It happens rather often. I am enjoying a comfortable dinner or lunch, or maybe even a happy party, when someone turns to me and asks, “I hope you don’t mind my asking. What do Catholics mean when they say ‘the Trinity.’ What do you picture? What goes through your head? I just don’t get it.”
Dinesh D’Souza first pointed out this phenomenon to me. At a Washington dinner party, he was once asked, during the dessert, when Catholics are going to get over their medieval prohibitions on fornication, gay sex, and the rest. Dinesh is a very clever and quick-witted man, so he answered with a straight face. “I’m with you. I think the Catholic church should give up its whole sexual code, permit bestiality, pornography, auto-stimulation, the whole bit.”
At this point in the conversation, several dinner guests winced, he tells me, and one woman said, “Well, I’m not a Catholic at all, but I certainly hope they don’t cave on everything. They’re the only ones in the world not afraid to stand for something, even if it’s unpopular.”
“Yes,” a gentleman down the table nodded. “They may be medieval, but they play a good social role. I don’t agree with them but, well–” here he sought words, “somebody has to play the bad cop.”
Dinesh concluded that many sophisticated people don’t want to be in the Church, and don’t mind at all bashing the Church now and then, and derisively disagreeing with her. But they really didn’t want the argument to disappear. They liked having something firm to dislike and disagree with. Were it to vanish, they would miss it.
In my case, I was at lunch on the shore when the question about the Trinity came up. I had known the lady who asked the question for a great many years, and had full confidence in her good will and genuine interest. She was not a Christian, nor even a religious person, but curious and open. It was a very fine and crisp June day, so bright one had to shield one’s eyes.
I nodded toward her long-term inamorato across the table (I think that is the proper word for a beloved companion of many years, with whom one lacks only a wedding certificate). Then I said, “I would think that the relation between you and Fred must be one of the better things in your whole life. If I think about it, I think I might say that the best–most divine–things in my life are a set of close friendships. The kind of love that friendship makes. Is there anything better than that?”
Her eyes told me that while she couldn’t see how my response was germane, she tentatively agreed with me. (Arguing with Catholics, I note, people tend to be a little afraid to grant a premise, fearing that awful swift logic that Catholics sometimes bring down like a guillotine.)
“Well,” I began to form another premise, “the Greeks thought of God as a solitary, cold Nous, an infinite Understanding of everything, remote, inconceivable, beyond all sense knowledge, recognizable only by mind. A solitary Understanding, like a great light suffusing all the universe, and radiating into it his own intelligence, making all things lawlike or at least intelligible. The point is, the solitude in which they imagined the Divine Nous dwelling.”
She wasn’t following me yet. I added, “I’m not sure about this, but I think Jews have something like the same approach to the unknowability and inconceivability of God. By monotheism, they too seem to be imagining some sort of awesome solitude. For Jews, God is not sexual, as most of the gods of their neighboring peoples were sexual. For the Hebrews, God is Spirit and Truth. Desexualized–Dennis Prager writes about this very brilliantly.”
I immediately saw that she recognized my reference to the Jewish lay theologian in California, who writes some of the best-formed pithy arguments in all journalism today in his weekly column, and is one of the more cerebral talk-show hosts on radio. “Among the Hebrews, God is not even given a name, in order to suggest how great is the distance between YAHWEH–the four Hebrew letters that stand in place of the divine name–and anything else that can be named. Including ourselves. The point is, God is imagined (so to speak, because imagination is not really in operation here)–God is thought of as dwelling in solitude. A kind of inaccessible solitude, invoking on our part awe and silence. Mysterium tremendum.”
The Latin got to her, as I knew it would. It made the whole thing sound profound, and mysterious.
Then I came to my final point. “Well, Christians hold that the most divine aspect of human life–the best thing–is the love of friendship. And we think of God accordingly. Although we cannot imagine how this can be–our imaginations fail here–we think of God as more like a Community of Friends than as a Solitary Being.” Very high above us the fantail of a tiny silver jet left a high chalk line across the cobalt sky.
“The only reason we dare to think this way, really, is because that is how Jesus talked of His Father, and of the Spirit whom the Father would send, after the death of Jesus. Jesus spoke of all Three as One. ‘I am in the Father, and the Father in me.’ In other places Jesus spoke of all three as one divinity. He said that Christians should be baptized ‘in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’ Three in one.”
Honestly, I said to my inquiring friend: “I don’t pretend to understand this. But when I say ‘Trinity,’ I remind myself to think of God as a Communion of Three Friends. Although that is not quite strong enough, for one must somehow hold that this Communion of Persons constitutes only One God. But this God is more like communion than solitude.”
My friends seemed to comprehend this no better than I, but they did seem reflective. At least to me.
I hesitated about offering St. Augustine’s metaphor from human psychology for understanding–well, for approaching–the Trinity: the human mind, illumined by insight, and then both the mind and the insight issuing in love. It was, however, too delicately beautiful a day, under that sky, overlooking the sea, for any further tedious metaphysical reflections. Of the sort that once gave Catholicism a bad name, at least among the Reformers and the Enlightened.
“Sorry,” I said. “Best I can do.”
“I want to think about it some more,” my friend said, with her characteristic kindness. “Thank you.”
We all pushed back our chairs. Time to go to the next event on our schedule.
— Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak’s own website is www.michaelnovak.net.