Christopher Hitchens, in his essay “Gods of Our Fathers, says of John Adams:
“…was prepared to be a little more engaged with theological subjects, in which he possessed a huge expertise…”
Christopher goes on to illustrate both Adams’ theological expertise and Adams’ rational enlightenment, thus:
Human understanding, he [John Adams] wrote…is its own revelation, and:
[H]as made it certain that two and one make three; and that one is not three; nor can three be one…Miracles or Prophecies might frighten us out of our Witts; might scare us to death; might induce Us to lie; to say that We believe 2 and 2 make 5. But we should not believe it. We should know the contrary.”
You can find these moments scattered everywhere in the journals of the 18th century. “We’ve discovered logic, and its our secret, and nobody before us knew how to use it. How stupid those earlier generations were. Those bumpkins didn’t understand that “one” can’t be “three”. By the way, have you seen these new-fangled rifled muskets? They’ll kill from a hundred paces.”
You’ll still hear the same voice in the the prattle of most any sixteen year old boy who is intoxicated with the recent discovery of his own neurons. We all go through that stage and most of us emerge. I remember with fondness my own pronouncements to my elders of how silly they were to believe this or that. It takes a decade or two to realize you defeated straw men.
Adams’ comment is a classic instance of mocking a thought you have not troubled to grasp. Hitchens thinks Adams possesses a “…huge expertise…” in theology. This is like one schoolchild on the playground appointing another their General in their make-believe battle. These people are worse than dilettante.
In fact, Christian Trinitarian dogma does not say anything at all about the numbers “one” and “three”, either as discrete quantities or as representatives of the class “integers”. Nor does it say anything about the relation between the quantity “one” and the quantity “three” (a quite distinct question from the first, as any medieval Schoolman would know).
The dogma of the Trinity says specifically that God is One in essence and Three in Persons. This is no comment at all on “one” or “three”; it is no comment at all about numbers. The mathematicians may proceed undisturbed.
A moment’s reflection, and you realize the Trinity generated so much talk, song, and art precisely because the theologians knew perfectly well that one is not three and three is not one. If they thought, in Adams’ phrase, that one could be three, the Trinity would have been a commonplace observation and would have not become an article of faith at all. I’ll try to say it in short words for the modern mind: they said what they said exactly because they knew what Adams thinks they didn’t know.
This reminds me of those critics who point out to us that people don’t rise from the dead, and those rubes in the first century just didn’t understand that. No, of course not, people don’t rise from the dead, which is the only reason to write and make a hubbub about it. Again, short words: that they thought like you is exactly why they acted like them, and not like you. Sigh.
The civilian skeptic might be excused for refuting what orthodoxy has never asserted, since our own pulpits emanate mostly doctrinal confusion, by our own standards. But the greater lights among them – the Voltaires, the Hitchens’ – might be expected to have a read a book or two .
Light is both particle and wave. Now, slow down – this is no proof of the Trinity. It simply indicates the necessity of a stage of thought where two things are asserted simultaneously with no understanding of their relation. Such a stage of thought is necessary in any advancing discipline. A is B, and A is C, yet the relation between B and C is not understood. In simple abstract logic, the conclusion would be that B is C; but we know that B is not C, so we know that though logic is a tool of thought, thought is larger than logic alone.
Light is both particle and wave. A is B, and A is C. It’s a simple observation. If we were an 18th century rationalist, we’d object, and ridicule the physicist, and send everybody off in another direction for a century or two.
But the proper way to progress is to maintain both assertions – the “what” – together, knowing that further learning will fill in the “how” and the law of non-contradiction will be preserved, in whatever form it ought to be. Thought leads the way, and logic fills in as more is learned. Reverse the order, and thought shrivels.
The Trinity is exactly the same. In the content of revelation we see that God is Father, God is Son, and God is Spirit. This is a simple observation. A is B, A is C, A is D. So we, reasoners but not rationalists, assert all three identities, not knowing all the logical relations. Logic will clean up later.
Illustrations are not proofs. Examples from the physical world have been used for centuries by Christian preachers to illustrate or prove the Trinity, and usually they shouldn’t. The illustrations sometimes work, but such proofs are always false, and just feed the skeptics. That light is both particle and wave is a useful illustration of the pattern of thought the Cappadocian theologians used to articulate Trinitarian dogma, but the particle / wave phenomenon is not a good illustration of the substance of the Trinitarian relations, because we don’t know that level of detail about the divine Persons. And such things like particle / wave, drawn from physics, PROVE nothing theological. As more is learned about the physical properties of light, it will even cease to be a useful illustration.
The analogy breaks down, you see, because we can experiment on light, in order to learn more, but there is no additional knowledge about the Trinity available. I’ve used the phrase “simple observation” about both, but they are observations about two radically different objects. The one is an observation of the material world, the other an observation about the content of the New Testament. The epistemological act of observing is the same, and the logic, or suspension of logic in the interest of thought, is the same, even if you think the one object is real but the other is mythic.
There is no additional knowledge available about the Trinity, because we’re simply receiving statements from authority. There is further knowledge about light, because our authority and source of information is our sense-perception. The one is finished (by its own claim), while the other is never finished (by its own claim.) So, as science progresses, the particle / wave duality will probably disappear. The Three / One duality will not disappear, till the age ends.
Even if you think the New Testament is myth, this tells you nothing about the logic of the process of thought about its contents. You’d have to prove the historical claim of the NT to be false, which is a discussion from a different day. That many skeptics confuse the logic of observing with the nature of what is observed tells me we should not make them examples of intellectual rigor.