Triune Form—The Eternal Act of Being
“Eternity is the total, simultaneous and perfect possession of interminable life.”
Boethius, De consolation philosophiae 5.6
The Triune God is the eternal act of being. God’s being and action are coinherent. “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8).
The following discussion assumes Karl Rahner’s trinitarian axiom (“Rahner’s Rule”) to be a faithful guiding principle for reflection on the perplexing idea of God, eternal and absolute Being, acting among beings in the temporality and contingency of history (a “rule” not without controversy): “the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity and the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity.” That is to say, God’s ‘showing forth’ of himself in the economy of salvation is (if held in the right Light) analogically transparent to the immanent life of the Triune God from eternity. In other words, God did not become the Trinity in order to restore the fallen world. It is not God who becomes himself according to the absolute principle of creation (re: becoming); it is creation that becomes itself according to the absolute principle of the Creator (re: Being). History is salvation history precisely because the God who from eternity loved creation into being is the same who from eternity loved creation into new creation. The Lamb was indeed slain from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8), and thus the historic Gospel is indeed the “eternal Gospel” heralded by the angel of the eschaton (Rev. 14:6).
The fullness of life is revealed in the unity of God’s being and action, whose potency is freedom (and hence true tri-personhood) and whose actuality is love (and hence true oneness). Unlike human potency and actuality, there is no division in God between being and action. And as the ‘eternal act of being’ (Aquinas), God is love.
God’s love from eternity is actualized in history, but his life as such cannot be distinguished in terms of the potentialities of freedom (i.e., God could be other than love if he otherwise acted) or the determinations of love (i.e., God cannot otherwise act because he is not truly free). But this is precisely the way the qualities that constitute human life must be distinguished. Human freedom is the potency that makes love a human possibility. This is what makes an analogy of being between God and humankind simultaneously possible and impossible. God’s being and act are essentially one. Humans’ being and act are potentially one. But no man has ever realized his potential as such, with the exception of the Man who is God, Jesus Christ, who is as such both God’s being for man and Man’s being for God, and therefore he is himself the only analogy of being as such between God and man.
Triune Image—Freedom in Potency
This is, I believe, the basis for understanding human life in relation to God, which is the only way of understanding human life in any of its secondary and tertiary relations. The potency of human freedom can be actualized in love, but it can also be actualized in the negation of love. Genesis 1 describes from a God’s-eye-view the creation of the human community of persons blessed with the freedom without which genuine love cannot exist. The grammar of God’s image is revealed in the oneness of a plurality. God is the community that creates a community that is blessed to procreate a progenitive community that will fill the earth. This is God’s “very good” idea (Gen. 1:31). Genesis 2 describes from a worm’s-eye-view the creation of the human community, which actually begins as a not-good lone man, quite a remarkable contrast to the analysis of very good image-bearing community of Genesis 1. But this is simply because the man was not yet complete. The man is not yet fully human, at least not in the way that God is fully God. So God killed him, pulled out the bone that guarded his heart, then raised him from the dead—and with him the life he truly longed for: “Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23). It was the first hypostatic union: the body of Adam broken for Eve; the blood of Adam shed for Eve.
I suppose this is an overstatement, but it serves to illustrate the point: the creation of a kind of image-bearing community that is reflective of God’s inter-Trinitarian love requires such a self-outpouring that the lover’s self-donation extends with such completeness as to appear as the form of death: kenosis. And yet, what appears as the form of death turns out to be very form love, which actualizes human life. From this kenotic self-donation of the individual’s life comes the life of his beloved. Indeed, kenosis makes perichoresis possible. And so was made the very good image-bearing community.
True love is predicated on true freedom and true freedom to love is predicated on persons having suitable objects to love, namely human subjects. But the potency of such a freedom is deeply powerful. It can know and feel personally. It can intend things to happen for others, or to others. It can organize and recruit. There is an impressive power in a beast with claws and fangs, but there is no prospect quite so treacherous as the beast with freedom and speech. No animal is safe in a pride of lions, but the world itself is unsafe in the pride of man.
The potency of human freedom given to our progenitors was a power to rule over God’s very good creation in the order of love. Indeed, they were blessed to multiply and fill the earth through the act of sex, which is designed to be perfectly analogous to love’s essential form of self-donation and trusting reception. But that freedom for humans to love as God loves is precisely free not to. There is indeed a thin line between love and cosmic destruction.
Judgment and Grace—The Limits of Power
Death, the judgment for this abuse of freedom, is thus required to limit the destructive potential of human life and the will to power. However, it also serves to preserve the structure of human life, namely, the desire for oneness and our capacity to love, because the awareness of death has the power to awaken in us love’s eternal longing. It takes the mysterious experience of empathy, the basis of love, and amplifies is, indeed immortalizes it, in the experience of grief. The nagging impulse to embrace others, however few, only swells in its gravity as the inevitable eclipse darkens the final days over clinching hands. Nothing reveals the terrible power of love like the reckless desire to forsake all this world affords and dive into the infinite abyss just to remain with one’s beloved in death. But death affords no withness. So what does it profit a man to forsake the whole world and forfeit his soul?
Thus death preserves the possibility of love in a world bent toward power by revealing the futility of all pursuits of power. It is the governor on infinite acceleration that drives even the most powerful men to create a place of respite where they can stop pretending, a place to be weak, to love and to grieve. A man may ascend to the “judgment seat” beyond the reach of even the gods, but Pilate is still under the judgement of his wife (Mt. 27:19). The deepest human longings are disproportionate to human limitation. And thus it is the awareness of death that turns all human longing for love into the longing for God. It is the gift of sobriety that reveals to us that the true nature of our confused longing to become God is, in fact, the more intoxicated longing to become a small inclusion within God’s universal embrace. We long for a God who will dive into death and bring all life up from the abyss. We long for God who will not merely save us from death but save love from death. We long for a God who can unite all things back together in himself, a God who will restore for us an eternal respite from power, a God who will be powerful for us, so that we can be free to love. Indeed, grief is God’s prevenient grace.
Sin—Enslaved to Death
And thus, the principle structure of human beings is construed quite simply as free persons created for love. That is to say, the human will is structured to give love the freedom to rule. But that is not as simple as making a list of obligatory rules and checking them off dispassionately. Love cannot rule by putting freedom in handcuffs. But neither can love rule as an accident of freedom’s passions. Love has to be a movement of freedom, but freedom has to be disciplined toward love. For this reason, sin must be brought into the light in a triangulation of definitions with freedom and love.
Every particular sin, no matter the color, has the same genealogy. Sin is always the product of (a) a desire (b) based on a deception (c) organized against love. All desires based on deceptions organized against love can be called temptations. Temptations are experienced as an appeal to freedom, but they are precisely the opposite because they ultimately function to enslave freedom to desire, not to satisfy desire through freedom. Such temptations are not an appeal to freedom but an appeal to pride. Pride always feels like the freedom because pride always gets to say, “My will be done.” But human freedom is not simply the power of the will to act; it is the power of the will to love, because love is the ultimate and essential human desire. With the will not oriented toward its proper end the power of the will to act is nothing more than the will to power, the drive of life toward infinite desire rather than infinite satisfaction. It attends to an indefinite future without ever reaching the present moment; it is the urgent now, not the eternal now. It is about survival, not life, the will’s appetite for more, not the will’s enjoyment of enough to share. Pride may draw a crowd, but it struggles to make eye-contact.
“There is happiness in the love of labor, there is misery in the love of gain” (Abraham Heschel on Sabbath as ‘the architecture of eternity in time’).
The awareness of death gives occasion for freedom to be confused by pride. Despite the intuitive reflex of our awareness of death to open us up toward others in longing, and ultimately to open us up to that longing into which God can breath hope against hope in order to make a space into which he can breath faith, it also closes us up in fear. Life exists in oscillations—expanding, contracting, expanding, contracting, trusting and giving, closing up and self-preserving. It is always in process, but in the final analysis life in the face of death is bent toward pride, mistrust, self-preservation. Fear of death has more gravity than fear of God. Indeed, it is “through fear of death” that we are “subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:15).
And thus, pride is the counterfeit of freedom and the antithesis of love. Its essential structure is pure inwardness. It operates on a disordered appetite for power without aim according to a primal mistrust and withdraw. Its goal is isolation—by way of either retreat or triumph. It can be felt as hollowing shame or gasoline powers, but both are pride. Pride can wear crowns at the top of towers, but shame is merely pride in sheep’s clothing.
The eyes of the couple were opened and they are now naked and very ashamed. So they hide from one another. Bone of Adam’s bone is now just plain ol’ flesh of Eve’s flesh. No longer are they one flesh–it was nuclear fission in the nuclear family. They hear God-sized footsteps. They hide. God confronts Adam. He points away, to the woman, as if God would be judge at divorce court?! But Adam tries, as we all try, to distance himself from the greater guilt—as though human guilt can be separated; as though the two weren’t a hypostatic union; as though Eve were not bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh; as though we are not all the seed of Adam’s loin; as though it weren’t through one man’s disobedience that sin enters the world and death through sin; as though it weren’t through one man’s obedience that the many will be made righteous.
But God does not simply put the blame on Eve, nor does he simply put the blame on the serpent. Nor does he simply put the blame on all three, although he does condemn all three, because all three are guilty. But he finds a place to put the blame, a willing party. Looking down at the pitiful couple, hiding behind tattered fig leaves barely able to withstand the Garden breeze, he calls forth a lamb—the whitest lamb in the garden, a lamb without spot or blemish. It obeys. It comes in silence. They want to look away, but he does not let them look away. They need to see the cost of grace. “A Lamb of Sorrows: your transgressions, his wounds; his chastisement, your peace; his stripes, your healing. You have strayed, but he has come to be slaughtered for your iniquities; innocent, but numbered among sinners.”
The whitest wool now forever stained in a dark crimson that would forever remain: the color of guilt and the color of grace, the color of the intersection—the intersection where God unites with sinners. Love wears thorns at the top of the intersection: it is grace in sheep’s clothing.
Triune Image—The Act of Salvation
The Word of God, Jesus Christ, is the vantage point from which the Church views itself, the world, and God. Christ is the revelation of God that is transparent to the truth of God’s being in eternity and to the truth of human beings in history (John 1:1-14; Col. 1:15-20). If we have seen the Son, we have seen the Father (Jn. 14:9), and if we believe the Son is indeed God’s Son, then we are “given the right to be called children of God” (Jn. 1:12; Rom. 8:29; Col. 1:18; Heb. 1:6; 2:11). Thus, the Gospel claims that human beings participate in the divine life in Jesus Christ; that is, we participate in the divine life through Christ’s “interior” (immanent) relations within the Godhead and his “exterior” (economic) relations within creation (cf. Jn. 17). And this is so precisely because the “Word made flesh” does not signify a change in the (indeed impassible) divine life, but which rather signifies an essential change in human life. Indeed, the absolute made contingent relativizes the contingent according to the absolute. (Hence above: It is not God who becomes himself according to the absolute principle of creation (re: becoming); it is creation that becomes itself according to the absolute principle of the Creator (re: Being).)
This becomes transparent to us only by means of the Holy Spirit, who makes divine perception a human possibility, for he is the divine Subject, the Spirit of Truth, who reveals Christ interior to human subjects (1 Cor. 2:6-16) in the light of his exterior revelation as human Object. It was indeed better for us that Jesus should go and send the Helper (Jn. 16:7), for creation is not in its essential form apart from our sharing, however limited, in the intersubjective life of God: “…I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth…You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you” (Jn. 14:15-6).
Thus, the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who is “I AM who I AM” from all eternity (Exod. 3:14), stands at the center of every “I think, therefore I am” in history as the “Word made flesh” (Jn. 1:14). Indeed, “I AM, therefore i think” is the more appropriate formula for Christian thought and speech. Absolute Being relativizes all contingent beings, and to the degree we can speak of the revealed form of Being as such, which is precisely what Christian proclamation presupposes, we must speak of Jesus Christ as the particular historical truth whose self-objectification delineates absolute and eternal truth for humankind, eternal truth become historical truth.
Christ is the Light that is come to me without ceasing to remain above, the union of the eternal Subject and created subjects without either losing their proper names; he is God’s gift to me and my gift to God (2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 8:1-4). Christ is in us, but Christ is not us; we are in Christ, but we are not Christ. Human life in Christ by the Spirit is nothing less than the subjective participation in the divine life as coheirs of salvation with Christ, the firstborn of creation (Col. 1:15) and thus the firstborn from the dead (Col. 1:18). And thus from a well that is deeper to us than we are to ourselves and extending up into infinite heights, “We cry Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15). And he hears us—his children.
The Church thus abides in history according to its message heralded as the “eternal Gospel” (Rev. 14:6): (a) from the vantage point of the divine Subject: “the mystery of [God’s] will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:9-10); (b) from the vantage point of the human subject: to “make known among the nations…the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27); (c) and thus the principle relation that can be described as the actuality of human participation in the divine life:
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation of our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1 Jn. 4:7-12).
The Gospel thus opens us up both to receive God’s life of love and to extend our lives in love. This is indeed the Alpha- and Omega point of creation, of salvation, of new creation–and thus necessarily too of our proclamation.
“And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
On that day, indeed, God will again raise his Image from the dead.
 Hence: “”Let us (pl.) make man (sg.) in our (pl.) image (sg.), after our (pl.) likeness (sg.)…So God (sg.) created man in his own image (sg.), in the image of God he created him (sg.); male and female he created them (pl.). And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over [it]” (Gen. 1:26-28).
 Indeed, the first experience of empathy that I remember distinctly was the moment it dawned on me, around the age of five, that my father, whose hand I was holding at the time, would one day die. Upon reflection, it was an experience that suggested, in an uninterpreted immediate sense, that my subjective life could not be entirely separated from the objective life of others. Empathy, like grief, is the intersubjective space wherein love is possible. This was also the first time I remember crying.