Arts and Culture

Whose Are We?

Fifth in a series

I JUST RE-READ a few lines in Michael Downey’s “Altogether Gift: A Trinitarian Spirituality” (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000, pp. 143, $12), which I think express a profound truth about God and yet, I guess I never thought of stating it as succinctly as Downey does.

This has been my experience throughout my re-reading of “Altogether Gift.” In the few lines to which I am now referring, Downey points out that there never was a time or place, nor will there ever be a time or place where God is not Love loving. This is implied in the brief but wonderful description of St. John that God is Love. We are not loved by God occasionally or only on certain days or during certain seasons. No! When we go to bed at night, God loves us. While we are sleeping, God loves us. When we wake, God loves us.

And this is how God acts toward all human beings. God never stops loving us even if we commit serious sin. God is always a giver and the most important gift is the love that God showers on us. I wonder if there is any truth that is more encouraging, more consoling and even more challenging than the truth that in relation to us, God is Lover.

Among the almost countless insights that Downey offers, there is one that I especially like. Downey notes that a more important question than “Who am I?”, is the question, “Whose am I?”

In philosophy courses that I teach at St. John’s University that deal with the mystery of person, in trying to help the students personalize their study, I suggest they think of the entire course as an attempt to answer the question: “Who am I?’

I hope this motivates students to think as deeply as they can about the mystery of human existence and also to see the relevance of what they are doing in the course. Reflecting on our identity is not some idle activity, but rather the kind of thinking that can lead to a change in the way we live.

Pointing out that the question, “Whose am I?” should be raised within an awareness of God’s identity, Downey writes the following:

“Who and what we understand God to be is key in our effort to answer the question: Who am I?…

“Created in the image of God, Father, Son, and Spirit, personal identity – who, what, and how we are – is constituted by being in relationship. For human beings, personhood is not always and already an accomplished fact, but a gift received in the relations of interpersonal love. Human personhood is not something achieved in autonomy or independence or self-determination or self-sufficiency. Rather human personhood is received in self-donation, being toward, always toward the other and others in relation. We come from others, we live with others. Our being is toward and for others. We come to ourselves only through and with others.

“The doctrine of the Trinity conveys the truth that God is personal, toward and for … Saying God is personal is to say that God is sheer loving relation in self-gift, the self-giving, mutuality, and interdependence are at the very heart of God’s being God. … All reality is personal. Everything that exists is from God, in God, for God, who is God precisely in the relations of interpersonal self-giving Love: Father, Son, Spirit.” (pp. 61-62).

Downey has accomplished in his small book what every theologian should try to accomplish in his or her reflections on the mystery of God and humanity. Each insight into the mystery of God that Downey offers also sheds light on the mystery of human person, and each insight that he offers into the human person also sheds light on the mystery of God.

Downey stresses that Trinity is a way of speaking of a personal God who exists, that is a God who is toward others in relation. We come to know God as for us, toward us, with us and in us. He tries to express God’s unique presence with the word “gift.” I think that using the word “gift,” rather than lulling us into complacency, gives us a marvelous sense of both God’s infinite love for us and also can give us a strong sense of our importance and dignity.

I don’t know anyone else who has read this book, but I am eager to discuss it with others.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Spirituality and Our Story” (Resurrection Press).

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