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A concluding story: The story of God from before the creation of the world until now

 The most fitting thing Christians say about God is “God is love.” If that is true, if God didn't fall in love only after he made the world—like Pygmalion falling in love with his statue—then there must be some plurality, some otherness, in God. So we have the doctrine of the Trinity, three persons existing eternally—with or without a created world—in a unity of love.

 What I learned first about the Church’s doctrine of the three Persons in one God was a rather static Trinity without much of a story. God’s perfection was thought to eliminate the possibility of any change, and without change how could there be a story? Here’s what I was taught about the Trinity:

God has perfect knowledge, including knowledge of God’s self. This knowledge is so perfect that it is an exact copy. (This part seemed to make sense.) That copy is God the Son, whom the Father loves; and the Son looks back at the Father and returns that love. The Father and the Son love each other with a love so profound that this love is a third “person,” the Holy Spirit. (This part always seemed less convincing, but I suppose if knowledge can be a person, so can love.) This is supposed to be what God is like whether or not God creates anything. It’s a bit mysterious, but it’s supposed to be a mystery. It makes a kind of practical sense, though, because it explains where we fit in. Since the Son came to earth and declared us all brothers and sisters, we have become incorporated into that family of love that existed from all eternity. (I always liked that part of the theory.)

 The idea that perfection cannot abide any kind of change comes from Greek philosophy. I think it prevented theology from realizing one obvious, but strange thing. These divine persons in their eternal love, in that theory, don’t actually do anything. It’s as if they’re hanging around eternally staring at each other. That’s a strange kind of love. Even our participation, when we get to heaven, has a strange name – “beatific vision.” There’s knowledge and there’s love, but the emphasis is definitely on the knowledge. Love seems to be a variety of knowledge.

 Modern theology, in at least one of its movements, has placed love above knowledge.

 Hans Urs von Balthasar is a favorite theologian of Pope John Paul II. He thinks that the divine life is more dramatic than the static picture above. In fact “drama” is one of the words he uses to describe that life. (John Paul II was very much involved in theater at an early point in his career.) There’s a real story in God that includes the best parts of human love—surprise, excitement, growth in relationship with another. The modern world, perhaps with a push from Darwin’s theory of evolution, doesn’t see anything wrong or imperfect in growth. Growth itself is a perfection, something the ancient Greeks, with their static worldview, couldn’t fathom. Balthasar says that God

 must include in some genuinely analogous sense all the perfections of love such as life, movement, even mystery and surprise. To say otherwise would be to ascribe more perfection to human love than to God’s love. (Nicholas J. Healy, The Eschatology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, p. 81; quoted in Rodney A. Hosare, Balthasar: A Guide for the Perplexed, p. 63)

 It’s Balthasar’s story of God’s love that I want to tell. I’ll start the story with a favorite Bible passage, which actually comes in the middle of the story; so this story will have a flashback.

 Christ Jesus … though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.

Rather, he emptied himself,

Taking the form of a slave,

Coming in human likeness;

And found human in appearance, he humbled himself,

Becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.

Because of this, God greatly exalted him

And bestowed on him the name that is above every name,

That at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,

Of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

And every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord

To the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6-11)

 This is a Christian hymn that Paul quotes. It must have been well-known to the Christian community even before Paul wrote, so it’s very early. If we learn what God is like by discovering what Jesus is like, then this hymn must tell us something about God. When Jesus “emptied himself,” he was actually imitating God.

 Imitation is that very human ability that got the human race in trouble ages ago. But Jesus is unlike Girard’s hypothetical proto-humans, all desiring the same thing, and unlike mythical Eve, who sees God as her rival and must have what she thinks God wants to keep from her. Jesus does not imitate any selfish desire in God but God’s emptying God’s self in a gift to another. That other is the Son, to whom God offers everything that God is, without conditions, without expecting anything.

 Balthasar sees this self-emptying of God as a kind of suffering, but not

 suffering as an evil, the suffering we experience when we lack something. Rather, what he has in mind is the suffering involved in kenotic [self-emptying] love. The emptying of the Father’s heart in letting the Son proceed. (Thomas G. Dalzell, “The Enrichment of God in Balthasar’s Trinitarian Eschatology,” in Irish Theological Quarterly 2001; 66; 3, p.8.)

 I'd compare it to a mother watching her child “leave the nest” to go off to kindergarten or college. It’s a kind of suffering but only out of an abundance of love. God parts from God’s own heart. I suggested earlier that, when it comes to something really important, like turning a sinner away from sin, maybe God can’t do anything, but only suffer. Here, I think, Balthasar adds some credibility to that suggestion. In some “genuinely analogous sense” God does suffer.

 The Son receives the total gift of the Father. Since the Father’s identity is self-emptying love, that is the Son’s identity, too. Thus the Son eternally offers back the Father’s gift. In spite of their likeness in every detail, the Son and the Father keep their own identities because the Son never forgets that his identity is the Father’s gift. The Son rejoices in being “begotten” of the Father. (Traditional theology explains: The Son has everything that the Father has except being Father, and the Father has everything the Son has except being Son.)

 Flash forward one eternity plus 13 or 14 billion years. Think of a human mother cradling her baby in her arms. Think of that first smile, a sign of the baby’s gleeful acceptance of and dependence on that encompassing love. Think of the mother’s rejoicing in the happiness of the baby. That is a joy that the baby in its sheer helplessness and blissful dependence gives to the mother.

 Balthasar says God’s joy is like that. It includes surprise like the surprise we feel at a baby’s first smile. Even if, Balthasar says, the Father knew in advance what the Son would do, the joy in the Son’s return gift was more than the Father hoped for in his “wildest dreams.” The Son renounces all claim to independent status, surrendering to the Father that claim of ownership of self. As the Son joyfully accepts sonship, the Father gets to feel even more like a father and can act even more like a father, prompting an even richer response from the Son. There is a mutual enrichment going on between Father and Son.

 Now think back to the mother and smiling child. Think how the child helps her to be a better mother simply by accepting her as mother. God doesn’t stay the same either. The life of mutual self-giving, mutual other-enrichment, is not an eternal circle but a spiral.

 I can imagine a spiral in two different ways. There’s the spiral of two pennies rolling around in one of those geometric, conical basins that you sometimes find in museums, spiraling faster and faster until they meet at the hole in the center. As Father and Son take enrichment from each other, they become more and more like each other—like some dogs and their masters?—aiming for, though perhaps never reaching, the point where they are identical. That way is the dying of love! Love requires difference, the ability to surprise, in other words, real persons. The other kind of spiral widens continually outward. It is the spiral that love keeps opening and bridging over. That is Balthasar’s description of the role of the Holy Spirit, opening ever wider and always bridging over the distance between Father and Son. I think this must be getting close to a definition of love, becoming ever more one’s own self through mutual giving and receiving. (The image of the widening spiral is mine, but I think it fits with what Balthasar is saying.)

 I think of that widening spiral as opening within deity a space big enough to contain not only the uncreated divine Persons in their eternal whirl but also a temporal, created world. God’s self-emptying gift of self, making room within the totality of being for an other, extends to what is not God, to what didn’t have to exist at all.

Text Box: Christians entertain the paradoxical thought of the world’s possible non-existence. If the world’s non-existence isn’t at least a theoretical possibility, then God’s act of creating isn’t free; and if it isn’t free it’s not an act of love. Then even if we define God as love eternally operating within God’s three-in-one self, that love is completely irrelevant to us.

Through the course of the history of the world, the Son, living the original separation from the Father, identifies with the world in its distance. The Bible shows how this suffering divine love confounds us by uniting with all those whom we keep at a distance. Most astoundingly, we discover that our own humanity—and not just humanity as an abstract ideal but our particular sinful condition—is taken up into the divine love in Jesus. Paul calls our distance from God “flesh.” The author of the Gospel of John says

 the Son “became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14)

 Jesus experienced the ultimate distance from God on the cross:

             “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)

 
But the Spirit of love bridges over even that distance. That bridging over is the resurrection. In that same Spirit all distances are bridged over, but at the same time held apart in an ever increasing spiral. In the Spirit and through the Son—always through the Son—who identifies with us, even we, and the world with us, add in always new ways to the surprising drama of God’s love story.

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