In the beginning…
“What is man that you care for him?” asks the psalmist (1). The first three words of the question frame what is perhaps one of the most pondered questions of human history. Men, women, and children of all shapes and sizes have asked this question. It is not a question limited to a particular time or place. There is nowhere to hide in order that one may avoid asking or attempting to search for an answer to this question: “What is man?” What does it mean to be a human creature? This will be the metaquestion with which this essay will seek to wrestle.
To be sure, with regard to the sort of being a human being is, not everyone arrives at the same conclusion for not everyone looks for answers in the same places. I will not hesitate at the forefront of this effort to reveal my hand, to betray to you the ground upon which I stand. From within the Christian tradition and in discussion with Colin Gunton and his articulation of the problem in light of the ‘one and the many’ I will seek to argue that it is only in light of a trinitarian understanding of God that we can begin to find a satisfactory answer to the question of human being.
Within the Christian tradition there is a spirited and rich history of discussion on this matter. In fact, the theology of the imago Dei (“image of God”) seeks to ask precisely this question. What better place to turn when trying to understand what it means for human creatures to be made in God’s image than the creation narrative itself. Here, in the opening lines of the Bible we find the scriptural basis for our discussion:
“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26-27, emphasis mine).
John Calvin in reference to the plurality in v26 says, “Christians, therefore, properly contend, from this testimony, that there exists a plurality of Persons in the Godhead…we infer that he finds within himself something distinct,” (2). Person, in the Christian tradition, is a relational concept. It goes without saying that a proper understanding of the concept of the imago Dei is crucial for human relationships with God, with others, and with creation (3). There is, in light of the Trinity, a plurality written into the being of all things.
Creation as a Trinitarian Act
Gunton among others argues for a Trinitarian understanding of the imago. While it is indeed true that the author of Genesis would not have had the Trinity in mind when referring to God in the plural (us/our), in light of the scriptural canon (4) we may understand this plurality trinitarianly. Additionally, in light of the New Testament revelation of the Trinity we are prohibited from excluding either the Son or the Spirit from particular Divine acts. To do so would be to err in the way of Modalism. Truly then, the act of Creation is a triune act. Further, if the triune God is the source of everything that is then it is fair to suppose that all being will in some way reflect the being of the one who made it and holds it together.
The One: Perichoresis
If everything which exists that is not God is the work of his hand then in him all things are grounded. More specifically, however, we shall see that the Son in particular secures the universality of all things, thus enabling us to speak of the nature of created reality, of the relatedness of persons and things.
Central to this line of thought for Christian theology is the notion of perichoresis which as Gunton says is “a way of showing the ontological interdependence and reciprocity of the three persons of the Trinity,” (5). In other words, this concept helps us to avoid reducing God to some sort of basic simplicity by revealing that God is a “unity deriving from a dynamic plurality of persons”. The three persons of the Trinity are what they are only in relation to each other (i.e. the Father is no father without a son etc). Yet the particularity of each of the three persons means that their distinction from one another remains intact so that there really are three persons as opposed to a simple monad that reveals itself to us in three different ways. The persons of the Trinity exist in an eternally reciprocal relation of giving and receiving to each other what they essentially are (6).
If this is true of God then it must shine some light into the nature of created reality and it’s relation with him. In speaking about the physicality of creation Hans Urs von Balthasar said that Irenaeus’ view of recapitulation “gives time [and space] itself validity before eternity,” (7) In the economy of God’s creating, sustaining, redeeming and perfecting activity “time and space are given their distinctive dynamic of interrelatedness,” (8). Against the Gnostic divorce of creation from redemption (where redemption involves a fleeing from creation) Irenaeus argued that “the different aspects of God’s agency formed a unity through time and space,” (9). So then, in light of God’s action there is a unity in creation, a distinctiveness yes, but a distinction in relation not separation.
In contrast to Irenaeus’ view some theologies are in danger of either emphasizing creation over redemption or redemption over creation. The way in which Western theology (taking its cue’s from Augustine whose discussion of creation is “virtually abstracted from christology”(10) has typically developed tends to stress salvation to the neglect of creation. This manifests itself in many ways, not least of which is to make Christology a subset of Soteriology as opposed to the reverse. In other words, Western theology tends to see the extent of Christ’s work as pertaining to salvation rather than seeing salvation as a part of Christ’s broader work. This is important because how we understand the divine economy (God’s action in the world) will influence how we understand God’s relatedness to the created order which in turn influences our understanding of what it is to live in the world. For our purposes here the central point of perichoresis is that it enables theology to preserve both the one and the many in dynamic interrelations (11). Truly, there is unity in God. God is one but the “oneness” of God is not a countable “one”. He is not a simple monad. Rather, God’s oneness is a relational oneness. God is one in that the three persons exist eternally in a reciprocal relation of giving and receiving which makes them what they are. There is a “richness and space” in the divine life (12).
The question then is what does this tell us about created reality, that which is not God? A trinitarian understanding of creation, and human creatures in particular, allows us to confront and challenge the individualism that is so prevalent in modern Western society. In contrast to individualism we are free to understand the entire world in which we live relationally. We can thus understand people and things as temporal and spatial yes, but also as being fundamentally held together in such a way that individualism does not allow. We are free to see the world as composed of persons and things which are dynamically related to each other. In other words, the world “is perichoretic in that everything in it contributes to the being of everything else, enabling everything to be what it distinctively is,” (13). So then, as human beings made in the image of God we are closely bound up with other human beings. Further, we are also bound up with the non-human creation by virtue of our createdness. It is not simply that we enter into relation with each other and the non-human world as individuals but, rather, that our individuality or distinctiveness is bestowed upon us by virtue of our relation and connectedness with God and other persons and things. Persons “mutually constitute each other, make each other what they are,” (14). To be sure, this is an affront to our modern sensibilities and our “do it yourself” approach to life. Yet, as offensive as this may be we must confess that we are what we are only in relation. In fact, truly, everything in the universe is what it is by virtue of its relatedness to everything else. It is here, with Paul and other New Testament writers, where we confess that it is not something which holds everything together but someone, namely, Christ Jesus. God comes into relation with that which is not himself through his Son (15).