Teaching Our Faith — The Trinity and being Church

This series of teaching editorials focuses on themes of The Creed, the topic of this season’s Why Catholic? process.

The idea that God exists as Trinity, as three persons in one essence, lies at the heart of our Catholic faith. Yet, this central tenet of our faith is one of the most complicated beliefs in Christianity, and arguably, the least understood. Despite the fact that we are all baptized in the name of the Trinity, we don’t always know what to make of the doctrine of the Trinity.

A mystery the Trinity surely is, and I won’t here pretend that I comprehend this mystery fully. “For now we see in a mirror, dimly,” as St Paul reminds us (1 Cor 13:12). Our ancestors in the faith didn’t formulate the doctrine of the Trinity because they wanted to be intentionally difficult or because they wanted to play a grand theological joke for posterity. Rather, the doctrine of the Trinity formed out of concrete experiences of the Divine; experiences that shaped the kind of language our ancestors used to express their understanding of God.

And over the centuries, great theologians such as Augustine, Athanasius, Thomas Aquinas and Julian of Norwich, have endeavored to come to terms with the implications of God’s triune existence, not only for our understanding of God and our relationship with God, but for our understanding of how we are to exist one with another.

Peel back the complicated Trinitarian language of consubstantiality, persons, essence, hypostases and ousia, important though that language is. To say that God is Trinity is simply to say that God exists, eternally, as a community of love. It is to say that God exists eternally giving God’s self within God’s self and that God exists as an eternal embrace of self-giving and generous love where each person of the Trinity gives the totality of themselves to one another in a dance of love so complete and generous that threeness comes to equal oneness.

This is what it means to believe that, as St. John says, ‘God is love’ (1 Jn 4:8). God exists as love. God, in his very essence, exists and has always existed as an eternal community of love, and it is God’s very existence as eternally loving that explains why the created order came to be, and particularly, why God gave the gift of his very self to us in the Incarnation, when God became human. We know that God exists as love because that is how God lived on earth. Jesus’ example of a totally generous and self-giving love, a love that led him to the cross, reveals that love is at the heart of who God is.

This understanding of God as a community of generous love is vitally important for understanding how we are to relate to others, both within the church and outside the church.

The Trinity, I want to suggest, not only shows what it means to say God is love. The Trinity also provides an icon that vividly shows us how we are to live in community. If God in his essence exists in community, and if we are created in the image and likeness of God, then we, too, are created to exist in community with one another.

We were not created to live lives of isolation, focused solely on our own well-being to the neglect of the welfare of others. We were created for one another, to exist relationally as God exists relationally. We are, in other words, most fully ourselves, most fully human, when we exist in the kind of community that God is as Trinity.

I don’t want to speak only of abstracts, for concrete implications should be spelled out. A church that imitates God’s Trinitarian life is a church characterized by unity in multiplicity, in which people of various life experiences, perspectives and temperaments love and embrace one another regardless of the differences that may exist. It is a church in which each person becomes fully known by the others, and in which all persons are willing to be totally vulnerable and open.

It is a church in which persons know their own and each other’s strengths and weaknesses, joys and hardships, character qualities as well as character foibles, and are fully embraced and accepted and helped and cherished and loved as they are. It is a church of radical equality in which, regardless of wealth, expertise, abilities, gender, orientation, or race, each person is understood to be absolutely pivotal to the community’s life.

May God grant us the grace to become, as a church, like him.

Dr. Gregory Hillis is Assistant Professor of Theology at Bellarmine University

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