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Volume 15, Issue 4: Thema

Spoiled by the Trinity: A Primer for Secularists

Douglas Jones

They say that giraffes have never become terribly endangered because people are afraid of them. It's not the fear of attack that we gain from lions or alligators but the fear of otherworldliness, of, say, encountering a tree as a living person—slow, silent, sublime, alien, comic. Giraffes in documentaries and zoos had always seemed to me to be manufactured for those media, simple special effects. But when, as a boy, I saw giraffes in the wild, standing on a southern African plain, rivers of heat reaching to the horizon, with all fences and narrators absent, I lost all sense of balance. It seemed as if I had shifted planets and had nowhere to place my feet. Six foot necks, tapering. Bodies patterned in white nets. Eyes two rooms above ground. Clownish knees. Antennaed heads. And each giraffe still succeeded in giving a noble stare. I was ruined somehow, in a way I didn't realize at the time. The terrain explained that these giants were normal; they really belonged here, and I was the alien. I did not live where I thought I lived. What kind of world could be home to such sublime, elegant monsters?

I was ruined because secularism became so drab and boring from then on. Secular norms have to compress and hide that sort of experience. As a modern culture, huffing, puffing, and trying as we might to find secularism convincing, I'm afraid we're all too spoiled by the Trinity. Even secularists are closet Trinitarians, living as if the mysterious dance of the ancient creed were true, "For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal."
But what is the Trinity? Attempting to talk about the Trinity is like standing too near Niagara Falls— fascinating but terrifying, clear but deep, life and death uncontained. The Christian Church through millennia has recognized the revelation of the Trinity as the Waterfall of Life, Life personalized by Beauty, Wildness, Loyalty, Nobility, Gift, and Love. The Christian God is not some set of rigid ideas or an impersonal force or a sentimental old man wanting to banish all pain. The Trinity is who we would all naturally long to be connected to, an intriguing, brilliant, playful, frightening, intoxicating God.
The Trinity is the name that the Christian God gives Himself in history. This one God's name is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit _ three unique persons. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the source of the personal and personality, a One but also a community. Ultimate reality is not mere matter or physical force but a relationship between persons, a mysterious oneness of loyal friends, of family.
The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit reveal themselves in the Bible as absolutely free and equal, though serving one another in loyalty for the common goal of gifting life to each other and creation, especially humans. Though one, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit take on different emphases in history, sometimes described as depth, incarnation, and indwelling, other times as Fountain, Word, and Comforter. With the goal of drawing humans into the richness and play of Trinitarian life, the Trinity created the world, and with the rebellion of humans as a keystone to the story, the Father sent the Son to give us life from the death of rebellion, a life to be beautified by the Holy Spirit.
The Christian Church, then, is not dedicated to a simple monotheism, as found in Islam, Judaism, and American civil religion— "one nation, under God." At the same time, Christians are not polytheists or tri-theists. God is both One and Three, identical and different. The early church father, Gregory of Nazianzus famously observed, "No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the splendor of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Them than I am carried back to the One." This is the greatest mystery, the most exhilarating mystery. It rebukes any boast of the human mind and unimaginative Reason. As C.S. Lewis observed, "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."
The Triune God is a mysterious, unified One of three persons giving and living the best life, the sort of God who has the breathtaking humor and creativity to sculpt giraffes— and ostriches, elephants, lions, pigs, beetles, jellyfish, horses, and eagles.
If Rene Descartes had just stood beneath a giraffe for a while, the Enlightenment could never have started. A giraffe is so real it makes you doubt yourself. But the first giraffe only showed up in Europe two centuries after Descartes. If he had experienced a giraffe, he could never have doubted the existence of his famous wax, that wax that becomes an icon of what a secular or modern view does to reality. He begins by describing the wax as "having been but recently taken from the beehive; it has not yet lost the sweetness of the honey it contained; it still retains somewhat of the odor of the flowers from which it was gathered; its color, figure, size, are apparent (to the sight); it is hard, cold, easily handled."
Then he shifts. Descartes imagines stripping traits from this wax because of the "difficulties" of change: "let it be placed near the fire— what remained of the taste exhales, the smell evaporates, the color changes, its figure is destroyed, its size increases, it becomes liquid, it grows hot, it can hardly be handled, and, although struck upon, it emits no sound. . . . But when I distinguish the wax from its exterior forms, and when, as if I had stripped it of its vestments, I consider it quite naked. . . . There certainly remains nothing, except something extended, flexible, and movable."
In other words, to fit the limits of his mind, Descartes strips the wax of all sweetness, aroma, color, warmth, everything interesting, and makes a mundane piece of wax even thinner, less real. He ends up throwing out everything that changes in the wax, everything whose relationships get rearranged because he was "unable to compass this infinity [of changes] by imagination." Whatever his finite imagination couldn't grasp, couldn't be real. That's one of the chief costs of the Enlightenment, the cost of making the human mind the highest court of appeal: whatever can't be filed easily, gets shredded. Maybe it's better he never saw a giraffe— ugly scene.
Power and Conformity
Despite all the denials and qualifications, Descartes' path to naked wax is the pattern taken up by many secular streams of thought, modern and postmodern, East and West. To satisfy the demands of a finite mind, things have to be simplified radically. A pure oneness is easiest to grasp. Many secularists start by getting backhandedly uncomfortable with time, change, and complex relationships, and then pretty soon we start to hear excessive praise of simplicity, clarity, and oneness. Not long after, the consensus becomes that the most important part of reality is simple and One— the individual, the soul, reason, matter, the collective, and/or god— each simple and one in its own way. The history of thought shows this monotone recurring time and again. In the end, for Descartes and most secularists, to exist is to stand alone— an Army of One is all that counts as real, everything else melts away as unimportant.
Reference to an army here is especially pertinent. A love for simplicity and unity naturally connects to a love of power, however shrouded. If only simplicity and unity are valuable, then you have to force everything else to conform to Oneness, and that requires power, whether through guillotines of "progressive" equality or the military power of nationalistic patriotism. Left and right vary in expression, but both are seduced by unity through power.
Power becomes supreme because secularism's love of oneness has no other way to relate to other things. If something like the Self, Reason, or some unitarian, Jeffersonian god is the supreme One, it is only connected to everything else by a power relation, by a perpetual relation of master to slave, superior to inferior. Many secularists, for example, might grant a vague appeal to a tame Jeffersonian god, a big socially awkward being with no equals. Everything else, however, whether material or spiritual, is inferior to that One being in some way. Its only relation to everything else, including humans, is superiority. It can pretend to be nice and compassionate, but Its basic relation is power, domination. It can't be naturally and equally related to other things in complex ways, because It is designed for unity and simplicity, not a community of equals. It can never know what it is to live with beings like Itself.
When secularists embrace Reason as a god, it also functions in terms of power. As the supreme norm of simplicity, everything must be made simple or be denounced as foolishness, irrationality, and talk radio. Notice, again, the secular stress on flat conformity. And Reason, like a unitarian god, relates to humans by means of power relations, importantly impersonal like a hooded judge in this case: necessity, implication, entailment, reduction, refutation, negation. This isn't the language of communities, of friends and lovers; it's the language of military strategy.
Even a brutally naturalistic universe, with no supernatural Republican god or Reason or Self, is given over to simplicity, unity, and power. In Darwin's and Jack London's world, for example, life proceeds by domination, by power, and the simplest means to that end survives. Strong species feed on weaker species, some die out altogether, and so the whole process aims toward a crushing unity. Brute power is the height of profundity.
Even after hearing decades of constant, secular preaching via advertising and education, I continue to be surprised by the awkward posture of these modern secular visions of the world. They seems so contrived, so unnatural, something like insisting on painting turquoise over fall leaves or saying you absolutely adore opera but only when middle C is sung; Dostoevsky is marvelous, too, a master of hyphenation; and rainbows, you'd like them if only they were square.
Though certainly no Trinitarian, Italo Calvino unintentionally provided something of this feel in his fable "Without Colors" which describes the introduction of color to earth. Before atmosphere surrounded earth and filtered the sun's stark light, the earth was all a single gray like the moon. Calvino's humanish protagonist explains: "monotonous . . . but restful, all the same. . . . [A]ll I could see was gray upon gray. No sharp contrasts: the only really white white, if there was any, lay in the center of the Sun. . . . The absence of colors was the least of our problems; even if we had known they existed, we would have considered them an unsuitable luxury. The only drawback was the strain on your eyes when you had to hunt for something or someone, because with everything equally colorless, no form could be clearly distinguished from what was behind it or around it."
Unrelenting grayness— that's a hint of how the world would begin to feel without the Trinity. Can we truly imagine a colorless world? Even Calvino allowed for subtle shadings. Can we do more? Can we "play Descartes," going farther than he could venture and strip off everything interesting in reality and find a little, opaque secular core? Can anyone truly imagine what a secular world would be like?
A giraffe's tongue is about twenty inches long, blue-black. When a giraffe gives birth, the calf drops from a height of six feet, an interesting introduction to planet Earth. A deep breath ensues. Within an hour, the calf is walking. Newborns and older giraffes have a bit of a hump at the base of their necks, and this, along with their spotted, reticulated coats make them hard to categorize. Their patterns give hints of being a type of camel gone odd, and yet the spotted coats place them closer to leopards. The story goes, that this is where its scientific classification stems from: Giraffa camelopardalis, something unpredictable, something gloriously untidy, something playful.
Yet to classify anything in terms of playfulness is already to sneak the Trinity into the discussion. Surely, playfulness, of all states has to be stripped away in the secular dream. Secular simplicity is too austere to allow playfulness a true place in human experience. Playfulness involves a basic unseriousness about life, an unseriousness characterized by freedom, order, pleasure, adventure.
This sort of genuine playfulness, though, requires a real Other, an equal you can press against, wrestle with, respect. Even a game of solitaire does this indirectly. But we most often highlight the social, plural aspects of playfulness in terms of team games, board games, festivals, and stage plays. Trying chess or baseball against oneself is a little sad, not playful. To play against someone woefully inferior in some game might be a teaching opportunity, but it lacks the adventure and freedom of real play. The superior one has to hold back something. Real play loves the challenge of respectable equals, whether in body or wit, as when Much Ado's Beatrice mocks Benedick, "In our last conflict four of his five wits went halting off, and now is the whole man governed with one: so that if he have wit enough to keep himself warm, let him bear it for a difference between himself and his horse."
Playfulness naturally resides at the heart of the Triune Christian God. There we find not merely a mysterious oneness but also a community of equals and genuine difference. No self-chess. As Lewis Smedes surmised in response to the ancient query, What was God— Father, Son, and Holy Spirit— doing before creation? "The three of them were simply enjoying being with each other. Three persons with nothing much to do, no time schedule to keep, no superior's orders to obey, no problem of survival, and no creatures to worry about. If in some impossible fantasy we could have looked on, we might have scolded the holy Trinity for wasting time. But we would have been outsiders, unable to understand the freedom of the Trinity to have their own rules to play by. And we would have been mystified, perhaps, by the enormous pleasure that they seemed to have in what they were doing. I cannot think it wrong to suppose that if anything on earth could be an analogy of the eternal goings-on, it would be children at play."
In a Trinitarian world, society and playfulness fundamentally characterize the highest aspects of reality. But if ultimate reality is an isolated Cartesian self or frozen Reason or an Eastern One or even a vapid Jeffersonian god, playfulness becomes fundamentally unnatural, alien to experience. A unitarian god has no equals, the East has no real differences, and autonomous selves don't know how to connect. Secular reality can't even get a game started. Worlds of power and unity offer no encouragement to play, only one-sided domination, only solo chess.
But it gets even worse. Secularism not only lacks an ultimate reality friendly to play, it can't guarantee the end of the story. In Trinitarian reality, the godhead mysteriously, freely, but certainly controls the paths to the end of history. The Trinity guarantees a comedy rather than a tragedy. Trinitarian history is always a play within a play, an ultimate unseriousness on stage. Like Job, we fight our battles, shape our communities, love our lovers, but the inner battles aren't the ultimate story. They are just the interior play. The broader frame sets the real goal— shaping a people to join the fellowship of the Trinity— but all the inner battles are ultimately unserious, though often heated. Those who take the inner play too seriously begin acting like secularists— legalistic, dominating, humorless. Those who don't take the inner play seriously enough are condemned to boredom.
Secularism can't offer a play within a play. It's committed to a never-ending seriousness. Every battle is in principle a fight to the death; every personal slight is a final attack on the Deathstar. There is only one frame, no foreground and background, no guarantee of the play being a comedy, and so true playfulness becomes a dangerous, artificial tangent. Secular reality is ultimately serious, and we're exhorted to imitate that or die.
And yet play often pervades secular cultures, even at times in Scandinavia. Somebody is cheating. Somebody is playing Trinity while denying it. Their own gods are too thin for life on earth.
Like Descartes' wax, we must strip away playfulness from human experience. Too relational, too complex. Too Trinitarian.
We can't throw out playfulness, though, without dislodging other features of life. Play often involves a delightful unproductivity, a luxurious uselessness, the sort of overflow we identify in beauty. What is beauty? What is ugliness? We can try to ignore these questions and rightly poke fun at stiff definitions, but we invoke aesthetic judgments far more often than anything else.
In typical fashion for secularism, the ancient Greeks tended to identify beauty as a simple, timeless, abstract property that some things connected to and others didn't. When that tradition fell out of favor, beauty became radically individualized in private taste, another example of the perennial secular shift between oneness and manyness, with no harmonious rest.
The failure of these two traditions on their own, suggests that beauty is something that is complicated, something that involves unity and diversity. Theories aside, we most often identify beauty as an event. And events are unities that involve complex relationships of time, tradition, symbolism, personality, emotion, and more. We can't rein in beauty syllogistically, but we do identify it daily. Not just any event will do; many events don't capture beauty, but some do. Some faces and bodies. Some skylines and paintings and music.
Amid the many ways of talking about these events of beauty, we often pick them out because, we say, these particular moments somehow express something from the foundations, some profundity. These events mysteriously gather all of reality in a small space or time. Sometimes we separate out these events as "art," but often we find it loose.
But again, secularism lacks the framework for "delighting in the moment" so common to the arts, in which as William Blake said, "To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour." We're so used to granting this sort of connection, but it really can't occur in just any world. It assumes some kind of very intricate, real connection between each particular thing and all of reality. A world of disconnected atoms can't pull this off, nor can a world of pure Oneness (the particulars vanish). At most, the only relation it can praise is superior to inferior. But beauty is much more than that. And if beauty captures the profundity of reality, what depths does secularism bring? Ultimately, the deepest secularism can go is brute power and conformity. But we're not generally moved by those traits. We tend to run away from them.
But this common sort of "delight-in-the-moment" experience fits perfectly within a Trinitarian reality in which the One naturally lives through the Three, and the Three through the One—"Day unto day utters speech, and night unto night reveals knowledge.There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard." God can point Job to the lion, ostrich, hawk, and horse and expect Job to understand something about the whole. We can look at the giraffe and see the Trinity.
Secularism insists that playfulness and beauty must go. What does a world without these look like? Calvino's gray world comes back to mind. But it doesn't stop there. How does a unitarian or naturalistic world value personality? Matter isn't very social, nor is Jefferson's loner god. In these scenarios, humans end up knowing more about interpersonal relations than the highest secular reality.
Ironically, though, secularists love personality so much they insist on imposing it everywhere, not just in novels and movies. Ancient myths personified matter repeatedly, and even Italo Calvino's scientific fables in Cosmicomics personify atoms, forces, and evolving animals: "There was no holding the young fish; they slapped their fins on the muddy banks to see if they would work as paws . . . . Our family, I must say, including grandparents, was all up on the shore, padding about as if we had never known how to do anything else." Why not leave personality out? Because it would be boring. But if you've got a boring worldview, then have the courage of your tediousness. What else is this but a nostalgia for Trinitarianism where personality and personalism find their ground?
Freedom and Equality
A love of freedom must be stripped away too. In the Trinity, each person of the Godhead lives to make room for the other. Each sacrifices for the other, and in so doing each gives life to each and the whole. Each enables the other to be creative and free. There is no domination or egoism, only sacrifice and freedom.
But where can that ideal show up when the values of simplicity and brute sameness rule? How can secularists love freedom when their ultimate reality is domination? Again, the value of freedom is not built into their framework of reality. It has to be learned or borrowed, and in the end secularists strive to be better than the reality they preach.
Secularism not only lacks a framework for freedom, it lacks one for equality too, that much bruised value. Some sort of magical fog must arise when most secularists talk about freedom and equality. In the abstract, the two simple values are in open, violent conflict with one another, but secular eyes glaze over when these two values get mentioned side by side.
On the one hand, unbound Freedom is all about difference and individuality and uniqueness; but on the other, unbound Equality is all about sameness and universality and conformity. A clear gladiator dual.
Unbounded Equality continually pushes further and further away from the individual to human to species to organism to bland Being. Pursuing abstract Equality insists on more and more sameness. Abstract Equality demands that we break down or ignore all the differences between people until Humanity is one uniform, undifferentiated blob, the Simple. Humanity takes on divine status, and blasphemy occurs when anyone dares to assert any real difference or hierarchy or inequality or deep antithesis within the godhead that humanity becomes.
Real difference is an affront to divinized Humanity, and the denunciations always function just the same way as traditional Christian claims about blasphemy: Thou Shalt Not Notice Any Differences. It was no great surprise, then, that when I visited a local secular political rally, the main speaker, a Unitarian minister, (a tradition whose deepest reality has always been hostile to real difference) explained that "the divine resides not in exclusion but equality," and "love overcomes all difference." In short, Thou Shalt Have No Other God Than Generic Humanity.
Unbounded Freedom goes in the opposite direction. Pursuing unbounded Freedom means embracing more and more difference, pushing for greater uniqueness, allowing people to do whatever they want because there are no connections amidst our radical individualism; we are each our own world unto ourselves, little unique atoms. That's also why people sometimes resent labels. The assumption is that we're radically unique, and a label says that there are things other than individuals, namely groups and kinds and general things. Unbound Freedom insists that the individual is more valuable than Humanity or Being, and it wants to maximize difference, thus struggling against Equality.
All viewpoints have to say something about Equality and Freedom and Oneness and Manyness. All of these are very important and valuable, and the Christian Trinitarian view of God as simultaneously a three-in-one and a one-in-three that exists in fugue-like harmony provides the ground for personalized equality and freedom. The Enlightenment threw out the Trinity, but it couldn't give up the categories of Equality and Freedom. It tried to cut and paste these values together with a straight face into some sort of pseudo trinity. But the pieces don't fit. It's all forced, since secularism's framework of power and conformity has no room for either freedom or equality, and so political history tends to whiplash back and forth between the two.
Irony and Humor
A secular world shaped by power and conformity undermines not only the big, bold values like freedom and equality, but also the more important and delicate, irony and humor. Postmodernism made much noise about irony and then the death of irony, but even that brand of secularism lacked the tools for it. Power and sameness can't naturally prompt laughter. Irony lives on difference. Irony plays off of discrepancies between appearance and reality or expectation and actuality or mixed realities. At the heart of humor is the realization that "no that doesn't go that way" or "no, that's wrong." When Jack Handy famously noted, "It takes a big man to cry, but it takes a bigger man to laugh at that man," he crashes together moral categories in about a dozen ways, some blatant, some subtle, all while insulting, praising, and challenging. His clash thrives on a world with genuine differences.
Irony and humor delight in real difference, but power and sameness push in the other direction. They seek to level every incongruity, to make every difference only an appearance, to salve every division, to erase hierarchies and categories. In the end, unbounded Oneness turns every difference into a social construction, an appearance created by us and not part of reality. But if that's true, then the heart of irony and humor (and metaphor!) are gone. If every difference is just an arbitrary, subjective social construction, then it's of no great shock to mix categories. Reality is malleable, and we can force it any direction. Thus any clichéd joke or metaphor is in principle as good as any "striking" mix. Sameness kills all incongruities and differences; it makes everything a lifeless, gray world. And irony has no home. Irony assumes a playful mix of the one and the many, of equality and freedom. The Enlightenment tension can live off the Trinitarian categories for a short while, but in the long run, it kills the core of what it is to be human: the joke, the metaphor, the irony. Robespierre was a bore.
With playfulness, beauty, personality, freedom, equality, irony peeled away, what can secular visions make of the glories of sexuality? "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth; for your love is better than wine." And he adores her aroma and her breasts and says "the curves of your thighs are like jewels."
Eros drives the world, and yet most secularists never value sex like their theories pretend during the actual embrace of love. In bed, they experience sexuality as profundity, as a love of true difference, as a harmony of bodies, as a sacrifice that gives joy to another. But none of those values match the highest reality in their world. Their striving for conformity and unity undermines sexuality. As in politics, their obsession with unity and simplicity turns the sexes into mere social constructs, malleable genders, split infinitives, a quiet despising of the profound difference that eros thrives on, in reality a hatred of sexuality. They jettison the wonder and surprise of encountering real difference for the conformity of sameness. At best secularism yearns for a sexless world, a conformist, pasty androgynous utopia. At worst, secularism's love of power leaves us with a sexuality whose highest model is rape. That's the best Jefferson's god can do, the social outcast who knows only superior power.
Eros finds its life in the Trinity because that reality is not simplistically One but also genuinely different. It is not just equal; it is an equality that blends smoothly with hierarchy, a combination the secular mind can't grasp. The Trinity provides the framework for genuine eros, but even more astoundingly, the Son descends to bring these relations of harmony to a creaturely bride, a bride He loves and adorns with ornaments, and He carries her, the Church, back into fellowship within the very Trinity itself.
And when we have traded the magnificence of deep sexuality for the rapist's dominance, we have given up much more. Without the fundamental mysteries of eros, all other wonder vanishes as well. If secular sexuality is at best a power relation or mere chemical interactions, then how can we be in awe of anything else in nature? Secularism claims to be able to explain everything in time and with enough laboratories. Everything has an answer. In principle, there can be no mysteries because everything can fit in Descartes' tiny file cabinet. This makes secular reality ultimately one dimensional, ultimately hostile to the sort of mystery and wonder we all come up against regularly. For secularism, there is no great artist expressing speechless creativity in nature; it is all accidents of matter and selection, or at best a troll god with crayons. But again, we must strip away more of the best parts of human experience, the mystery, the awe, the wonder, for no one should be impressed by a perpetual accident. I've yet to meet a secularist who can live this way. Constant hypocrisy is the norm. Even Nietzsche understood that, "It is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified."
In the end, secularism strips life of life. There is no secular core left after secularism has removed all the best parts, no play, beauty, personality, freedom, equality, irony, sexuality, mystery, and more. That world is less than gray.
Calvino's story of the colorless world meets its crisis when atmosphere and oceans begin to form around the earth, and "the world poured out colors, constantly new, pink clouds gathered in violet cumuli which unleashed gilded lightning; after the storm's long rainbows announced hues that still hadn't been seen. And chlorophyll was already beginning its progress. . . . I ran all over the Earth, I saw again things I had once known gray, and I was still amazed at discovering fire was red, ice white, the sky pale blue, the earth brown, that rubies were ruby-colored and topazes the color of topax."
The protagonist tries to find the woman Ayl, his Eve, but she cowers from the new explosion of colors. He finds her friends, "leaping over the lawn, tossing the iridescent ball: but how changed they were! . . . Her friends' lips were red, their teeth white, and their tongues and gums were pink. Pink, too, were the tips of their breasts. Their eyes were aquamarine blue, cherry-black, hazel, and maroon."
He finds his Ayl hiding in a chasm. "Ayl! Come outside with me. If you only knew." She responds, "Sssh. I'm here. Why are you shouting so much? . . . I don't like it outside." He finally lies to her to entice her out into the world of color. But just as he sees the new colors on Ayl's face, she screams and draws back into the darkness, and an earthquake forces a gray wall between them, a wall that grows into a mountain range. She is secluded forever from color. And the protagonist realizes that "her place could never have been out here," and "that Ayl's perfect world was lost forever, so lost I couldn't even imagine it any more, and nothing was left that could remind me of it."

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