The Word Embodied
In the Beginning Was Relationship
“Delighting in the human race.”
Illusions of autonomy and independence die slowly. We imagine the self as a starting point, a center from which we proceed out to the world.
“I think, and so I am,” thought Descartes. Thus, he built a philosophical edifice on that clear and distinct foundation, unshaken by doubt.
Kant, that other sure modern, tried to save faith as well as science by proposing that the solitary mind could construct both the life of ethics and the world of things. Imperial reason rules reality, and the isolated logic of moral consciousness legislates good and evil.
High ideas, indeed. But the autonomous consciousness of philosophers also haunts the pretensions of everyday life.
We are madly in love with individual choice. We decree what is right and wrong; we mouth litanies of our precious individuality: my body, my private property, my rights, my needs, my fulfillment, my conscience, my interests.
Others are the problem. It is they who impinge on our self-determination. They make demands. They want their way. Their sovereign liberty intrudes on ours.
This nagging interference of others, constantly challenging the ego’s independent autonomy, led Jean-Paul Sartre to conclude that we do not need the threat of fire and red-hot pokers: “Hell is other people.” Othemess is the enemy.
Yet otherness, we remember on Trinity Sunday, is at the very beginning and end of things. Heaven is found in the other.
Wisdom, personified in the Book of Proverbs, speaks: “The Lord begot me, the first-born of his ways, the forerunner of his prodigies. ... ” Before the formation of skies, earth, and sea, “I was beside him as his craftsman, his delight by day, playing all the while.” In the beginning was community, otherness of persons within the oneness of God.
Existence is not the result of a monad. It is the fruit of mutuality.
In the beginning was the relation of persons: Father, Son, and Spirit, so goes the Trinitarian formula. Yet this “glory be” of mutuality is very different from some contemporary reformulations. Notice how “Creator, Sanctifier, and Redeemer”—a phrase sometimes used today—portrays the Trinity only in terms of its function with respect to the created world. It misses the point that God’s actual being is relational. There is otherness in God’s oneness. God is the beholder and the beheld, the lover and beloved.
The uncreated Trinity, we Christians believe, is “othered” into creation. Eternal relationship is expressed in space and time. And the created world, thought and loved into being, is empowered to reciprocate. The human creation—“let us create man in our own image and likeness, God said: male and female God created them”—can love the creator back. With faith and hope in the otherness of God, we mirror the personal mutuality of the Trinity and reaffirm the order of all reality.
“And this hope will not leave us disappointed, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
The intimacy which Christ offers us in the fourth Gospel’s priestly prayer is the intimacy of persons-in-God.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
**From Saint Louis University