I became distracted this morning while reading Augustine’s De Trinitate. He was discussing the idea that we can’t love something until we know it1. When we encounter a new thing—his example was a word that we had never heard—it must, somehow, be connected to a category in our mind that we already know, and love, in order for it to become interesting or attractive to us. Our love for the already-known category of things will propel us to investigate the not-yet-known thing. If, on the other hand, the new thing does not connect to an already-known thing, then the new thing will either (a) not draw us in to investigate it, or (b) not register at all on our consciousness, being rendered virtually invisible—undifferentiated—to us, because it does not connect to anything we already know.
Here’s where my distraction happened. The question popped in my head: Is this why Jesus had to come in the flesh?
Allow me to muse. God is, by definition, that which is completely other than us. God is infinite, we are finite; God is creator, we are created, etc. Many theologies take an apophatic approach to God and state that it is impossible to say what God is, because there is nothing in creation to which God can be compared. If that is true—which I am inclined to agree—then, according to my statement in the previous paragraph, God could never be knowable to us, let alone interesting enough to us to draw us into an investigation of God. God, in God’s fullness, is the giver and sustainer of life, in which we live and move and have our being, but can always only be present in our undifferentiated consciousness. In other words, we could never know God because there is nothing in our already-knowing to which God can be connected that will draw us in.
When the second person of the Trinity became flesh, that all changed. We know what a man is. We have the category “man” in our mind through our lived experience of men. Granted, many people do not have a positive experience of “man” and, thus, may not be attracted to investigate a male from first century Palestine. However, there is, at the very least, an already-known category to which the otherness of God can now be attached.
This produces two things. First, it differentiates the God-consciousness in our thinking by connecting it to an already-known category: male.2 Second, by connecting to the already-known, the potential for interest in God is created and the further investigation, beginning with the known category of the human being, can begin toward the unknown, and ultimately unknowable, category of God.
God’s practice of incarnation is not a new thing. It happened throughout the Hebrew stories,3 so Jesus was not the first time that God was knowable in this way. However, by incarnating (and not merely manifesting, but truly becoming) as a human being—that which is closest to our lived experience, and most loved by us—the potential for attraction to the God-discovery-process becomes its highest manifestation. In other words, by becoming just like us, God got our attention enough that we could start to actually formulate ideas about the nature of God that would draw us into a positive God-orientation that did not denigrate too quickly into idolatry. Is this, perhaps, what is meant in Colossians when Jesus is called the image of the invisible God? (Colossians 1:15)
Now let me connect this to the Trinity. Not only is it the category of “man” that connects us to God, it is also the category of “relationship” that connects us to God. The relationships between the divine persons is beyond the scope of our ability to comprehend. Three-in-one is not something that exists in our experience, therefore, there is nothing to which it can be compared. It is rendered undifferentiated and unknowable. It is a mystery. However, without the incarnation, it would not be rendered knowable enough to even label it as a “mystery.” It would simply be invisible. When Jesus spoke of the Father and of “doing the Father’s will” (cg. John 14:8-14) he connected to a relationship that we know through our lived experience. Again, all of us have the category “Father/Child relationship” in our consciousness. It may not be a positive experience, and the Father/Child relationship differs from culture to culture, yet the category exists, nonetheless. Therefore, when Jesus speaks of God as Father, the idea of God having inter-divine relationships can connect to a human category that, again, (1) differentiates it in our consciousness, and (2) connects it to a category that has a high potential to be a positive one that draws us in.
Discussing the relationality of God will never explain God.4 We need to give up that enterprise. However, discussing the relationality of God and relational ontology heightens our awareness that we are interdependent creatures. We are not autonomous selves, breathing our own celestial air.5 We must realize that we exist because of the relationships we have with all things: God, the physical world of air, water, plants, animals, etc., and each other. We must think first of the other’s best interest if we are to ultimately survive.
This interdependence is true at every level of human existence. It is true within the single human body as all diverse parts must work together for the good of the entire body. It is true of the marriage relationship as each partner must submit to one another for the good of the marriage.6 It is true of the family, the local community, the nation, the world of nations, and the entire universe. It is all connected and must work for the good of the whole, setting aside personal power and gain. This, I believe, is one of the main things that Jesus taught us and demonstrated for us, and it is the mission of the church to be an example of this—to be a prophetic public companion.7
Here is the sketch played out in sequence of thought:
- Book X, p. 288 [↩]
- I need to emphasize that it is not that God is male, but that, in order for God to become human, God had to become either male or female. This is the nature of particularity. God could have just as easily come as female, or hermaphrodite, or bunny. However, given the culture into which God incarnated, male was a logical choice. see Newbigin’s Quote regarding particularity and election. Also, see Kelsey in To Understand God Truly and Farley in Practicing the Gospel. [↩]
- here I am referring to burning bushes, talking donkeys, smoke and fire, cherubim over the ark of the Covenant, showbread, etc. [↩]
- Here, again, is the apophatic nature of theology. We must resist the temptation to declare that any model we build to discuss God is the definition of God. It cannot be that. Every model is simply a human construct that perpetuates the conversation, by which we engage in the relationships of interdependence. [↩]
- This comment “celestial air” is an idea I imagine when I think about the myth of the autonomous self. To think that we can be completely detached observers of the object is to believe that we somehow breathe different air than that which we observe. It is a dualism similar to that which separates God completely from created matter. God “breathes celestial air” as it were, thus denoting God’s distinction. We, too, then, must breathe our own celestial air if we are completely autonomous selves. [↩]
- It is not my intention to subtly promote the traditional nuclear family as the model of the universe. It is my lived reality, but I realize that this is culturally contextual. That said, all cultures have core relational structures as the basis of their society that correlate to the relationality of God [↩]
- Simpson. Critical Social Theory. [↩]