The Trinity and Us

(This is Neil.) In my limited experience, everything written by Bishop Kalllistos (Ware) is worth reading. I’ve already posted the Orthodox Bishop of Diokleia’s thoughts on liturgy and community, reconciliation, and trees (if you don’t think that trees are important, you haven’t been paying attention).

Again magazine has reprinted a lecture, originally delivered in 1998, in which he suggests that “the human person is a profound mystery. There are depths – or if you would like, heights – within myself of which I have very little understanding”(hat tip: Orthodox Today).

This might not sound very promising. It might even sound depressing. But Bishop Kallistos goes on to say this this “mystery” is not an unchanging opacity, but something dynamic - we are always on a journey. And “this journey is a journey that has no limits, that stretches out forever, that goes on even in heaven.” There will always be wonder. As Tolkien wrote in The Hobbit, “Roads go ever on.” Furthermore, this “mystery” is grounded on the “mystery” that is God. The Bishop tells us, “if God is beyond understanding, then the human person formed in God’s image is likewise beyond understanding. Precisely because God is a mystery, I too am a mystery.” So we can begin the journey that is personhood only by meditating on the mystery of God. This is not walking in endless circles: we can say certain things about God – most importantly, that beautiful and inexhaustible line from St John, “God is Love.”

This brings us to the Trinity. Bishop Kallistos then says:

I remember a visit in my student years in Oxford from Archimandrite Sophrony, the disciple of St. Silouan of Mt. Athos. He gave a talk on Orthodoxy, and there was a discussion afterwards. Towards the end, the chairman said, “We have time for just one more question.” Somebody got up at the back of the audience and said, “Fr. Sophrony, please tell us—what is God?” And Fr. Sophrony answered very briefly, “You tell me—what is man?” God and the human person are two mysteries that are interconnected, and neither can be understood apart from the other. “In the image of God” means there’s a vertical reference in our personhood. We can only be understood in terms of our link with the divine.

But then, let’s think of another point. “In the image of God” means in the image of the Trinity. As St. Gregory the Theologian says, “When I say God, I mean Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” That is what as Christians we mean by God. We don’t understand God as a series of abstractions. We understand God as three Persons. And that we see very clearly from the Creed. We begin in the Creed by saying, “I believe in One God.” And then we don’t continue by saying, “Who is an uncaused cause, who is primordial reality, who is the ground of being.” This is the way many modern theologians speak. But in the Creed we say, “I believe in One God . . . the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” We continue, that is to say, in specific personal terms.

God for us is Trinity. And if we’re in the image of God we’re in the image of the Triune God. What does that mean for our understanding of our personhood? Let’s think first of the Trinity, and then of ourselves.

“God is love” (1 John 4:8). And St. John in the same chapter says, in verse 18, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear.” In true love there is no exclusiveness, no jealousy. True love is open, not closed. God is love. There is no fear in love. And so God is not the love of one. God is not love in the sense of being self-love, turned in upon itself. God is not a closed unit. God is not a unit, but a union. God is love in the sense of shared love, the mutual love of three Persons in one.

When the Cappadocian Fathers in the fourth century are describing God, one of their key words is koinonia, meaning fellowship, communion, or relationship. As St. Basil says in his work on the Holy Spirit, “The union of the Godhead lies in the koinonia, the interrelationship, of the Persons.” So this then is what the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is saying: God is shared love, not self-love. God is openness, exchange, solidarity, self-giving.

Now, we are to apply all this to human persons made in the image of God. “God is love,” says St. John. And that great English prophet of the eighteenth century, William Blake, says, “Man is love.” God is love, not self-love but mutual love, and the same is true then of the human person. God is koinonia, relationship, communion. So also is the human person in the Trinitarian image. God is openness, exchange, solidarity, self-giving. The same is true of the human person when living in a Trinitarian mode according to the divine image.

There’s a very helpful book by a British philosopher, John Macmurray, entitled Persons in Relationship, published in 1961. Macmurray insists that relationship is constitutive of personhood. He argues that there is no true person unless there are at least two persons communicating with each other. In other words, I need you in order to be myself. All this is true because God is Trinity.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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