contrast to the Living God of the Scriptures who has a face we can seek (Gen. 32:30, Deut. 5:4, Matt. 5:8), while the god of the philosophers is without body, parts, or passions, and decidedly remote, abstract and impersonal (cf. Buddhism). See for why I think that is a critical difference. Compare the school(s) of Athens with Amos 7:14-15. See also Jacob 5: 37,40, 48 in the Book of Mormon.

      • This is not about Athens vs. Jerusalem. That’s interesting enough, but it’s a red herring. This is about clear thinking, in any city.

        Take an infinitely distant event x in the future of your everlasting life. Starting from now, will you ever arrive at x? No: it is *infinitely* distant. No finite passage, howsoever long, can suffice to reach it.

        OK then: take -x, infinitely far in your past. Starting from -x, can you ever arrive at now? No: it is *infinitely* distant from now. No finite passage, howsoever long, can suffice to traverse the infinite passage from -x to now.

        If you never had a beginning, you can never arrive at now. You are here now. So you began. You were created. Why is this so hard to accept?

    • Leo, you seem to promote some sort of polylogism which is incorrect I believe.
      Euclidean and Riemannean geometry are just two application of the same underlying principles so in fact they are consistent but aplied in different fields of reality.
      Your emphasis to differences between Hebraic and Hellenistic thinking also goes too far. This way we could arrive to conclusion that proper understanding about certain ideas (like God) is culturally determined. Then any missionary activities would be pointless. Any communication fails if at least some ideas are not transferable.
      And if you hold that understanding God is living experience rather than abstract idea then how will I know without having proper idea that it is God what I experience?

  9. Kristor, according to the creed that you recite, Jesus came down from heaven and became a man. See also John 6:38. That is true of us all. The long history of that thought is discussed in When Souls Had Wings. That thought is so believable that, despite its suppression by the Catholic Church, it keeps recurring in every age. That does not prove the point true, but it does point to its believability.

    According to Simlicius, Diogenes the Cynic refuted Zeno’s arguments and paradoxes by standing up and walking, thus demonstrating the falsity of Zeno’s conclusions. The experiential trumps the theoretical every time. If a particular mathematical or geometric system (something which is arbitrary and not provable) fails to correspond to reality, we need not use it. Indeed, we would be ill-advised to use it. Consider the joke about the lost party looking at a map and concluding they are according to their map “on that mountain over there.” If the map and the terrain disagree, it is the map that is wrong, not the terrain.

    RT, I agree that culture plays a part in thinking. I simply deny that Greek classicalism is the universal or correct way of thinking or map of reality. That is hard for Westerners to accept. When the Jesuits first reached China, they concluded that the Confucianism they witnessed differed from the original teaching of Confucius. What they failed to see was that Catholicism differed from the original teaching of Jesus, the Apostles, and the Prophets. In the midst of the Reformation they could hardly admit that.

    See my latest comment on Why did God reveal the doctrine of the Trinity? (August 9, 2013 at 5:58 am) for one reason why I believe classical orthodoxy to be an incorrect map.

    See also John 7:17.

    • Leo, all that stuff about Diogenes and maps and believability is interesting, but it is totally beside the point. The question is very simple. How can a finite series of events, however large, traverse an infinite temporal extent?

      I have asked you this question about seven times, and you have not answered. What is your answer?

      Bear in mind as you consider your answer that if it is true that such a traversal of infinity by finity is impossible – as it should be obvious to you that it is, by the very definitions of the terms ‘infinite’ and ‘finite’ – this would not mean that we had no pre-mundane existence. It would mean only that it could not be the case that we are now already infinitely old. It would mean only that we had a beginning. It would mean only that, however ancient we might be, we are not coeval with God- in which case, he could be nowise our Creator or truly ultimate – but that we are his creatures.

      Now, if your whole theology stands on the proposition that infinity can be traversed by finity, then however believable or appealing it might be, it is just nonsense. The alternative is that your whole theology does *not* stand on that logical contradiction, so that you may freely abandon that particular supposition without sapping the whole edifice.

      • Leo, you keep bringing up the temporal, the experiential, Athens vs. Jerusalem, and so on and so forth. It seems as if you think that your explanation of having existed forever yet always in a different position is much more simple than that of being created. But to many of us, it seems the exact opposite. In your story about the map and the mountain, there are only two mountains in question. The joke makes sense. The map is wrong, experience is right. Got it.

        But when you bring up infinity, things become much more difficult.

        Do you really believe that you have experience of having existed infinitely? Because it seems to be that is what you are implying: that somehow the orthodox Christianity got itself all messed up with philosophy and people starting believing that they were created at a point of time some finite steps backwards from where they are now, when really, if they ‘d just believed what comes naturally and obvious to them, they’d surely see that they actually never were created and always existed, yet were always active in various and different ways. Is this what you are saying?

        I hesitate to even bring it up, because I fear you may just “yes, I do have experience of my always having been in existence life encompassing a series of events stretching back across an infinite amount of events” to which we could only throw our hands up and exclaim: “What more can be said? Not only has the man always existed but he remembers every minute of it as well!”

        Surely, you must see how that is actually more difficult for the common man to believe than the idea that you (as well as himself) were created some point in time ago and had a beginning?

        And you keep saying that it us who are being overly-philosophical and abstract, but you are the one who is claiming to be able to do this, and indeed more -you claim to have actually done this –and that’s not all!but you claim that your experience is what shows this to be true and is the basis of how you believe it!

        Now Kristor is trying to get to you to answer a simple question, and he’s also trying to give you a way out, but I don’t think you’re going to take it either of those options, I think because you know that your theology has a lot more that hinges on the idea of you being coeval than just this issue concerning how you managed to drive your car to this rest stop from infinity miles away. And I think you keep bringing up these other issues, these other stories and anecdotes and metaphors, because there are these other issues which make sense to you, and although you maybe can’t think of a way to answer Kristor and his question, you take comfort in these other things you believe, such as your meaning and place in life, and relationship with God, which believe to be dependent on you having existing always.

        But you still have to answer the question posed by Kristor: “How can a finite series of events, however large, traverse an infinite temporal extent?”

        It’s not an abstract philosophical voodoo charm, it’s a real question, that deals with real people, and real stuff. I will show you. How about I try to put it in less abstract terms? How about putting it into a metaphor, with an actual linear road, and actual stops?

        Imagine I am standing in a town along a linear freeway, and you roll up to me in your vehicle. If I ask you how you got to my town and you tell me that you drove here from your hometown which is located infinity miles down that a’way, then I simply can’t understand you!

        How’d you ever end up here?!

        It doesn’t make the slightest sense, and it doesn’t matter if the explanation makes sense to you in a lot of other ways! No matter how much you bring up the fact that your tires show an infinite amount of wear on the tread to where they’ve become non-existent, or how your odometer shows an infinite amount of miles on vehicle, or how your dash shows you’ve gotten an average of 30miles per gallon across infinity miles and how you can prove that this is true by a copy of your bank records that show you paid for each gallon of that gas, adding up to a total of an infinite gallons pumped and infinite dollars paid, none of that will change anything! I’m still gonna be like “Dude, you didn’t drive here from a location an infinite miles away!”

        Now maybe you can drive for an infinite miles away from here, but you can’t ever reach that destination, infinity isn’t a place you start or end from, and it can’t be split up into stops, you can’t drive away from here an infinite amount of miles, then park your car, check into a motel and send me a postcard from infinity away which I’ll get in an infinite amount of business days, in which you share stories of your infinite days on the road, having to only choose twelve of them due to space constraints, after which you complain of how you spent yet another infinity dollars on an infinite amount gas even though you took it slower this time and got 40 miles/gallon for your infinity miles trip! Just no! And no! You can’t send me a postcard from a rest stop two-thirds of the way to infinity! it’ll take just as long to reach me- that is it never will!

        Forgive me if my tone seems mocking, but It’s ridiculous, really it is -like if you called me and said “Hey, I’ve been traveling for an infinite miles, I’m 10 miles away from you, wanna grab lunch?” to which I’m like “Well you should have started driving sooner, I just ate lunch!” and you reply “I can’t have started driving sooner, I never started, I’ve always been driving. Maybe I should have driven faster?” to which I would say “Well, I think if you traveled 10mph faster over an infinite number of miles, you’d have arrived here an infinite number of hours ago, which is apparently when you started driving…” and you’d say “I never started. I’ve always been driving.”

        Really, it’s not just that it’s hard to believe, it sounds like complete nonsense! Whose brain can believe they’ve existed and acted along a temporal line of an infinity of events stretching back infinitely? It’s completely meaningless, it’s not even something that I can say is true or false, I don’t even know how to comprehend it, ESPECIALLY when you remove it from abstract words and try to attach it to real stories or metaphors!

        And on top of that you say that we orthodox Christians promote unbelievable and confusing beliefs? It’s just too much.

        Now perhaps you meant something else. Perhaps you meant you have been driving such a distance that the miles didn’t even seem register, the distance is just too long to even consider measuring it in miles, for that would be like measuring the volume water in the Atlantic in milliliters. Perhaps you meant you had traveled for one trillion miles to the power of a billion. That would be hard to believe. But it could be, maybe not on this earth, but the road extended across another dimension. There could be a story about the man who drove for one trillion miles to the power of a billion. That could work. But it is logically impossible for you to have traveled here from an infinite miles away!

  10. Kristor,

    I simply deny that your concepts of finitude and infinity have relevance. You haven’t defined them. More importantly, you haven’t proven that they correctly map things as they really are. They are merely arbitrary mathematical constructs, which I feel free to ignore, as did Diogenes with Zeno. Nor have you considered Kant’s solution of placing our pre-existence as “outside” rather than “before.” I have, however, pointed to the example of Jesus, who you believe is infinite, who came down from heaven (John 6:38), and who traversed mortality with its mundane nature (the Gospels), and ascended back into heaven (Acts 1:9-11). That much is concrete and accepted as common ground. What I am saying is that this is the pattern for all mankind. We existed with God in the eternities, we came down from heaven, and we will yet return to God. See Eccl. 12:7, also Hel. 14:17 (Book of Mormon). Heaven is our home (2 Cor. 5:8). But how can one go back or go home to a place he has never been? Cf. The Hymn of the Pearl. None of this proves this is the case, but I am not trying to prove anything. I am trying to show that there are alternate views of the universe. Theological proofs, like mathematic proofs, all depend on initial assumptions, definitions, terms, and frames. In other words, they don’t prove anything if you don’t accept those postulates. That is why Sir Anthony Kenny, steeped in philosophy, considers himself an agnostic.

    • OK, here’s the question, restated with definitions: can the limited in extent be coextensive with the limitless in extent? Stripped to the bare essentials: can the limited be unlimited in the same respect? Can x = -x?

      If yes, you have repudiated the Law of Noncontradiction, and are no longer reasoning, but rather engaging in wishful thinking.

      Now there is all sorts of room here for you to say that we are not coeval with God in the same way that a man can be coeval with his twin; that existence is different for us than for God, and all sorts of other interesting and fruitful qualifiers. If you do, you will not wholly disagree with orthodoxy. If you don’t, then you do not mean the same thing by “God” that theists have always meant. Instead, you mean something by “God” that we theists mean by “angel.” Which would be fine; we’d then have made it clear that we are talking about different sorts of thing altogether, and that you are not, properly speaking, a theist at all.

      If you now reject the terms “limited” and “unlimited,” or ask me to define them in turn, or otherwise refuse to answer the simple, straightforward question I have posed to you again and again, I will take that as a sufficient demonstration that you are not concerned at all with the God of theism, but with something less ultimate.

      But in that case it would be sensible to recuse yourself from discussions about God, or theology.

      It’s such a simple question, Leo. Why are you so shy about stating your answer forthrightly?

      • The question is whether something that always had existence can appear in contemporary existence. It seems obvious the answer is yes. Then again, there is the example of the incarnation.

      • No. That’s not the question. The question is, “can the limited in extent be coextensive with the limitless in extent? Stripped to the bare essentials: can the limited be unlimited in the same respect? Can x = -x?”

        Like I said: “It’s such a simple question, Leo. Why are you so shy about stating your answer forthrightly?”

        What do you say? 😉

  11. FHL,

    Orthodoxy has an impressive history of arguing from faith and reason. The medieval worldview was simple and appealing, and modern views might well have seemed ridiculous to a medieval. Those views also have also been wrong, as in the Galileo affair. Until Kepler at least, the Copernican system was quite appealing.

    One problem is our lack of common ground on temporality. The scriptures don’t really define time or infinity for that matter, and we speculate in vain beyond what we are familiar with. McTaggert, Heidegger, and Mead are moderns critical of classical views of temporality. Their views might not be simple. Are they correct? Who can say? I would not dismiss them as being philosophically unsophisticated or dull thinkers. Einstein’s views on time were not as simple as the views he displaced. Again, consider Kant’s solution of “outside” rather than “before.” I can’t prove it, but it has a certain appeal. In any event, I don’t believe one’s salvation or sanity or reputation is dependent on the answer to such speculative questions or the definition of temporality, or whether time is discrete or continuous. I suspect some moderns would be willing to go to the stake to defend Einstein or modern physics, but that is not necessary.

    I am trying to imagine having this conversation with the Buddha, Moses, or Confuscius. I suspect they might all dismiss the conversation as a rabbit hole they would simply refuse to go down (cf. Diogenes). Or maybe the Buddha would have taken the thread in an unanticipated direction. It is impossible to prove they would have answered one way or another. I would not attempt to argue with a Buddhist or charge him with irrationality. It would be a fruitless task. He and I would be arguing from different premises. Buddhism is hard for a Westerner to understand, but the West may be hard for a Buddhist to understand. The Westerner may charge Buddhism with being confusing and vice versa. That doesn’t prove one has a false view and the other a true view. Merely that they find each other confusing or incomprehensible or even sometimes ridiculous. I don’t think it “too much” if a Buddhist or a Moslem or whatever declares another’s faith tradition to be confusing. I can respect a rabbi who simply doesn’t go where his tradition doesn’t lead him. And I can respect a Moslem who finds Christianity hard to believe on logical grounds. (Our local mosque has an articulate convert from Catholicism to Islam.) It is simply the nature of different traditions to find the other tradition hard to believe.

    • Leo, Buddhism is not hard for Westerner to understand once he realizes that Buddha speaks about something else than Moses. Buddha doesn’t know God, he’s not a theist and what he says should not be confused with what Moses or others say about God. These are two different things.

      • “If God after making the world puts Himself outside it, He is no longer God. If He separates Himself from the world or wants to separate Himself, He is not God. The world is not the world when it is separated from God. God must be in the world and the world in God.” (D. T. Suzuki, The Field of Zen p. 16.)

    • If I remember correctly when asked about existence of God Buddha replied something like “I do not believe in God, I do not believe in non-God”. Would you call that classical definition? He taught how man can free himself from suffering through correct procedure i.e. by one’s own will. But transcendency is inaccesible for us by our own powers so whatever was his ultimate end it wasn’t transcedental God.

  12. Kristor’s argument is a recasting of Zeno’s paradox. Philosophy is the love of wisdom, but as the Book of Proverbs illustrates, Hebrew wisdom was distinctly different from Greek mathematical puzzles. See also Job 28:12, 13, 23. The philosophers I have met seem to be fond of games and puzzles, but one’s salvation does not depend on one’s ability to solve mathematical puzzles like the Zeno’s or the Ross-Littlewood paradox, which are both about the non-intuitive nature of infinites and which have attracted completely different mathematical solutions. The scriptures are not at all like books of elegant mathematical proofs. There are other ways of knowing than just intellectual analysis. Faith is not just intellectual assent to a mathematical argument.

    Muslims argue that the infinite can neither incarnate nor have a son. Kristor has failed to explain how Jesus could surmount the paradox if he existed in a series of moments in time yet by supposition existed eternally, i.e., infinitely back in time.

    Diogenes simply dismissed Zeno’s arguments as not reflecting reality, a solution I have advanced without claiming that this is a thesis that is testable by the physical sciences or by human memory. See also which is eminently logical, but in the end unpersuasive to the modern mind. Peter Lynds has argued that instants in time and instantaneous magnitudes simply do not physically exist, which might or might not be true. Aristotle argued that with infinitesimals the time needed also becomes increasingly small, that is to say, that an infinite number of small steps can traverse an infinite length. Kevin Brown argued that given the history of resolutions of Zeno’s paradoxes, from Aristotle onwards, it’s foolhardy to think we’ve reached the end of them and that Zeno’s arguments serve as a kind of Rorschach test onto which people can project their most fundamental concerns. Indeed.

    As for a pre-existence, writers from Augustine to C.S. Lewis have been haunted by a suspicion that their longings are a remembrance of God. Blake, Kant, Wordsworth, Proust, and many were more explicit in their belief. Not that this is a proof, but it is what Lewis might call a hint. There is an almost intolerable lack of sober reflection, foresight, or design behind most human conception. It may be a matter of chance, accident, whim, or even violence. Yet the product we agree is majestic, dignified, immortal, and even touched with divinity. And to take such a life, unless you are speaking as an atheist, is not to end it, but merely to send it to another place. A common argument for the continuation of the soul is that we can’t imagine not being. Atheists, however, seem to have less trouble imagining not being. But even Bertrand Russell doubted whether it is reasonable to suppose that something that is immortal could just suddenly begin in time. David Hume held that what is incorruptible must also be ingenerable. Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel thought that premortal existence was more reasonable than postmortal existence, but also that one implied the other.

    • All very interesting. But you are dodging the question again. Are you a creature, or are you eternal? It’s one or the other; for by definition an eternal being can have no beginning, and so cannot be a creature. If you are not a creature, then the being whom you call “God” is not God, properly speaking, but only a fellow eternal being who is nowise your creator, or, therefore, ultimately, your Lord – or, a fortiori, worthy of your worship.

      What is it? Are you a creature, or are you eternal? Just answer the question. Have the courage of your convictions, and testify.

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