Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Explaining the Concept of the Trinity to a Muslim Friend

Today, I was posting in a Facebook group designed for Muslims and Christians to engage in dialogue with each other. This particular thread was about the concept of the Trinity that some Christian faiths teach. In this conversation, one of my Muslim acquaintances, a guy named Walim, stated that he'd never been able to get a Christian to explain it to him. I decided to give it a shot and what you see below this paragraph was what I wrote to him. I'd love to hear how others view this issue and the concept of the trinity. It's very interesting to learn about how different people envision God.

Let's say you are a human and you were born with all of the parts that one might say a "normal human" has. You have 10 fingers, 10 toes, 2 arms, 2 legs, 1 heart, 2 lungs, 2 eyes, 1 nose, 1 mouth, et cetera. These are all parts of the thing we call "Walim". Now, let's say you get into some sort of accident and one of your thumbs gets detached. Does this mean there are now 2 Walim's? No. It simply means that part of Walim is in one place and another part of Walim is in another place. However, they are all parts of the same being.

This thumb that was detached is not superior to the other thumb nor is it superior to any of the other body parts of Walim. However, it is an important piece. In fact an onlooker might look at this situation and wonder why in the world you would allow your thumb to become detached. Maybe there is a really good story behind what happened to your thumb. Some onlookers will see what's before them and decide you must be a really stupid person because you let your thumb get cut off. Now, you have a dead thumb and unless something is done to reconnect it with the rest of Walim, that thumb will remain dead. "What kind of fool allows this to happen to something so important to them?!" they exclaim.

Others will come in and see this situation and wonder why your thumb is lying there and they may take the time to hear your story. They may find out that your thumb became detached, because you were saving a small child from getting their hand cut off by a saw or a knife or an axe that was about to strike them. This explains why you would allow something to happen to your thumb, even though you didn't have to. Those people who take the time to hear what you explain will walk away with a very different conclusion than the one that the first onlookers held. The first onlookers walked away very confused, but this is only because they refused to take the time to listen to your explanation of the situation.

Thus, it is with the Trinity and how Jesus could die and be brought back without there ever being a period where God didn't exist. The Trinity represents how some people envision God.

It is just like when a biologist studies an organism and, for the purposes of learning more about the organism, separately studies three different parts of it. Perhaps, they decide to study the circulatory system, the nervous system, and the digestive system. They can view each of these systems without ever misunderstanding that these three systems, with different, but co-operating purposes, are all a part of one organism. The organism doesn't need to have been born with a little tag inside of its body that says "I am a trinity" in order for the biologist to view these three systems separately.

Now, some biologists will look at the same organism and view it quite differently. They may decide that they don't need to separately study the different systems of organism. Their research may be of a kind that only studies how the organism interacts with the outside world. The fact that they only study the organism as a whole doesn't mean that those who study the systems of the organism separately are somehow erroneous or illogical.

Each of these biologists are viewing the organism based on their educational background, the branch of biology that they are most closely associated with. However, all of these branches are still studying the same organisms.

Thus, it is with the different Abrahamic religions. We are all studying the same God, but because of our background, we tend to view this God in ways that can seem very different to those who only take a superficial look at the religions. I don't see God as a trinity and I never have. This is probably because I grew up in a faith tradition where the people do not envision God that way. I see Jesus and God's holy spirit/active force as divine, but not in the sense that they are God. When I use the word divine, I mean that they are from God.

You belong to a faith tradition where some of the adherents tend to get very nervous whenever they hear the word "divine" used in conversations about Jesus. This sort of thinking (the trinity) is outside of what you're accustomed to, so it seems very bizarre to you. However, that doesn't mean it's impossible for you to gain a very clear understanding of why some see God as a trinity. You wouldn't necessarily have to give up your faith or your traditional way of viewing God to get an understanding of the trinity.

I think that some people are so afraid of thinking in new ways, because they fear that this will mean they have to give up or compromise the beliefs they already hold. However, if someone is secure in their beliefs, they aren't afraid to understand the way others think and they have no need to belittle those that think differently from them. So, it really boils down to deciding what kind of person do we want to be.


alana said...

Hi! I just started following your blog so I’m not entirely sure where you stand on these sorts of issues, so I want to apologize ahead of time if I’m insensitive in any way. I should probably say I’m an atheist upfront too. :)

For me, no matter how pretty or poetic we make the concept of the trinity, the fact is it doesn’t make sense on some levels (which explains why it is something that needs such a complex and spiritual answer in the first place I think). For one, Jesus isn’t simply a piece of god’s body cut off. Jesus is also part of Mary, so he is more akin to our children in my opinion. Is my son a part of me? Of course. But he is also separate and whole in his own right. If someone married my son it doesn’t mean they would be married to me as well (in a literal sense). So to say that belief in Jesus and belief in god are tantamount to believing in only one spiritual being (not even counting the Holy Spirit) seems like a bit of a cop out to me. Plus there is no place in the bible that actually references the trinity at all and even as far back as early church fathers has the idea of the trinity been rejected (which doesn’t necessarily make one right and the other wrong, but I think it’s an important point). For me, it makes more sense that Christianity has changed over time and that the trinity is something that evolved out of that process.

There is actually a really interesting wikipedia page about this here:

bint alshamsa said...

Hello Alana!

I'm so glad that you commented here. The fact that you are an atheist makes your view on this even more interesting to me!

Well, since you're just starting to follow this blog, it might help for me to say where I'm coming from as well. I am a non-trinitarian. Many of us prefer the term unitarian, so you might see me using that one instead. We are a minority community within the large group of religions that are generally considered Christian.

I don't know that it's a fact that the trinity doesn't make sense. At best, I can say that it isn't the way I view God. However, the trinity makes perfect sense to many, many people. For them, the trinity isn't hard to understand at all.

When I wrote this post to my friend, he knew I was coming to it as a unitarian, not a trinitarian, so it represented me giving this my best shot at an explanation.

For some, Jesus really IS God, separated from other parts that are just as much God as he is. I used the thumb example because, if someone examined that detached thumb, they would find that it has exactly the same DNA as the other parts of you. It is as distinctly you as the other parts of your body (e.g. your lungs, your kidneys). It is a whole thumb, separate from your body, but at the same time, it is a part of you.

In faith traditions where Mary is seen as a sort of surrogate, then it seems she isn't really considered divine. However, when Mary is seen as Jesus actual mother, then it seems that she can take on a sort of "Mother of God" role.

I definitely think that the way Christianity is practiced has changed over time and that the trinity was not always the way that people in this religion viewed God. It's not something that really bothers me, but even the suggestion that understandings and interpretations have changed is enough to send some folks into frenzy.

Unitarianism is what makes the most sense to and for me. However, I can certainly see why trinitarianism is so popular. I guess, when it comes to religion, I just tend to take the view that most folks are simply following what seems right in their heart and mind. Of course, that's also what I think about atheists. :)

Please feel free to comment on this or any other thread, any time. I'm looking forward to hearing from you again!

Rootietoot said...

I'll give my trinitarian perspective later, after I've had some coffee.

bint alshamsa said...


Oh, good! I was hoping that you'd join in this conversation.

Rootietoot said...

ok, here's my trinitarian perspective:
As God is a Holy God, we aren't capable of fully comprehending His nature. As I see it, the members of the Trinity (God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit) are more than just manifestations or bits of one God. Each One is unique unto Himself, but part of the whole that makes God. Each member of the trinity serves a particular purpose (God the Father, kind of...a Father figure; God the Son, advocate on our behalf to God the Father, also gave himself as a sacrifice for humanity, enabling us to be in relationship with all 3; and God the Holy Spirit, Who enters into us and dwells within us) Jesus (Son) kind of gets all the hoopla, because His was the most visible and "exciting" role. Of the 3 members of the trinity, not one is more important than the other, and all 3 were present at Creation.