Or, a theological reverie on a summer afternoon...
I’m not in the habit of rereading my own works, but the other day I looked through my doctoral dissertation, The Social Ontology of Karl Barth (International Scholars Publications, 1994). One chapter of this “light classic” concerns Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity.
Since the post-Nicene fathers, the divine nature is said to subsist in the three personae (prosopa): the Father who is the incriminate origin of the Son and the Spirit, the Son who is the Logos made flesh, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son. Barth prefers the Patristic idea of tropos huparxeos (or modus entitativus, or Seinsweise), rather than prosopon, in order to preserve both the unity and tri-unity of God. He stresses that God’s tri-unity (Dreieinigkeit) points to God’s essential relational being, “in which the being of God for us is not something foreign to God’s essence but is grounded in his very being”(Church Dogmatics, I/I, p. 359f).
Because God’s essential (not accidental) nature is relational, God’s self-revelation to human beings takes us into a union with God. Any knowledge of God is also a sharing of the life and being of God in that God’s self-revelation is the nature of God in God’s tri-unity. This is not supposed to be a theopoiesis of human being but rather a gathering of humans into a saving relationship. Nor is it a mystical union, because God’s self-revelation is a wholly free act of God and never a miracle that we can objectify or claim, even in prayerful mysticism.
Jesus Christ is God’s “being in act.” The Trinitarian doctrine of “perichoresis” (the natures of the persons of the Trinity mutually permeate and condition one another) grounds the nature of God in his three ways of being and in his being for us (pro nobis). Knowledge of God is inseparable from God’s Lordship in Christ. But not only do we know who God is because of Christ, we also thereby know one another as fellow human beings whom we can serve gladly. That is because Christ’s human nature is not something foreign to his divine nature, but it, too, is essential to the being of God. So Christ not only reveals God but also essential, social human beings.
Now, just to make a very quick comparison of two kinds of faith, I pulled another of my books off the shelf, What Do Other Faiths Believe? (Abingdon, 2003). My interviewee for Sikhism explained his faith:
“Our scripture starts with a word, Ik Onkar... If you miss the meaning of that word, you’re going to be following the rituals but not the sense of the faith. If you followed and understood the meaning of that word, the rest of it falls into place. Ik Onkar means, ‘there is only one.’ There are not two. That one, is God. Once I understand that, you and I are not two. Just like I have two hands and two legs, my leg is not the same as my hand but they are one, a part of this body. If someone cuts off my hand, it is no longer part of the body; it cannot function. If we are an extension of that ultimate God, and that’s all we are, so our purpose in life becomes very clear to us: to serve that greater body” (pp. 72-73).
He explained that when we misunderstand our true identity, we think of ourselves as an “I,” something separate. But that is a very basic and serious error. Our true identity is as part of a whole, which is God, and thus our purpose in life is to serve one another. My interviewee said that, when we serve ourselves, we become analogous to a cancer cell. He noted that our goal is to add value to the universe. For instance, “If you are serving a customer, rather thinking, ‘How can I sell him something?’ now you can ask, ‘How can I add value to him?’ I am in the listening mode and try to find out ‘What does he need?’ Then I come around and serve that. Everywhere you see success happening, it has this ingredient present" (pp. 74-75).
Here are two different religions that affirm the ontological sociality of human beings, rooted in the being of God. In Sikhism, God is understood as the one God with whom we share our being. In Trinitarian Christianity, our sociality is grounded in the being of God pro nobis. One is a matter of understanding the true nature of our relation, the other is a matter of our being brought into a saving relationship. One is an impersonal God of infinite qualities, the other is a personal God whose very being is in relationship. In both cases, we do wrong, and fundamentally betray our human nature, when we serve only ourselves.