Life with God


“Adoration of the Holy Trinity” by Albrecht Durer

God cannot exist in any place or at any time, though God is present to anything in any place, and the proposition that God exists will be true at any time that it is uttered or conceived. Thus eternity, which properly belongs to God alone, does not mean interminable duration. There is no sequence in God’s life. God does not do or know one thing after another, though the objects of his doing and knowing may succeed each other in time.

If we are created for life with God, only outright rejection on our part can stop God from giving himself to us. We know the Holy Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus, in our conviction that life is good, whether or not we have learned to speak that name. Human beings, fully alive, are already gifted at the depths of their being with the Spirit of God; for the first impact of the Spirit is the wooing of the heart, a silent whisper, telling us that life is good. How are we ever to know God in the biblical sense if we cannot recognize goodness? Our joyful experiences promise and point to eternal light and everlasting happiness.

Knowing God in the biblical sense always entails our graced experience in the mysticism of everyday life, in the discovery of God in all things. The Holy Spirit, whispering in the human heart, tells us in good times that life was meant to be this way, and in bad times that the human heart was not made to be broken.

Although God transcends human life and cannot be reduced to it, the Christian community of faith believes that grace, the gift of God’s self, is the entry into our world of what is infinitely beyond it. Human beings have always lived in the graced world of a self-giving God. The idea of human life standing apart from, and independent of, God is a pure abstraction; for all creation is the created effect of its uncreated Creator’s calling it into existence, and “effectively” holding it in existence. The world that God created has been graced from the start. Its existence is not self-explanatory. Although grace is infinitely more than the good life, the essential goodness of life is our first glimmer of grace.

Theologians of the Middle Ages debated whether the Incarnation was the result of humankind’s fall, or would have occurred even if we had not sinned. Aquinas, representing the dominant view, held that the Son of God became man to redeem us. The Franciscans, Bonaventure and Duns Scotus, believed that sheer beauty and goodness of the Incarnation was too wonderful to be credited simply to sin. Surely our Creator always intended to share Himself with us in this way. God’s primary intention in the Incarnation was not a mere restoration of the divine-world order destroyed by the sins of humankind, an order which God had conceived in itself without any Incarnation. The grace of Jesus Christ, the life of God within us, is the answer to sin, but more.

It implies that God always intended to share His life within the universal story of humankind as one of us. That God has freely elected to be God with us, rather than without us, is revealed in His sending us His Son and His Holy Spirit for our eternal happiness.

Underlying the approach of Bonaventure and Scotus is the presupposition that, whatever the ravages of sin, God has made creation something fundamentally good, made it, and us within it, ready to receive His life, His own self. Their approach recalls as foundational the words of Genesis (1:31): “God saw everything that He had made, and indeed, it was very good.”

The Christ event is the irrevocable, definitive word of God’s love. The Father’s heart can be read in the face of His Son. This love is addressed to humankind in every time and place through the church as the body of Christ and the temple of His Spirit, proclaiming and making present the Christ. The Church is the ever-present mystery where the self-giving of Christ calls forth the responsive self-giving of the believer.

Yet, the Church does not exhaust the presence of God in the world. Rather than viewing the Church as the sacred presence of grace in an otherwise wretched world, we should see the world itself as a wonderful tabernacle, however bent and tarnished, destined from all eternity to welcome and hold the glory of God. Human life is something holy, something of God, because it was created to receive God. The mystery of God lies hidden within the universal story of human life.

God, as eternal mystery, is never an object that we know like other objects. He is always the horizon, or ultimate context, against which we know everything that we know. We dwell in time and space, but we always transcend both, at least in desire. How can we “transcend,” more ever into more, without an infinity in which to plunge? We can, and must, reflect upon the mysterious and the incomprehensible which can never be situated within our system of coordinates, and can never be defined by being distinguished from something else. Even in eternity, God is the ever-more. The beatific vision will not be a static all-comprehending gaze, but more like an exhilarating free-fall into loving mystery.

In the Trinity, we find a truth which is true of all being. Whatever exists must somehow express itself. It must go out of itself to be itself. Creation stands ordered toward communion, because creation is essentially communicative. The world is essentially communicative, and hence ordered toward communication and communion, because that is the way God presents Himself in the revelation which is salvation history. God is a revealing, speaking, God. The Trinity revealing itself in salvation history discloses the life of the Trinity within itself before humankind ever enters into the picture, a “revealing, self-communicating reality.” There is an essential correspondence between the Trinity as it exists in itself, and the Trinity revealed to us in human history, in the incarnation of the Son. The Word of the Father speaking into human history is not just a word that the Eternal Mystery might have spoken to us. The Jesus we know is the expression of the Father, of the Eternal Mystery we call God.

Grace is the life of the Triune God within us. God, who is Trinity, gives himself to us as Trinity. God is Spirit, “God within us,” the interior longing that leads from spring to source. God is Son, the Word spoken from the fathomless depths of mystery into our world of history. God is Father, the eternal mystery from which we originate. In following the deepest longings of the human heart, the Spirit within us, and in hearing and believing the Word of Love addressed to us in the Beloved Son, we find our way to the Loving Mystery that has spoken us into existence

The story of Jesus is what the eternal, trinitarian life of God looks like when it is projected upon the screen of sinful human history. The obedience of Jesus to the Father, His obedience to His mission, is just what the eternal procession of the Son from the Father appears as in history. His obedience consists in nothing else but being in history, in being human. Jesus did nothing but be the Son as man; that his life was so colorful, eventful, and tragic is simply because of what being human involves in our world. We shy off from being human because if we are really human, we will be crucified. If we did not know that before, we know it now; the crucifixion of Jesus was the manifestation of the sort of world we have made, the showing up of the world, the unmasking of what we call, traditionally, “original sin.” Jesus died in obedience to the Father’s will simply in the sense that he was perfectly human in obedience to his Father’s will. The crucifixion and the resurrection are two sides of a communication. The crucifixion is the supreme expression of his prayer to the Father, and the resurrection is the Father’s response. The resurrection is the full meaning of the crucifixion.

And this communication of eternal prayer and response is what the Holy Spirit is — which is why Jesus speaks of sending the Holy Spirit in history when He is united with His Father. Just as the crucifixion/resurrection is what the eternal procession of the Son from the Father looks like when projected upon sinful human history, so the sending of the Holy Spirit (so that we share in the life of God, so that the mystery of the church exists) is what the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit looks like when projected on to that sinful human world. And the Holy Spirit appears in our world, of course, as both overcoming the myriad forms of alienation between God and humankind, and as renewing the world, and the Church, and the individual. To the extent that the world welcomes the Spirit, allowing itself to be reborn in grace, the distance between God and humankind disappears. And this means that the kingdom to which we look forward to when the love of God for humankind is fully revealed, when all are taken up into the divine life, God will simply be the life of humankind.

The threefold giving of the Triune God is the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of the Divine Word, and the final gift of union with the Father. The unity of the Triune God’s self-giving enables us to conceive the unity of the economy of Son and Spirit in the world in terms of their two clearly distinct personal foci, which are as clearly related to one another in their divine being, and their temporal mission. Such an understanding of the revealed sources, of tradition, and of Christian experience, in prayer and in action, can acknowledge that the positive moment in the non-Christian religions of humankind is God’s love, not yet fully avowed, due to the notable anonymity of the gift of the Spirit. This recognition of an incognito sending and gift of the Holy Spirit to all of humanity in no way compromises, or dispenses, with the mission of the Son, or with the fact that the church is constituted by the continuation of the missions of the Word and Spirit. The Father’s sending of the Spirit is due to, and correlative with, the saving work of the Son, who is God’s full avowal of his love.

Without the visible mission of the Word, the gift of the Spirit is a being-in-love without a proper object; it remains simply an orientation to mystery that awaits its interpretation. Without the invisible mission of the Spirit, the Word enters into its own, but His own receive it not. This understanding harmonizes with Aquinas’ opinion in the Summa theologiae III, q.3, art. 8 that Christ is the head, not only of an historically limited mystical body, the church, but of all human beings, from the creation of the world to the end.

Catholic Christians are compelled to do all they can to share their personal, eucharistic life in Christ Jesus, because the obscurity and anonymity of the gift of the Spirit is removed only by the fact that the Father has spoken to us of old, through the prophets, and in this final age through the Son (Heb. 1:1-2). His communication is twofold: it is both by linguistic meaning, and by incarnate meaning. By linguistic meaning, he rebuked those that give scandal, announced redemption for sinners, provided for the forgiveness of sin, established the bond of the Eucharist, promised the gift of the Spirit, and set before us the destiny of eternal life, love, and happiness. But all such linguistic meaning was endlessly reinforced by the incarnate meaning to be contemplated in the life, ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ.

The Church must enter into dialogue with the world in which it lives, making itself a word, a message, a conversation. To do so, it must embody not only the mission of the Word of truth, but also the mission of the Holy Spirit of love, contemplating and listening to that Word.

Fr. John Navone, SJ About Fr. John Navone, SJ

Fr. John Navone is an emeritus professor of theology at the "Gregrorian" in Rome, the Pontifical Gregorian University, where he taught from 1967–2010. He is now at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. Pope Francis acknowledged the impact of Fr. Navone's "theology of failure" on his thought in his interview with S. Rubin and E.F. Ambrogetti, Il Nuovo Papa Si Racconta, Milano, Salani Editore, p. 65. Articles published March 29th in both Italy’s Corriere della Sera and Il Foglio also made note of it. Pope Francis had read the book in the Italian translation, La teologia del fallimento, Paoline, 1978). Navone is the author of more than twenty-five books; his most recent is Atheism Today: A Christian Response (2012).