I admit before I start that I am grasping to understand what I read even as I read it and still as I write this, so I beg your pardon for however half formed are the ideas that I am about to present. They are my reflections upon reading an essay by David Bentley Hart, “The Mirror of the Infinite” (which I will quote at length).
Solid comprehension of how the Trinity functions both as a unity and a triunity has plagued Christian thought since the beginning of systematics. We have attacked it with analogy and discourse, but all to often the result is ultimately frustration. Any sense of satisfaction we gain, as with so many of our answers to the most pressing questions (I think particularly at the moment of Anselm’s satisfaction at having finally “proved” God), is always turned to despair upon deeper consideration of the problem. My aim is certainly not to solve once and for all the understanding of how God exists as both three and as one. Instead, I want to address a possible explanation for why we do not and perhaps cannot every fully wrap our minds around how God exists in community and personal unity.
This quote from Dr. Hart originally caught my interest, initially for its complex beauty but immediately after for its provocative content:
“Our being is synthetic and bounded; just as (again to borrow a later theological vocabulary) the dynamic inseparability but incommensurability in us of essence and existence is an ineffably distant analogy of the dynamic identity of essence and existence in God, the constant pendulation between inner and outer that constitutes our identities is an ineffably distant analogy of that boundless bright diaphaneity of coinherence, in which the exteriority of relations and interiority of identity in God are one, each Person wholly reflecting and containing and indwelling each of the others.”
Now certainly it is not a new thought that the nature of God should be reflected in the nature of man. After all, it was the Cappadocians who famously drew analogies between the community of man and the community of God. Such a social understand of God’s nature its relation to the human desire for community is actually quite fashionable now. Less recognized, but no less novel, is the realization that this analogy is “ineffably distant” from the nature of God. When one tries to understand the triunity of God as somehow analogous to three coessential humans, the theological fallout is mind boggling. This tends toward the conclusion that the community of God is so distant from ourselves that not only can we not use humanity as an analogy for understanding God, but we also cannot use our understanding of God’s community as normative for the “ineffably distant” reality of human community.
And, yet, I think both of those conclusions may be overturned when we understand precisely why it is that we are so ineffably distant in our reality from God. Dr. Hart describes the community of God:
“Surely this progression – from the divine nature’s infinite source, through God’s gnosis of himself, to the “conversion” of that recognition into delighted love, into agape – is a description of how the one God, even in his infinite simplicity, eternally conceives his equally infinite image, knowing himself perfectly in his Logos, and so eternally “wills” himself an equally infinite love, so completing his Trinitarian life in the movement of the Spirit.”
Knowledge and love, logos and agape if you will, are the communal acts of God. Through self-knowledge and self-love (in the words of Gregory of Nyssa about whom the article is written “He desires what he possesses, and possesses what he desires”) each Person not only knows Itself and loves Itself but knows the Others, without qualification, and loves the Others, without qualification. In so doing, every movement, every aspect of His being, every inclination of His nature is a total unity which is utterly indivisible. For where there is no distinction of will or knowledge, and where the “aporia that theology much inevitably confront” is solved by seeing God “in terms of the order of relations that distinguish the Persons from one another ‘causally’”, we are left with a totally satisfying, though no less incomprehensible, picture of God.
While still beyond human conception, while still necessitating that we stop before God in silent recognition of our ignorance and insufficiency, this revelation is not totally without merit. For not only can we use humanity’s psychology and society as analogies for God’s unity and community, but we can also reap the psycho-social benefits of understanding what separates our nature from closer analogy to God: namely imperfect knowledge of self and others, and imperfect love of self and others. Human psychology is strewn with the victims of inadequate self-knowledge and self-esteem (or love), and certainly every mental health professional would encourage people to develop both a healthy love of self and a healthy knowledge of one’s own person. Yet, do we ever think that in doing so, we better embody the image of God and more closely mimic what it is to people transformed into his Incarnate Image? The same applies for society. How often do we hear it preached how far a little understanding of one’s neighbor can go towards a peaceful, harmonious, and productive society? Nowhere do I hear, however, about how making the effort to know one another is actually pursuit of divinity, which itself is the perfect exemplar of what it means for Persons to be in fully disclosed harmony with one another.
So while the sinfulness of humanity and the limitations of our nature will always prevent any dramatic ascent towards the divine nature, the perfectness of that nature understood through the ineffably distant analogy of what we know of our own nature (created as it is in His image) can serve as a motivator for the personal and interpersonal transformation of God’s people into God’s likeness. I will leave you with a final quote from Dr. Hart, who clearly expresses his thoughts better than I do:
“We waver between these two analogical orders at an infinite distance from their supereminent truth; and obviously the orders are not separate: knowledge and love of neighbour fulfill the soul’s velleity towards the world, and so grant each of us that internally constituted ‘self’ that exists only through an engagement with a world of others…”