Often when we encounter something that we don’t initially understand, there is a tendency to brush it away as irrelevant. “If it truly mattered,” we think, “then I would see its value immediately.” Call this a consequence of a technological and consumer society where immediacy and personal benefit are seemingly synonymous, or call it a quirk of human nature. Either way, I see this dynamic at play in my own heart and in the broader culture around me.
And if that assessment of things is at all accurate, then this coming Sunday, Trinity Sunday, will seem totally irrelevant. When confronted with the mystery of the Trinity, it is easy to dismiss it, to brush it away and say, “At best it’s a paradox. At worst it’s a contradiction, an intractable metaphysical nightmare that has no immediate relevance to my life.” And yet one of the core convictions of the Christian tradition, from the Scriptures to the fathers, on through the middle ages and into the modern and postmodern eras, has been that understanding God is essential to understanding ourselves. Knowledge of self is tied up with knowledge of God. Knowledge of God is tied up with knowledge of self. If this is true, then God as Triune not only tells us something about him. It also tells us something about ourselves.
We see this interplay in our psalm for this Sunday. Psalm 8 begins with praise of God. “How majestic is your name in all the earth!”, David says, and he moves to reflect on the majesty and beauty of the world that God has made, what he evocatively describes as the work of God’s fingers. And the beauty of the world and the majesty of God moves David to ask, “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” The question of who God is leads him to ask, “Well then, who are we?” And he concludes in light of who God is, even though we might feel small in the vast and mysterious world God has made, that we are those crowned with glory and honor, that we are those who have been given charge over this world to care for and cultivate it. He begins with who God is and comes to understand something about himself and about humanity.
There are countless examples of this dynamic, where knowledge of God leads to greater understanding of self, but I want commend one in particular. In his Confessions Augustine seeks to understand himself better in light of who God is. Written as both autobiography and prayer, Augustine rehearses his own story in the presence of God. He does this in order to know himself better and to know God better. And as the book progresses, you see that this is exactly what happens. As he understands God more, he comes to understand himself more deeply. As he comes to understand himself more deeply, he comes to understand God more deeply. In Book X, Augustine puts it this way, “I will confess then what I know of myself, I will confess also what I know not of myself. And that because what I do know of myself, I know by Thy shining upon me; and what I know not of myself, so long know I not it, until my darkness be made as the noon-day in Thy countenance.”
If we would know God and ourselves in this way, we too have to come to see the mutually nourishing dynamic cycle of the knowledge of self and the knowledge of God. This is the work of a lifetime, and I believe it will extend even into eternity, but it is nonetheless a worthy endeavor for each of us, in the midst of our day to day lives, to seek such knowledge because such knowledge is a source of joy. As Thomas Aquinas wrote, “A little knowledge of the most sublime things, even though it is poor and insufficient, is a source of highest joy.”