Poking the Trinity
Brother Ivo is travelling. Just before leaving for the airport he thought he might take some light reading: light as in 'low weight', rather than trivial, and so slipped into his jacket pocket a slim volume which he thought he might enjoy re-reading on the journey. And so it has proved. Within the first few pages he realised that there are some books one reads too early, some that are encountered at an apposite time of one's life, and doubtless a few that come to our attention too late to be of much value. Then there are those that repay re-reading for a variety of reasons. This one is worth the reconnection.
Wittgenstein's Poker by David Edmonds and John Eidinow explores a short incident that occurred in 1946 when two philosophers, Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein, debated for the first and only time in a small room in Kings College Cambridge. There were about thirty people present, many of whom went on to become the great and the good of the philosophical world, though Betrand Russell already had that distinction. Sir John Vinelott went on to make his name as a High Court Judge. The 'witnesses' to the event were therefore all of high intellect.
During the course of the discussions, there is some certainty that Wittgenstein held, perhaps lifted, a poker from the fire. He left the room. Popper made a remark that visiting lecturers should not be threatened with pokers, but beyond this, what happened is a matter of uncertainty and conjecture of some vehemence between students/supporters of the principal protagonists.
Within weeks, in those pre-Internet days, people on the other side of the world were asking those present if it were true that these patriarchs of rationalism had threatened each other with red hot pokers!
It is an entertaining read, and the first time he read it, Brother Ivo used it as an example of how we ought to afford the witnesses to the resurrection a degree of latitude in their apparently varied accounts of what was seen, as recorded in the various gospel narratives. If rationalist philosophers and their followers have such difficulty in constructing an agreed account over an incident witnessed by perhaps 30 of the worlds foremost intellectuals, we can surely cut a little slack for the women and the unlettered disciples who were witnessing an unprecedented event for the very first time.
The authors point out that the Cambridge Moral Science Society was comprised of those 'professionally concerned with theories of epistemology (the grounds of knowledge), understanding and truth'. Yet the conflicting testimonies 'concerned a sequence of events where those who disagreed were eye witnesses on critical questions of fact'.
The second reading of this book occurred shortly after Trinity Sunday, and has again thrown light on a problem Brother Ivo has been considering but in an entirely different context. This time, Brother Ivo already knew the main thrust of the argument and was perhaps more able to take note of contextual matters. He specifically noted that the debate centred upon the question raised by the paper produced for discussion by Popper: 'Are there philosophical problems?'
Popper thought there were were - and, by implication, thought that it was worth putting in the effort to solve them, whereas Wittgenstein regarded such questions only as 'puzzles', a matter of a significantly different order of importance.
This took Brother Ivo back to Trinity Sunday.
His travels had absented him from his Church for a few weeks, so he was foolhardy enough to offer penance by volunteering to teach on Trinity Sunday to his junior Church - some as young as five.
Communicants and readers can probably verify for themselves - by asking their own preachers - that Trinity Sunday is probably what our musician friends might call the 'toughest gig' of the year. Trinity Sunday for five-year-olds is as close to theological suicide as one gets.
Matters were made worse by a wonderful satire which Brother Ivo encountered. Plainly, Trinity is a subject fraught with difficulty for the preacher seeking a simple analogy.
Yet Brother Ivo's reading may help to put aside any of the unsatisfactory preaching which may have left readers and communicants unsatisfied. Perhaps we need to step back and take one or two of Wittgenstein's propositions seriously.
It was he who identified the problem of the 'duck/rabbit', whereby we can talk about the image containing two interpretations, but fundamentally one cannot make explain or persuade another person to 'see' it. "You can either see the duality within you can't." Some only see the duck, some the rabbit, and others both. There is no logic to take one from one interpretation to another beyond showing the image and encouraging another to look/see.
Wittgenstein similarly advised that if one wishes to know if a person is religious, 'don't look at what he says, look at what he does'. Communicants will recognise - 'By their fruits ye shall know them'.
It was this approach that Brother Ivo unwittingly took with his children. He did not attempt to 'solve' the problem of the Trinity. but 'showed' ideas.
St Patrick's examples addressed the particular problem for those living in a world of multiple deities. To the Greeks and Romans, there was a multiple-god default logic/assumption, and so any Trinitarian debate that risked letting such a mindset back in through the back door was fiercely resisted by the Early Church. The Athanasian Creed grasped that problem by embracing mystery, and that is not rationally dishonest.
Wittgenstein said: "I know that queer things happen in this world. It's one one the few things I've really learned in my life." The mystery of the Trinity becomes less daunting when one embraces such thinking and extrapolates it beyond the temporal.
Yet 'showing' also has its uses when one places this most mysterious of Christian doctrines in its true philosophical place.
The early Church was a rag-bag made up of believers in far flung communities all trying to make sense of a narrative infinitely more complex than what transpired in a Cambridge upper room in 1946. Those of a strongly Jewish background would always gravitate to an understanding of God rooted in the scriptures with which they had grown up. The Creator-Father was always uppermost in their thinking.
Those who knew and had personal experience of Jesus had heard him plainly (even 'blasphemously') identify himself with Yahweh - "If you have seen me you have seen the Father." Those followers had a fundamentally different mental picture from those of a more conservative Jewish mindset. Then again another grouping of post-Pentecost believers were very familiar with the Holy Spirit, the promised Comforter, and they were not about to discount that revelation as in any sense 'second best'.
Each had received a 'showing' of the Almighty. How could this be reconciled in doctrine? By treating it as a substantial problem the Early Church expended much energy and passion, and the outcome is the various creeds with which we are familiar.
Maybe it has taken Wittgenstein to offer the solution. There is actually no problem for God: it is indeed as unknowable to us as what happened that evening when Wittgenstein did or did not threaten Popper with a poker. Maybe all these efforts to unify the Trinity are no more than a human linguistic puzzle, of no greater practical importance, significance or interest than the precise mathematical value of Pi. We ordinary folk find an approximation more than serviceable for our everyday needs.
In Tom Stoppard's film Shakespeare in Love the coming together of a theatrical venture is constantly in question and increasingly unlikely, yet the shabby impresario Henshaw keeps the faith and constantly reassures the doubters that it will all come together successfully in the end. Repeatedly asked why, he answers simply: "I don't know. It's a mystery - but it always does."
Brother Ivo has a similar disorganised faith like Henshaw. He can show you the great things that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have done, and when the rationalist asks him: "How can this be? How could there be three-in-one and one-in-three? How can this add up?", it will be a toss-up as to whether he answers that the question is a puzzle, not a problem, or, alternatively - with truth and conviction - "I don't know. It's a mystery - but it always does."
(Posted by Brother Ivo)