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"The Reality of God": Benedict XVI on the Trinity | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | June 5, 2008 | Ignatius Insight
"On this Solemnity (Trinity Sunday), the liturgy invites us
to praise God not merely for the wonders that he has worked, but for who he
is...." — Benedict XVI, Even of Trinity Sunday, Savona, May 17, 2008. 
"From the reality of God which he himself made known to us by revealing his "name' to us comes a certain
image of man, that is, the exact concept of the person. If God is a dialogical
unity, a being in relation, the highest creature made in his image and likeness
reflects this constitution; thus he is called to fulfill himself in dialogue,
in conversation, in encounter." — Benedict XVI, Trinity Sunday, Genoa,
May 18, 2008.
Over Trinity Sunday, Benedict visited the Italian cities of
Savona, where Pope Pius VII had been in exile in the time of Napoleon, and
the port city of Genoa, which was the home of the World War I Pope, Benedict
XV. In one way or another, the theme of all of Benedict's homilies on this
occasion was that of the inner nature and being of the Godhead, the most
fascinating of all topics put forth to the human intelligence to consider. The
Trinity is, of course, the feast that is devoted to God's very being as such.
In this feast, as Benedict said in Savona, "God proclaims his own name."
It is not just that men, almost since they began to wonder
about it, have sought to call God by His proper name. Or, barring that, they
tried to come up with some name that would come closest to what God is. The names that we gave to God, names like "All
Good" or "Perfect Being," are neither complete nor are they wrong. They contain
truth. The fact is that the accurate naming of God is not something, in the
end, we concoct by ourselves. Rather it is something that, once we understand
why, must first be given to us.
On coming to know it, we can think about its appropriateness
or meaning in a more enlightened manner. Logically, if we claimed we could, by
our own powers, accurately say what God is,
we would ourselves be God. On the surface, if we reflectively know anything
about ourselves, this alternative is rather doubtful.
Of course, nowhere in Scripture do we find God calling
himself the "Trinity." This is a human, philosophic word that the Church finds
most suitable to state in a word the central point of the Christian
understanding of what is said in the New Testament about God. At the Shrine of
Our Lady of Mercy, Benedict said:
We are invited to contemplate, so
to speak, the Heart of God, his deepest reality which is his being One in the
Trinity, a supreme and profound communication of love and life. The whole of
sacred Scripture speaks to us of him. Indeed, it is he who speaks to us of
himself in the Scriptures and reveals himself as Creator of the universe and
Lord of history.
Christianity begins not with "What do I think God ought to
be called," but with "How does God speak of Himself?" He speaks to us in words
and deeds. The name we use is intended to identify, make intelligible, the
reality that the name indicates. Among the ancients, to "name" a thing often
meant to "possess" it.
Benedict cites the passage from Exodus 34 in which the
question "What is God's name?" is asked. The answer is given in the Old
Testament that He is "merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in
steadfast love and faithfulness." These words are "human words" in the Holy
Spirit, but they tell us "the truth about God." This truth is after all what we
want to know above else, the truth about God. These words tell us "the Name of
the Ineffable One. This Name is Mercy, Grace Faithfulness." The names used in
the Old Testament and the name used in the New Testament do not describe
different "gods" but, ever more clearly and incisively, the same God. They are
continuations, developments, if you will, of the same revelation.
The "logic" in the understanding of God is the increasing
comprehension of what it means to say that God is love. That name is the word
used by John in his Gospel to speak of Him. We seek "the Face of the Invisible
One, (words used in the Old Testament) to tell us the Name of the Ineffable
One. This Name is Mercy, Grace, Faithfulness." Each of these words, on
examination, brings out a different aspect of what Love means. Hence, they
indicate what God is.
Benedict recalls that in a famous apparition in Savona on
March 18, 1536, Mary introduced herself precisely as "Our Lady of Mercy." And
it is under this notion of mercy that John Paul II often talked of our
understanding of the limits of evil. Basically, as the late pope said in Memory
and Identity, the limits of evil are the
limits of what the divine mercy can forgive. The only thing that it cannot
forgive, in brief, is what chooses not to be forgiven.
Benedict makes a most interesting remark of the Blessed Mother
in this connection. "But Mary did not speak of herself, she never speaks of
herself but always of God, and she did so with this name so old yet ever new:
mercy, which is a synonym of love, of grace."
The Old Testament descriptions of God are thus preparatory
to the way God will "name" Himself in the Incarnation, through which fact the
name of God becomes properly known to us. "God is One since he is all and only
Love but precisely by being Love he is openness, acceptance, dialogue; and in
his relationship with us, sinful human beings, he is mercy, compassion, grace,
and forgiveness." We thus "name" God differently depending on our condition, on
the basis on which we choose to address Him.
"God has created all things for existence and what he wills
is always and only life." The central understanding of the Trinitarian life is
"eternal life." The term "death" thus does not mean that the dead disappear
into nothingness. As the Pope explains in Spe Salvi the terms heaven, hell, purgatory, and death relate to
our final condition with respect to the inner Trinitarian life of God. Once God
creates us, we remain created. How we stand to God lies within our choice, which
God cannot overcome except at the cost of denying to us the kind of free being
that we are.
"In God's gift of himself in the Person of the Son the whole
of the Trinity is at work." All of God's acts outside of Himself are the
results of the Trinity acting as one God. The Incarnation of the Word relates
to the Father and is through the Holy Spirit. Christ ascends to the Father and
sends His Spirit. The Name of God always includes the One and Three. This is
what Trinity means and we can understand that these elements must be kept
present. Our misunderstanding of God is reflected in our misunderstanding of
ourselves and of our cities.
At his address at the major seminary in Genoa, Benedict
continued his explication of the Trinity. Again beginning with the Old
Testament names, he recalled that "God is merciful and compassionate." In the
New Testament God is Love and reveals Himself by giving His only Son whose
death is steeped in mercy and compassion. Consequently, this Name clearly
expresses that the "God of the Bible is not some kind of monad closed in on
itself and satisfied with his own self-sufficiency but he is life that wants to
communicate itself, openness, relationship."
This passage clearly refers to those speculations of the
philosophers about what the cause of being might be like. God was only a sort
of "final cause" or enclosed "monad" who was just out there. He was not a
person. He or it had no relation back to the cosmos or to rational beings
within it. What is striking about Scripture, however, is precisely how it can
accept what truth that may have been found in the philosophic positions and yet
form a more complete understanding of God. The doctrines of Creation and
redemptive Incarnation are central here.
Thus, it is God who takes the initiative. This God, in
Benedict's words, is the one who "desires to establish a solid and lasting
bond" with us under the ideas of mercy, compassion, rich in grace. "Scripture
knows no other God than the God of the Covenant who created the world in order
to pour out his love upon all creatures and chose a people with which to make a
nuptial pact, to make it become a blessing for all the nations and so to form a
great family of the whole of humanity."
What this passage implicitly says about other understandings
of God, about what might be known as the human "religious" tradition, is that
the God of Scripture is by far a more complete and intelligible understanding
of God than any of its rivals. Even on the supposed grounds that "God does not
exist," we can still recognize the superiority of this "God of the Covenant."
The various "understandings" of God do not stand independently of each other,
but in a dialectical one that separates what is true and intelligible from what
The revelation of God is "fully disclosed" in the New
Testament. The "Face of God" is seen in an actual face, that of Christ. It is
no theological accident that our painters and sculptors have sought to represent,
to picture this very Face. "If you have seen Me," Christ tells the apostles,
"you have seen the Father." Thus we find the habitual speaking of the one God
in the New Testament to be "Father," "Son," and "Spirit." We have to assume
this is not contradictory. This is why we also need philosophy. This is in fact
the way Christ did speak of Himself and of His relation to His Father and to
The first question is not so much whether this way of
speaking is true, but rather "Is this the way Christ did speak?" We recognize
on empirical grounds, as the Holy Father showed in his book Jesus of
Nazareth, that Christ did speak this way.
On this basis, we can begin to reflect more deeply on what this God is like who
is so conceived in His explication of Himself to us.  But the starting and
ending points of our efforts to understand God are given to us by God, even
though in our very creation we find ourselves, on reflection, to be driven by
our desire to know the truth of things, including the cause of things. "Why is
there something, rather than nothing?" This too is a Trinitarian question.
Moses climbed Sinai to be in God's presence, where he
received the Law. On this basis, Benedict tells us that "Our history depends on
God's Name." Evidently, if we think of how God named Himself, we will begin to
understand even ourselves. God made His reality known to us when He revealed
His own "Name." The very notion that something is "revealed" to someone else
means that both parties are capable of understanding what is received.
God does not reveal Himself to the rocks as if they got the
idea of the Trinity. But he did reveal it to human beings precisely because it
was important that they did have the proper Name, proper understanding of God,
how to address Him. The exact concept of a "person" means that there is someone
one who can receive God's indication of who He is. If the inner life of God is community, what is created in His name
reflects this community. This reflection, as it were, requires someone who can
receive knowingly what is reveled.
The foundation of our dignity, then, the very meaning of
personhood, indicates that, within the universe, a specific kind of being
exists who is free and intelligent. The completion of the universe that is not
God requires a being that can and must seek to understand God in Himself,
insofar as He can be understood by finite beings.
"If God is a dialogical unity, a being in relation, the
human creature made in his image and likeness reflects this constitution: thus
he is called to fulfill himself in dialogue, in conversation, in encounter."
What this remarkable passage says it that the inner Trinitarian life does not
need creation to be itself. But if God does create, He creates only in His
Trinitarian image. If philosophy exists in conversation, as it does, if truth
exists in the judgment of the person knowing the mind's relation to what is, then our relation to God will also imply
communication and conversation, prayer and wisdom. All human relationships with
God are intended to be and are personal.
What if man wants to fulfill himself by his own not
inconsiderable powers? This effort, in a sense, is the history of much of
modern thought. What if he wants to be autonomous? He can of course seek to do
so. He has in fact so sought to do so. But he must live with the consequences
of this choice. He will never find anyone to "converse" with about what really is.
"Man is not fulfilled in an absolute autonomy, deceiving
himself that he is God but, on the contrary, by recognizing himself as a child,
an open creature, reaching out to God and to his brethren, in whose face he
discovers the image of their common Father." It is indeed possible to think
that we are ourselves "gods" and thus not wanting any relation with others. One
of the purposes of revelation was to warn us that we are not this kind of a
being, that we will never find ourselves if there is only ourselves to
Interestingly enough, the pope tells us that it is the
family, with its central nuptial relationship of two persons in fidelity, not
the more abstract state, is the model of our understanding of ourselves. This
is perhaps something new in political philosophy, which has long understood
that the family is that out of which the state a rises, but it has not
understood it as that into which it should return. There are intimations of
this return, of course, in the notion of leisure, but the key point is that the state
to be itself needs relationships of love and compassion and mercy, which are
not in principle political.
It is a model of the human family
transversal to all civilizations, which we Christians express confirming that
human beings are all children of God and therefore all brothers and sisters.
This is a truth that has been behind us from the outset.... The Magisterium of
the Church which has developed from this vision of God and of man is a very
rich one. It suffices to run through the most important chapters of the Social
Doctrine of the Church....
What is above the state takes us back to the political need
of friendship is justice is to be justice. It is not an accident that Aquinas
explained the notion of "charity" after the philosophic basis of Aristotle's
friendship. The relation of eros, philia, and
agape is needed to complete this
understanding of a nuptial based relationship to transcendence.
This background is reflected in both the first and last part
of Deus Caritas Est. In the first part
the pope addressed eros and its
history in the light of agape or
a descending love, the word the New Testament uses to describe God's love. In
the last part of the encyclical, the pope carefully points out that all
Christian relations, even in the state, to be complete need to be suffused with
personal love and attention. In a sense, the personal love that begets the
family also is the end of the state, or at least its effect. This is indeed the
purpose of our existence with God in which there is no relation that is not
personal. There is no relation that is not suffused with love, a love that
itself reflects the inner life of the triune God.
These reflections of Benedict XVI in Savona and Genoa, in
conclusion, might easily pass unnoticed. "The he goes again," some cynic might
tell us, "speaking of God and other irrelevant topics, when will he talking of
something important like, say, birth control or ecology?" Well, the fact is
that this and related topics are what he is talking about. The Editor of L'Osservatore
Romano, Giovanni Maria Vian, in fact took
time in a special editorial to underscore the importance of these Ligurian
addresses. "These are not words scattered to the winds but a teaching..." This
observation is surely correct.
"The Triune God and the person in relationship; these are
the two references that the Church has the duty to offer to every human
generation as a service to build a free and supportive society." The first, the
Trinity, tells us what the inner life of God is. The second, following from
this, tells us that we cannot be persons by ourselves. To be a person is to be
freely related to other persons in a proper order.
In a society fraught between
globalization and individualism, the Church is called to offer a witness of koinonia, of communion. This reality does not come 'from
below' but is a mystery which, so to speak, 'has its roots in Heaven,' in the
Triune God himself. It is he, in himself, who is the eternal dialogue of love
which was communicated to us in Jesus Christ and woven into the fabric of
humanity and history to lead it to its fullness.
The Trinitarian understanding of God is not something that
we figured out by ourselves. But it is not less true or delightful for all
that. The greatest truths and goods are not those that we drummed up ourselves
but those that were first given to us. On Trinity Sunday, we "praise God for
who he is."
The "reality of God" implies a certain image of man as a
person who stands in conversation with the Persons of the Trinity, one God, one
in Being, three in Persons. We are called thus to fulfill ourselves in
"encounter," yes, in "conversation" even with God if He so chooses. Our age is,
with this pope, being taught first about God, without which teaching, all other
teaching lapses into confusion. To think rightly about God is to name Him. His
Name is "I AM." I AM reveals Himself to us through His Son, true God and true
man, who dwelt amongst us as a man to teach us what we are, persons created in
the Spirit to know God as He is,
 The Savona and Genoa homilies and talks are in L'Osservatore Romano, English, May 21, 2008. Also available online on the
 See James V. Schall, What Is God Like? (Collegeville: Liturgical Press/Glazer, 1992.
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James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning,
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006) and
The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book is
The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!
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