Saturday, April 24, 2004

Our loving God is not a solitude

Jehovah's Witnesses (JWs), the contemporary stepchildren of the ancient Arians, call into question the Catholic doctrine of the Holy Trinity on several grounds. One Catholic argument they oppose is the contention that God's love demands that He be triune, since love presupposes not only a lover but a beloved, and love is fundamentally other-related.

One strategy used by some JWs against Trinitarians [who argue that since God is eternally love, he must be triune] is to refer to the words of Jesus in Matthew 22:39, namely, "You must love your neighbor as yourself." The JW assumption is that God's loving character can be accounted for in terms of His self-love without introducing inter-trinitarian distinctions between Persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).

Accordingly, the JW can argue that his unitarian view of God retains the notion of God as essentially loving. He can argue that God did not become love by creating other beings to love, but that God IS love eternally [or everlastingly] (1 John 4:8); that love is His essence or nature. The JW will then ask, why cannot an uncreated [unipersonal] being, who is eternal or everlasting love, love Himself prior to loving anyone else? If the unipersonal God of the Bible has eternally loved Himself, then He has supremely loved that which is worthy of being supremely loved. Thus, just as anyone can make himself into a kind of "object" by conducting a rationally inward form of discourse with himself, why can we not say that God [understood as the unipersonal God of the JW religion, as opposed to the trinitarian God] make Himself the supreme object of love by loving Himself as He loves others whom He has created? Accordingly, it would seem that, before one directs his affection toward another beloved being (i.e. an external and alterior personal object) in a way recommended by Christ in the Bible, he must first have proper love for himself. Thus reasons the JW.

What does the Catholic say to this? I would say several things. First, I would agree that one can carry on an interior discourse with oneself, as the JW suggests. That was the basis of Augustine's Soliloquies, an imaginary discourse he wrote between himself and "reason," symbolizing his alter ego. However I would say that this is possible only in a derivative and secondary sense, not an exemplification of the primordial way in which we know ourselves. That is to say, strange as it may sound, I don't think we are capable of knowing ourselves in a primary and immediate way. The self is simply too elusive a thing to grasp in that way.

Second, for similar reasons, I would also deny that our love of God or neighbor is primordially contingent upon our love of self. I know Christ commands us to love others as we love ourselves, which might be taken to suggest that self-love is ontologically primary. But I believe that the meaning He intends in this command has only an ethical sense, not a sense that specifies primordial ontological possibilities. Hence, just as I believe we are incapable of knowing ourselves primordially, I think we are incapable of loving ourselves primordially, as though self-love and self-knowledge were an ontological condition for knowing and loving others.

Third, I would agree with Herman Dooyeweerd who says that our identity is primordially constituted in a three-fold relationship: to God, to others, and to the world. Here, of course, he follows Calvin, who expresses a traditional
notion only somewhat more dialectically when he says that we come to know ourselves only through knowing God and to know God through knowing ourselves (at the beginning of the Institutes of the Christian Religion).

Finally, for these reasons I would reiterate the view the JW calls into question here, not because I think that God is bound, in a compromising way, to what I believe are limited and human ways of knowing and loving the self, but because I think our human ways of knowing and loving ourselves reflects the relationality that lies in the heart of the Blessed Trinity.