If you are a regular reader of Christianity Richly, the importance of community is already clear. If not, click here and follow the links, because this present post is not simply about the the richness of community within the Church. This post addresses something more fundamental: how community came about; how the very basis of community arises from God’s own nature; and what the basis of that community means for you and for me.
If all community arises from God’s nature, then that certainly has implications for Christians (see John 17, particularly verse 21). But if community arises from God’s nature, we gain a better understanding of even “ordinary” friendship. We also gain insight about God’s purpose for us and guidance in terms of what response best suits that purpose. And finally, if community arises from God’s very nature, we can dispel a very common misconception about God and establish a right relationship with Him.
Let’s begin with the misconception. There is no better illustration than James Weldon Johnson’s (1871-1928) poem, “The Creation,” which begins:
And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I’ll make me a world.
God is not lonely. Moreover—and be attentive here—the fact He is not lonely is the basis for community. Why? Because non-loneliness begins in the Trinity, the three-Person Godhead. Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.’s magnificent book The Order of Things includes a chapter titled “Order Within the Godhead.” Note the word “order.” Fr. Schall does not mean “giving an order” or “ordering things rightly,” although that second meaning is close. By order, he means something more like the inherent structure of things; the true nature of things. So in that chapter his focus is the reality, the true nature of what the Trinity is.
Fr. Schall directly addresses the misconception in Johnson’s poem (a view held by some modern men and women):
Within the inner life of the Godhead there is a diversity of Persons such that God is in fact lacking no perfection, such as friendship … [this] means that what is not God … is not the product of necessity … what is not God need not exist. God would be perfect and complete even if there were nothing besides God.¹
Notice the statement “what is not God need not exist.” Just in case you or I miss the point, that’s us! God was not driven by some sort of loneliness to sit down (in Johnson’s poetic language) beside a river to think and think, until He thought, “I’ll make me a man!” The love, joy, and community among the three Persons of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—were complete and perfect before the act of creating. We aren’t “needed.” That sounds discouraging but the reality is infinitely greater and more positive. Read on.
So what is the first thing we learn by correcting the “God is lonely” misconception? The Catechism of the Catholic Church answers comprehensively in its first paragraph:
God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man . . . In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life. (From the Prologue)
By extension, then, Fr. Schall writes, “if God freely causes what is not Himself to exist, we can, on the basis of His own merciful purpose in creation, anticipate or expect that His loyalty or fidelity will be freely given to what He causes to be.” He created freely. Apparently He created joyfully, for Genesis 1 repeatedly says that God viewed what He created as good. He even created us in His own image, endowed with reason and free will.² And He blessed the man and the woman with everything needed for their welfare and creative activity (Genesis 1:28-31). What marvelous evidence that God’s intent toward us is loving; that He desires our good!
The second thing we learn from the Trinitarian basis of community is what Fr. Schall calls the “principle of return.” He writes:
Creation needs and has the capacity to respond to its own cause [God] in the manner in which its existence was originally given, that is, out of love or mercy, not necessity … This means that the highest point of contact between the inner life of God and the life of the world is at the point where an intelligent creature is capable of receiving a gift and returning it to its source.
In other words, we are intended to love God in the same way love is freely given and reciprocated among the three Persons of the Trinity. Fr. Schall concludes, “The inner life of God is complete in itself. What is not God [us] exists in order to reveal or reflect this inner order insofar as it can be imitated outside of itself.” Our lives in community are to mirror the Trinity!
But unlike the Trinity, our love is not perfect. Our fidelity is not complete. So what does this mean for our friendship with God? First, that we must repent and turn from our sins to restore community with the Source of community. Second, we must gratefully receive the gift offered—the love of God expressed in the death of Jesus Christ for our sins. Third, we must respond in gratitude and reciprocate God’s love through lives of holiness and service to others.
How do we do this?
[God in] His wisdom has found a way by which we can truly reach Him, can give our love to Him directly, and yet retain the unfettered liberality of friendship. He has found the way of Faith. By faith … we reach God Himself; yet such is the character of the knowledge born of faith that seeing, we see not; we know the one living God, yet remain unconstrained by His unbearable beauty, free to present before Him the priceless offering of friendship.³
Do you desire friendship with God? Do you want forgiveness for failings? Do you desire the basis for true community in your family? Do you seek to be united with the vast Communion of Saints? Then extend the hand of friendship to God, expressed through your faith. And join in the community that is only possible through the free gift and reciprocation of Divine Love.
That is Christianity Richly!
¹ The Order of Things, pp. 54-55. The quotations of Fr. Schall that follow in the running text of this post are drawn from pp. 54-59, a section of the chapter so conceptually rich, it should be read carefully and used as a basis for meditation.
² Any discussion of free will quickly ends up in deep waters. This post’s purpose is not to re-argue a topic that has been the subject of debate for millennia. Let’s save that for another day. As the Catechism, “The grace of Christ is not in the slightest way a rival of our freedom when this freedom accords with the sense of the true and the good that God has put in the human heart” (Catechism, “Human Freedom in the Economy of Salvation,” 1742).
³ The Prayer of Faith, by Fr. Leonard Boase, S.J., pp. 102-103. This book is difficult to locate, but well worth the effort. The title is linked to the AbeBooks.com search engine.
A final editorial note: when to capitalize personal pronouns and other references to God is a subject of much disagreement. James Weldon Johnson, in his poem, chose not to capitalize the personal pronoun for God. We’ll trust that was not a reflection of his theology. Fr. Shall prefers to emphasize God’s divinity and infinite otherness by capitalizing third-person singular references to God, as well as the his reference to “Persons” in the Trinity. I have followed Fr. Schall’s lead. However, other sources, including the Catechism of the Catholic Church, have chosen editorially to lower-case personal pronouns referring to God to create a smoother flow of the text for the reader. I understand and try to do that in my own writing by eliminating extraneous commas and other punctation marks, where clarity is not affected. If you wondered about He/he, Him/him, etc., in this post, hope this explanation the inconsistent treatment of upper and lower case answers the question.