God is a dance we do

Elaine Friedrich and friends, c. 1933

Elaine Friedrich and friends, c. 1933

At the end of last Sunday’s eucharist, we sang “You shall go out with joy,” a contemporary hymn with the infectious rhythm of Mediterranean dance.[i] The words, the tune, and the smiling worshippers all seemed to say the same thing: the Spirit really wanted to move in that place. So before we went our separate ways, I invited the congregation to repeat the song, while all who wished stepped into the open space before the altar for an impromptu circle dance. With joined hands, we circled round, spiraled inward, wove in and out of the arches and tunnels of upraised arms, manifesting with our bodies the divine fullness attributed to the Holy Trinity: an “interdependence of equally present but diverse energies … in a state of circumvolving multiplicity.”[ii] Or as St. Athanasius said more simply of the triune God, we were participating in the divine reality of “reciprocal delight.”

Communal dance is an early Christian image for the divine reality, due in part to a pun on the Greek word, perechoresis. This term (from peri = “around,” and chorein = “make room for,” “contain”) was appropriated in the fourth century to express the Trinitarian unity-in-diversity. Perechoresis implies a shared existence, a being-in-one-another where each Person, while remaining uniquely distinct, penetrates the others as each and all become the subject, not the object, of one another.

The Trinity is not a simple, static substance but an event of relationships. It is why we can say that God is love. “To be” has no ontological reality apart from “to be in relationship.” In the words of Anglican priest John Mbiti of Kenya, expressing the strongly communal mindset of African theology, “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.”[iii]

Each Person contains the others and is contained by them in a shared communion of self-offering and self-surrender. But that continuous self-offering is never a one-way transaction, either one of self-emptying or one of being filled. It is always both at once – giving and receiving – as we ourselves know from our own mutual experience of love at its best. As Jesus said, “losing” yourself and “finding” yourself are equivalent and simultaneous. In giving ourselves away, we receive ourselves back. This may be counterintuitive to the modernist mindset of autonomous individual self-possession, but it is the essence of communion: “a giving of oneself that can only come from the ongoing and endless reception of the other.”[iv] This “being in communion” is explored more fully in Part 1: God is relational.

Now here’s the Greek pun: perechoresis also can mean “to dance around,” and the ancient theologians quickly seized on that image as an accessibly concrete description of a complex process. Trinity is a dance, with Creator, Christ and Spirit in a continuous movement of giving and receiving, initiating and responding, weaving and mingling, going out and coming in. And while our attention may focus at times on a particular dancer, we must never lose sight of the larger choreography to which each dancer belongs: the eternal perichoresis of Three in One, One in Three.

“I am the dance and I still go on” (Dancers at Elaine Friedrich’s Requiem)

Wallace Stevens made a poem about the process of giving ourselves over to a larger whole, “the intensest rendezvous” where we find ourselves drawn out of isolation “into one thing.” He wasn’t writing about dance or the Trinity, but his words come as close as any to describing their essential motion:

Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.[v]

My mother Elaine knew the joy of the “intensest rendezvous” of perechoresis. She started dancing as a little girl, and as a teenager in the 1920’s she taught dance to younger children for ten cents a lesson. While studying at Northwestern she took workshops in Chicago with some of the great pioneers of modern dance, Doris Humphrey and José Limón. Her teachers encouraged her to apply to Martha Graham’s company. But then she met my father, and a career in dance was set aside for a more domestic life. I owe my own existence to that sacrificial act. Still, she remained a dancer in her heart, and later in life became a great advocate of sacred dance. Whatever I learned from her about the divine dimensions of “dancing around,” of giving yourself over to the cosmic “Love that moves the sun and all the other stars,”[vi] remains a vital part of my theological education.

There are no spectators in the Trinitarian dance, which is always extending outward to draw us and all creation into its motions. As Jürgen Moltmann said, “to know God means to participate in the fullness of the divine life.”[vii] It’s not a matter of our trying to imitate the relational being of the loving, dancing God, as if we were inferior knock-offs of the real thing. God wants us to become ourselves the real thing. God wants to gather us into the divine perechoresis as full participants in the endless offering and receiving, pouring out and being filled, which is the dance of God and the life of heaven.

And while our dance with God has its mystical, mysterious, transcendent dimensions, it is also very concrete and specific to our historical life on this earth, in this present time. As Miroslav Volf has said, “The Trinity is our social program.”[viii] We are called to make God not just an inner experience but a public truth. When Love’s dance becomes our way of being in the world – as believers, as church – the Trinity is no longer just doctrine. It is a practice, begetting justice, peace, joy, kindness, compassion, reconciliation, holiness, humility, wisdom, healing and countless other gifts.

Liberation theologian Justo L. Gonzales puts it well: “If the Trinity is the doctrine of a God whose very life is a life of sharing, its clear consequence is that those who claim belief in such a God must live a similar life … for if God is love, life without love is life without God; and if this is a sharing love, such as we see in the Trinity, then life without sharing is life without God…”[ix] So, in the immortal words of Lewis Carroll’s Mock Turtle: Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?[x]

My mother was still dancing in her nineties, mostly in the gentle motions of Tai Chi. A year before her death at 96, she was asked to lead a dance prayer in her retirement community’s chapel. It was no longer easy for her to stand, so she performed the prayer seated, while the elderly congregation echoed her gestures with their own frail bodies. The prayer was Daniel Schutte’s well-known anthem, “Here I am, Lord.”[xi] In this video you can only see Elaine, but I’m pretty sure she was dancing with the whole company of heaven.

[This is the final post of a 3-part series on the Trinity. Part 1 was “God is relational,” and Part 2, on the experiential foundations of Trinitarian belief, was “You can’t make this stuff up.”]

[i] Words by Steffi Geiser Rubin, music by Stuart Dauermann (© 1975 Lillenas Publishing Company)

[ii] David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2003), 114

[iii] q. in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, The Trinity: Global Perspectives (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 352

[iv] Graham Ward, “The Schizoid Christ,” in The Radical Orthodoxy Reader, ed. John Milbank and Simon Oliver (NY: Routledge, 2009), 241

[v] Wallace Stevens, “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” Collected Poetry and Prose (NY: Library of America, 1997), 444

[vi] Dante, Paradiso xxxiii, 145, trans. Robert & Jean Hollander (NY: Doubleday, 2007), 827

[vii] Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God, trans. Margaret Kohl (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981), 152

[viii] Miroslav Volf, “‘The Trinity is Our Social Program’: The Doctrine of the Trinity and the Shape of Social Engagement,” Modern Theology 14, no. 3 (July 1998)

[ix] The Trinity: Global Perspectives, 301

[x] From the Mock Turtle’s song in Alice in Wonderland by Anglican cleric Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll)

[xi] Daniel Schutte, © OCP Publications 1981

9 thoughts on “God is a dance we do

  1. Yes! To the dance!! Especially YES to dancing when you’re in your 90s! What beauty. Thank you for sharing this. Dance on!

    Here’s a poem from Rev. Bill Maxwell to top it all off:

    HONOR YOUR PARTNER!

    There is a word that is used
    in talking about the Trinity:
    perichoresis. It looks ponderous,
    like most of the theological
    and philosophical terminology
    we use in serious talk about God.
    It has to do with the relationship
    between the Father, the Son,
    and the Holy Spirit.
    The splendid aspect of this
    fancy word is that it is Greek,
    and it can mean to dance together.

    I love the idea that the Father,
    the Son, and the Holy Spirit
    are dancing together!
    It sounds frivolous, perhaps.
    Who is minding the store
    while they are dancing?
    But I suppose that being God
    does not involve the limitations
    that would make it hard for us
    to dance and to keep everything
    going. Thanks be to God!
    Dance on, dear God, dance on!

  2. Dear Jim,
    Thank you for your insightful three-part teaching on the Trinity. Also, for sharing your marvelous mother and her dance with God. Your Trinitarian explication is the best. Blessings, Shirley

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