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On the Trinity, Triangulation, and Islam

Comparisons across religions, especially with Islam, are uneven and ragged, not symmetrical.

(Image: Wikipedia)

Prior to global positioning satellites, celestial navigation determined a position on the globe based a reading of the stars. With a sextant three intersecting lines are charted, derived from star fixes above the horizon. The intersection was ideally a point or at least a very precise triangle. Triangulation in the political world is similar. It plots a marketable middle ground—by posturing between otherwise conflicting positions.

Solzhenitsyn, survivor of years in the Gulag, commented on this post-modern game of triangulation and intersectionality: “We have lost the clarity of spirit which was ours when the concepts of Good and Evil had yet to become a subject of ridicule, shoved aside by the principle of fifty-fifty.” Others, less perceptive, refer favorably to the conceptual middle-ground as a “new paradigm” of undefined and evolutionary “cultural anthropological change.” Better this than reading goat entrails.

Encounter: Interreligious or intercultural?

How does this mind game work in inter-religious or maybe inter-cultural dialogue between the West and Islam?

With the optimism behind the Second Vatican Council stressing the “analogy” of different religions? With avant-guard theologians positing an internal “hermeneutics of discontinuity”? With Pope Francis’ reset toward “fraternity” with Muslims, ambiguously linked to a “plurality” of maybe equivalent religions as such? Or, with emeritus Pope Benedict XVI and his more measured place allotted to “discontinuities within continuity”?

Comparisons across religions, especially with Islam, are uneven and ragged, not symmetrical.

Scriptures? The correct comparison is not between the inspired Bible and the Qur’an. Rather, the symmetry is between the Incarnation as the eternal “Word made flesh,” and the Qur’an as the ostensibly “uncreated” and dictated word-made-book.

Founders? Christianity and Islam do not feature two different (but equivalent?) founders. The Church begins with the self-donated and resurrected Christ—and is the Mystical Body of Christ. Islam begins with “recitations” (translation of “Qur’an”) delivered to a prophet to correct the alleged blasphemies of Israel, e.g., the golden calf, and the later “polytheism” of Christianity, i.e., the Trinitarian mystery: 1+1+1=1.

History? Christianity looks through history to the Second Coming while Islam would restore a previous Golden Age, as with Shari’a Law now to be administered by “executors” within a fused mosque-state. In the West the permanent truth of innate natural law is distinguished from later divine revelation (Rom 2:14-15), leaving breathing space for history and for fallen and yet graced “persons” acting as protagonists in the shared cause of human flourishing. Islam does not accept original innocence coupled with original sin, and in this theological error (not unlike Rousseau’s compulsory application of the General Will) is its conflation throughout history of peace with violence.

Creed or Culture? The early ecumenical councils resolved the “indwelling” of the Spirit with the “hylomorphic composition” of the incarnate Christ (the Nicene Creed as further unfolded in later ecumenical councils). But, unresolved in Islam is a primitive and centrifugal sectarianism between leadership succession by blood line (Shi’ite) or instead by wider clan membership (Sunni).

Spirituality? Christianity (especially Catholicism, with its celibate orders) stands apart from Secularism in its asceticism, while pre-modern Islam is weirdly convergent with the pagan, post-Christian West on this point. “Islam has not wanted to choose between Heaven and Earth,” wrote Jean Guitton in Great Heresies and Church Councils. “It proposed instead a blending of heaven and earth, sex and mysticism [….] Islam proposed a blending of the spiritual and the temporal worlds which neither in Islam nor among the pagans have ever been divided.”

Islam, therefore, is less creedal and more of a cultural “way of life,” aligned with a folk leader/prophet, while Catholicism aspires to fidelity and then sacramental incorporation into the singular and risen Christ. A taproot to our fading Western culture.

To now shift Church-Islamic dialogue to the middling “cultural” level does offer practical benefits to a disrupted and volatile world, but—as a possible “fifty-fifty” accommodation?—does it also concede the very Triune nature of Ultimate Reality (to a less relational and more monolithic monotheism) and, therefore, also concede our own human nature as the gifted capacity to respond to a self-disclosing and, indeed, self-donating God? What, exactly, is the foundation for any mutual “fraternity” among fallen and redeemed persons?

Rather than intersectionality, an interesting parallel

Believing that it comes before and above history, Islam is vindicated by what drops into history: the first century of conquest spanning from Andalusia to the Hindu Kush; repulse of all but the first Crusade; conquest of impregnable Constantinople in 1453 (fatally weakened first by plundering crusaders in 1204); the Twin Towers of 911, surely righting the defeat at Vienna on September 11/12, 1653 and a later repulsed foray (the drive to establish an outpost north of the Danube) on September 11, 1697.

With such expressions of divine approval, what further need to engage Muslim belief with reason, as in the Christian faith in the Incarnation as both the divine Will and the reasonable Logos?

The ideology of “anthropological cultural change” is more in step with random parallels in history than it is with triangulation as a new cover story for moving “forward”. Take as a good example, Hung Hsui-ch’uan who led the Taiping Rebellion in nineteenth-century China (1851-1864):

Biography? Like the (possibly epileptic) orphan Mohammed in need of tribal protections, the orphan Hung also sought security and advancement, into the scholar-gentry class. He suffered a nervous breakdown and an epiphany, more-or-less parallel to Mohammed’s formative experiences in the cave at Mount Hira.

History? In his own (and the very common) inability to distinguish intuition from revelation, Hung discovered in his visions that he was not only a prophet but the younger brother of Jesus Christ. And then like Mohammed, who projected jihad against Mecca, Hung made his military move against the capital of China, Peking (Beijing).

Eclectic Christianity? Hung’s movement was a peasant-based political campaign (rather than trans-tribal), but it was also a religious war not entirely unlike jihad. (He baptized his troops with a firehose.) And, where Mohammed was possibly mentored by an apostate Nestorian monk (Bahira), Hung retained later fragments of Protestant Christianity from the prominent missionary Issachar J. Roberts.

Theocracy? As with the Islamic state, the revolutionary Taiping government was also theocratic. Hung’s binding power on his followers came directly from God. Where Mohammed rejected pagan idolatry of Mecca, Hung rejected Chinese ancestor worship.

The genius of early Islam is found in the extraordinary skills of Mohammed himself, and involved the snowballing unity of previously-hostile tribes allied together under Allah and his Prophet, all against the still-fragmented periphery vulnerable to an economy of plunder. Still, an Islam of well over a billion adherents today was not a given outcome in history. After all, the Western doctrine of evolutionary Progress is an ideology, as is Islamic deference to pre-destined Fate.

Things could have been otherwise and appear determined only in retrospect. Mohammed and Islam might well have disappeared in the desert sands like all the other thousands of “prophets” of early Arabia.

But for the marginally Judeo-Christian interpretation of Mohammed’s very-unclear experiences at Mount Hira, supplied by his wife’s older cousin who had been a pagan, then converted to Judaism, and then to (probably Nestorian) Christianity.

But for the favorable, regional power vacuum left after three decades of exhausting strife between Byzantium and Persia.

But for the timely invitation from a very few visiting followers to leave persecution in Mecca for a role in Medina (the Hegira, 622 A.D.).

But for the decision by his followers—after his death—to continue rather than not, to select a successor rather than not, and to re-pacify the coalition of Arab tribes that was already unraveling, rather than not.

Unlike Islam (and with up to twenty million fatalities) the Taiping Rebellion failed for several reasons. Among these, Hung lost internal unity, partly when two of his leading generals discovered that they were, respectively, God the Father and God the Holy Spirit—a pagan-like triad, and yet a variation of the Islamic problem of leadership succession.

The genius of Islam involved the snowballing unity of allied tribes against the fragmented periphery vulnerable to an economy of plunder. In China the periphery of intruding Western powers chose to prop up the declining Manchu dynasty. (The famous “Chinese” Gordon at Khartoum in the Sudan gained his reputation against the Taiping.)

Beyond making “a mess of things” today

Today the new hope, or good intention or fantasy, at this new pivot point in world history is this:

First, that cultural dialogue with Islam can frame some openings for cooperation, mutual respect and oases for enduring goodwill, while not being assimilated by an engulfing Islam.

Second, that the divided Church in China will have a more unified ecclesial life—if not assimilated by an engulfing Communist China.

Third, that in the post-Christian West, accompaniment can mean something more than capitulation and assimilation into the wallpaper.

For the immediate future, the best definition of “human fraternity” with Islam, at least, means dialogue not between Christianity and Islam, but rather between the witnesses to Christ and the followers of Islam—all first as “persons.”

What about some of the deeper contact points?

From the Second Vatican Council:  “Christ the Lord…by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et Spes). But, where Christianity anticipates the eventual deification, or theosis, of man, Islam finally recoils: “let God be God, and Man be Man.” Again, political errors (both East and West) are ultimately theological in origin.

From Pope St. John Paul II to all, as the negation of all ideologies new and old: “Furthermore, in constantly reaffirming the transcendent dignity of the person, the Church’s method is always that of respect for freedom” [and] “those principles of the moral order which have their origin in human nature itself” (Centesimus Annus, 1991 and “Ad Limina” address, June 27, 1998).

From Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI on the nature of dialogue: “Equality, which is a presupposition of interreligious dialogue, refers to the equal personal dignity of the parties in dialogue, not to doctrinal content, nor even less to the position of Jesus Christ—who is God himself made man—in relation to the founders of the other religions” (Dominus Iesus, 2000).

From the Qur’an: “The true believers, both men and women, are friends to one another. They enjoin what is just and forbid what is evil . . .” (Q 9:71); “Allah be worshipped and evil be shunned” (Q 16:36), and “God’s creation cannot be changed” (Q 30:30). Are these an echo of the permanent and universal natural law, or are they proto-Islam in service to only members of the umma (the multicultural family of Islam)?

But then, this from the Muslim el-Akkad (1956) who, in effect, suspected that the middle ground of “fifty-fifty” triangulation is a fiction, the toy of small minds:

It all comes down to knowing whether one should hold strictly to the fundamental religious values which were those of Abraham and Moses, on pain of falling into blasphemy—as the Muslims believe; or whether God has called men to approach him more closely, revealing to them little by little their fundamental condition as sinful men, and the forgiveness that transforms them and prepares them for the beatific vision—as Christian dogma teaches. (Quoted by Jean Guitton, Great Heresies and Church Councils)


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About Peter D. Beaulieu 7 Articles
Peter D. Beaulieu earned an interdisciplinary doctorate in urban and regional planning from the University of Washington (1975), is a member of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists and author of Beyond Secularism and Jihad? A Triangular Inquiry into the Mosque, the Manger & Modernity (University Press of America, 2012) and A Generation Abandoned: Why 'Whatever' Is Not Enough (Hamilton Books, 2017).

6 Comments

  1. Anthropology as the rule of morality assumes Teilhardian evolutionary process inherent in New Paradgmatic interpretation of the Christ revelation. Brushing aside my prejudice in favor of this author I’ll blatantly affirm his commentary on good and evil. True the trend preexisted this Pontificate although the craft of stealth cited by Prof John Rist now banned from Pontifical Universities is the dual message that affirms orthodoxy and similarly heterodoxy. The good thing is the heterodoxy is not authentically Magisterial despite Secretary of State Parolin’s say so. I agree instead with canonist Edward Peters that it does not in the exchange of letters between the Pontiff and Argentine bishops entered into AAS comes near definitive doctrine. To Peter Beaulieu’s point 1+1+1=1 is true as an article of faith, supported by the origin of the Gk word for person which refers to entity not necessarily a person as we understand a human person as with Christ [One in Being with the Father]. The Father as well as the Holy Spirit are entities [our person as men is by participation in the Being of God, see Aquinas on Boethius Severinus Manlius] insofar as their unique Being is really conveyed as Father and Holy Spirit. That unchangeable reality of One Being three persons is reflected by unchangeable Essence and the permanence of the Eternal Law hence revealed truth as to what is good and what is evil.

    • As we know, Jesus used simple comparisons to explain his doctrine. Of course, the Trinity is a mystery that can never really be explained and it is therefore a huge obstacle to those who do not grow up with belief in it. Nevertheless, I have pointed out to others in the past two comparisons that I find interesting. One is the tip of a solid triangle with three sides. Although the tip is undivided, at the same time it is an integral part of three distinct sides. The other comparison I like in the world which somehow reveals its Creator is that every living being has three dimensions and without them it cannot exist, nevertheless it remains one. These are just brain teasers for non-believers, but they can help people who otherwise would not give the Trinity a second glance.

      • The deeper problem, I’ve often encountered, is that most people either lack interest in metaphysical thought and truths, or they have few or no tools for such thought. When discussing the Trinity, it’s foundational that to grasp the difference between a person and a nature. Frank Sheed is an invaluable guide here:

        Comparisons drawn from the material universe are a hindrance and no help. Once one has taken hold of this doctrine, it is natural enough to want to utter it in simile and metaphor – like the lovely lumen de lumine, light from light, with which the Nicene Creed phrases the relation of the Son to the Father. But this is for afterward, poetical statement of a truth known, not the way to its knowledge. For that, the intellect must go on alone. And for the intellect, the way into the mystery lies, as we have already suggested, in the meaning of the words “person” and “nature”. There is no question of arithmetic involved. We are not saying three persons in one person, or three natures in one nature; we are saying three persons in one nature. There is not even the appearance of an arithmetical problem. It is for us to see what person is and what nature is, and then to consider what meaning there can be in a nature totally possessed by three distinct persons.

        The newcomer to this sort of thinking must be prepared to work hard here. It is a decisive stage of our advance into theology to get some grasp of the meaning of nature and the meaning of person. Fortunately the first stage of our search goes easily enough. We begin with ourselves. Such a phrase as “my nature” suggests that there is a person, I, who possesses a nature. The person could not exist without his nature, but there is some distinction all the same; for it is the person who possesses the nature and not the other way round.

        One distinction we see instantly. Nature answers the question what we are; person answers the question who we are. Every being has a nature; of every being we may properly ask, What is it? But not every being is a person: only rational beings are persons. We could not properly ask of a stone or a potato or an oyster, Who is it?

        Read more of Sheed on the Trinity.

  2. More may be said in reference to Beaulieu’s Triangulation and Islam. An important point the author makes is the primordial Islamic Golden Age predating the universe and its “recitation” of God as the Koran, whereas Christianity transcending Abramic law to which Islam finds resource defines Man’s humanness in Christ. Man given hope thru him in sharing eternal glory. As in all non Christian beliefs borrowing from Christianity is rampant evident in contemporary Buddhism and the Dali Lama [as was evident in the pol policy and thought of Anwar Sadat]. The true golden age of Islam occurred during the early centuries of conquest in the arts and sciences and with the discovery of Aristotle and a turn to reasoned theological philosophical inquiry epitomized with Ibn Rushd in the Spanish Caliphate. Ibn Rushd sought a triangulation of sorts middle ground to accommodate Islam to the West. That was quashed by the Mullahs and Islamic confirmation of Man as distant from God, sensually oriented necessarily obedient and unreasonable in his violence in proclaiming Allah. Christianity defies Triangulation with its accommodation to the world of sensuality in its radical intimate identity with God as revealed uniquely in the Person of Christ. The only beneficial inter-cultural dialogue with Islam requires Islam’s return to reason and conversion to Christ. For Catholicism a repudiation of New Paradigmatic Christianity and return to Apostolic Tradition.

  3. Added to the “deeper problem,” consider the task of translating any Western terminology and valid concepts (“nature,” “person”) on the mystery of the Trinity into an alien culture and specifically into early Arabic, a language said to have been limited to 50,000 words (and therefore incapable of absolutely crucial theological distinctions).

    So, now, there’s the evolving monotheist, Mohammed, in his beginning years. On one evening he secretly still returns to a polytheistic temple dedicated to a pagan triad: Allat, Menah, and Al Uzza, three female deities held to be the daughters of Allah. Not a good start for selling monotheism (or for considering Trinitarian Christianity).

    To shed the taunting charge of “hypocrisy,” Mohammed emphatically denied Allah any such daughters. And as for the Trinity, when the later Qur’an refers to some kind of Christian “trinity” it simply understands Allah together with the separate Jesus (much respected as a prophet), and with Mary (also much respected, but not the Holy Spirit).

    The case is made that Mohammed never really heard about a fully incarnate Christ (Rev, Nilo Geagea, “Mary of the Koran,” 1925/1984). Instead, mixing-zone Arabia featured Nestorianism (and Monophysitism from nearby Egypt, etc.). Triune Oneness looked too much like a triad, very much to be shunned, and like blasphemy—-the idea that Allah would have any kind of “consort” and then an “offspring.”

    Said one Muslim scholar (Fakhr al-Din al-Razi): “It therefore follows that everything other than God is created in time, and hence preceded by nonbeing. This also means that all things came into being through God’s creative act and His power of bringing things from nonbeing to being. From this it follows that everything other than God is His slave and possession. It is therefore impossible that anything other than He is His offspring.” What? …He IS his offspring? —as in the only-begotten Son who IS one with the Father?

    The often-contradictory Qur’an includes this intriguing bit from near the end of Mohammed’s complex life, probably in 631 A.D. (d. 632). Mohammed says: “If the Merciful had a son, I would be the first to adore him” (Q 43:81). So close, yet so far.

  4. Much of what is stated in the article and believed by many regarding Islam will have to undergo some serious rethinking and jettisoned at least in large part if the history that challenges the existence of Muhammad continues to gain legitimately objective ground based on serious scholarship from many serious scholars of Islam like Robert Spencer and an interesting fellow (sadly anti-Catholic) by the name of Jay Smith. I invite all sincere readers of this site and combox to start with the following YouTube video by Smith, and then follow-up with your own additional study of the question of Muhammad’s existence and how the very real possibility of such a fellow not existing at least in the manner in which he has been portrayed will ultimately impact all of Islam.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fMJRsd8SrhU

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