Mere Christianity 20: The Three-Personal God

We are now in the fourth and final section of Mere Christianity, the section entitled “Beyond Personality”.  In the previous chapter Lewis laid the groundwork for his development of the idea of the Trinity by introducing the distinction between “making” and “begetting”, the idea that what man begets is man while what God begets is God, and the idea that man is made by God but not begotten by God.

Lewis starts off by noting that many people say they believe in God but not a personal God.  That is their way of saying that whatever God is, he must be something more than personal.  Christianity agrees with this.  But it is only the Christian view that gives us any idea of what a God who is more than personal actually looks like.  If you look at the ideas of God which other religions hold, you will see that for them, “beyond personal” turns out to actually mean less than personal.  For instance, the Eastern religions speak of God as this big thing, this force or essence if you will, that permeates all of the universe.  Eventually, whether at the end of this life or at the end of other lives to come, we are absorbed into the essence of God, in much the same way as a drop of water on the shore is absorbed into the ocean.  But, that means the end of the drop, even though the water molecules which made up the drop still exist somewhere out there in that great ocean.  Christianity is the only religion which can offer any idea of what it means to be absorbed into the essence of God and still remain yourself–and in fact become much more yourself than you ever were before.

Because God is beyond personal, that means that he is also personal.  As an example, Lewis offers the illustration of living in a one-dimensional world.  That world would be nothing more than a straight line, and if you lived in that world you would know nothing more than straight lines.  If you move up to a two-dimensional world, you still have lines but they can now be combined in new ways that you wouldn’t recognize, to form figures such as squares, rectangles, triangles, pentagons, hexagons, or whatever else you care to fancy.  Now move up to a three-dimensional world.  Here you still have squares, rectangles, triangles, etc. (and the lines that you remember from the one-dimensional world).  But now they can be combined in ways that are even more different.  Squares can be combined to form cubes, squares and rectangles can be combined to form rectangular prisms, and triangles and squares can be combined to form pyramids.

You see what is happening.  As you move up to a higher-dimensional world, you do not leave behind the things that you know and remember from lower-dimensional worlds.  You still see them and recognize them, but now they are combined in ways that are not possible, or even possible to conceive of, in lower-dimensional worlds.

It is the same way with God.  In our world, the human “dimension”, if you will, we know about persons.  But persons are all we know.  In our world, one person is one person and that is that.  Two people are–well, two separate people.  End of story.  You simply cannot combine two people into one person or make one person into two people without getting into some grisly surgical operations that you probably would not care to think about.  Now, on God’s level, the divine “dimension”, if you will, you still have persons.  You don’t leave personality behind when you move up to the divine dimension, just as you don’t leave lines behind when you go from one to two dimensions, or you don’t leave figures behind when you go from two to three dimensions.  But in the divine dimension, you find persons combined in ways that are just not possible in the human dimension.  Specifically, what you find is a being who is three persons, yet somehow remains one being.

Hard to wrap your mind around that one, isn’t it?  See, Lewis was right when he said in the last chapter that theology makes a significant difference in the life of the everyday believer.  As an example of what Christians understand about what the three-person God is and how He operates, Lewis uses the example of an ordinary person saying his prayers at night.  First of all, the person is praying to God the Father.  Then there is God the Holy Spirit, who is working on the inside of the person, giving him the motivation to pray in the first place.  Then there is God the Son (Jesus Christ).  Everything that this person knows or has ever known about God comes through Him.  In a sense, Jesus is standing beside him, helping him to pray, praying for him.

Even the development of theology itself came about through the work of the three-person God.  People already knew about God in a vague sort of way.  Then a man showed up claiming to be God, and he wasn’t the sort of man that you could write off as a madman.  People weren’t sure about him, but he made them believe him.  Especially after they saw him die the worst kind of death imaginable in that time, and then saw him walking around again afterward.  A small community, and eventually a whole movement, grew up around this person.  And as they lived and went about their business, they somehow found God inside them as well, guiding them, directing them, empowering them to do things that they could never have done before.  And when they all had the chance to sit back and work it all out–surprise, surprise!!  They arrived at the three-person conception of God that we all know of as the Trinity.

The next point Lewis makes is that everything we know about God we know because He revealed it to us.  And the best context in which to receive that revelation is through connection to the Church.

In the science of geology, you just go out and study rocks and that’s all there is to it.  The rocks are there; they aren’t going anywhere.  And they’re not going to come to you; you have to go to them.  All of the initiative is on your side if you want to get to know rocks.  But if you are a zoologist trying to take pictures of wild animals, things are a little different.  You still have to go out to where the animals are, but they might run away when they see you coming.  And unless you are very quiet and very careful and very quick, they will.  So if you want to get to know animals, you still have most of the initiative.  But there is just a little bit of initiative on their side.

Now consider getting to know another person.  You can share all of yourself that you want with another person, but unless that person trusts you enough to want to share himself or herself with you, you will make no progress whatsoever in getting to know him or her.  Here, the initiative is equally divided.

But in the case of God, all the initiative is on His side.  You won’t know God at all unless He chooses to reveal Himself to you.  And you won’t know anything whatsoever about God except what He chooses to reveal to you.  And God does reveal Himself to us, more to some than to others.  This is not because He plays favorites; this is because some people are better disposed to see Him than others, just as a clean mirror will reflect light better than a dusty mirror.

Lewis closes out the chapter by making the point that it is through connection with the Church–active involvement with some local body of believers, and through them, connection with all the other Christians who are waiting for God together–that we experience God and learn about Him reliably.  Anyone who tries to understand God apart from the Church and from Christian tradition is just like some quack astronomer with nothing but an old pair of field glasses setting out to “put all the real astronomers right”.  Not gonna happen.  In two years everyone will have forgotten all about him, but the real science of astronomy will be going on strong.  Anyone out there remember Jim Jones?  David Koresh?  Or Marshall Applewhite and the Heaven’s Gate space cult?  Thought not.  Which only serves to prove Lewis’s point.

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