C.S. Lewis and Mere Christianity: The Trinity (The Three-Personal God)

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In Lewis’ next chapter, entitled, “The Three-Personal God,” he expands on the Christian concept of the Trinity. He begins by pointing out something that most people probably overlook: of all the religions in the world, only Christianity offers any kind of glimpse as to what something “super-personal” looks like. Eastern religions, which are essentially pantheist, say God is ultimately non-personal—that ultimate reality is like the ocean, and that we as individuals are all like water drops. Eventually, we will be absorbed into the sea. Of course, as Lewis points out, “If that is what happens to us, then being absorbed is the same as ceasing to exist.”

By contrast, Lewis points out that only Christianity has “any idea of how human souls can be taken into the life of God and yet remain themselves—in fact, be very much more themselves than they were before.” What exactly does that mean? Lewis provides an analogy that has stuck with me for 30 years. I think it is the best one, if you want to get even a glimpse of what “eternal life” is like. Here’s the analogy:

On a one-dimensional level, you can have a straight line. On a two-dimensional level, those lines can be combined in ways they couldn’t conceive in a one-dimensional world, and they could form a square. Moving on, on a three-dimensional level, those squares can be combined in yet more inconceivable ways for anyone living in a one-or-two-dimensional world, and could form a cube.

In our life in this natural world, we understand that one person is one being. I am me, and you are you. Perhaps we might get a fleeting glimpse of “two becoming one” in a strong, loving marriage—you know, the kind where the man and woman are so united that when one dies after 60 years of marriage, the very next day the other one passes away. Still, for the most part, in this world one person is one being, and we can’t really conceive of it any other way.

Lewis, though, suggests that the doctrine of the Trinity describes a “higher kind of life,” where you can have “a being who is three Persons while remaining one Being, just as a cube is six squares while remaining one cube.” Let’s face it, if you were a square, and someone tried to tell you about the reality of a cube, that person might be able to draw something like this, cube-clipart-cube but what you’re looking at isn’t really a cube: it’s a two-dimensional illustrate of what a cube would look like. We get a general idea, but unless you step into a three-dimensional world, that drawing will still be beyond our understanding.

This leads Lewis to his next point, even though the Trinity is something that is ultimately beyond our intellectual understanding, that “Trinity-life” is there for us to experience: God (the Father) is the one we pray to, God (the Holy Spirit) is also the thing inside us urging us to pray, and God (the Son) is bridge or road along which we are pushed to that goal. It is, quite simply, experiential. The early Christians, after the resurrection of Christ and the experience of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, found themselves “caught up” in this new phenomenon—and it took time for them to articulate in theological terms just what they were experiencing.

You see Trinitarian language all over the New Testament, but it wasn’t articulated in some kind of “doctrine” yet. That was the job for later theologians to hammer out. Still, it is only a doctrine. I’m sure that the reality of God is much deeper and complex than even our doctrine of the Trinity can express. And even though our intellect, reason, and language can never fully grasp it, the fact is we can, and in fact do, experience God in this very way—it is on a personal level, and not merely analytical level. And that is why the best way to know God better is through relationships with other people. Remember, Paul himself likens the Church to organs in one body—it takes people who are “united together in a body, loving one another, helping one another, showing Him to one another.” Therefore, as Lewis says, the best “instrument” for learning about God is, in fact, the whole Christian community, working together, serving each other, and loving one another.

It is ultimately in the context of loving relationships that we not simply know God, but we experience Him. That is why, as Lewis says, “horrible nations have horrible religions: they have been looking at God through a dirty lens”—and the result is often inhumane treatment of the most vulnerable in society.

Trying to get your head around Trinitarian life is going to be a futile endeavor: you never will, fully. But you can “know” it on a relational level, through others who are trying to do the same. Is it a difficult concept? Of course. But Christian doctrine isn’t going to be easy. As Lewis states, “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 not facts to bother about.”

For me, that’s one of the most intriguing things about Christianity: it’s quirky, and it’s hard to really grasp with my intellect alone. But what is points to can be seen in a thousand different ways in real life.

Want to better understand the Trinity? Sure, study some theology, but also look at a loving family and the inter-relationships within it, look at a vibrant church that is diverse yet unified. You get a better grasp of it when you are taken up into the Trinitarian life as is works out in everyday life.

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