FAQs: Why is God Communal?

This is a guest article written by friend and colleague JR Rozko of Life as Mission. “FAQs of a Theologian” is a segment I run from time to time that seeks to answer basic questions that get asked of people with theology degrees. If you would like to submit a question contact me, or submit a question to the wiki. If you would like to write a guest article to help answer a question you can contact me as well.

Why is God Communal?

By JR Rozko

I can honestly say that I have never heard this question before. I have heard, “How is God communal?” “What does it mean for God to be communal?” or even “Is God communal?” but never, “Why is God communal?”

In a sense, it is like asking, “Why is water wet?” The reason I say that is that for Christians who understand God as triune, being communal is simply intrinsic to God’s nature, as wetness is intrinsic to the nature of water. So I suppose the short answer is that, for Christians (and even for Jews, though in a different sense), were God not communal, God would cease to be God as we understand God.

All that being said, we may still ask how being communal contributes to God’s being God. I’ll offer just a few thought on that matter.

1. Inasmuch as God has intrinsic community in the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (see John 17), God displays God’s desire for all of creation – interrelationship. The communal nature of God, also referred to as perichoresis (here for theopedia article and here for wikipedia article), demonstartes that all identity is other-dependent (see Martin Buber’sI, Thou“), that we only truly know ourselves in relationship to the other.

2. The communal nature of God also discloses God’s openness to creation. Were God not communal in nature, what reason would be have to think that God desires to relate in any meaningful sense to that which God created? That God is communal is not only exemplary, but also participatory. It is because God is communal that God interacts with creation and creation interacts with God.

3. The final thought on the communal nature of God is directly related to my Eastern Orthodox Christian brothers and sisters. This idea goes either by divinization or theosis. In either case, the basic idea is that on account of the communal nature of God, humankind, as well as the rest of creation, has the opportunity to participate in the nature of God. That God exists and acts in relationship is invitational.

To summarize, “Why is God communal?” – because it is in God’s nature to be so, thus God exemplifies interrelationship and interconnectedness, participates and interacts with creation, and invites others into this communal way of being.

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10 responses to “FAQs: Why is God Communal?”

  1. JR – That’s a great explanation. It’s the same as why “God is Love”. Love is more than a feeling it’s also a relationship. God is His own relationship.

  2. Shawn thanks for the comment – I like the point about God being in relationship to himself as well. Today in Ryan Bolger’s class we talked about missional implications of the trinity – great stuff!

  3. I think all three points are seriously flawed. After noting the awkwardness of the question, JR goes on to answer it. That’s a mistake. It would have been better to answer why it can’t be answered. You can’t get to the things that JR wants to say, which are important, from this question.

    Simply, there is nothing behind God that could provide reasons for why God is a certain way.

    JR writes, “To summarize, ‘Why is God communal?’ – because it is in God’s nature to be so, thus God exemplifies interrelationship and interconnectedness, participates and interacts with creation, and invites others into this communal way of being.”

    If I were to rewrite this it would look like:

    1) We only know God through God’s self-revelation and he has revealed himself to be communal.

    2) That God is communal does not disclose God’s openness to creation. God’s history of interaction with creation as the God of Israel and Jesus of Nazareth discloses his openness to creation.

    3) God’s triunity is not the condition of participation in the life of God. That condition, again, relates to God’s salvific activity in history through a people called Israel and Jesus’ redemption which incorporates the gentiles into Israel. Again, God has revealed Godself to be communal through this activity in history, but this is not the same as saying that humanity has the possibility of entering the life of God as a function of an attribute of the immanent Trinity. This would make the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus irrelevant.

    There may be no such thing as a bad question in the sense that you can learn from anything, but there are questions that can’t be answered. This question is one that explodes as soon as you venture an answer.

  4. I couldn’t disagree with you more Dan. I do agree that answering “Why is God communal” is just as pointless as answering “Why is water wet.” And I think JR did a nice job communicating this. I think what JR was saying is “Why do we use the word communal to describe God?” Which is analagous to the larger question “Why is God communal.” Which, he answered as well when he talked about the perichoresis.

    I agree, asking “Why is God _______?” ultimately comes down to the same answer: “Because God is God.” But that’s a cop out. It is a much more fruitful endeavor for us to try to evaluate the words we use to define God and ask ourselves why we use those words. I think JR did a fine job here with “Communal.”

    If I may push back on your numbered thoughts very quickly.

    1. “We only know God through God’s self-revelation and he has revealed himself to be communal” – True, God has. And God cannot reveal himself as something he is not. Therefore, God must be either communal, or a liar.

    2. “That God is communal does not expose God’s openness to creation.” – I’m not sure about this one. I agree that Jesus better displays God’s openness to Creation than does the doctrine of God’s communal nature. However, I think it is because of God’s communal nature that he participates in other communities. So, while the incarnation might be how God best displayed his communal nature, it does not mean that his communal nature does not expose his openness to creation. I think this is somewhat a chicken or egg question.

    3. “God’s trinity is not the condition of participatoin in the life of God.” – I agree and I think you would be pained to find JR saying that God’s trinity is the condition of participation in the life of God. JR is saying God’s trinity is the defining characteristic of God’s communal nature. I think this is another misreading of the statement “because it is in God’s nature to be so, thus God …invites others into this communal way of being.”

    To sum up my thoughts: God is communal because God is communal. The result of God’s communal nature is a participation in the communities he creates. With that said, I think (honestly) that we are all trying to describe the same thing while looking at opposite sides of the same coin.

  5. “God is communal because God is communal”…doesn’t exactly answer the question why. Nor could it, which was my only point. As soon as you ask the question you shatter any sort of actualism. Joshua, I think you misunderstand my methodological considerations, but I do appreciate your thoughtful response. For example, on your third point, I would be pained to find JR saying that God’s trinity is the condition of participation in the life of God. You’re right, but this is exactly what he’d have to say if his third point was going to answer the question as posed.

    I wasn’t taking issue with JR, but the question.

  6. Yeah. I think we are in fact saying much the same thing. God is communal. And to be quite honest, part of me thinks that does sufficiently answer the question why. Or at least, its as sufficient an answer as we can find.

    Maybe I’m putting the doctrine of God’s simplicity too much into Kant’s “Existence is not a predicate.” My thought is, God must be all that God is. Were God not benevolent, omnipotent yadda yadda yadda, then he would not be God. So, when we talk about God, we cannot separate him from his attributes. To ask why is God one thing or another, is to begin struggling against the Kantian “Existence is not a predicate.” We start asking “Why is God?”

    I’ll be honest though, I really should study this more though before I start saying things about stuff that I haven’t studied as deeply as I should. I could be making a complete fool of myself right now.

    But yeah, I think we are saying the same thing. We cannot answer the question. It’s like JR said in the opening paragraph. To ask why is God communal is like saying why is water wet? I’m just glad that we don’t find it fruitless to peer into the characteristics of God and ask “What does this tell us about God.” Maybe we’re just getting hung up on the “Why?”

  7. Hey freinds, glad to see there’s so much dialogue happening around this. Dan, thanks for your insights and well articulated thoughts. Josh, thanks for defending what I was trying to say way better than I probably could have myself. I was about to concede utter defeat (I know it’s not a matter of winning and losing) to Dan until I saw your response, and thought, “Yeah, that’s it!” :), so thanks.

  8. Dan – thanks for your well thought out responses, I love it when you get going here.

    I’ve enjoyed reading the various remarks left here. My one concern is that in discussing God’s communal, trinitarian nature we become very propositional and non-relational. I would want to fall back on God’s own relationship to humanity via the person of Christ to begin a discussion on this one.

    Also JR – “you must remember the Christ Event!” Weren’t you ever taught that?!

    And, It’s always nice to have Joshua Elek visit my blog.