Mary Ann Fatula, O.P., holds a doctorate in systematic theology from the Catholic University of America and chairs the Religious Studies Department of Ohio Dominican College. For his kind permission to include excerpts from her forthcoming book, The Triune God of Christian Faith, the author wishes to thank the publisher, Mr. Michael Glazier (Wilmington, Delaware).
YOUR face, Lord, I seek. Hide not your face from me” (Ps. 27:8-9). In the psalmist’s cry we can recognize our own hidden thirst for meaning, for wholeness, for love. And perhaps the very nature of summer as post-Pentecostal time forces a question to our consciousness: is there an answer to our ache for love and meaning? Christians confess Jesus as risen Lord of the universe, and in this, their central proclamation, they utter a glad and resounding yes: yes, there is wholeness for our personal brokenness, yes, there is love healing enough for the wounds and thirst of the entire world.
But the Jesus whom we adore as Lord does not offer simply himself as the answer to our human existence. The Christian scriptures proclaim a risen Lord inseparable from the one he knew intimately and tenderly as “Abba;” a risen Lord inseparable also from the Holy Spirit poured out among us through his life, death, and resurrection. Thus the ultimate paradox of Christianity: precisely because Jesus is its very center, Christian faith is not simply about Jesus alone but also about the triune God Jesus discloses to us as the source and fulfillment of our every longing.
GOD AND HUMAN MEANING: THIRST FOR GIFT-LOVE
As Martin Buber and other contemporary thinkers have stressed, ..As be truly “person” is to be in relationship with others, to receive love and give love. Yet what is love? Buber’s response strikes us with its simplicity: “Love is the responsibility of an I for a You.”(1)
A human existence closed in on itself, isolated and cut off from other persons, cannot survive. Babies spontaneously reach out to clutch at anything. But anything is not enough. The urge and need to be towards someone else, to be in relationship, is our inmost necessity; without love we literally cannot live. Our aimless grasp for anything is in reality a grasp for someone. A mother bends over the crib and smiles at her child… and one day, her child smiles back at her. A father gently fingers his baby’s tiny hand… and one day his baby curls those tiny fingers around those of the father. At moments like these we glimpse what it means to be a human person. To be person is to be I, not It, and we become I only through relation to a You. To be someone — not something — is to be a living thirst for love, for relationship.
We may identify need with love: “If I am needed, I am loved.” Yet the only kind of love that satisfies us ultimately is a matter not of need but of gift. We can love and be loved with what Abraham Maslow calls self-centered need-love, or with an other-centered gift-love. We love with need-love as children, but if we never grow beyond this kind of love as adults, the “loved” one is not truly a You, loved for his or her own sake, but is always an it for us, existing to fulfill our needs. When we love with gift-love we are drawn by the inherent beauty and goodness of another. We reach out of our own narrow, self-centered world to foster the good of our loved one not as an extension of ourselves but as a unique and precious other, as You.
Finally, we thirst to love and be loved freely, not out of need or expediency, but out of sheer gift, out of an unconditional choice that cherishes us in our own uniqueness. Our need to love and be loved freely is the place in our lives where we can experience the difference the triune God’s love can and does make in our lives. A unipersonal God needs us in order to love. But the triune God from whose heart and womb we have come is not an isolated monad, needing us in order to have someone to love. We thirst for gift-love because we come from the hands of the God who does not need us in order to love, the tri-personal God who is infinite relationship and givenness.
We hunger for love as gift because we are loved as undeserved gift. And so we need not look outside ourselves for the answer to our soul’s thirst for God. The triune God revealed and given to us in Jesus is not merely outside of us, but also and most deeply within us, present even in the very make-up of our being. Because we are a thirst for unconditional gift-love, we are, to the core of our being, a trinitarian mystery. The depths of the mystery we plumb in the Trinity, therefore, is God’s mystery and at the same time inextricably ours.
EXPERIENCE OF THE TRIUNE GOD AS THE HEART OF FAITH
Our experience of the triune God in our lives today is inextricably linked with the early Christians’ experience of the triune God in their lives. These Christians experienced a whole new way to live, not enslaved and alone, but as persons in relationship, growing in freedom and love at the heart of a community who cherished them as equals.
Their celebration of baptism, anointing, and the eucharist initiated them into this new way to live. Through the community’s love, they began to recognize God as active in their lives in inseparable and yet distinct ways. Long before the community had been able to articulate clearly the triune identity of the God hey experienced as transforming them, they spontaneously had named this God in a three-fold way: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” That is, “I plunge your whole being into the depths of God: Father, Son, and Spirit.”
Their savior Jesus had sacrificed his life for them and now they knew his tender “Abba” as their own. They knew, also, the power of Jesus’ Spirit as the very bond of their own communion with God and one another, making their lives a new creation. The early Christians thus experienced the strength of the triune God’s love in an utterly concrete way through the committed love of their brothers and sisters. Belonging to this community, their lives were turned upside down in a conversion that radically changed the way they related to God, to themselves, and to others. For these Christians, the tri-personal God was not an abstract, dispensable addendum to their lives but its very content.
Far from being an unfathomable mystery added to our human experience, then, the Trinity is rather its very ground and depth content. When we speak of “experiencing” the triune God’s love in our own lives today, however, we may respond that this “experience” has never been ours. And yet everything that occurs in our lives can allow us to taste the love of the triune God who embraces us at every second.
We know times of tragedy when the whole world seems to disintegrate before our eyes. But we also know times of joy and inner contentment, when we feel our life to be lovely and full of sunlight. Experiences like these, of creativity and accomplishment, of birth and death, of failure and rejection, of love and commitment are “disclosure” experiences that can reveal to us that our entire life — past, present and future — is embraced by arms that are ultimately gracious, good, and loving.
Yet we wonder how experiences of hurt, of failure and rejection, of humiliation and disappointment, of violence and abuse, of selfishness and sin, can disclose to us the triune God who will never leave us. How can experiences of pain reveal to us that we have in the triune God a family to whom we belong, a home where we are loved unconditionally? Here, at the very heart of human suffering, we are brought to the brink of the mystery of human existence. But in the triune God revealed in Jesus we find the infinite answer to this mystery. For Jesus freely has entered into our human sin and suffering and made it God’s own. And because of this, our pain reveals to us not a God who has abandoned us but rather a triune God who is with us, absolutely and without condition.
That we exist is itself the proof that we are loved irrevocably. For we ourselves love what already exists and is good. But the triune God loves what is not and by this love makes what is not into what is — into what is infinitely valuable and good. And what God once loves can never become unloved. We are loved with unconditional gift-love not because we are good or needed, but because the triune God has loved us from all eternity, loved us when we did not exist, loved us into existence with a love that not only will not but cannot be broken.
Since the Word who is Jesus has entered into the depths of all that could destroy us, into the very pit of our death, the final word in the universe is love, unconditional gift-love for each of us. We cannot fall out of the arms of the God who has already entered into the chasm of our human suffering and filled it with infinite love. For this reason, we can stand in the wholeness of our own identity; finally, we are never alone or unloved, never unappreciated or forgotten, never rejected or cast aside. Even in our sin we are loved with a healing mercy immeasurably greater than our guilt. Regardless of the depth of our sin, or the horror of our experiences, we cannot fall from the arms of the triune God who loves us.
The mercy of a God whom love has driven to become one of us knows our weakness by experience and loves us with tenderness even where we feel most alone. This self-emptying of a God vulnerable to our pain is possible only because we have an Abba who is truly source and goal for us, only because there is a divine Word who has been uttered into history for our sake, only because their Spirit of love is poured out among us; finally, only because there is a God who is triune.
LIVING THE IMPLICATIONS OF OUR TRINITARIAN FAITH
The mystery of the triune God, therefore, has everything to do with our own human meaning, with our inmost call to live in care for one another instead of in fear and isolation from one another. For we can recognize at the core of world’s ills our own propensity to live in ways that damage the intimate relationships meant to nurture our mutual love. We value power over people; we tolerate the threat of nuclear holocaust. We use other persons, especially the most vulnerable and helpless among us, as means to our own ends. A minority of us hoard the world’s resources, leaving the rest of the world to live and die in poverty.
The force of these self-centered impulses within us are evidence enough that the power truly to love one another cannot come only from our own resources. We need the Holy Spirit, heart of the triune God within us, to take possession of our life through love. For our indifference to others often springs from our own unmet need for love and personal worth, for inner security and a place to belong.
We may fear that an abyss of emptiness lies within us, that its uncovering will confirm our deepest suspicion: “Finally, I am worth nothing.” But in fact, we are, each one of us, the temple of the Holy Spirit and the home of God; the very kingdom of God is within us. And because we are the home of the Holy Spirit who is more interior to us than we are to ourselves, we do not have to fear loneliness or rejection, nor even our own emptiness. If we truly enter into the depths of our own being, we will find not a pit of worthlessness but the inexhaustible spring of love, the Holy Spirit whose intimacy makes us rich and whole.
And as we enter more deeply into the mystery of love within us, we cannot help becoming more secure in our own identity; our hearts cannot help expanding, drawing us more deeply into relationship with others. We begin to grow through gracious break-throughs of openness and vulnerability, becoming less and less afraid to enter into communion with others.
The Spirit at the heart of the triune God thus lures us into the sphere of community, of mutuality, and interdependence. For since we have come from the God of interpersonal love, we cannot gain our personal fulfillment as selfish individualists. Life itself teaches us that material prosperity and professional success cannot by themselves give us happiness, especially when we achieve them at the price of neglecting our loved ones and those to whom we have committed our lives.
Eventually we learn that we need the context of a loving family or community of some kind if we are to find the peace and joy the triune God has intended for us. We learn that we attain our full potential only in consciously committing our energy and quality time to our families and communities. Here is the “place” where the triune God desires us to find the interpersonal communion and joy for which we are made, the intimate love that can heal the world.
Our trinitarian faith of its very nature thus impels us to relate to every human person, even to the most insignificant or poor, to the most deformed or helpless, to the weakest among us, out of the trinitarian value of inter-relational love. For in the triune God there is no dominance or abuse, no hierarchy of importance or power, no division between great and little; there is only equality in the communion of love and self-giving of the divine persons to one another and to all of creation. Jesus’ disciples, therefore, are to be the community among whom no great ones rule over the little, the family where authority is not power exercised over others but service to one another (Lk 22: 25-26).
Thus, Christian belief in the triune God cannot be separated from our commitment to live in communion with one another and to labor for peace and justice in the world. The inner security of experiencing ourselves as treasured and indispensable persons in a family and community of equals is meant to enlarge our hearts until they know a communion even with the poorest and weakest of the world.
But we need consciously to open ourselves to the transforming power of the triune God’s love in our life so that this love can become in us what it truly is: love powerful enough to heal the wounds and fill the longings of the entire universe. For where there are people who have the courage to live and speak and relate out of a trinitarian vision and values, in mutuality and interdependence rather than through domination of one another, there is power to transform the world.
THE TRIUNE GOD AND OUR FUTURE TOGETHER
Because we are a people bound together by the unbreakable force of trinitarian love, we do not have to be helpless victims cowering passively before an unknown future. The Spirit of God poured out through Jesus’ ‘resurrection lures us together through interpersonal love into a future full of hope, healing our wounds, freeing us to choose a future together. When we are thus converted from seeking power over one another to serving one another, we go beyond the bounds of our own narrow limitedness to koinonia, communion. As families, as communities, as churches and nations, we are meant to be living icons of the Trinity. Through us, the whole cosmos can become in this way living doxology to and icon of the triune God.
The Gospel of John pictures us now as a woman in labor; we cannot escape times when we weep tears of pain. But the day will come when of ecstatic joy will erase our faintest memory of pain. We will look back on our life from the perspective of the infinite gladness filling us in the triune God. And we will see our life not as it appeared to be, but as it truly was. With the sun of God’s love bathing us in warmth and radiant light, we will look at where the raging storm had been. But now we will see the truth, now we will cry out not in bitterness but in gratitude to the triune God, “I could not imagine at that time the immense joy your love was creating for me even out of the fabric of my pain.”
Then the paschal mystery in its fullness will be realized in us, the mystery of death which breaks forth into unquenchable life only because there is a God who is tri-personal communion. The cross as the “unsurpassable self-definition of God,”(2) will proclaim the infinitely selfless gift-love at the heart of the triune God. But this cross in some way will become also our self-definition, a mystery of created persons given in unreserved love and mutuality to one another in the triune God.
It is true that we often know immersion into the pain of this cross now. But we also know in some way the ecstasy of resurrection, the joy of absolutely unexpected gift-love and the break-through of utterly new life. We know the loveliness of song and dance, and the breathtaking beauty of nature; the brilliance of the sun shining on us and the gentle breeze cooling our face. We know the warmth of loved ones close to us and the gentle exhilaration of creating something good and true and beautiful with our lives. We know even now what it is to savor the peace of God filling us at unsuspected moments. But then our hearts will burst with fullness in an ecstatic gladness that nothing will ever wrest from us.
Then we will know fully, lavishly, what now we only glimpse, that infinite gift-love is the absolute meaning of our lives and of the entire universe. We will savor the inexhaustible ocean of the triune God’s love and gladness as our beginning and end, our source and final goal. We will know fully by experience that the depths of this triune God are the center toward whom the whole world has been converging, the omega toward whom our own life inexorably has been sweeping us. Finally, in this triune God’s love and delight, we ourselves and the entire cosmos will find our extravagant fulfillment and unending home.