June 19, 2011 - The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity

Today's Readings

The theory of relativity tells us that time and space are relative to speed, that all time and space are unified at the speed of light. When we look at a star that is 100 light years away, the light from that star has taken 100 years to travel to our eyes, but the light is not 100 years old. The photons of light did not experience any passage of time or space from the star to our eyes. As far the light beam is concerned, there is no distance between the star and our eyes. So if you could travel at the speed of light, and you traveled 100 light years away and came back to Earth, it would be the year 2211, but you would not be any older. You would experience the acceleration and the turning around and the deceleration back to earth, but the trip itself would seem to happen instantly. As soon as we can travel at close to the speed of light, it will be possible to travel into the future, although there is no way to return to the past.

Do you understand all of this? This is only a small part of modern physics; we have not even gotten into how gravity affects all of this, let alone quantum physics. I mention all of this to point out a simple truth: physics is hard. Physics is not just building toothpick bridges and shooting two-liter bottles into the air. Of course, the same could be said about every general field. Every subject, whether science or art, seems very approachable from a certain angle, but it is a mistake to think that the whole field is contained in that angle. A child once asked my sister, who was studying to be a nurse, “Why do you need to know chemistry? All a nurse does is take you to the room and say, ‘The doctor will be with you shortly.’” There is more to everything than what we see.

Every human art and every science is an attempt to understand the truth. No matter how much truth you have learned, there is always more truth to learn. Anyone can learn a little physics or a little nursing, but being a master of the subject requires years of study and a mind gifted for that particular field. Even then, the greatest master in the world of any subject knows that all their learning has only shown them how much they do not know. Every answered question leads to more questions.

Nevertheless, this does not in any way diminish what education has done. A great physicist has a vision of how enormous the field of physics really is, but they still can use all their knowledge to design GPS satellites. A great nurse has a vision of how complex people really are, both physically and psychologically, but they can still use their knowledge to care for the sick.

Although it is often thought to be one, theology is not an exception to this universal truth. Indeed, what is true of studying the laws of the universe and of studying the greatest creatures on Earth, is ever so much more true when studying the Creator. The theory of Relativity is true whether I understand it or not. The best practices of nursing are true whether I know them or not. Truth is  not dependent on my own understanding. So also with truth about God.

So many people, when confronted with a theological idea consider themselves qualified to judge it. They say, “I don’t understand why…” or “It doesn’t make sense to me that…”, but often these words are covering up a presumption that what they do not understand cannot be true. They have not studied theology or even once read the whole Bible. In theology, as in every science, a person is not an expert just because they think that they are one.

There is a problem, however: how do we know who is a real expert? The other sciences and arts prove themselves by their fruits. Physicists can predict the motion of the stars, so we trust those who can design such equations. The recovery of sick people is correlated to best nursing practices, so we trust those who can design such practices. Theology produces it own fruits: the Saints. We belong to the Church of St. Paul, of St. Anthony, of St. Francis, of St. Ignatius, of St. Therese, of Blessed Mother Theresa. Other religions produce impressive people, but only Christianity produces Saints. An impressive person is as good as humanly possible. A Saint is better than that. There is a world of difference between Gandhi and Gertrude, between Buddha and Benedict, between Plato and Paul.    

So when the Church teaches us something, our first reaction should not be to judge the teaching, but to understand how to submit to the teaching. Consider, for instance, the moral teaching that birth control is fundamentally incompatible with marriage. Many people do not understand the teaching; many married Catholics do not understand the teaching, but this is no reason to disobey it. The correct reaction to this teaching and every other teaching we do not understand is to trust the Church. Believe first and then learn what you can.

I say all this as a preface. Today is Trinity Sunday. Today we remember that God is one God and that God is three persons. This is a mystery. It is easy to repeat this formula: one God, three persons, but impossible to completely understand the mystery of the Trinity. Whether you know only that God is the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and that the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit is not the Father, or you are able to quote the five notions and four relations and speak of the difference between homoousia and homoiousia, the Trinity is equally incomprehensible. The mystery of the Trinity is more than anyone can understand. Not even the angels completely understand this mystery.

But this does not mean that the Trinity is whatever we want it to be or whatever we happen to think is best. The Trinity is something very definite, the most definite truth in the whole universe. The Trinity's existence in no way depends on our ability to understand the mystery. The simple teaching, revealed to us through Jesus Christ, handed on by the Church, is trustworthy. First we believe the teaching, which is far more important than understanding how such a thing is possible. Then we try to understand, using analogies: the Son is to the Father as the light from a star is to the light in a star, light from light, true God from true God.