Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Image of the Invisible God

Now that my youngest daughter is in the first grade, she is asking all the questions about faith which I forgot were so difficult to explain. One question she has really struggled with is the doctrine of the Trinity. How can Jesus, the Father and the Holy Spirit all be one God? If they are each God, then there must be three gods. Or if there is only one God, then two of them must not be God. I have to admit that I have been at a loss to explain it to her short of telling her that it is impossible to understand. We just have to believe it and wait until we get to Heaven to understand. Though that was the type of explanation I used to balk at when I was a kid, I have to admit that there is really no better answer than that. God has revealed himself to be three Persons in one God. We either accept it in faith or reject Christianity as a whole. Without belief in the Trinity, all of Christian teaching is no more valuable than fortune cookies.

Accepting the doctrine of the Trinity in faith does not mean that we do not turn it around in our heads to try to make sense of it. On the contrary, our faith always engages our reason. The mystery of the Trinity can make some sense to us even if we will never understand it fully.

When my daughter learned about Saint Patrick and the shamrock, it helped her make some sense of the Trinity. The image that always helped me is based on Saint Augustine's psychological analogy.

Each person, because we are self-conscious, has both a real self and a self-image. We have a true self and an image in our mind of who we are. Because we are imperfect, our self-image is not an accurate reflection of our true self. For example, we may not be as ugly or as attractive as we think. Or we may not be as smart or as dumb as we think. Nonetheless, we have this self-image built up based on how people have treated us and our experiences interacting with others.

We are not only able to have an image of ourselves in our minds, we are also capable of having feelings about ourselves. Based on our self-image, we either like ourselves or loathe ourselves. Most of us, I imagine, fall somewhere in between. Just as our self-image is often a distortion of our true selves, so our self-esteem often falls short of the love we deserve to have for ourselves.

What does all this have to do with the doctrine of the Trinity?

The true self corresponds to God the Father. God's self-image refers to God the Son. And God's self-esteem refers to the Holy Spirit.

Because God is perfect, his self-image, Jesus, is a perfect reflection of his being and glory. Saint Paul tells us in the Letter to the Colossians that Jesus is "...the image of the invisible God" (Col 1:15). Whoever looks upon Jesus looks upon the Father (Jn. 14:9). Also, because God is perfect, he has a perfect love for himself. Whereas the Son is the image of the Father, the Spirit is God's self-esteem, the love he has for his image, the Son. The Holy Spirit, then, is the very love of God given to us. Again Saint Paul tells us as much in the letter to the Romans: "The love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given us" (Rom 5:5).

Saint Augustine's insight was that since we are made in the image and likeness of God, we can find in our psychological makeup a reflection of God's being. Just as each of us is one person though made up of our true self, self-image and self-esteem, so God is one God though Father, Son and Spirit.

Understanding the Trinity in this way also helps us ponder other mysteries such as our incorporation into Christ through baptism, our spiritual adoption through the gift of the Spirit and the mystical communion of the Church.

While this psychological model is much more complicated than the shamrock, I think it helps us begin to make some sense of the mystery that God is.

(painting by Salvador Dali, "The Angelus of Gala"

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