Friday, May 24, 2013

Participants in the Divine Nature

This coming Sunday is Trinity Sunday. The Trinity is a challenging doctrine, with technical language.
United Methodist Memes
During my doctoral studies, I researched the doctrine in the theology of Karl Barth.

Ever since the work of the post-Nicene fathers, the divine nature is said to subsist in the three "persons" (personae, prosopa): the Father who is the incriminate origin of the Son and the Spirit, the Son who is the Logos made flesh, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son. Barth prefers the Patristic idea of tropos huparxeos (or modus entitativus, or Seinsweise), rather than prosopon, in order to preserve both the unity and tri-unity of God. He stresses that God’s tri-unity (Dreieinigkeit) points to God’s essential relational being, “in which the being of God for us is not something foreign to God’s essence but is grounded in his very being” (Church Dogmatics, I/I, p. 359f).

Because God’s essential (not accidental) nature is relational, God’s self-revelation to human beings takes us into a union with God. Any knowledge of God is also a sharing of the life and being of God in that God’s self-revelation is the nature of God in God’s tri-unity. This is not supposed to be a theopoiesis of human being but rather a gathering of humans into a saving relationship. Nor is it a mystical union, because God’s self-revelation is a wholly free act of God and never a miracle that we can objectify or claim, even in prayerful mysticism.

Jesus Christ is God’s “being in act.” The Trinitarian doctrine of perichoresis (the natures of the persons of the Trinity mutually permeate and condition one another) grounds the nature of God in his three ways of being and in his being for us (pro nobis). Knowledge of God is inseparable from God’s Lordship in Christ. But not only do we know who God is because of Christ, we also thereby know one another as fellow human beings whom we can serve gladly. That is because Christ’s human nature is not something foreign to his divine nature, but it, too, is essential to the being of God. So Christ not only reveals God but also essential, social human beings.

Barth's trinitarian "model" is not the only one. Duncan Reid, in his book Energies of the Spirit: Trinitarian Models in Eastern Orthodox and Western Theology (Scholars Press, 1997), explains distinctions in the doctrine. He notes that Aristotle distinguishes power or attributes (dunamis, from which we get words like "dynamic"), essence (ousia), and energy (energeia); in human beings, for instance, power is the potentiality and energy the actuality of our essence. In Western trinitarian theology (in the tradition of Augustine), God's potentiality, activity, and essence are the same: God is identical in being and action. This is why the West insisted on the filioque: because the western church so emphasizes God's being and action (the imminent and economic trinity); the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father are crucial, and the Spirit must be understood as proceeding from the Father and the Son. Eastern theology (the tradition of Origen, Athanasius, and the Cappadocians, etc.), tended to see power and energy as synonyms, so that God's energeia is identified with God's attributes. For Orthodoxy, this better ensures God's real presence in the created world. Especially, the distinction allows us to say that human beings (and the whole of creation) are invited to be "taken up (analêpsis) into the divine energy" so that we "become God" (theos ginetai), or deified (Reid, chapter 1).

These are all very subtle distinctions, but ones that are crucially important in their implications for other doctrines like justification and sanctification.

When I first posted these thoughts, I also pulled another books off the shelf, What Do Other Faiths Believe? (Abingdon, 2003). My interviewee for Sikhism explained his faith:

“Our scripture starts with a word, Ik Onkar... If you miss the meaning of that word, you’re going to be following the rituals but not the sense of the faith. If you followed and understood the meaning of that word, the rest of it falls into place. Ik Onkar means, ‘there is only one.’ There are not two. That one, is God. Once I understand that, you and I are not two. Just like I have two hands and two legs, my leg is not the same as my hand but they are one, a part of this body. If someone cuts off my hand, it is no longer part of the body; it cannot function. If we are an extension of that ultimate God, and that’s all we are, so our purpose in life becomes very clear to us: to serve that greater body” (pp. 72-73).

He explained that when we misunderstand our true identity, we think of ourselves as an “I,” something separate. But that is a very basic and serious error. Our true identity is as part of a whole, which is God, and thus our purpose in life is to serve one another. My interviewee said that, when we serve ourselves, we become analogous to a cancer cell. He noted that our goal is to add value to the universe. For instance, “If you are serving a customer, rather thinking, ‘How can I sell him something?’ now you can ask, ‘How can I add value to him?’ I am in the listening mode and try to find out ‘What does he need?’ Then I come around and serve that. Everywhere you see success happening, it has this ingredient present" (pp. 74-75).

Here are two different religions that affirm the ontological sociality of human beings, rooted in the being of God. In Sikhism, God is understood as the one God with whom we share our being. In Trinitarian Christianity, our sociality is grounded in the being of God pro nobis. One is a matter of understanding the true nature of our relation, the other is a matter of our being brought into a saving relationship. One is an impersonal God of infinite qualities, the other is a personal God whose very being is in relationship. In both cases, we do wrong, and fundamentally betray our human nature, when we serve only ourselves.

I had bookmarked an article,, which affirms the divine nature in human beings. In some religious systems, human beings are understood to be a part of the divine. The non-dualism tradition of Advaita Vedanta, for instance, there is no essential difference between the Universal Spirit (Brahman) and the individual soul (jivatman). Differences that we perceive in reality are actually illusion (maya) and therefore true understanding (jnana) comes from understanding maya. Obviously, then, there is no essential difference between humans and the Universal Spirit (nor between humans and other life forms). Other schools of Vedanta, like Vishishtadvaita, understands the soul and God to be different yet similar, while Dvaita understands souls, God, and the material world to be all separate realities and yet eternal.

As I kept thinking about all thing----going on a trinitarian journey, so to speak---I leafed through my Bible for passages that teach our unity with God and with one another.

A wonderful passage is Jesus' prayer in John 17. I probably shouldn't quote the whole thing here, for copyright purposes, so I'll just ask you read the whole thing with the ideas in mind: Jesus' unity with God, Jesus' unity with his followers and friends. What is the nature of our unity with Christ? Christ is glorified in us (vss. 10, 22-23), and Christ guards us (vs. 12-13), and although we do not belong to the world (vs 16) we are still here and are sanctified in Christ's truth (vs. 17). But that glory, protection, and sanctification are directed toward Christ's prayer that those who believe, and those who will believe, "may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me (vss. 21-22). Likewise, Christ prays "that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them" (vs. 26).

I'm a very proud American, but I worry that the individualism and self-sufficient spirit that pervades our culture deters us from being able to appreciate and implement the unity we have with one another in Christ. One sees so many individualistic behaviors in congregations, which you could describe as "my way or the highway," "I pulled myself up by my boot straps," "you have to cover your ass to make it," and so on. We can be very stubborn and set-in-our-ways people who love our relationship with Christ but become snooty, or busy, or unconcerned when we think about being in unity with one another. I'm as private and self-sufficient as the next person.

Perhaps we should put John 17 on the walls of churches so that we remember that we are one with one another in Christ!

But if we did that, we should put Ephesians 2:11-22 on the walls, too. Read that passage, too. This is a similar and powerful biblical vision of our God-given unity with one another. God has removed the boundaries that separate people---but, of course, we persist in retaining them or building new ones.

And also---while we're attaching signs to walls---John 14 would be another excellent passage to remind people, on a weekly basis, of the role of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit's role is absolutely crucial because Jesus is not present with his disciples any longer: his death requires his absence. But the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit abide in us and lead us to love God and one another.

There are other passages, like 2 Cor. 6:16:

What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,
"I will live in them and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people."

We could trivialize the passage a bit when we turn it into a health-related thing: we ought to take care of our bodies because our bodies are God's temples. We miss a deeper point: God's very presence dwells with us as the same God once dwelled in the Jerusalem Temple, but God's act of dwelling puts us in proximity to God's holiness--which, in turn, demands holiness from us.

2 Peter 1:4 is a good related verse:

Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants in the divine nature.

Good themes for our prayers and meditations for this Trinity Sunday are these: what are ways we become temples of God's Spirit (if we even want to be)? How do we "participate in the divine nature"? How do we understand the divine nature so that our ideas about God and ourselves (while not necessarily disrespecting other people's faith) is uniquely Christian?

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