In his book The beach, Alex Garland tells the story of a young man who journeys away from his home in pursuit of adventure. One night, while staying in a cheap hostel, he encounters a traveller ravaged by years of sun and drugs. The traveller tells him an improbable tale of a secret island paradise: the perfect beach, untarnished by tourists.
The next day, the young man finds a piece of paper pinned to his door. It is a hand-drawn map of the island described by the traveller. He sets off to find the island, thinking he has at last found the life he has been searching for. Reaching his destination, he finds a small community of other travellers living in secret. He is welcomed into the group and the island paradise becomes his new home. Here, he believes, he has found the friendship, freedom and the sense of belonging he has always desired.
Yet beneath the surface, this heaven on earth is far from perfect. The young man slowly realises that what he first believed to be an idyllic society is a dangerous, dysfunctional and self-destructive community driven by raw hedonism and self-gratification, with few safeguards on the abuse of power in the pursuit of personal pleasure. He begins to dream of finding a way back to the place and the people he had once tried to escape but where he now realises he has always belonged.
In our chaotic world it has become increasingly difficult to find a sense of deep and genuine community with others. Society has become fragmented. It bears visible wounds of the deep-rooted individualism that has damaged the sense of cohesion and commonality for which it was once celebrated. And it is slowly dawning on us that isolation isn’t liberation. Instead isolation breeds self-absorption and loneliness. As John Ruskin once said, “A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small parcel!”
In truth, however, no life exists in isolation. Our very formation requires the active participation of others. Each one of us is the product of community. Our lives are inseparably bound up with others from the very beginning. Even the legacy of our genes is a demonstration of the fact that we are essentially dependent beings. Human beings were designed for relationship both with one another and with God.
Jesus, like other leading rabbis of his day, taught the Hebrew Law and Prophets – effectively what we know as the Old Testament – to his apprentices. Each rabbi’s individually crafted interpretation of the Jewish holy book was popularly known as his ‘yoke’, hence Jesus’ famous words to his would-be apprentices: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
And at the very heart of Jesus’ unique yoke were just two liberating principles: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
No other teacher before him had ever fused these two great, but isolated, principles in this way – the first from the fifth book of the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:5) and the second from its third book (Leviticus 19:18). But, more than that, Jesus then went on to make the astonishing claim that together, these two commands formed the foundation of the scriptures, while all the rest was, effectively, commentary.
Jesus was teaching his apprentices that if you boiled down the entire Jewish scriptures, distilling them into their basic essence, you were left with this: “Love God. Love others. Love them the way you love yourself. That’s it.”
The ancient creeds of the church speak to us of the mystery of one God in three persons. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 AD reads like this:
“We believe in one God, The Father, the Almighty We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ True God from true God Of one Being with the Father We believe in the Holy Spirit Who proceeds from the Father Who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified.”
What the Church calls the doctrine of the Trinity tells us that God is a community. Three persons – Father, Son and Spirit, but one in essence – who are defined by their loving relationships with one another. And, since God is a ‘tri-unity’ – a community – this brings new depth to our understanding of what it means for humans to be made in the image of God.
Our capacity for relationships is an integral part of our ‘Godlikeness’. But even more than this, if God exists as a community, then we can never become our true selves in isolation. Humanity is designed, not simply with the capacity, but also with the need for community. We only ever realise our full potential as human beings in relationship with God and with others.
John Donne was the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. He held a view of a society that was rooted in the life of the Trinity, which he once described as a “holy and whole college”. It was just before his death in 1631 that he penned his now famous words:
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main...any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Through our individualism, we learn to affirm ourselves over, against, and at the expense of one another and of God. But as we walk the way of Christ, slowly we discover that it is only through a commitment to serve God and other people that we are able find the fulfilment we so crave.
Yet the mystery of the Trinity contains an even more profound truth. God is a community of diversity, not of sameness. God is Father, Son, and Spirit. He is not three fathers, a group of sons or a collection of spirits. While in essence unified, there are distinct differences and unique roles for each person of the Trinity. And so it is that we learn that the deepest community is one which embraces diversity rather than uniformity.
Strong and healthy relationships, it turns out, are not based on the removal of differences, nor even the mere acknowledgement of those differences, but on the embracing and celebration of those differences.
And perhaps these discoveries around what it means to be more fully human amount to something of what Jesus meant when he taught his first apprentices that he had come to bring them ‘abundant life’.