Monday, 2 September 2013

The Trinity - the mystery of love

Chagall abraham angels

Imagine coming across a popular science article containing the following:
“Science says light is “strange.” According to Albert Einstein, light is somehow also a stream of particles but not a stream of particles.”
You’d hardly think that you were reading the work of an award-winning journalist and would instead be checking whether the piece was a satire on the lack of science literacy.

Sadly, the same doesn’t seem to apply when it comes to the coverage of religion, since the above is a transposition of the following excerpt from an article published on the CNN Belief Blog yesterday:
“Christianity says the Trinity is a “mystery” of faith. According to Christian tradition, God begets a son who is somehow also Him but not Him.”
Not only is the source an established news broadcaster, but the author himself - Jeffrey Weiss - is described as “an award-winning religion reporter,” and - ironically - there is no suggestion of parody in the piece.

Instead of having a go at the article piece by piece, let me try to say what I understand by saying that God is both three and one. It is always easier just to mock than to put one’s neck on the line by being constructive, so I’ll take a risk and open myself to criticism next.

First, let me say that the Trinity is a mystery. What I don’t mean by that though is that it cannot be thought or spoken about, that it is irrational or that stating that it is a mystery is a conversation stopper. The universe too is full of mystery and while science is making tremendous progress in understanding it better and better, there are still many phenomena that we cannot fully explain (e.g., how does anesthesia work, what happened during the Planck epoch, what causes a reversal in the Earth’s magnetic field’s polarity, etc.). You could say that these phenomena are mysteries. What would be understood by that is that something about them eludes our explanatory capacity and, most likely, that we are trying to get a better understanding of them.

It is in this sense that the Trinity is a mystery, and the fact that our imperfect grasp of it fuels the desire of Christians to deepen their understanding, rather than being an obstacle to it, can be seen easily if one samples not only the output of theological work but also the insights of mystics and saints.

Before proceeding to share examples of Christian thought about the Trinity, let me put my own cards on the table (which, naturally, have their source in the experiences and thoughts of others :). I believe that the Christian teaching about God being both three and one is all about expressing core aspects of what love is, since God is Love. Love necessarily requires more than one party and is a dynamic relationship. Furthermore, it is a relationship in which change is fueled by loss and gain, by nothingness and being. When I take my son to the playground, instead of reading that next book or sleeping, I am losing my selfish plans (and in some sense annihilating that part of my self that was invested in them) and instead giving part of my self (that part which instead of pursuing my own plans will now chase him around a playground) to him. In some sense, as a result of my love for my son, part of me becomes part of him. However, when love is reciprocated, the element of loss, which is real, becomes compensated for, and - in this example - the laughter of my son, his joy, his wellbeing return to me as gifts from him and close the cycle started by my giving up on reading at the beginning of this story. Finally, the exchange of self that - motivated by love - took place here, is real in the sense that what was lost by one and gained by another are real and substantially change them. In some sense the exchange itself - the relationship - is as real as the persons between which it took place.

With an exposition of love in the above terms, the Trinity can be seen as its reductio ad absurdum, where the Father gives all of himself to the Son (thereby losing himself completely) and the Son reciprocates the gift by giving himself fully to the Father in return. The Holy Spirit then is the relationship of the Father and the Son personified, and by simultaneously not being and being, the three persons of the Trinity are the one God who is.

Such a conception of the Trinity makes all relationships of love be modeled on the innermost life of God, and while it is complex and abstract, it is no more so than theories of contemporary physics.1 St. Gregory of Nazianzus (in the 4th century AD!) refers to the Trinity as “the infinite co-naturality of three infinites” (a phrase any thinker could be proud of) and Blessed Pope John Paul II explains the motive for such trinity: “God is one, but not alone.” That relationships are the key to the Trinity is also apparent already in St. Augustine, who equates love with the Trinity by saying: “If you see love, you see the Trinity. Since you see someone who loves, someone who is loved, and the love uniting them.” Augustine then proceeds to underline how completely the persons of the Trinity are “co-natural,” by saying that the Father “is not called Father with reference to himself but only in relation to the Son; seen by himself he is simply God.” (De Trinitate VII, 1, 2), which the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger explains as:
“‘Father’ is purely a concept of relationship. Only in being-for the other is he Father; in his own being-in-himself he is simply God. Person is the pure relation of being related, nothing else. Relationship is not something extra added to the person, as it is with us; it only exists at all as relatedness.” (Introduction to Christianity)
In summary, and in Chiara Lubich’s words, the Trinity is revealed to us “as unconditional, reciprocal self-giving, as mutual loving, self-emptying out of love, as total and eternal communion.” It is a mystery, but one that speaks volumes about what Christianity means both by love and by God and what relationships it strives towards already in the here and now.

1 And I am not saying that theology is physics, but merely drawing a comparison between the level of intuitiveness and simplicity of their concepts.