What the coronavirus tells us about the Trinity—and ourselves

A worker in a protective suit disinfects the St. Antuan Catholic Church in Istanbul March 16, 2020. (CNS photo/Kemal Aslan, Reuters)

A point I seek to drive home for my undergraduate theology students as we explore the doctrine of the Trinity is that how we think about God has implications for understanding who we are as human beings. And the coronavirus outbreak illustrates one of the most important takeaways of a good Trinitarian theology: the unity of humankind.

Few help us understand the relationship between the doctrine of the Trinity and the unity of humanity better than St. Augustine of Hippo. In De Trinitate, Augustine argued that to say God is Trinity is to say that God exists, eternally, as a community of love. It is to say that God exists, eternally, giving God’s self within God’s self; that each person of the Trinity gives the totality of themselves to one another so fully and generously that threeness comes to equal oneness.

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When we read in 1 Jn 4:8 that “God is love” this is what is meant: It is not that God only has the potentiality to love but that God exists as love, eternally and actively loving within the Godhead. Each person of the Trinity is distinct, and yet each person is so fully intertwined in and through the other persons as a result of the utterly generous love by which the persons give of themselves to one another.

The coronavirus outbreak illustrates one of the most important takeaways of a good Trinitarian theology: the unity of humankind.

The implications of this theology of the Trinity become apparent when we consider that humanity was created in the image and likeness of God. If God in his essence exists in community—and if we are created in the image and likeness of God—then we, too, are created to exist in community with one another. We were not created to live lives of isolation focused solely on our own well-being. We were created for one another, to exist relationally, giving of ourselves to one another as God exists relationally.

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There is, in other words, a fundamental unity that exists within humanity by virtue of our very creation in the image and likeness of a God who exists in unity out of multiplicity.

The problem, of course, is that we do not live into this unity. The story of the fall in the book of Genesis is a story of humanity’s descent into fragmentation and division, and it is a story repeated by every generation. We are divided along national and racial lines; we are divided by gender and sexual orientation; we are divided socioeconomically and politically. We fragment within our societies, our communities, our churches and even our families.

Through this virus, we are experiencing just how intertwined we humans are. Despite our best efforts, we cannot escape the fundamental unity of humankind.

In his 1965 book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, the American Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote against what he saw as “the heresy of individualism,” which he described as “thinking oneself a completely self-sufficient unit and asserting this imaginary ‘unity’ against all others.” Too often we act as if we are isolated monads concerned mainly with our own well-being. We identify ourselves primarily by that which distinguishes and separates us from our fellow humans.

This kind of self-understanding is not one that can be theologically justified. Moreover, as we are learning from Covid-19, it is not an understanding that accords with actual human experience. In an astonishingly brief period of time, Covid-19 has spread from cases in the Chinese province of Hubei in December 2019 to an outbreak that spans the globe, taxing health systems in places where the outbreak is most severe.

Through this virus, we are experiencing just how intertwined we humans are. Despite our best efforts, we cannot escape the fundamental unity of humankind. Covid-19 is no respecter of human division. It pays no attention to borders, to race, to gender, to sexual orientation, to socioeconomic status or to any of the ways that we endeavor to fragment ourselves. Rather, we’re having to come to grips with the reality that what happens to our sisters and brothers, even if they are on the other side of the world, necessarily affects us. We are confronted with the fact that we exist in common with others.

The virus spreads because we are necessarily interwoven with each other. And if we pay attention to and learn from this integral truth that Covid-19 teaches us about ourselves, a truth we already know theologically, we can together work to slow and even halt its spread. Our actions now can affect the well-being and health of others both near and far, a point the director of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, made on March 9 in his daily update on the coronavirus. “Let our shared humanity,” he said, “be the antidote to our shared threat.”

None of this should be news to those of us who worship the Trinitarian God of love. Indeed, we should be at the forefront in our collective response of love for all affected by this disease.

[Explore all of America’s in-depth coverage of the coronavirus pandemic]

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