Thursday, 19 June 2014

Theology: necessary, but only for experts


Last Sunday was Trinity Sunday - the day when the Church focuses on the one God having revealed himself to be a communion of three persons, whose self-giving love for one another means that they are both three and one - distinct persons, yet of one substance. As St. John Paul II put it in Familiaris Consortio (§11): “God is love and in Himself He lives a mystery of personal loving communion.”

John Paul II then goes on to discussing the relevance of an understanding of the Trinity for humanity, when he says that
“God created man in His own image and likeness: calling him to existence through love, He called him at the same time for love. [...] Creating the human race in His own image and continually keeping it in being, God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation, and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion. Love is therefore the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.”
Maybe naively, but I therefore expected to read some edifying insight into this trinitarian nature of God when picking up an official leaflet distributed with my parish’s newsletter last Sunday. Instead, I started reading a piece that kicks off as follows:
“The liturgy of Trinity Sunday is full of abstract words that many of us find difficult - unity, trinity, person, substance. They can seem to belong more to a mathematical text-book than to a prayer. This is the technical language of theology, necessary but only for experts.”
At this point I stopped reading, since, whatever followed, could be neither edifying nor enriching, and I preferred to spend the rest of the time I had before mass in a positive way instead of by trying to calm myself down in the face of more drivel.

I am not sure what maths books the author of the above patronizing had read, but I can only think of one of those four terms coming up there. More seriously wrong is the idea though that our understanding of the nature of God is in some way an academic exercise, that it is something that just has to be put up with and that it is best left to experts. The rest of us, for whom this must all be terribly confusing, should just get on with our lives and not let ourselves be troubled by abstract concepts. In fact, we should shelve all this hoity-toity talk about persons and substances under the soothing blanket of “mystery,” as the author of the above insult to every rational human being suggests later in the same piece.

Absolutely no way, Bruce! This would be - to use a soccer analogy - like telling players that they didn’t need to know anything about the Laws of the Game, that they should just run around kicking the ball however they liked (since those complicated rules would just give them headaches) and that the referees would tell them what’s going on and, at some point, who won.

Luckily the author in question here is comfortably outranked by another, whose words I will chose to use against him and to adhere to myself. Yes, you guessed it - I am talking again about St. John Paul II, who said:
“[T]he Trinity is beyond the capacities of our understanding and can only be known through revelation. Nevertheless, this mystery which infinitely transcends us is also the reality closest to us, because it is the very source of our being. For in God we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), and what St Augustine says of God must be applied to all three divine persons: he is “intimior intimo meo” (Confessions, 3, 6, 11). In the depths of our being, where not even our gaze can penetrate, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God in three persons, are present through grace. Far from being a dry intellectual truth, the mystery of the Trinity is the life that dwells in us and sustains us. [...]

He is love in his inner life, where the Trinitarian dynamism is the very expression of the eternal love with which the Father begets the Son and both give themselves to each other in the Holy Spirit. He is love in his relationship to the world, since the free decision to make it out of nothing is the fruit of this infinite love which radiates into the sphere of creation.”
Yes, the Trinity is a mystery, but saying so is not a conversation stopper or an excuse, and neither is it code for saying that we cannot think or reason about what it means. Christianity has at its heart the gift of revelation, where God became man and dwelt among us, precisely so that we could also have some understanding of who He is. While being wholly other, and justifiably approached also by apophatic means, He is at the same time “more inward to us than our inmost self and higher than our highest self” (“intimior intimo meo et superior summo meo”), as St. Augustine says. Being made in His image means that by understanding Him we understand ourselves, and vice versa, and this surely is worth struggling for and putting up with (seemingly) abstract and technical language for.

Let’s not let others tell us that thinking about the Trinity is for experts only, that it is too technical and abstract for us to trouble our pretty little heads with. Let’s receive the gift of revelation and the glimpses of His innermost life that God shared with us, since these are treasures beyond the wildest imagination and keys to unlocking joy in our lives. And even if you, my dear reader, are not a Christian, see what it is that we mean by speaking about God as Trinity, since it tells you what we mean by love.