Trinity and Personhood

I have been teaching a graduate course on the Trinity this semester and it has impelled me to think anew about the Trinity and what the implications of the Trinity might mean for future planetary life. As I wrote in my last blog, I do not think that we have a functioning trinitarian theology. We have a monarchic theology—a one-stop God—and many people cannot seem to move beyond it. For some people, a ruling divine monarch provides a sense of safety and security. As one parish priest said in a homily after the outbreak of the Gaza war: God is in control.   

Last evening, I attended a beautiful Passover celebration and had a lovely conversation with a Rabbi who said to me, in effect, God creates us uniquely and distinctly because without each one of us the world would be incomplete. Each person makes an eternal difference to God. This idea resonated with me because Teilhard de Chardin said that God and world are becoming something more together and, I would add, the synthesis of this complementary union lies within us. Carl Jung described this union as a process of individuation. As I enter the interior depths of my personhood through intensified consciousness, God rises up from the unconscious into the conscious reality of my life. In Jung’s view the two-nature doctrine of Chalcedon (divine and human) was not particular to Jesus Christ; rather, the two natures signify the two natures of consciousness and unconsciousness in every person. That is, the unification of these levels effects the divinization of every person. Without individuation, history goes awry. God needs humankind to become both whole and complete. It is precisely an expanded and higher consciousness which Jung believes God acquires through incarnation in humankind. The redemption of God is the redemption of history. Both Jung and Teilhard de Chardin said that God and world are to be united in human consciousness as the depth meaning of history, both personal and collective.  

The unitive nature of God and world connotes deep relationality. Thomistic theology with its metaphysics of participation cannot embrace a real God-world relationship; indeed, for Thomas, the immanent or inner life of the Trinity is primary to the economic life of God in the world. God for the world is not necessarily God with the world. However, relationship requires a mutual being with the other. It is interesting that the use of the word “person” lies in the development of trinitarian theology. For the Cappadocian writers (Basil of Caeserea, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa), the term “person” had relational significance. A “person” is an ecstatic center of relationship who stands under (subsists) or in relation to another. What I am is distinguished by what I am not. I am “this” and not “that,” yet, without “that” I cannot be “this.” I am unique and distinct but not isolated and separate. In this respect, a person is not adequately defined by the term “individual,” because a person is an open and ecstatic reality. To be a person is to be a center of transcendent activity open to wholeness and unity. Beatrice Bruteau wrote:

Our ‘I,’ our personhood, is not a product of God’s action, something left over after the action has ceased. Rather it is God’s action in the very actuality of acting. ‘We’ are not a thing but an activity. This is why God’s activity of ecstatically moving out to us is an act of coinciding with our activity, just as our union with God will be our ecstatically moving out to God as an act of coinciding with God’s activity. . . . This activity which we are and which God is, is the act of creative freedom, of initiative, of self-originated self-giving.

A trinitarian theology of personhood requires just that: persons in relationship. Personhood is key to human identity and to divine life; the distinction of person is precisely in relation to the whole. Thomas Merton said that God utters each of us like a partial thought of Godself. I would say that each of us is a unique thought of Godself, never to be uttered exactly the same way again for all eternity. In this respect, each of us contributes to God what God lacks in God’s own being, namely, the expression of divine love in this particular way, the way of my life. Each of us is like a fractal, a particular pattern of divine love, contributing to the unfolding of divine beauty through the complexifying particularities of our lives, in the same way that each of the persons of the Trinity contribute to the dynamic beauty of divine love. 

The actualization of personhood takes place in self-transcendence, the movement of freedom toward communion with other persons. Personhood is an ongoing activity that is dynamic in nature. The twentieth-century theologian, Karl Rahner, said that the human person is a subject of infinite transcendence, grounded in self-presence, freedom and grace. His famous axiom stated that the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity and the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity. What God is in God’s own life, God shares with us. There are not two Gods: a God above and a God within. There is only one God, one movement in love, in which I am constantly born into new life. God who is within us constantly draws us beyond ourselves, toward something more. In her landmark book, God For Us, Catherine LaCugna said that talk of an immanent Trinity, that is, God’s “inner life” distinct from history, as if God is a monarch in control, runs the danger of promoting a political and social order which sanctions potentially oppressive hierarchies. A controlling God can lead to all kinds of dominating hierarchies, religious, moral, political and sexual. However, a deeply relational God leads to a new presence of God without a monarch, a democratization of divinity as shared power of persons in communion. The Trinity does not have a superiority complex, it does not need to be a superpower. On the contrary, only a triune God, a deeply personal and relational God of love can hide in the human heart and patiently endure suffering and rejection, without renouncing or revoking a commitment to unconditional love.  

To name “God” as Trinity is to name the ecstatic and relational wholeness that is divine life. God’s wholeness lies in being personal and relational. Since God is personal and relational, God is Trinity by virtue of the loving relationships that exist within the eternal plenum of divine life. The deeply relational and personal triune God is the infinite transcendent ground out of which I am called to create myself. To create myself is not a statement of autonomy apart from God; it is precisely my relationship with God that calls me into freedom, to make choices that enhance my freedom and thus my capacity to love more widely. I create myself by reconciling my many competing and contradictory levels of self within, which is the process of individuation and spiritual discernment; it is the journey to wholeness. I can know God precisely from within because something within me draws me to stretch my mind and heart toward the infinite. God is not a superpower up above waiting for me to arrive; God is the infinite potential of love within waiting to be born, to be actualized, to be acted upon by me. This acting upon—this “yes” to God—is the beginning of God’s birth in me. As I am transformed, God is transformed. As I take up the life of God within me, God assumes my humanity. Hence, I can go beyond myself precisely because God is my truest self’s power of life, so that every act of self-creation becomes an act of transcendence. As I become new, God becomes new precisely in the union of my personhood. God is born into the world in a new way, the way of my life. Teilhard wrote: “All around us and within our own selves, God is in process of changing as a result of his magnetic power and our own thought.” 

To be distinctly human is to imagine what does not exist and to bring into existence that which has never existed. In this way, the human person shapes the world by creating the self, and this self-world creation, kindled by trinitarian love, shapes a more wholesome future of interpersonal life.  Hence, the Trinity is the infinite potential of divine life opened to actualization and energized by love toward the future. The more conscious I become of God’s interpersonal love within me, the more I live by the life of the whole.   

The Trinity, therefore, is not an abstract symbol of an incongruous God but the dynamism of love complexifying the energetic strands of our lives into relationships of greater unity. Teilhard de Chardin spoke of the Trinity as a process of “trinitization,” whereby divine life, human life and cosmic life complexify into ever-greater cosmic wholeness. God is the infinite potential of love and love is the unitive energy that holds all life together, even when things fall apart. The world will not be saved by money or political power; the world will be saved by love because God is love, and love is our deepest reality. Only those who know the heart know this mystery.  

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  1. Rev. James Anderson Murphy on May 30, 2024 at 3:05 pm

    Are we not ourselves Trinity? When we receive the Spirit, the same Spirit Jesus received, do we not also become a Christ? And if we become Christ for one another as we receive the Spirit as Jesus did, do we not complete the Trinity? I think this is what Athanasius of Alexandria meant when he wrote the “The Divine became Human so that Humans might become Divine.”

    • Karen on June 12, 2024 at 6:40 am

      Yes, I understand the energies of the Trinity in that way, but I am not a scholar of the Word.
      I am still on the journey and appreciate Ilia’s writing on the Trinity, love at the highest level of actualization.

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