Sense and Nonsense: The Ultimate Truth

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The Holy Father dedicated this millennial year, 2000, to the Trinity. How do we grasp this theme? In my memory, I associate the Trinity with Frank Sheed, who wrote so well about it. I recall two addresses Sheed gave, one at Catholic University of America in the 50s and the other at the University of San Francisco in the late 60s or early 70s. In one of these lectures, Sheed, a most amusing man, recalled his public speaking at London’s Hyde Park Corner. There, he talked about practically everything. But, he told us with some earnestness, he was struck by the fact that whenever he talked about the Trinity, no matter what the audience, atheist to Catholic, a certain hush fell on the crowd, followed by a careful listening not experienced over other theological or philosophical topics.

The central chapter of the first book I wrote, Redeeming the Time, was entitled “The Trinity: God Is Not Alone.” This chapter, of course, responded precisely to an opinion expressed in Aristotle, his philosophical concern that God was perhaps “lonely” that He had no friends. Aristotle had taken thought about as far as it could go. Somehow it seemed to lead to a dead end, to an absurdity. God did not have what seemed most exalted in human experience. It took revelation to answer this loneliness problem: God is triune.

Abbot Columban asked rhetorically, in an instruction, “Who then is God?” He answered: “He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God.” Every word in that question and response is worth a book. God is a “who,” evidently personal, not an “it!’ He is a “one.” At the same time this “oneness” consists of “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit.” Each of these words is carefully crafted, not arbitrary, not replaceable. Something irreducibly important is being said.

Columban goes on, “Do not look for any further answer concerning God.” Why not?, we wonder. Aren’t we supposed to figure out every intellectual enigma? Surely, this doctrine of three in one is a puzzlement. Columban is not entirely true to his word. He suggests a way to consider God: “Those who want to understand the unfathomable depths of God must first consider the world of nature. Knowledge of the Trinity is rightly compared with the depths of the sea.” We cannot fathom these depths. Thus, “The Godhead of the Trinity is found to be beyond the grasp of human understanding!’


So we are to consider the world of nature where we evidently find some things we cannot fathom. A pari, we have an even greater problem in understanding the Trinity. This comparison reminds me of the class I teach on Augustine. His De Trinitate is still the classic discussion of the Trinity.

On the first day of my classes devoted to The Confessions, I brought the Folio Society of London’s “full elephant-hide” edition of The Confessions. Scott Walter had given it to me for Christmas in 1995. The frontispiece contains a colored print, from the Golden Legend Collection of saints. The reprint is of the famous, no doubt apocryphal, scene of Augustine, in episcopal miter and cope, standing by the side of a lake. In the distance are the green hills and mansions of the City of God. On the other side of an inlet sits a little child, busily counting the grains of sand on the shore. When Augustine, on inquiry, tells him that he cannot do that, the child responds, “Then neither can you fathom the depths of the subject you are thinking about.” Of course, Augustine, walking along, had been thinking of precisely the Trinity.

Columban’s last bit of advice was that “if anyone wants to know what he should believe, he must not imagine that he understands better through speech than through belief.” More is found in that sentence than meets the eye. Plato had warned us not to seek the true “Republic” anywhere but in speech. Augustine had taken up this line of thought. The true location of the “City of God” is not simply in speech. It exists in the Trinity to which we are each ordered.

The hush that Frank Sheed experienced in a crowd in which the Trinity is addressed should not surprise us. This is the ultimate truth to which our every act and question tend. What is particularly quieting about speech on the Trinity, I think, is the revelation that God is not alone. The Godhead of the Trinity is happily beyond, but not opposed to, human understanding. God is not wholly unintelligible to our finite minds. But we are not gods. This is why our minds are so alert when we hear of the Trinity. We do want to know, yes, to see face-to-face.

Fr. James V. Schall


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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