The Word Encountered
At the Bottom of Reality
The voice of God speaking. (Deut 4:33)
Walker Percy in Lost in the Cosmos, mused ironically about the strange fate of postmoderns who spend millions trying to get chimps to talk and billions on space stations attentively listening for an extraterrestrial blip that might speak to us.
Meanwhile, we are sheepish about the possibilities of a personal God and positively skeptical about whether God has anything important to say to us. More strange still, humans wonder whether they have anything meaningful to say to each other. We, like God, seem impoverished in this age of personal deconstruction. Some high-priced academics even pontificate that there is no author, there is no text.
At stake are answers to questions about the universe. What is at the bottom of things? Is it the grind of impersonal machinery doomed to the laws of entropy? Is it the endless cycle of nature marked by convulsion, evolutionary chance, and final stasis?
The Moses of Deuteronomy answered thus: “Did anything so great ever happen before? Was it ever heard of? Did a people ever hear the voice of God speaking from the midst of fire, as you did, and live?” The absolute not only had a voice. It was father and mother to us, protector, nurturer, and guide. We were not the mere effluvia of silent aeons or an excrescence of the cosmos and its earth. We were God’s children.
Paul wrote to the Romans that our response to the universe and its origin was not slavery or fear before the impersonal forces of matter and history, but an “Abba” to an adopting parent. We are full heirs to the God who need not have made us so, but freely chose to enter most intimately into our lives. Perhaps this is why adopting parents portray in a pre-eminent way the utter gratuity and generosity of a God whose life would be lavishly showered on us.
We Christians, with our Jewish and Islamic brothers and sisters, encounter a God who speaks. But what particularly marks our faith is the way our God speaks and what is spoken.
In Jesus, we worship a God whose word is expressed in human flesh. And what is revealed is this: our God is a relational being, a personal reality. In God there is a mutuality of knowing and loving, of being known and being loved. As persons, with our own insatiable desire for knowledge and love, we are adopted into this interpersonal reality of God and called to share it with others.
“Full authority has been given to me both in heaven and on earth. Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations. Baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you. And know that I am with you always, until the end of the world.”
This commission to the apostles at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, although probably a later addition to the earliest texts, is a trinitarian formula, much like the Pauline references to “Spirit, Lord and God” in both letters to the Corinthians. It is found in doxologies from Justin to Saint Basil and represented in prayers and artifacts from the second to the fourth century. It would not emerge as a full-blown “one God in three Persons” trinitarian doctrine until the end of the fourth century. Devotions and eucharistic feasts would emerge in France and Italy during the eighth and ninth centuries. And Thomas Aquinas, in the thirteenth, gave it an exquisite theoretical expression. This was all before Rome approved a feast of the Trinity in 1331.
Today, it marks our ancient baptismal formula as well as our eucharistic greeting: “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor. 13:13).
The long, historical unfolding of our trinitarian faith is central to a dramatic struggle over human meaning and destiny. It is a strategic player in the grand competition for our minds’ allegiance.
Are “itness,” “thingness,” matter, and force the ultimate categories of existence? Or is there something else? Someone else? Someones else? Is the cosmos mute? Or does it address us as the voice of God?
Percy ends his Lost in the Cosmos with a fantasy that spaceship Earth is indeed addressed by an extraterrestrial being. A persistent signal questions us:
Repeat. Do you read? Do you read? Are you in trouble? How did you get in trouble? If you are in trouble, have you sought help? If you did, did help come? If it did, did you accept it? What is the character of your consciousness? Are you conscious? Do you have a self? Do you know who you are? Do you know what you are doing? Do you love? Do you know how to love? Are you loved? Do you hate? Do you read me? Come back. Repeat. Come back. Come back. Come back.
Our celebration of the Trinity is not only a credal affirmation that a community of persons is at the bottom of existence. It is also a remembrance of our source and goal: the personal God from whom we came, the God who calls us back home.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
**From Saint Louis University