The Trinity and Narcissism: The Good Life is Trinitarian, Part 1

The Trinity and Narcissism: The Good Life is Trinitarian, Part 1 May 31, 2018

Who am I? What constitutes my “self”?

An imperative might attend that interrogative: Find Yourself. Perhaps an injunction of consumerist inanity. Perhaps an Augustinian call to interiority. How do we become ourselves?

Do we consume the world, in the hope of gaining enough substance to turn our black-hole personality inside out and shine again?

Or do we endure our existential ache, attentive to where it points us (to our origin and end), ready to surrender whatever there is to us in the ventures of love and solidarity towards which we are impelled?

Disintegrating Selves Seek Domination

When our selves are false selves, we are trapped in domination schemes, imperialist/colonized with regard to that which is other, determined by the grasping avarice of the creature’s eros bent in upon itself. Historian Christopher Lasch’s diagnosis of our society’s narcissism in The Culture of Narcissism and The Minimal Self helps us understand. He makes clear that the narcissistic self is anemic and weak.

But Lasch denies the equation of the imperial self and the narcissistic self. He thinks there can be a selfishness emanating from a kind of strength (perhaps like Fukuyama’s megalothymia). Here I disagree. There is, as Lasch argues, something about late capitalism that inflects the form of our selfishness as consumerist and narcissistic. But this is a difference of degree, not of kind. The desire to dominate (or to be dominated) flows from the disintegration of self following upon loss of faith in the goodness of God. Without that atmosphere of trust, we cannot risk love. And love alone integrates the self.

So when I speak of selfish imperialism, I do not refer to some, perhaps ever-mythical, superman vitality. I refer, in every case, to the voracity of a vacuum. Every imperialist is sickly.

This is us, to the degree we are incapable of love, and was us even before the modern age. What happens to eros after the Fall, is that it becomes concupiscence (marked by “the insatiability of desire,” according to the theology of the body).

Desire in its truth (the eros God instills in us) makes of our metaphysical poverty (that a creature needs to receive everything it has, beginning with its very being) a rocket-impulse towards the vastiness of other skies: other persons and ultimately other Persons.

My last posts were meditations on the Holy Spirit of limitless love. They lead into these meditations after Trinity Sunday. The Trinity reveals that self can only be what it is, and you can only be who you are, in radical relationality. Here we must note the difference between the porousness of the narcissistic self (and the harrowing relationships entered into by such a self) and the radical co-determination of selves in love. True love looks in many ways like codependence (minus the abuse and the conforming oneself to abuse): love does mean a radical co-dependence, and it does mean absorbing lovelessness to transform it into loveliness. But love does NOT mean allowing one’s self to be determined by a colonizing other.

So, we must be vigilant against the corruption of love by codependence. But the solution is not a false hardening against the absolute openness of true love. Trumpeting, say, “self-care” would be, ironically, to re-inscribe the porousness of self, now in the transference register of submission to therapeutic, or other bourgeois, “authorities.” (This is not to discount the good a wise therapist can do for a person. It’s just to note the dangers of treating these, or any, “experts” as the last word, which would mean the immolation of one’s own conscience, another instance of heteronomy and codependence. Whatever just forms of submission there are must be authentic conduits of the Holy Spirit’s superordination. Anything else is tyranny. As adults, we never get to outsource our conscience: not to therapists, not to moral theologians, not to pundits.)

Oneself in Another

To distinguish true love from its parody, we need the Holy Spirit of discernment. In revealing the Trinitarian contours of Being, the Holy Spirit enables us to recognize the conditions for an authentic, rather than pathological, giving away of oneself: an integrating surrender of self can only happen within the gracious atmosphere of what is good in itself, a reality with no inherent need to be propped up by another. The only such goodness is God.

Indeed, God is so good as to be selved lovingly three times over. Saint Bonaventure notes towards the end of The Journey of the Mind into God that given the Neoplatonic principle that the good is self-diffusive, “the highest good is the most self-diffusive”: “For the entire diffusion of creatures in time is nothing but a focus or point with respect to the immensity of the eternal goodness. Whence another, greater diffusion can be thought, namely, that in which the diffusing communicates, to another, totality of substance and nature.”

That is, the highest good must be good within, and this means God is a plurality of Persons, each of Whom is a “subsistent relation,” in Saint Thomas Aquinas’s brilliant formulation, a relation that somehow has (supreme) existential substance. Who is the Father? He is the fathering of the Son. Who is the Son? He is the being-generated by the Father. Who is the Holy Spirit? He is the mutual loving of the Father and Son. Each divine Person is Who He is only in mutually determining relations. Therefore, divine selving is a matter of perichoresis (a dance of mutual indwelling) or circumincession.

In this loving self-diffusion of the highest good, is the secret of the good life for us. We are not divine persons, so we are not subsistent relations, but it is most certainly the case that we cannot become who we are meant to be without entering into the diffusive goodness of personal co-determination, within the infinite goodness of the Trinitarian life.

What the Holy Spirit reveals by leading us into all the truth, of reality and of our own selves, is that Being as such is tri-Personal—and, therefore, we can only find our selves through the sincere gift of our selves. Because God is Trinity, the good life can only be lived in the giving and receiving of love—ever more radically, ever more deeply within the divine dance of overflowing goodness.

[The painting is Henri Matisse’s, “La danse” (first version), 1909, Museum of Modern Art.]
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  • Summer Sailor

    A timely reflection on a concept – codependence – which is very much a part of therapy-speak these days and can be misunderstood to the point of leading someone to harden and shut people out without giving a way forward toward loving relationships that require vulnerability to flourish. Good stuff.

  • David Franks

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment, and for your encouragement. It is my being torn between two realities that helped generate this piece. On the one hand, codependency is a psychological reality. On the other, what Philip Rieff called the triumph of the therapeutic has been devastating for the development of the human person. Somehow we must be radically vulnerable, without being pathologically so. Anything less than a total, non-pathological,
    availability leaves us a universe away from the Cross and the Trinitarian life.

  • Summer Sailor

    Yes. This imperative – recovery of self through loss of self – can lead the worldly-vulnerable to experience a false form of validation. I’ve experienced some of this myself. Spiritual directors and confessors can ruin these sorts of persons if they try to recover their selves by spiritual means. Before homework assignments such as imagining the heavenly Father’s embrace and experiencing son/daughter-ship, a pathologically codependent person needs a director or mentor who can be a father on a very practical level; this means simply speaking about decisions/discernment without, at times, involving any spiritual advice for long stretches of time. It’s the only way forward, in many cases I think, for someone who has experienced a shattering of his/her view on suffering.

  • David Franks

    Very insightful. You are right: human formation logically precedes spiritual formation (as grace logically presupposes nature). And we live in an age in which human formation is almost completely shattered. It is a crisis, especially in our homes, and has been so for generations. And, yes, in particular, it is the privation (for all kinds of reasons) of good fathering that has been most damaging.