There are so many things about the list Phil provided already that I enjoyed that it’s hard to start in the middle like this and not want to go back. But a lot of the principles carry over from one thing to the next, so I’ll just enjoy talking about this nifty little aphorism and be content with my 3 pages of joy. They say you might be an unquestioning Christian if you laugh at polytheists, but you have no problem believing in a Trinity God.
Now, a basic defense of the Trinity seems to be the straightforward approach to this reproach, but let me be honest: I’ve never met any Atheists converted to robust Christian faith by a sudden dawning of the truth of the Nicean Creed. If you have, please line it out in the meta as it will undoubtedly be instructive.
Instead, I want to talk about Physics for a minute. Physics is a brilliant thing – because it deals with things as the actually exist in nature. People who are really good at physics tend to be good at other stuff, too – like chemistry and engineering. They make things work, and who can’t actually admire that?
Physics is something that, frankly, is sort of the king of sciences (in my humble and ignorant opinion). It’s because of physics that we can take a gallon of a smelly liquid, set it on fire one drop at a time, and convert the force that comes out of the tiny explosion over and over again into enough kinetic energy to drive to work in the morning. It’s one of those things where you know for a fact that the amount of force that comes from setting two drops of gasoline isn’t anything at all, and the force of dropping a match on a gallon of gas is enough to probably kill you if you’re standing close enough, but if you manage the drop-sized explosions closely enough, you can drive 20 or 30 or 50 miles with the air conditioner on. And while there are a lot of things in play there, one which is necessary is the law of the conservation of energy.
Anyway, the people who figure that kind of stuff out will enjoy without any end of the glee this article from Scientific American from 09 Oct 2006. The most of the rest of you would rather read about supralapsarian reprobation and God’s hidden will, and the flabby-bottom rest of you can follow me to the comic book shop to discuss the recent apparent death of the Red Skull.
My point in linking to the SA article is this gem:
Quantum mechanics allows, and indeed requires, temporary violations of conservation of energy, so one particle can become a pair of heavier particles (the so-called virtual particles), which quickly rejoin into the original particle as if they had never been there. If that were all that occurred we would still be confident that it was a real effect because it is an intrinsic part of quantum mechanics, which is extremely well tested, and is a complete and tightly woven theory--if any part of it were wrong the whole structure would collapse.Now, before anyone starts blustering about the way this is phrased, these are the words of Gordon Kane, director of the Michigan Center for Theoretical Physics at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor who probably knows something about this. Probably more than you. So if this doesn’t meet your critical assessment of the issues, please do yourself a favor and take it up with him.
But while the virtual particles are briefly part of our world they can interact with other particles, and that leads to a number of tests of the quantum-mechanical predictions about virtual particles. The first test was understood in the late 1940s. In a hydrogen atom an electron and a proton are bound together by photons (the quanta of the electromagnetic field). Every photon will spend some time as a virtual electron plus its antiparticle, the virtual positron, since this is allowed by quantum mechanics as described above.
BTW, what I’m about to say here next is not attributable to Dr. Kane, and I have no idea if he’s a Christian or not.
What I’m about to say is this: I think we should believe our friends the philosophical naturalists when they put it to us that quantum mechanics allows, and indeed requires, temporary violations of conservation of energy. We should trust them. This is what they do.
But is it reasonable to trust them? Do we actually know for a fact – a fact almost as old as physics itself – that the energy is a closed system cannot increase or decrease – only change state? Should we have a massive “AHA!” when we find ourselves listening to otherwise-reasonable men who say, “well, yeah, usually, but in this case we know it for a fact because we saw it ourselves. I probably can’t show you, but I can show you the guys who wrote all this down. And some of it might not make any sense because they’re had to invent new words to really describe what’s happening. Maybe you would just take my word for it and enjoy your radio and your snake-egg magnets and your computer and leave the rest to me.”
I mean: I can be honest and say that I really don’t know anything about solid-state electronics and magnetic fields, so the idea that an electron is sometimes not an electron makes me a little woozy. It doesn’t actually make any sense to me – but you know what? Making fun of it will not make the Physicist change his mind.
Which brings us back to the statement of our atheist friends: aren’t you an unquestioning Christ if you laugh at polytheists, but you have no problem believing in a Trinity God?
Well, I think the answer is “NO.”
Because let’s face it: first of all, Trinitarianism isn’t polytheism any more than virtual particles are some sort of pixie dust. Polytheism is always a system which describes the world as a place where chaos reigns due to the capricious nature of the urges of beings who are generally much greater than men, but under some sort of inexplicable hierarchical rule which requires them to quibble without actually overthrowing the order of things. And in these systems, the “gods” are either completely apathetic toward mankind, or somehow aligned with mankind in order to divide mankind – and often the gods did not even create mankind.
But the Bible speaks to something different. The essence of Trinitarianism is the unity of God. That is to say, in the act of creation, all of the Godhead were in agreement. In the act of judging man’s sins, all agreed. In promising to redeem or correct man’s error, all agreed. And in counting the cost and setting forth the price in grace and love, all agreed.
Yet in this unity, there is diversity. What the Son has done, the Father agreed with – but the person of the Son accomplished it. What the Spirit did and does the Son agrees with and requires – but the Spirit accomplishes it. And in this, we say rightly, God is unique.
Secondly, the unique attribute of the Triune God is his call of all men to himself. All men are qualified and indeed obligated to be his unique possession.
But there is a final fact which must be true: whatever it is that God is, He cannot be anything else. It seems a little less than candid to listen to Dr. Kane say with certainty and authority, “Quantum mechanics allows, and indeed requires, temporary violations of conservation of energy,” without abandoning all hope for reasonability or comprehensibility – let alone the hope that your car will go when you press the gas pedal – but to demand of God – whom even the atheist must agree is in some way greater than us -- that there be no moments when we have to admit: it is what it is, even if it looks like a logical contradiction or an absurdity. Those of us who know God must confess that He is what He is, and nothing less, and nothing else. It doesn’t matter if it seems to be some kind of contradiction.
So for a laymen to point and laugh at Dr. Kane’s description of virtual particles and what happens to them even though that description has a seeming contradiction is unwarranted – and to frame it as something it is not (insert your own punchline here) is simply dishonest. In the same way, to frame Trinitarian descriptions of God as somehow another kind of polytheism is itself simply a crass and reductionistic approach to something someone simply doesn’t want to understand, and doesn’t want to have confidence in. (there's an interesting hypothesis for why this is true, and a book recently published which explicates this. Remind me to tell you about it some time.)
God is what he is. We have an obligation to say he is what he is. And to hear someone rebuff that by saying, “well, you’re a little foolish to reject what he is not since I say all these other things look suspiciously like him,” sounds ill-considered to me. You wouldn’t do that to Dr. Kane, so have a little consideration for the maker of Dr. Kane.