Step one has a single purpose: Gather information. What precisely is the complaint, the objection, or the challenge your friend is offering? Step two: Find out the specific reasons—if he has any, and if he can articulate them—for holding the contrary view he’s advancing. These two steps provide you with a kind of map you can use to navigate dangerous waters. The moves are gentle and non-confrontational, compelled by a genuine curiosity and a desire to understand. Step three is more advanced: Make a point—but always try to use questions when you do.
Having a specific plan is always a huge benefit when you’re forced to navigate troubled waters. Indeed, it’s hard to even get launched if you don’t know which direction it’s best to go when a gale starts blowing.
It’s one of the reasons so many Christians have difficulty engaging the world Jesus has sent them into as ambassadors. The cultural waters they find themselves in are stormier by the day, and many believers—battered by the squall—stay tied to their mooring for fear of being swamped by the tempest just beyond their anchorage.
Weathering the Storm
There is a way out, though, a fairly simple approach to get you through the breakers and out into open water—a navigational game plan that is extremely safe, surprisingly straightforward, and amazingly effective.
Simply put, the key to navigating effectively with others in choppy spiritual waters is to use questions. Carefully placed queries are the foundation of a tactical game plan that will keep you from getting capsized.
The basic plan is simplicity itself. [i]
Step one has a single purpose: Gather information. What precisely is the complaint, the objection, or the challenge your friend is offering? Step two: Find out the specific reasons—if he has any, and if he can articulate them—for holding the contrary view he’s advancing.
These two steps provide you with a kind of map you can use to navigate dangerous waters. The moves are gentle and non-confrontational, compelled by a genuine curiosity and a desire to understand. Step three is more advanced: Make a point—but always try to use questions when you do.
This last phase of the plan is where verbal sparring is more likely to begin since you’re taking the initiative—though in a careful, shrewd way—to offer a contrary opinion or to point out a weakness or a flaw in the other’s view.
This is the point where Street Tactics—a refinement of the final phase of that basic plan—enter in. For most of this year, I’ve been giving you a primer on this approach in STR’s bi-monthly issues of Solid Ground.[ii]
Street Tactics involve having a specific set of questions at the ready to keep you in the driver’s seat of a conversation when you’re engaged with a critic of Christianity on a particular topic. Though encounters like these are somewhat “head-to-head” affairs, our tactical maneuvers are meant to provide safety for you in the conversation while encouraging the objector to think more carefully about his complaints or consider problems he may not have been aware of.
My pattern in this tutorial series has been to provide insight on the weaknesses of a challenge then offer a specific line of questions in the form of mini-dialogues that you can use to get started addressing that weakness in an amicable, yet incisive, way.
In this Solid Ground, I’d like to answer some confusions about a theological matter you may have struggled to deal with in the past, then provide sample, question-guided mini-dialogues to help you navigate that issue when it comes up in conversations with others.
Our focus will be on a somewhat technical (though vital) point of theology—the Trinity. It’s a huge speed bump for many, especially atheists, Muslims, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. These all reject the Trinity, but they object to it on different grounds.
The Trinity: Two Too Many
Atheists and skeptics think the Trinity is absurd. Muslims protest, pointing out that Jesus never said, “I am God. Worship me.” Jehovah’s Witnesses are strict unitarians on biblical grounds, and Mormons, though they affirm Scripture, are polytheists, regarding the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as distinct gods.
Since the charge of contradiction is so common, I’ll tackle that first. Here’s how one objector put it:
According to the celestial multiplication table, once one is three, and three times one is one, and according to heavenly subtraction if we take two from three, three are left. The addition is equally peculiar, if we add two to one we have but one. Each one is equal to himself and the other two. Nothing ever was, nothing ever can be more perfectly idiotic and absurd than the dogma of the Trinity.[iii]
We might sympathize with this agnostic’s concern (the Trinity is a bit weird, after all), but the inaccuracies and distortions in this statement are legion—none of the declarations reflects a correct understanding of the doctrine. It’s a “straw man,” an easy-to-defeat distortion of the authentic view.
A basic definition might clear things up. A contradiction is a structurally simple thing, in logical terms: A = non-A. When we affirm one thing and simultaneously affirm its negation, we have contradicted ourselves.
If, for example, I said there is only one God but then claimed there were three separate, distinct, and individual gods, that would be a contradiction. This is not the Christian position, though. The first half is classical Christian theology, but the second half is the Mormon view.
If I said God subsists in three distinct persons but then claimed God is a perfect unity—one nature and only one person, that would be a contradiction. This is not the Christian position, though. The first half is the Christian view, but the second half is the Muslim view.
However, if I said there is only one who is God by nature, and the one God subsists in three distinct persons who equally share the divine nature—one individual divine being with three distinct centers of consciousness—that would not be a contradiction. That would be strange, but it would not be contradictory.
Do not miss a critical element in resolving difficulties like these: Precision matters. Getting basic concepts correct is vital. What specifically do critics mean by “contradiction”? What precisely do Christians mean by “Trinity”? Clearing up this confusion is crucial. It’s the goal of our first tactical question—some form of the query “What do you mean by that?”
Properly understood, the Christian view simply is not contradictory. Period. This doesn’t make it true, of course (that must be established on separate grounds), but clearly it doesn’t fail because of incoherence, and that’s the issue here.
The stumbling block for many is the three-in-one notion. It seems problematic on its face. However, not all three-in-ones are contradictions. A single triangle has three angles (a “tri-angle”). It also has three sides, so it’s three in one twice. No one balks at this concept, though. One family can have three members: Dad, Mom, and little Johnny. No problem there, either.
These are not illustrations of the Trinity, mind you. It’s just a way of parrying this objection by giving examples of three-in-ones that are not contradictions. As long as the first claim is not negated by the second claim—that is, as long as the precise way that a thing is three is different from the way it is one—there is no conflict, no inconsistency, and no incongruity.
Here is how I would manage the discussion.
“The Trinity doesn’t make sense.”
“Really? Why not?”
“It’s an absurd contradiction.”
“Oh? What exactly is the contradiction?” [Note my initial requests for clarification.]
“Because you can’t have three in one. It’s a contradiction. You have three gods and one God at the same time. That’s nonsense.”
“You’re right. That would be nonsense if it were what we believed.[iv] I think I see the confusion. Let me ask you a question. How many people in your family?”
“Four. My wife, and me, and our two kids. Why?”
“So you have four people in your family? You have four in one? Impossible. That’s a contradiction. If you can’t have three in one, how can you have four in one?”
“Because a family is one thing and the people who make up that family are another thing. They’re not the same, so there’s no contradiction.”
“Exactly. That’s my point. As long as the one (one family) is different from the four (four people), you’re in the clear. Right?”
“The same with the Trinity. When Christians talk about the Trinity, they mean one thing (one God) is different from the three things (three persons). Do you see how that’s not a contradiction?”
“Well, you’ve got a point, but that doesn’t make it true.”
“You’re right. It doesn’t. But it does show it’s not contradictory, right?”