In a recent issue of The New Yorker, you can find a cartoon with a couple sitting on a couch. One says to the other, "I don't want to be defined by who I am."
The line is so human and so modern. The human part is what makes it funny: Often, when we discover who we are, we want to deny it. But it's the modern part that most interests me: that relentless search for self, the yearning to know who I am.
As with so much of modernity, this is a highly individualistic quest, and as such, it is a pointless quest. Not because the search for meaning is pointless, but because the context of modernitythe individualis a myth.
The myth becomes apparent when we start considering who we are from a biblical and Trinitarian perspective. Both the rigors of orthodox theology and the plain sense of New Testament passages reveal that the Trinity is not merely a formal and logical explanation of God's inner essence. It points to a reality that spills over into the universe. The reality is exposed ever so briefly by Jesus when, in praying for his disciples he says:
The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me . I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them." (John 17:22, 26).
The formal doctrine of the Trinity, then, helps us grasp the nature of divine love.
First, it makes it clear that God's love for us cannot be based on his need for love and fellowshipas if we were necessary for a God of love to be complete. One hears this sort of silliness now and then, but it cannot be true of the Trinitarian God. This God has known love, and perfect love at that, from before the creation of time and spacelove swirling between the Father and Son and Spirit. God created us not because he had to have someone to love to be self-fulfilled as God, but because the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit bubbled over into creation.
Given the type of love we reciprocate withsomething rather paltrythis is a remarkable grace. God is slumming when he loves us. He doesn't need our imitation of perfect love, yet he reaches out, wanting us to grab his hand, simply because, well, he wants to.
Second, it sheds light on the modern question about who we are. For this Trinity-in-love, this Loving Trinity, is the God in whose image we have been created. If loving communion is at the core of the Trinity, it is also at the core of who we are.
Since the Enlightenment, we in the West have thought of ourselves mostly as solitary individuals, and individuals mostly defined by mind, by intellect. As Descartes put it, "I think, therefore I am."
This insight has blessed the Western world in many ways, but it has cursed us as well. It has led to an excruciating loneliness, which nineteenth and twentieth-century existentialists (Camus and Sartre, among others) articulated so powerfully. In the twenty-first century, it has led to deep despair, as expressed by many postmodern philosophers. When we take the individual as the starting point, we can find no way to satisfy the basic yearning of the human heart, which has been created for communion.
The biblical starting point, by contrast, says, "I love, therefore you are. You love, therefore I am." Our existence begins not with the solitary individual ruminating alone about the core of human identity, but with the creation of two people in relationship: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (Gen. 1.27).
The question "Who am I" cannot be answered without first answering the question "Who are we?" We cannot conceive of ourselves (without stumbling into mere abstraction or doing violence to who we are) until we conceive of the other. At a very practical level, no human life can survive without the reciprocation of love.
Thus, our primary duty in life is not to find ourselves, to develop our gifts, or to make sense of life. Instead, we are called to love others so that they can come into existence, while they do the same for us.
That includes the miracle of creating babies, but it also means we can bring already breathing beings into existence. A simple example: As a teenager, my church youth director told me he wanted me to prepare a devotional for one of our weekly meetings. I objected, saying I was not ready or capable of doing so. He said I was being silly, that I was indeed ready, and insisted I prepare the devotional. I've had many such encounters in my life, when people have seen something in me that I have not seen in myself, and they have called it forth, out of the chaos. They have created me, that is, made me who I am today.
Sharing a meal or conversation, even sitting in silence with another, are acts that validate the existence of the other. Even we introverts recognize that life would be unbearableI mean this literally; I would likely commit suicideif we didn't have people in our lives. People like me may find it difficult to create or sustain intimacy, but because intimacy is available to entice (and frighten!) me, my life is not only bearable but also possible.
This all starts from the fact that we are first loved by God into existence, an existence framed by the Trinity-in-love, the image into which we have been created. Thus, we share in the mission of this Trinity, which is to create and sustain other beings in love.
That is not only our mission, but also our very identity: beings in relationship, beings defined by love. Because to love is to suffer, we might not want to be defined by this! But Jesus never said "abundant life" would be an easy life, only a blessed one.
Mark Galli is managing editor of Christianity Today and author of Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untameable God (Baker 2007). You can respond to this column below, or on his blog.
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Previous SoulWork columns include:
Seeker Unfriendly | We need more than worship that makes sense. (June 14, 2007)
The Cost of Christian Education | Getting schooled in the faith is more unnerving than I care to admit. (May 31, 2007)
Surviving a Family-Wrecking Economy | What the church can do about working mothers. (May 17, 2007)
The Real Secret of the Universe | Why we disdain feel-good spirituality but shouldn't. (May 3, 2007)
Peace in a World of Massacre | What Jesus calls us to when we're most frightened. (April 17, 2007)
The Good Friday Life | We need something more than another moral imperative. (April 4, 2007)
Re:generation Quarterly published Augustine of Hippo's explanation of the Trinity.
Christianity Today articles on the nature of the Trinity include:
The Mission of the Trinity | Singaporean theologian Simon Chan says 'missional theology' has not gone far enough. (June 4, 2007)
In the Word: The 'Shyness' of God | Self-centeredness is cured by looking deeply within the life of the Trinity. (February 5, 2001)
Adding Up the Trinity | What is stimulating the renewed interest in what many consider the most enigmatic Christian doctrine? (April 28, 1997)