Wednesday, May 18, 2016

God is in the Details

The Most Holy Trinity

It doesn’t take much to understand the expression, “the devil’s in the details.” Small, seemingly insignificant details, can be the key to success or failure. The Faustian myth of the devil striking up what seems to be an arms-length bargain with a desperate soul for some promised reward, illustrates it best. The devil must have invented the small print at the foot of the contract and conveniently forgotten to mention that any reward comes at a disproportionate price – the loss of one’s salvation. It is clear why the devil tries to hide the truth in the details.  Details are time consuming, nerve wrecking, tedious and can bog you down. Details seem to be the sole province of anal retentive personalities, obsessive compulsive individuals who drive you mad with their nit-picking and insistence on precision. No, the devil understands us too well. He wishes to cover-up the truth, disguise the truth, and tries to get it in the fine print so we don’t pay attention. He is the author of broad generalisations, ambiguity and confusion.

But many would theorise that there is a much older variation of the expression. Instead of the devil, it is “God” who “is in the details.” Many have postulated that both expressions refer to the same reality, though from different angles. “God is in the details,” suggests the fine details improve the bigger picture and paying attention to them will bring far greater rewards. Whereas, “the devil is in the details” seems to suggest that failure to pay attention to the final details will have a detrimental effect on the bigger picture. The two phrases could be considered opposites and yet could be considered the same. There is nothing paradoxical about this. Taken together, they basically say that until you dig into the details, you really don't know what you've got.

It is good to remember that “God is in the details” when we contemplate the central doctrine of our faith – the Most Holy Trinity. The foundational reality underlying everything is God Himself, a Triune Unity. This is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of our Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in Himself. It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them.” Yet, strangely, it’s one of those topics that most priests, religious and catechists would avoid. In fact, most Catholics would just dismiss the finer details of the explanation and resort to just committing to memory the most basic formula, “One God, Three Persons.” If anyone were to brave enough to ask or probe further, they would most likely get a rap on the knuckles and a quick reprimand for questioning the very nature of God.

You may not take me seriously when I venture to claim that this is actually a simple doctrine. That’s hard to believe, right? But it is true. It is simple because God can be described as the supreme simplicity, and the Trinity is the Church’s most basic description of who God actually is – and who He needs to be in order to save us. To speak of, or pray to, God as Trinity is to use a kind of ancient abbreviation. It is a made-up word unique to the Christian faith, a shorthand way of affirming three statements:
1.      There is only one God.
2.      The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is each God.
3.      The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not the same.
Though it is a made-up word to speak of all these realities at once, it is not a made-up doctrine, an invention of theologians. The doctrine of the Trinity did not arise out of speculation about God, out of an attempt of philosophical thinking to explain to itself what the fount of all being was like. The reason why Christians talk about God as Trinity is because God revealed Himself to them as Trinity; in their own lives, in the collective life of the Church, and through the Old and New Testament. The goal of revelation is not to confuse man. The goal of revelation is that we may enter into a deeper communion with Him, with the real Him, and not just an imaginary Him.

Nevertheless, one of the most popular arguments that is used to reject theological fineries would be that we should leave dogma, doctrine and the study of the truths of Faith to the more intellectually minded. Doctrine is considered to be dry, abstract and arid. It is said that doctrine, the truths of Faith stated in propositional form, cannot compete with the personal lived experience of God. Venerable Cardinal Neumann best describes this phenomena. “People urge that salvation consists, not in believing the propositions that there is a God, that there is a Saviour, that our Lord is God, that there is a Trinity, but in believing in God, in a Saviour, in a Sanctifier; and they object that such propositions are but a formal and human medium destroying all true reception of the Gospel, and making religion a matter of words or of logic, instead of its having its seat in the heart.”

Is this objection justified? Hardly. What many people fail to see is that there is no opposition between the propositional presentation of faith and the personal experience of faith. Faith is both propositional and personal. Neumann reminds us that, “knowledge must ever precede the exercise of the affections. We feel gratitude and love, we feel indignation and dislike, when we have the informations actually put before us which are to kindle those several emotions. We love our parents, as our parents, when we know them to be our parents; we must know concerning God, before we can feel love, fear, hope, or trust towards Him. Devotion must have its objects; those objects, as being supernatural, when not represented to our senses by material symbols, must be set before the mind in propositions. The formula, which embodies a dogma for the theologian, readily suggests an object for the worshipper.”

Doctrinal formulas, rather than detaching us from God, are absolutely necessary for attaching us to Him. We cannot love God if we know nothing about Him. The more penetrating our knowledge of God, the deeper the love.  It is no wonder that God chooses to reveal Himself as Trinity. He would rather risk confusion and ridicule than to perpetuate a shallow understand of His true nature. The details are necessary to avoid the confusion based on loose speculations, guess work and the human predilection to make God in our image and likeness.

So, if you have never really taken the trouble to read up more about the Most Holy Trinity, it’s time to remedy that. It’s never just an intellectual project but rather one which is motivated by love and devotion. It is because I wish to know more about the One whom I love and through that knowledge come to love Him more. It is good to remember that when we abdicate the responsibility to know more about God and rely merely on rudimentary knowledge at best and pure sentiments at worst, we risk falling into heresy. The great majority of Catholics do not want to be heretics, whether wittingly or unwittingly. But one become an unwitting heretic when one chooses to hold on to or even promote one’s own preference, opinion or decision over that which is revealed by God and taught by the Church. Over the centuries, we have many such views, which includes describing the Trinity as different modalities (one reality in three shapes or forms like water, ice or steam), three different Gods (like the Mormons), or three different beings of varying rank and status (like the Jehovah Witnesses who describe Jesus as a superhuman divine being but less than God). We risk heresy whenever we are contented with broad generalisations and ambiguity.

In our pursuit of theological precision, we must also remember that our flawed and fragile thoughts and words are never up to the job of giving a full, wholly sufficient description of the Most High. God is indeed “more than words,” as St Thomas realised. But the truth of the Triune God should not be lessened by the inadequacy of language and human intelligence. At the end of day, we come to accept what God has said about Himself even though we may not fully understand every aspect of that revelation. The truth of the revelation will always be simple. Our comprehension is another matter. But we should never cease to be motivated to delve deeper. For God, and not the devil, is to be found in the details.

1 comment:

  1. God bless you Fr. Michael and thank needed that.


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