Friday, February 04, 2005

De Trinitate: Between Facile Dismissal and Facile Defense

You may recall John Ray's dismissal of the doctrine of the Trinity as a "most awful load of codswallop." For Ray, it is a wonder than anyone could take the doctrine seriously. For is it not just an obvious contradiction? God is one, and yet God is three, which is to say: God is both one and not one. Contradiction. Case dismissed.

That is one extreme, call it facile dismissal. The other is that of facile defense. Bradford Leavitt left the following comment on an earlier post:

"One in essence, three in person" is the classical statement of the Trinity. This statement does not violate the law of non-contradiction, because it is not referring to the same thing at the same time in the relationship. It would violate the law of non-contradiction if the statement were "One in essence, three in essence" or "One in person, three in person".

Now we have been through this before, here for example, but there is no harm in repetition. Philosophy is more practice than doctrine, and in any practice repetition is essential. (The Practice of Philosophy would have been a good alternative name for this blog, as would Philosophy in Process, or The Philosophical Life, or Doing Philosophy. Go ahead, swipe those names if you like; there are more where they came from.)

Leavitt is employing the time-tested method for contradiction-avoidance: make a distinction!Suppose someone says that a certain sphere is both red and green at the same time. Is that a contradiction? Not if the northern hemisphere is red and the southern green. Similarly with the Trinity. The respect in which God is one is distinct from the respect in which God is three. God is one in respect of essence, but three in respect of persons.

But notice the difference between the two cases. The distinction between hemispheres is straightforward and unproblematic. But is it unproblematic to say that God is one in respect of his essence (or nature or substance) but three in respect of his Persons?

It is unproblematic if one is preaching to the choir. But if one is neither a choirboy nor a scoffer, questions remain. (The naive believer is too quick to think the problem solved; the scoffer thinks the problem obviously insoluble and proof positive of the absurdity of the doctrine.) Leavitt's distinction between essence (one) and persons (three) is not helpful unless we understand what he means by ‘essence.’

And here is the rub. Either the divine essence is an individual entity or it is not. If it is an individual (unrepeatable) entity, then each Person can be God only by being identical to God. But this implies that there is one person, not three. If, on the other hand, the divine essence is a multiply exemplifiable (repeatable) entity, then each Person can be God only by exemplifying the divine nature. This, however, implies that there are three Gods.

Do you see the difference? In the case of the sphere, one can just stop after distinguishing the two hemispheres and anounce that the problem is solved. But with the Trinity (and in plenty of other situations) one cannot just stop after the initial distinction is made: one must explain the distinction. This is because the terms of the distinction in the second case are none too clear.

Philosophy is not ideology. Most of the friends and foes of religion, however, tend to be ideologues. Their focus is not truth, but the defense or destruction of a belief-system. Thus when a Christian hears an objection to the Trinity, say, he typically takes it as a threat to be parried, rather than as a sincere attempt at getting at the truth. This partially explains why they are satisfied with the first response that comes to mind, or with the making of a hackneyed distinction. On the other hand, when an anti-religionist like Sam Harris hears an objection to the Trinity, say, he is astonished that the question is discussed at all, since for him religion is a species of madness, something more in need of treatment than refutation.

Because philosophy is not ideology, facile dismissal and facile defense are both to be avoided. The doctrine of the Trinity is not obviously self-contradictory, pace Ray, or obviously the opposite, pace Leavitt. We have our work cut out for us.

But what exactly is ideology? And what is philosophy? Is political philosophy a type of ideology? The questions multiply, and with them the blog posts.