Throughout history, a little known theological concept has captured the imagination of some of the church’s greatest thinkers—including Saint Augustine and Basil the Great.
It’s called vestigia Trinitatis.
In case your Latin is as rusty as mine, that’s “traces of the Trinity,” and understanding it has the power to reveal a universe charged with the wonder and grandeur of God.
It also has the potential to transform your personal relationships.
In Traces of the Trinity: Signs of God in Creation and Human Experience, Peter Leithart describes this obscure theological endeavor:
The aim is to discover and lay bare echoes, vestiges, traces, clues to trinitarian life within the creation. . . . Christians believe that the Triune God created the world, and that should have some implications for the kind of world that it is.
Basically, it’s a form of theological speculation that begins with common human experiences and works toward one of the central mysteries of the Christian faith—one God existing in three persons. How might normal human experience in God’s creation reflect the Trinity?
In his book, Leithart explores the myriad aspects of human life—everything from time and language, to human relationships and digestion. (No, really. He actually talks a lot about digestion.) From these examples, he demonstrates a pattern of “mutual indwelling” that reflects the Trinitarian nature of God.
Not quite getting it? No worries—Leithart’s book is rife with examples of “mutual indwelling” that you and I experience every day.
Americans drink around a gallon of water a day. . . . We can survive longer without water than without oxygen—about five days—but when we’re deprived of water, our cells lose fluids that are necessary for the cells to function properly. We need water to have bodies at all, since more than half of our body weight is water. . . . Without water, we die.
Even though we often think of ourselves as independent of the world (the world is “out there” and I’m “right here”), Leithart demonstrates that our life depends on a constant intake and outtake of the world around us—be that in the form of water, food, oxygen, or even the give and take of human relationships.
We don’t live richly unless we take the outside world in, but this is not just a ‘quality of life’ issue. The point is more fundamental. We don’t have any experience of living in the world at all unless the world lives in us.
To demonstrate this principle, Leithart suggests a horrifying scenario:
Imagine yourself in a room without light and sound, and imagine that torturers have somehow also removed all aromas and tastes. Imagine too that you have lost all sense of touch, so that you can’t feel the walls of your prison. It’s a terrifying picture, because it’s very close to death. Experience as such, experience as we know it, is experience of being in the world. If we eliminate all the inputs from the world, we wouldn’t merely cease to experience the world. We’d stop experiencing.
Why is that scenario so horrifying? Because it removes the very essence of experience—our sense of the world around us.
What does this have to do with God, much less with how I treat my spouse, kids, coworkers, waitress, veterinarian, or podiatrist? Leithart argues that this interdependence and mutual indwelling reflects God’s relationship with himself in the Trinity—and this has profound implications for how we live in relationship with one another.
The Father, Son, and Spirit live in a harmony and love that is a model for human life: the Father makes room in himself for the Son, the Son for the Spirit, the Spirit for the Father and Son, and so the Trinity is the perfect and eternal communion reflected in dim and distant ways in families, churches, and peoples. . . . This is the way the world is, and because this is the way the world is, we should adopt a way of life that conforms to its pattern. Others indwell our lives; therefore we ought to open our lives hospitably to them. We indwell the lives of others; therefore, we ought to see others not as obstacles to our plots and projects but as potential homes in which we can dwell together. A world of mutual [indwelling] implies an ethic of hospitality, welcome, invitation, companionship, centered on a common table.
Leithart never suggests that you can construct a robust, Trinitarian theology based solely on the vestigial Trinitatis—for that, you need the Bible and the historic witness of the church. But the world reflects the beauty of the God who made it, and our lives should imitate the self-giving relationship he has within himself.
He does have the whole world in his hands, even while he inhabits the whole world. For Christians, being saved means being caught up into this communion, indwelled by God and indwelling him—and being opened up so that other people have room in us and we in them.
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