An Attempt at a Muslim-Friendly Explanation of the Trinity


A post on Christianity and Islam. I clearly need to study more astrophysics.

I recently read a book about a man's conversion from Islam to Christianity (Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, by Nabeel Qureshi), which was quite interesting. For one thing, it did a better job of showing another culture than anything I ever studied in English class. Their idea of diversity seems to be people with different clothing and food preparation styles who think exactly like leftist Westerners. Although to be fair, I understand some other English classes studied some books (like the Odyssey) with genuine diversity. Or maybe I just appreciate that stuff more now that I don't have to analyze it.

But I don't want this to turn into an anti-English rant, so let's get back to Islam. The book claims (citing either the Koran or some of the more trusted Hadiths - I forget which) that Mohammad didn't want to be a prophet and unsuccessfully tried to get out of it. I have heard this before, although not with the same details twice and -- surprise! -- this one was different again. In any case, it puts him with Bible prophets such as Jeremiah (1:4-7), Ezekiel (3:16-21), and of course, Moses (Exodus 3:10 - 4:17). Honorable mention to Gideon, who needed no less than 4 miracles to convince him to obey God. Although admittedly Gideon was supposed to attack an enemy army that had him outnumbered hundreds to one with unarmed soldiers, so I see how that could have been scary. (He won.)

Related to this, Mohammad also fails to be a paragon of Western virtue. I don't find that surprising, since he lived a millennium before the West even existed, but Nabeel Qureshi was quite shocked (and horrified). He had always been told he had been, and discovering Koranic verses to the contrary seems to be the key factor in driving him away form Islam. The clear moral here is not to tell lies about your own religion just to make it sound better. The truth will probably get out (especially these days) and cause all sorts of harm when it does. If you think your religion needs the lies to survive, it would argue that either a) it is false and thus should not survive or b) you insult your audience by assuming that they won't understand the real reason it's true. There's also the whole "offering lies to the god of truth" issue (Isaiah 65:16, John 14:16-17, if anyone knows a suitable Koran reference, please tell me).

The most interesting thing (at least to me) was the difficulties Nabeel Qureshi (at by analogy most or all Muslims) had with the Christine doctrine of the Trinity. He eventually found a solution in resonance (a chemistry concept), but that is rather specialized knowledge.

It seems to me that Christianity has yet to come up with a good way of explaining the Trinity. As evidence, I cite the sheer number of competing explanations. And I think that historically, these explanations come in 2 main kinds. The older ones were designed for arguing with pagans, and the newer ones for arguing with atheists. Admittedly there were hundreds of years of war between Christians and Muslims (including the Crusades), but it seems to have been the sort of war than included a lot of swords and very few pens. All in all, actually talking to Muslims seems to be a relatively new idea. So this makes me think that it might be possible to construct a Muslim-friendly explanation of Trinity. And that is what I am going to attempt here.

My overall idea is to shift the focus from the nature of God to His observed behaviour. Since the Trinity is a doctrine we have deduced from scriptural evidence, rather than one we received by revelation, this seems safe. I'm just being a little more cautious in my extrapolations.

The first thing to do is make a (partial) list of things God does. I am going to start with a list of reasonably religion-independent ones, and we can get to the trickier ones later. Some examples:
  1. Create the universe
  2. Give people laws (religious, moral, social, etc.)
  3. Send dreams/visions (I am not clear on the distinction)
  4. Give messages to prophets for them to tell to other people (prophets hereby defined as "people God gives messages to for them to tell to other people")
  5. Send angels (literally "messengers") to tell people things
  6. Do miracles (people who do miracles are really requesting God to do one)
  7. Judge the dead
  8. Arrange for natural events to happen so that they achieve some goal (e.g. a wicked man's crops are destroyed by hail)
  9. Apply/add/assign souls to people
  10. Determine which nations, empires, etc. rise and fall when
  11. Sustain the universe so it keeps existing
  12. Give people a conscience (and possibly influence it)
My first category is God as King. These are when God rules the universe in a manner analogous to a human king rule his kingdom. This would include 2, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 10.

I am also going to toss God as Creator in with His kinging. It's not exactly the same, since human kings cannot create things, but it's pretty similar. That gives up 1, 9, and 11 as well.

My second category is God who talks to people. Here God is influencing the world in a more subtle way. He is influencing or communicating with a person, rather than using raw power to achieve His ends. This would include 3, 4, and 12.

Most of Christianity fits in these two categories pretty well. For example, the Bible talks about God's spirit being in Christians (John 14:17) and that fits pretty neatly into God talking to people. Prophecies are similar, despite the uncertainty of whether God is a) foreseeing the future, b) making very shrewd guesses, or c) deliberately making the events happen.

The outlier is Jesus, who is somehow supposed to be God, but not exactly, because He is also human, and God isn't (Number 23:19). Fortunately this isn't too hard to resolve. A person is composed to 2 parts: a body, which interacts with the world, and soul, which controls the body. In the case of Jesus, God skipped attaching the soul and just controlled the body Himself. He also appears to have only used limited knowledge, willpower, etc. to match what would be available to a normal human. Jesus implies that he is getting his teachings by virtue of being a prophet (John 14:24), and I suspect the same applies to his miraculous powers.

So my third category is God controlling Jesus.

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is essentially the belief that these different forms of action emerge from a partial division in God's nature, with the different parts acting in different ways. The key supporting evidence is that Jesus talks as if that was the case (especially in John 14-17). However, the idea of God arguing with -- or even working against -- Himself is older (e.g. Ezekiel 22:30-31).

Christian tradition decrees the most common names for the different aspects of God and/or means of His interaction. When God is acting like a king, He is God the Father. When He is talking or similar to people, He is God the Holy (i.e. divine) Spirit/Ghost. When He is Jesus, He is God the Son. Again the names are probably taken from Jesus (especially in John 14-17), but the terminology is older (e.g. Job 38:28 and Malachi 2:10, Genesis 41:38 and 1 Samuel 10:6, Psalm 2:7 and Daniel 7:13-14).

As a side note, if I have correctly understood Islam, it teaches that God is directly present in the Koran in a manner I don't really understand. This is why it is an object of power, unlike the Bible, which is just a collection of historical documents conveniently printed in one volume. Since God-present-as-a-book is not God as king or God talking to people, Islam effectively has its own "trinity" of God the Father, God the Holy Spirit, and God the Koran. So the Koran (the Word of God according to Islam) occupies the same "space" as Jesus (the Word of God according to Christianity). I don't really know what to conclude from this, but it's... interesting.

As always, I welcome responses of all sort: comments, theological objections (from either religion), relevant Biblical or Koranic references, and so forth.

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