As one who has sung in choirs or other groups since I was small, I know what it is to feel in complete harmony with a group operating, at least in theory, as one, with one mind, one voice, one heart. Perhaps a member of a basketball team or other similar team sport has a sense of this in those rare moments when the team is flowing together as a single organism with one goal – to get the ball in the basket or the goal – and the movement of one player is part of the coordinated movement of the whole.
There are some anthropologists who contend that in earlier communities (earlier than the culture that has evolved from the time of the renaissance) the sense of belonging to a tribe or group was more basic than the awareness of individuality. They suggest that it provided a sense of personal satisfaction and fulfilment that is largely absent in the ‘me-centred’ lives of individuals in contemporary society. Some wonder whether there was something akin to a tribal mind in operation. Some even contend that, until relatively recently in human evolution, there was not even a sense of being an individual, only a part of a tribe or even only a part of the great creation: ultimate comm-unity. The doctrine of the Trinity assumes ultimate community: a thrice personal God into which the church is gathered by the work of the Spirit; a blessed comm-unity.
It is likely the people who framed the doctrine of the Trinity were living in a world where this sense of communal identity, or ‘group mind,’ was still present; a world where a man or woman defined and experienced themselves as a certain family, tribe, or village, before thinking of their individuality. Therefore they may not have the intellectual difficulties with the concept of three in one that modern people have; people who have become fiercely, and perhaps destructively, individualistic.
Maybe what seems to be illogical theological nonsense to the self-sufficient men and women of today was eminently sensible to those early Christians whose sense of community identity was stronger than their individual identity. They knew that belonging to a community did not lessen personality, but enhanced it.
Maybe the fellowship of the church even lifted their group mindedness to another level of wonder and joy. Maybe the loftiest way they could express their worship of God, was in terms of comm-unity of a thrice personal God rather than one isolated Supreme Being.
The word fellowship, koinonia in Greek, carried the meaning of sharing. Sharing in a marriage, sharing in a meal, sharing in medical practice, sharing in an adventure. For me, one of the most helpful usages of the word koinonia was for shareholders in a business. I’d like to apply that understanding to various passages.
Among the eighteen times the word koinonia is used in the New Testament, we have texts where it is a shareholding (koinonia) in Christ, a shareholding in the Spirit, and shareholding in God. For example, twice St Paul specifically speaks of our shareholding in the Spirit. The First Letter of John, chapter 1, verse 3 speaks of “our shareholding is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”
Fellowship belongs to the very nature of God. When we are incorporated into the church, and we are sharing something of the true nature of God, we are delivered from the stark solitary ways of individualism. Through God, we are linked to each other, the members of the one body. We become members of that one body, the church. A dream perhaps? Not yet real, but a worthy goal?
Understandable. The individualism in our contemporary culture has infected all of us to some degree, but there are signs that this disease is being recognised and challenged. In a speech to the World Economic Forum, then British Prime Minister Tony Blair declared: “The opening of the 21st century has seen a move away from a very narrow, perhaps selfish individualism towards the idea of belonging, of community, of a self-interest that is mutual.” His words, coming unexpected from this secular source, appear to echo those of liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, who observes within contemporary society a strong desire for belonging, that is, a cry for greater democracy aimed at forming a more participatory and family-spirited society. Moreover, he claims that this desire is in tune with a theology of the Trinity: the three divine persons in communion is a model of the human striving for a society that encourages participation and welcomes diversity.
The theology of the Trinity reveals a God in relationship: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are engaged in eternal communion. And this relationship is shared with all Christians who have been baptised into the Triune name.
I want here to address what I believe to be one area of social significance concerning the Trinity, for the Trinity provides a model for belonging to a community, not only the communities of the church, but for society as a whole. Note that I use the term ‘belonging’ in order to emphasise the activity of relating to others.
Belonging to one another, whether within a family, church or corporation, implies a relationship or the activity of relating. Rather than thinking of a person as merely a member of a community, I wish to focus upon the activity of relating within the community.The relationship of the three persons of the Godhead is aptly described with the Eastern Orthodox notion of perichoresis, a word roughly translated as ‘interpenetration’, or permeation without confusion, or a dancing interwoveness. It describes the dynamic activity of exchange in which persons are who they are because of their relation to each other. I repeat: the dynamic activity of exchange in which persons are who they are because of their relation to each other. In other words, they are persons who cannot be identified outside this relationship.
Between the Father and the Son there exists such a dynamic activity of exchange, a love which opens out through the Holy Spirit to the whole of creation. In this love the Father and Son are intertwined like dancers moving to the music of the Spirit. Thus perichoresis describes a relationship of perfect harmony. Furthermore, these three persons cannot exist on their own; they have no definition as individuals, as nouns. They only exist as verb. This is important: the Trinity as a noun, as 3 persons in one, makes no sense to, and has little relevance for, the modern person; but as a model of relating, as a verb, the Trinity makes perfect sense and is supremely relevant, for it provides the model for our existence.
If we are, as told in the Book of Genesis, made in the image of God, and if God is defined by relationship in the Trinity, then we are also defined by relationship, and so we do not exist as individuals. In fact, no less a mind than Albert Einstein declared that individualism was humanity’s greatest delusion. Yet much of the time we live like self-contained individuals, even as church members. Intellectually we hold a belief in common, and politely greet each other once a week in a church building, before returning to our isolated lives. Yet there is supposed to be an important interaction between our fellowship with God and with one another. We ignore it at our peril.
Whenever we let go of our self-centredness and share in the fellowship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we are opened up to deeper fellowship with those around us in the church, the community, the world. Whenever we truly enter into the joys and sorrows of our fellows, it enhances our fellowship with God. One builds-up the other.
Conversely, whenever we become preoccupied with ourselves and slide sideways from God and become indifferent or harshly critical of others around us, true fellowship withers and dies. Or whenever we withdraw our real caring from those around us, we find we have also lost a sense of communion with God. Again, fellowship withers and dies.
The doctrine of the Trinity points to a whole new way of life for those who are redeemed. John’s first letter starkly expresses this truth in another way. “We know that we have passed out of death into life because we love each other. He who does not love, remains in death.” I understand him as saying, in effect, those who do not love do not exist.
There is no life, and nothing to trust, in the rampant individualism of Western Society, which is largely motivated by capitalist greed and consumerism. The emphasis on the individual at the expense of community is a disease. Even the shrill cries about ‘my rights’ and ‘duty of care’ (which, in some cases, have validity) too easily degrade into individualistic extremism, leading to the break up of the remaining vestiges of community.
We have made individualism into an idol. According to Scripture, those who worship idols perish, and this is so true of the idol of individualism. It erodes the quality of life. It isolates many poor souls. And although they may be surrounded by crowds, huddled in cities, and enveloped in noisy music and the gabbling radio voices, they are chronically lonely.
Rank individualism breaks up marriages and destroys families and communities, and makes people hungry for some form of restored community; so hungry that even the ephemeral moments of togetherness experienced at a football final is the nearest thing to comm-unity which they know.
Individualism has led to the increasing fragmentation of the church. In the same era when a few older denominations have come together, either in formal union (as in our Uniting Church in Australia) or in patterns of closely working together (as in joint Anglican-Uniting parishes, or the many ecumenical Bible study groups) new sects and denominations are rising up every day. Individualism is a dangerous, and foolish, way of trying to live.
Failure to live in relationship is even more dangerous when played out on the world stage, where oppression, war, ethnic cleansing, violence of all kinds, slavery, hunger, poverty, extermination of animal and plant species and damage to the very environment that supports all life are the order of the day: things that would be inconceivable to anyone who knows the truth that hurting or using another person or damaging any part of the fragile web of creation is no different in effect than cutting off one’s own arm.
We need to return to our trinitarian God: a God defined as community. We talk about God as love, but love is not a being, but a quality of relationship. It is only from the perspective of the trinitarian God that we can claim that “God is Love,” because love is never alone. God – Trinty – is relationship itself. There is no God outside of relationship. If one would know God, it is through relationship. To be made in the image of God is to be part of a relationship with one another, with all of creation. None of us are completely defined by our individuality; only as relationship. Without relationship, we are nothing.
The fellowship of the church, in God and with each other, where koinonia is a fact- not just a pious cliche- gives us a taste of that true community which is truly is of God. It derives from the very personal nature of God – a sharing in God’s sharing – and is the core of hope for a redeemed world.