A few years ago my family and I attended a Trinity Sunday Mass at a parish that isn’t our own. On the way over, we bet on whether at least one of the four hymns sung would have anything to do with the Trinity. My wife, who pegged the odds at precisely zero, turned out to be correct.
I expected that the priest would say something about the Trinity during his homily. He did, but I wish he hadn’t. All he said was that the Trinity was something that we could never understand – which is true enough, but not at all helpful. He did mention that the Trinity had something to do with love. In general, he left the congregation with the impression that the Trinity was one of those odd holdover doctrines that we believe, but aren’t really central to our worship.
How far, how terribly far, from the great prayer of Dante in the Paradiso:
who alone know Thyself, are known, and smile
with Love upon the Knowing and the Known!
It is crucial that we understand why Jesus commanded His disciples to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Baptism initiates us into the Christian life, by incorporating us into the Church, the Body of Christ. But that cannot be, unless we are also welcomed into the life of the Trinity.
If we believe that we have been made in the image and likeness of God, and that we find our human fulfillment in that supra-human power and wisdom and love, then to mistake that we are meant for the Trinity is to mistake how we are meant for God, and that, as Christians must hold, is to mistake what we are as human beings.
The danger of monotheism without the Trinity is that it will eventually shade away into the abstract and impersonal. Judaism is the obvious exception to this rule – an exception, however, clinched by the intense personalism of the revelation of God in the Old Testament.
Even the sacred name given to Moses, “I am Who am,” which rightly appears to be the name beyond names that such philosophers as Aristotle and Plotinus were searching for, may also be taken to mean, “I am with you always” – in other words, “I am that personal God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who have adopted you as my own people.”
But those forms of Judaism that efface the chosenness of Israel eventually lose the personhood of God and degenerate into mild ethical systems; as neo-Platonism loses the personhood of the mind by attempting to attain union with the impersonal One; as Islam loses the personhood of Allah, and confuses God with fate or with bald unreasoning power.
The Holy Trinity by Antonio de Pereda, c. 1650
Our own secular monotheism without the Trinity has its source, and its sad end, in an amputated anthropology. We bow down in worship of liberty, which for us means non-interference, doing as we please, like miniature Allahs, with a vast legal tangle to keep one Allah from stubbing his feet against the solitary dreams of the Allah next door.
Thus do we misunderstand both God and man. We mistake the individual for the person, and we mistake the collective for the community. We would do neither, if we kept the Trinity firmly in mind.
The essential mistake of liberalism – of whichever political flavor – is the refusal to admit that an “individual” is an abstraction. We are persons, and personhood implies relationship. We are born into a web of relations that not only form us but exert just claims upon us: I am a son, brother, husband, father, student, teacher, friend, citizen.
The liberal sees the relations as essentially restrictive; but they are so in the sense that having legs is restrictive. My bones delimit me, but they allow me to walk across the room. Having one mother and one father is delimiting also; but by them I came into the world, and learn what it is to love – which is to say, to be truly human.
I am to honor my mother and my father, to love my home and my neighbor. Moral laws are not No Trespassing signs erected arbitrarily by a Great Forbidder. They are personal and loving guides, revealing to us where joy is to be found – joy proper to persons.
The inability to distinguish between the individual and the person is reflected in an inability to distinguish between a collective and a communion. The Trinity is not a collective. In fact, it is just because of the persons that the Trinity cannot conceivably be a collective.
For a collective is an abstraction. It implies no personal affection, no special duty or love owed to this person rather than that; it cherishes no traditions handed down from one generation to the next; it is, like the individual, strangely ahistorical and incorporeal. It operates not from deeds of love and wisdom undertaken by one person for another person, but rather by procedures, like the levers and pulleys of a great machine.
In education fit for a collective, the “right” objects of study are determined by the “right” educrats and are decreed universally, without regard to distinctions between country and city, or one way of life and another. Such education will typically coexist with forms of libertinism.
The amputated person is “free” from interference by those to whom he should be most intimately bound; free, then, to be corralled into that desiccated community, the collective, which must be established if for no other reason than to contain the libertine disorder.
When we see families and neighbors united in prayer to the source of all personhood, we are witnessing something that the would-be directors of the collective, who grant us an enslaving license and call it liberty, despise.
Perhaps they understand the Trinity – its promise to us, and its threat to them – better than they know.