“God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir through God.“ (Galatians 4:6-7)
“God is love, and those who dwell in love dwell in God, and God dwells in them.” (1 John 4:16b)
When the first Christians started gathering, when the movement started spreading, the one experience they seemed to share in common was that somehow they were being drawn into the very life of God. Jesus’ “postmortem” life, the Church’s Spirited common life, and the very life of God mingled so intimately that they couldn’t be separated. Their differences didn’t vanish—they grew more rapidly than their minds could follow. And yet somehow those very same differences made them one body in Christ, “members of one another” (Romans 12:5).
So they came up with some startling ideas—like the idea that communities can grow in unpredictable diversity and still be healthy, or the idea that God can live a life of unpredictable diversity and still be one God, or the idea that a God who lives like that isn’t just a God who loves but a God who simply is love.
St. Augustine wrote a very long work on the Trinity, and I wouldn’t for a moment lead you to believe that it makes for easy reading. It’s full of all kinds of technical terms and long-winded passages. But he was also a gifted preacher, so occasionally he brought everything back down to earth. Here’s a passage I actually keep on my Facebook profile:
“God is love. Why should we go running round the heights of the heavens and the depths of the earth looking for him who is with us if only we should wish to be with him? Let no one say ‘I don’t know what to love.’ Let him love his brother, and love that love … Embrace love which is God, and embrace God with love … And if a man is full of love, what is he full of but God? … Love means someone loving and something loved with love. There you are with three, the lover, what is being loved, and love. And what is love but a kind of life coupling or trying to couple together two things, namely lover and what is being loved? This is true even in the most fleshly kinds of love … So here again there are three, lover and what is being loved, and love.” Augustine, On the Trinity, trans. by Edmund Hill, O.P. (Brooklyn: New City Press, 1991), pp. 252-255 (8.5.11-14).
“If you are full of love, what are you full of but God?” That’s a far cry from making people pass a theology exam to get into heaven. The doctrine of the Trinity was one way the Church found to say that all those clichés we have about love aren’t as tired as they may seem. Love really does make the world go ’round.
Of course the Church means something a bit deeper than soap-opera love. This is love that endures the worst we can do to shut it out and keeps returning with a promise of new life. This is love that demands we love others with the same passion that God has for us. But still, if that’s really the power that moves heaven and earth, then even soap-opera love deserves a little more respect than it usually gets. St. Augustine had all sorts of hang-ups about romance, but even he had to acknowledge that what he called “even the most fleshly kinds of love” link us to the love that God simply is.
“‘Embrace love which is God, and embrace God with love. And if you are full of love, what are you full of but God?” Sometimes we look at the Church and wonder if its ancient doctrines have lost their power to speak to us today. But there’s nothing obsolete here. Be filled with love; be filled with God.