Monday, June 20, 2011

C.S. Lewis on the Trinity

Dorothy Sayers once wrote, concerning the Trinity: "The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the Spirit incomprehensible, the whole thing incomprehensible." In a way, that is what is most frustrating for some when it comes to confessing the Athanasian Creed (as we did yesterday on Trinity Sunday). However, the more one ponders the mystery of the Trinity, the more this leads me to think that all the "eternals", "incomprehensibles" and "uncreateds" of the Athanasian Creed are actually more of a strength than a weakness, more of a comfort than a frustration. The vexation, I gather, given the constant work of this Trinity upon us, is fleeting (perhaps at times to a greater or lesser degree).

After all, who could ever have imagined a God like the God of the Scriptures, the God of the Athanasian, Apostle's and Nicene Creeds, the God who assumed human flesh and blood in time and history, not by the conversion of the divinity into flesh but by the assumption of the humanity into God? As much as I am gratified by answers to questions and intellectual inquiry, who would really want a God you could fully comprehend? How would you know if you hadn't just made him up in the shower or cooked him up sometime between your morning coffee and donuts. That kind of god would be entirely untrustworthy and unreliable, much less an object of faith and eternal worship. What we need, is not a tame god; but a real one, merciful, loving and revealed. Leave the simple gods for the simple religions.

"It is simple religions that are the made up ones...If Christianity was something we were making up, of course we could make it easier. But it is not. We cannot compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions. How could we? We are dealing with Fact. Of course, anyone can be simple if he has no facts to bother about." - C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book Four, chapter 2.

That is why the Athanasian Creed - in all its complex beauty - is my favorite creed. Confessing it is like jumping into the deep end of the pool for the first time as a child: at first you are somewhat timid, but once you jump in you can't wait to do it again and again and again, exploring the depths, swimming in its sonorous life. A new world - indeed a new life - has been opened up to us, revealed for us in this Name. For it is the life and Name of the very Triune God - who is love in Himself - that we come to know and worship whenever this creed is confessed. And it really ought to be more than once a year.

Good theology, as Professor Rod Rosenbladt once taught my class, is always practical. The same can be said for the Athanasian Creed (and the others as well as the heritage of the fathers - Lutheran and early church). With that in mind, Lewis illustrates how it is that we are taken into this divine, three-fold personal life. For he is not an impersonal, absent being. Rather, a "super-personal" one - utterly uniquely revealed in Sacred Scripture and in the fullness of time. Simple and yet complex. Christianity embraces the paradox (Tri-une, God and man, and so forth). Lewis makes no attempt to solve this paradox. He simply gives us an illustration - a pair of goggles - by which we are able to catch a glimpse into the depths of the unfathomable. And though his usage of the word "person" is not exactly the same philosophical definition used in the Athanasian Creed (or by early church fathers), it is a useful analogy. Analogies are meant to communicate in words the things we cannot fully comprehend. And we must communicate this way. Of course they are far from perfect. However, analogies have a place (and they must if we are to understand one another) in theological discourse so long as they do not become cumbersome and erroneous, pushing us further away from God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit -rather than drawing us in. I think Lewis' quotation does just that sort of "drawing in."

You know that in space you can move in three ways - to left or right, backwards or forwards, up or down. Every direction is either one of these three or a compromise between them. They are called the three Dimensions...If you are using only one dimension, you could draw only a straight line. If you are using two, you could draw a figure: say, a square. If you have three dimensions, you can then build what we call a solid body: say, a cube - a thing like a dice or a lump of sugar. And a cube is made up of six squares.

Do you see the point? A world of one dimension would be a straight line. In a two-dimensional world, you still get straight lines, but many lines make one figure. In a three dimensional world, you still get figures but many figures make one solid body. In other words, as you advance to more real and more complicated levels, you do not leave behind you the things you found on the simpler levels: you still have them, but combined in new ways - in ways you could not imagine if you knew only the simpler levels.

Now the Christian account of God involves just the same principle. The human level is a simple and rather empty level. On the human level one person is one being, and any two persons are two separate beings - just as, in two dimensions (say on a flat sheet of paper) one square is one figure, and any two squares are two separate figures. On the Divine level you still find personalities; but up there you find them combined in new ways which we, who do not live on that level, cannot imagine. In God's dimension, so to speak, you find a being who is three Persons while remaining one Being, just as a cube is six squares while remaining one cube. Of course we cannot fully conceive a Being like that: just as, if we were so made that we perceived only two dimensions in space we could never properly imagine a cube. - C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book Four, chapter 2.

And now for something completely different.

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