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An Invitation to Happiness

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Saint-Petersburg orthodox theological academy-CC

James V. Schall, S.J. - published on 05/28/15

Will you accept or reject it?

“Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.”
–Pascal, Pensées, #863.

“So when the Son of God became the Son of Man, the Spirit also descended upon him, becoming accustomed in this way to dwelling with the human race, to living in men and to inhabiting God’s creation. The Spirit accomplished the Father’s will in men who had grown old in sin, and gave them new life in Christ.”
–Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3, 17.

Often it is said that Christianity is too complicated. It is too intellectual. Would it not be more effective if it only had five simple things to maintain, like Islam? Why cannot we just be “nice” and forget about all these complicated distinctions? In response to such a query, Chesterton once pointed out that Christianity is simple where reality is simple, but it is not simple where reality is not simple, or at least, not simple to us. If “being nice” is your principle of morality, you had better be sure that everyone agrees on what the phrase means. That “agreement” would have to rest on principles that everyone understood. The “obscurity” of truth, to which Pascal referred, may be due to our own limited capacities. To God, the truth is not obscure. The problem is that we are not gods, which is quite all right. We were never intended to be “like gods” with power to decide good and evil. It was the Devil who tried to convince Eve that we were like the gods. 

Human beings usually have to learn things one step at a time, not in one blind flash. And some things, such as “What is the inner life of God like?” we can only know if we are assisted by God’s help. If we could figure it out by ourselves, we would already be gods.  But it is pretty sure that we are not gods. As the Psalmist says, we are “a little lower than the angels." That is why Irenaeus said that it takes the Spirit to accomplish the Father’s will among us sinners. It is why Pascal said that some things we cannot properly “know” unless we love them.

If we take a careful look at the elements of the statement of Irenaeus, the great second-century bishop from Lyons in Gaul, we find the following words and phrases: “Son of God," “Son of Man," “Spirit," “Father," “sin," “new life," and “Christ." To understand these words, and that is why we have minds, we have to think, think carefully and clearly about them. Christian revelation was given to us also that we think about what is told to us in various ways through the deeds and words in Scripture. The assumption is that how we live is related to what we know. The most obvious question we have on reading such a passage from Irenaeus is: “How does it fit together?” “How are these concepts related to each other?”

To begin to understand what Irenaeus is telling us, something he himself has clearly already meditated on, we need to know that “the Son of God” is “the Son of Man." The same person, called by two different names, is both one and the other. How this dual designation is possible is what the Incarnation was about. In becoming man, the Son of God did not cease to be God. He also “became” man. The Church later expressed this position by saying that two “natures," one divine and one human, are found in in one Person who is divine, called the Son of God.

Why is the word “son” used in both phrases? Obviously, a son refers to a father. Thus, we say here that this “Son," who is both man and God, is the Son of the Father, who is God but in a way that does not exclude otherness within itself. But later on in the same passage, this same Son is identified as “Christ." This word means “the anointed one." He was the one awaited by the Jewish tradition. In the Gospel of John, we are told that this Son is called the “Word." This designation, more than any others, relates the Godhead to what we call philosophy. The same truth is thus expressed by saying that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us." This understanding meant that God was now within human history as Son of Man. Nothing could be quite the same after that presence among us.   

We are told, recalling many different passages in Scripture that the “Spirit” descended upon this Son. If He is a man, however, He needed a grounding in humanity. Men do not “see” spirits easily. But this man, as John said in his Epistle, is touched with his own hands and seen with his own eyes. This Son’s mother, as His conception, was told that the Holy Spirit would overshadow her. She was to call her Son, Emmanuel, “God with us”. And later when He was baptized by John in the Jordan, this same Spirit descended on Him. The same Father calls Him “His Son, in whom He is well-pleased."

The Spirit is said to be sent by this Son after He departed this life, after He ascended. Indeed, He said that, unless He departed, the Spirit would not be come. Moreover, when the Spirit did appear at Pentecost, He accustomed Himself to this world. He now lived in this creation and among men. He was to be a spirit of truth so that all that was taught would be remembered. It was the Spirit who accomplished the Father’s will. This will had something to do with men who had “grown old” in sin. Evidently this manifestation of sin was what occasioned the Father’s new initiative, His sending the Son into the world so that the original purpose in creating them be not lost. So the whole narrative had something to do with sin, which had lasted a long time, long enough to see that men were not going to change much without some divine intervention.

Hence, men needed a “new life." This “new life” to be called “grace” was supplied by the Spirit. What did it entail? Obviously, it had something to do with sin, namely, its heinousness and its forgiveness. The first words of the Gospel were “repent," be converted, as if to say that this “new life” had a condition attached to it. What the Spirit had to give was not forced on sinners. God could receive into His life only those who freely responded to his mercy and love. It was up to them to accept what was offered to them after the manner of a gift. Indeed, one of the common names later given to the Spirit was precisely “Gift," as if to say that there is no compulsion in God’s dealing with us, only a frank giving and explaining what is offered and why. The world and those of it can and often do refuse.

Though the word is not in Scripture, we call our God “Trinity." Islam, Judaism, and most religions and philosophies reject this understanding of God. It is said, wrongly, to mean that there are “three” gods. But it does not mean this. It is said to deny the oneness of God, even though it does not do this. Yet Christians recognize that they have to explain clearly why the seemingly obvious issue of the “three gods” is not their view. They also have to explain in a coherent manner why the fact of three Persons does not deny the oneness of the Godhead. How do they go about doing this?

First of all, the Christian understanding of God begins with and never denies the Jewish commandment that Yahweh is one God. There are no strange gods other than He. God is one. Though certain hints and intimations are found in the Old Testament that Wisdom and Spirit are in God—something similar in Aristotle—the notion of a single Creator, in whom heaven and earth find their origins, prevails. Thus, Christianity does not deny but affirms the truth of the oneness of the Hebrew understanding of God. But it leaves this one God open to further explanation of Himself. This further explanation is what the New Testament is about.

But first one thing from Aristotle had to be cleared up. Aristotle in discussing friendship had understood this highest virtue to be impossible within the Godhead, even though he acknowledged that God moved by will and knowledge. He was a “First Mover” who moved all else. But this God lacked something. He lacked friends. He lacked what seemed to be the highest of goods, the possibility of giving and sharing with others. Not a few philosophers, on this basis, wanted to hold that the world was created precisely so that God would not be lonely. But the revelation of Christ was based on two things. First the world was not created because God lacked something. The world did not need to exist. God would be God whether it existed or not. Secondly, revelation teaches that within the one Godhead we find Father, Son, and Spirit, a trinity of persons. The Son, the Word, reflects everything that is the Father. The Father and the Son’s bond pours forth in a Spirit a person who includes their union and difference. God is not lonely.

The word “Trinity” was coined in order to explain how God was spoken of in the New Testament. The word itself was not scriptural, but what it meant was. There was no reason philosophical terms could not be used to understand what was taught. Thus, the Father sent the Son. The Father and the Son are one. He who knows the Son knows the Father. If we know the Son, we know the Father. The Son after His Resurrection returned to the Father. But the Father and the Son send the Spirit to complete the work for which Christ, the Son, the Word, was sent into the world. The world did not accept Him, but crucified Him. He died, was buried, but rose again. The life He received was the life that He had had with the Father from the beginning. He ascended into heaven, to the hand of the Father. Hence, He will return to judge the living and the dead. The Spirit will be with His people all days, even to the end of the world. The world will have an end, will pass away. We await a new heaven and a new earth.

The reason the world was created was not just to have a world. It was created for man. It was created to invite men to participate in the inner life of God, eternal life. This purpose had a twofold meaning. One was what man would do with or in the world once he appeared there. This is the actual turbulent history of man on this planet. The second was that each member of the human race was invited, from the beginning, to participate in the inner Trinitarian life of God. This invitation was something that was not possible unless a “new life” was infused into each person. Man was invited to be more than his nature was open to. This divine initiative was the purpose of the Redemption from the old sins.

God did not “need” the world. He did not need to create as if He needed something. This is why, from the human point of view, the Holy Spirit is described as a “gift." Not only is the world itself and all in it, including ourselves, a “gift” to us, so also is the effort of God to restore that disorder in the world that was put in it by human sin. In order to participate in this “gift” of “eternal life” offered to each of us, something had to be done about sin. And it had to be done in such a manner that the orders of creation be not overturned. Men remained what they are. What does that mean? It means, in dealing with the human rejection of his order in nature and grace, that God could not take away man’s nature or freedom. He had to operate, as it were, with what He had created.

This restriction is what evidently surrounded the initiative of God to give man another way to reach Him after the failure in Adam and Eve of His first effort. Adam and Eve had used their freedom to reject the initial offer of eternal life. They wanted to create their own way. All subsequent sin, in effect, imitates this claim. In doing so, the first couple suffered the consequences of their own choice. They were subject to death, as they were told. Their acts had consequences. If God the Son became man in the world, He could offer men another way. As it turns out, that the people to whom He was sent also rejected Him. As a result, He died on the Cross. It was this second effort of God to give us the gift of eternal life that we are left with in the Church until the end.

The Trinity indicates that God is, as it were, social in Himself in such a way that He does not need anything. Creation is thus something rising out of love or generosity, not out of justice. But its purpose is serious. The rejection of the divine plan for each of us is a possible choice. This choice is what each human life is ultimately about. It always bears the character of “I will or will not serve." The primary purpose of God is the salvation of each of the persons He created in His image and likeness. It is not some apocalyptic inner-worldly political, economic, or ecological purpose down the ages.

The actual world is an arena in which the ultimate destiny of each person is worked out according to his own choices. Those who live in brutal societies are not further away from God’s purpose for them than those who live in prosperous ones when it comes to availability of eternal life. We are not supposed to create brutal societies, of course, even when we do. But people lose their souls both in good and bad societies. No one avoids the basic issue of how does he stand to sin and the redemption that God has offered.

The Trinity, then, is the way God has taught us to understand, as best we can, what He is like in his inner life to which we are invited. Like all invitations, we can refuse the invitation, the gift. But this inner-life of the Godhead, Father, Son, and Spirit, is the only explanation for that unsettled sense in each of us that we are made for a purpose, a happiness. We cannot give what we really want to ourselves. But we can receive if we will, as it has been offered to each of us. The precariousness of our world has its roots not in the fragility of our physical existence but in the temptation we all have to be ourselves the cause of our being, of our choosing on our own to “be like gods” as if God did not offer some understanding of Himself far superior to anything we could imagine for ourselves.

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