On (Human) Being in Communion: An Exploration of What It Means to Be Human [Part 2].

Part 1 of this series of posts can be found here.


The Many: Substantiality
The unity of all things in the Son should not be confused with the modern tendency towards homogeneity, a form of egalitarianism (where there is no truth or falsehood, no beauty or no ugliness) wherein the distinctive individuality of persons and things is endangered (16). For, as the Son is the basis for the unity of everything the Spirit is the basis for constituting and realizing the particularity of all things, for giving each person or thing it’s substance. The truth of this for reality comes from the fact that there is a form of particularity at the very heart of the being of God.

In light of the Trinity, we want to say that, ontologically, things are given a particular shape by virtue of their relation to their creator, enabling them to be what they are and no other thing. To say that all things hold together in Christ is not to say that the Creator and the Creation collapse into one indistinguishable mass. It is not to suppose that there is no difference at all between the human and the non-human creation. This is precisely part of the problem with the Modern emphasis on the rational mind which was inherited from the Greeks. Within Greek thought there is a tendency to see in human rationality something inherently divine. As Gunton notes, there “is a tendency to suppose ‘quantitative difference but qualitative identity” (17) between the human and Divine mind. In distinction from this a triune understanding of the imago allows space for God to be God and humans to be human. It also allows for a distinction between the human and non-human creation for the Spirit gives each particular person and thing substantiality allowing for a ‘distinction in relation’.

The work of the Spirit, we must say, includes the “crossing of boundaries, with opening out of people and things to one another,” (18). The Spirit then maintains and even strengthens particularity. We are related, yes, but the Spirit enables us to be related in our otherness, “a relation which does not subvert but establishes the other in its true reality,” (19). The Spirit is the distinct person by whom Jesus is related to his Father and his earthly community. Through the Spirit, at his birth and baptism, we see the particularity of Jesus established. He was thus a certain kind of messiah and initiated one way of being the people of God rather than another (20). As the Other who liberates each one to be itself the Spirit respects the otherness and particularity of those whom he gathers thus enabling us to relate to God and to one another precisely as particular human creatures. This is why Paul’s understanding of the gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 is so important for how we are to understand community in light of the Trinity, “for it implies richness and variety,” rather than homogeneity (21). Since the Spirit enables the crossing of boundaries while preserving particularity we are provided a way of talking about God’s agency towards and in the world, of human response to God and others, and of human openness to the world and the world’s openness to human creatures (22). It also allows for a view of the human person that does not exclude the bodily and material dimensions of our reality. It allows for a particular kind of Christian materialism, if you will, against a more Gnostic Christian spirituality.

The individuality, or particularity, that the Spirit brings is a fundamentally relational view of the person. Part of the problem with a more substantive view of the human person, that takes as its chief quality of personhood such features as rationality or will, is that it allows for an individualistic non-relational view of the person and the world. In light of the trinitarian understanding that has been argued here such views of the human person must be rejected. This is not to deny particular human features such as reason or will but is to place them in their proper subordinate place in our view of the person (23). That humans are given their substantiality by the Spirit is constitutive of their distinction from God and nature. For, on the one hand, while humans have spirit, God is spirit. Thus, there is a clear distinction, an otherness, between God and human creatures. On the other hand, humans are distinct from nature for insofar as we have spirit we are enabled to be open to God, each other, and the non-human world in a way that characterizes personal beings (24). The same cannot be said for the rest of creation. This is not to say that how we treat the non-human world does not matter. It is to say, however, that if humans are to treat the world rightly we must be aware of its own specific character and status (25). Much ecological disorder results from getting this wrong. It is to say that humans are particular not only by virtue of their relation to God but also by virtue of their relation to the world.

God is what he is only as a community of distinct persons. Therefore, the particularity of created beings is established by the particularity at the heart of God’s own being. It is the Spirit who enables a particularity-in-relation that challenges and subverts the modern tendency towards homogeneity by giving space to each person and thing to be itself and not another person or thing.

The triune Lord: Relationality
We are here concerned with a being and relation that are ontologically inseparable. The point is, in the words of John Zizioulas, that the being of God is not a blank unity, but a being in communion (26). Communion of persons is the central reality here. In the New Testament the Father gives the Son whose being and will are inseparable from the Father, yet the Son is distinct from the Father in that he is sent to do the Father’s will on earth. After the glorification of the Son the Father, likewise, sends the Spirit into the world to perform similar yet distinct functions. God appears to be conceived neither as a collectivity nor as an individual, but as a communion, a unity of persons in relation (27). In the Old Testament the world is what it is by virtue of its createdness, it’s being called “into otherness to and relation with its creator,” (28). The human creation is what it is as a being in relationship while the world is what it is by virtue of its relation to those who bear the image of God so that, “the shape that the world takes is in large part determined by what we, the human creation, make of it,” (29).

Human community becomes concrete in the church “whose calling is to be the medium and realization of communion,” (30). Relations in the church must in some way be analogous to those between the persons of the Father and Son. For Paul, being “in Christ” constitutes the breaking down of barriers to community (1 Cor. 11). In light of the Trinity, relationality as gift and reception, reveals that far from being a competitor the other is central for our being. In receiving from and giving to the other our, and their, particularity is constituted. Both God and humans are social beings, they have their being in their personal relatedness. This relationality, as Gunton says, “allows us to learn something of what it is to say that all created people and things are marked by their coming from and returning to the God who is himself, in his essential and inmost being, a being in relation,” (31).



(16) Gunton, 101.

(17) Gunton, 108.

(18) Gunton, 182.

(19) Gunton, 182.

(20) Gunton, 183.

(21) Gunton, 184.

(22) Gunton, 187.

(23) Gunton, 187.

(24) Gunton, 188.

(25) Gunton, 189.

(26) John Zizioulas, Being As Communion (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press: Crestwood, 1985).

(27) Gunton, 215.

(28) Guntron, 215.

(29) Gunton, 216.

(30) Gunton, 217.

(31) Gunton, 229.

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