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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31 Comments

  1. Ruby M. Shelton on May 10, 2024 at 7:45 pm

    Friends:

    Allow me to share q quote to support your message:

    “Certainly many instances of earthly beauty–a song, the twilit
    sea, the tone of the lyre, the voice of a boy, a verse, a statue, a
    column, a garden, a single flower–all possess the divine faculty
    of making man hearken unto the innermost and outermost
    boundaries of his existence.”

    Hermann Broch

    Ruby

    • JAMES SHEA on May 11, 2024 at 2:11 pm

      This is so beautiful and creative. I nwever thought of the twilt of the sea, but I sang in and still love boys choirs. As I walk around Boston I contemplate for a bit on everything I see and love and feel harkened too especially those in your list, a Romanesque column in Trinity church and the sculpture to MLK Jr. You say it all so well. Jim

  2. Edward King on May 4, 2024 at 7:54 pm

    No matter how you slice it or dice it, GOD is not three people. Trinity is a man made myth and this is why you won’t find the word trinity in Scripture. Scripture plainly states that GOD is one. GOD is one Spirit, one body, one person. In fact GOD is one in every way and there is no way wherein GOD is not one.

    • Dennis MacDonald on May 5, 2024 at 8:10 am

      It seems that the one in the many and the many in the one have been a preoccupation in thought since at least the early Greek ( pre Christian) thinkers. So, we might give our meager intellects a break and leave room for the unknowing, unknown, the awe of mystery, possibility even faith. The logic leads us to possibility with a lot of ‘ifs”. If God exists as consciously all-knowing then God knows God-self so fully and completely that this ‘self-knowledge’ IS, could not be less than fully a self, a “Person”, ie “The Word” who, as the Apostle John asserts was from the beginning with God and is God. That gives room for Person 1 and Person 2 in our contemplation of our one God-being. Both are in such utter, i.e., ‘infinite’ and complete reciprocity and mutuality of ‘self-knowledge’, recognition of “Good” and, yes, ‘love’ that the relationship, that ‘Spirit’ ‘, that “Go(o)d”, exists also in ‘self’ recognition and acknowledgement. It’s a stretch Edward, but it makes room for the ‘leap of faith’. For me.

  3. Mairead McGrath on May 4, 2024 at 7:34 am

    I think this is a terrific article but I cannot understand why God would need the presence of humankind to become more complete. And God also needs human incarnation to bring about a higher and expanded consciousness. How could the Creator of a 13.9 billion year Universe have to wait until 400,000 years ago for the creatures with the intelligence that God Him/Herself created to bring about
    God’s own expanded consciousness. Surely that is giving created beings an even more inflated awareness of our own importance that what we have already?

    • Kyle Burke on June 7, 2024 at 3:11 pm

      Perhaps it is not only in humankind, but in all of creation that the Son is found? If God experience’s Godself through each of us, does God not also experience Godself in fire, wind, rain, dust, flowers, stars, and the rest of the universe? We are told in scripture that a thousand years is as a day to God (and this just a way of saying time is meaningless to the Divine). That it has taken 13.9 billion years to lead to a 400,000 year or so (thus far) human run means nothing at all except that now God has a “new” mechanism in written and spoken language to disperse God knowledge. Not only this, but the universe is vast and earth is small. Perhaps “intelligent life” pre-dates that of life on earth by billions of years elsewhere? We’ve really no way of knowing, yet we must consider only the unfathomable vastness of our universe to understand the possibilities that are open far surpass those that are not.

  4. Joseph Weber on May 2, 2024 at 11:46 pm

    We are fractals of Source, bite-size pieces of God.

    We are not created in the image and likeness of God, we are made of God.

    Everything is made of God.

    There is nothing but God.

  5. Dennis MacDonald on May 2, 2024 at 11:03 pm

    It is astonishing to me that the Trinity seems to be a verbal but not a fundamental element of our faith consciousness.. So many internal contradictions, inappropriate deductions and misappropriations. We thrill at a militaristic evangelism and argue about rite, ritual and dictate but Trinity seems to evoke only a catechetical sentence employed to imprint and rationalize bias. Stop – read, rest, divest, question, wonder will lead to awe and reverence: “In the beginning was the Word…with God…was/is God” – “Mutual benevolence mutually known” (Aristotle, “Ethics”) – extrapolated infinitely is triune. The great mystery of our faith, Trinity. It could not be otherwise.

  6. Anne J Grant on May 1, 2024 at 5:10 pm

    I feel renewed in mind, body and spirit and experience an inflow of joy, peace and new aliveness by your words!
    Thank you!

  7. Tom Fallon on May 1, 2024 at 12:29 pm

    This is truly beautiful and hopeful message that needs to be proclaimed. So much to unpack here!

    Einstein found that every 12 year old from a Hopi tribe in AZ could understand the theory of relativity because the native language was very relational and eschewed nouns. The west under the influence of Greek dualism does not think relationally but in hierarchies and categories (separation) . Had we truly embraced what the early formulators of the concept of God as Trinity were conveying what a different world we would live in. Ilia is unpacking for us the deeper implications of what it means that God is Trinity.

    Right on – God is not a control freak ! God is not in control – it very obvious we are and it is about time that we started acting like it.
    Thank God that Love is the driving force of evolution and our task is to uncover at any moment where love is leading us – my sheep here my voice.

    To me the purpose of the church is to learn together what love looks like and how love responds to the various situations that occur throughout our time here.

    In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God”

  8. Patty Andrew on April 30, 2024 at 5:39 pm

    If we had a lived expression of the theology of the Trinity which you described, we could truly be a synodal Church. “Each of us is like a fractal …..a particular pattern of divine love ❤️ contributing to the unfolding of divine beauty.”…..A deeply relational God, democratises divinity as a shared power of persons in communion” Thank you for giving voice to our relational God!

  9. Dennis on April 30, 2024 at 3:05 pm

    Awesome! I wonder of a trinitarian theology is also about ‘relation’ within the person-self. A story: A year after suffering a debilitating medical issue a revered “guru'” of neuro-opthomology apologized for not helping me. I quote his words, “You healed yourself’. Astounded by the apparent contradiction, I had done nothing but endure. Yet, I recovered, so it was not ‘consciousness’.. Admittedly it was desired. It is unlikely that it was my ‘subconsciousness’ but rather my ensouled ‘operative system’ acting. (Let’s assume that it was not a miracle.) Yet, each is a dimension of “I”, acting independently yet in conjunction for a single end: existence in mutuality and reciprocity. As consciousness informs the sub-conscious and, I see clearly, the subconscious affects and informs the conscious (experience-to-dream-to-embellished consciousness through, with and within the whole bodied person mechanism. Does any of this make sense?

    • Tom Fallon on May 1, 2024 at 12:12 pm

      it makes sense to me – the subconscious mind is very powerful. To become aware of the powers that humans posses is part of what is being expressed in this blog. We are also fully human and fully divine but if we are unaware of our power and what we are feeding our subconscious mind we will inadvertently create a mess. Taking responsibility for our psychic condition is part of individuation.
      How did Jesus heal – he emptied himself of his divinity and became human. He acted in this world as a human and he set the path for us to walk into our full status as the children of God. Read Romans 8 how the entire creation is groaning awaiting the revelation of the children of God.

      • Dennis MacDONALD on May 1, 2024 at 7:29 pm

        Agreed. Much, if not most, of our musing about the divine is analogy and metaphor. While I think I gather your point I would suggest that while, as you write, Jesus “…emptied himself of his divinity”, his life process was to ‘recoup’ (?) it progressively as he became the ‘fullness of humanity’ and on to the struggle of pain, death, to the divine without fully divesting of his humanity. His process is as I see the blog suggests is god’s sustaining us, the act of returning to his fullness. He brings us along, whether we know and join or not.



  10. Frank Steffler on April 30, 2024 at 1:29 pm

    Absolutely life giving words Ilia. You feed our Spirits incredible prophetic mystic.
    Our Gracious Creator God is blessing your work abundantly.

    God is love and only love.

    Thank you so much. I appreciate your words.

    Peace
    Fk
    Morinville Alberta Canada

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