“God for us, we call you Father.
God alongside us, we call you Jesus.
God within us, we call you Holy Spirit.
You are the eternal mystery that enables, enfolds, and enlivens all things,
Even us and even me.
Every name falls short of your goodness and greatness.
We can only see who you are in what is.
We ask for such perfect seeing—
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.
Fanciful Friar or Progressive Prophet?
I’d been drawn to read The Divine Dance after watching a video series in which the author, Richard Rohr, discusses some of the ideas in the book. Rohr is a friar in the Franciscan tradition, a writer and teacher, and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation (an odd little school, which is, like Rohr, both compelling and discomfiting).
The book is an exploration of Trinitarian theology: the nature of the Trinity, the work of the Trinity, and, moreover, our own nature and the nature of reality in response to this revelation.
Now, that might make it sound (despite being under 200 pages) like a pretty heady book, a doctrinally dense tome of brain-busting theological buzzwords like hypostatis, homoouisios, and perichoresis. And, in fact, Rohr does discuss many of these terms, but he does so in such a simplistic and conversational manner that you’re almost caught off guard when they appear.
Reading The Divine Dance is much like listening to Rohr speak. He’s as warm and kindhearted as he is intelligent and deep-thinking, moving with ease between humble reflections and startling theological implications, between pastoral anecdotes and philosophical paradigms. He invites and embraces, perplexes and disrupts, surprises and inspires, often on the same page—and sometimes in the same sentence! He has a way of describing God and the world that forces you to see them differently, and to ruminate on that new perspective.
There were times when he’d write something a little too out there, or take an idea a little too far out of my comfort zone—and I’d think “Well, I don’t know about that, Friar”—but then he’d weave his thoughts together with scripture or nonchalantly drop a quotation from an Early Church Father, and I’d be stopped in my tracks. I frequently found myself “checking his work,” looking up the verses he’d cited to make sure he wasn’t just making things up. Sometimes it felt flimsy; other times, it seemed strangely secure.
If you read the book, do so with both an open mind and a grain of salt. You may not agree with everything (or anything) he says, but one thing you can’t do is write him off!
“At the risk of sounding like I am making a serious overstatement,” Rohr writes on the opening page of his book, “I think the common Christian image of God, despite Jesus, is still largely ‘pagan’… and untransformed.”
Rohr’s main argument is that we’ve profoundly misunderstood the revelation of God as Trinity. “This slowly-dawning Christian revelation,” he writes, “was supposed to have radically changed our image of God, but for the most part it did not. The old wiring was just too much in place.”
So what are we missing? Where is this “old wiring” found?
In part, Rohr blames Aristotle, whose philosophy has had a significant influence on much of Western thought, and subsequently on the Western Church:
“Aristotle taught that there were ten different qualities to all things. I’m not going to list all ten of them; two will suffice. He said there was ‘substance’ and there was ‘relationship.’ What defined substance was that it was independent of all else—so a tree is a substance, whereas ‘father’ is a relationship.
“…‘Son’ is also a relationship, whereas stone is a substance. Now, Aristotle ranked substance the highest. This is typical Greek thinking. Substance is that which is ‘independent’ of all else and can stand on its own. It isn’t an adjective; it’s a noun. Nouns are higher than adjectives.”
So substance is number one, while relationship is only number four. But the true revelation of the Trinity, Rohr says, is that this is actually reversed:
“This shift has been subtly yet profoundly underway for some time, hiding in plain sight—the revelation of God as what we have always called ‘Trinity’ but have barely understood (in the beginning was the Relationship).”
As a catechized and confirmed Lutheran, this amazed me! This was “Christian Doctrine 101,” and yet it seemed there was a greater depth to it than I had previously considered! The doctrinal dividing line, from the days of the Early Church councils, had always been placed on our understanding of God’s substance. But, Rohr would say, the Trinity actually teaches us that relationship, not substance, is highest order of being.
The Trinity is not merely a logic problem of how one Substance can also be three distinct Persons, but rather the Being we call ‘God’ is the Full and Dynamic Expression of the Relationship between the Father, Son, and Spirit.
Francis of Assisi called this subsistent relationship. Rohr calls it the divine flow, or the divine dance (an idea he rented from C.S. Lewis). Or, as John simply put it: “God is Love.”
The Suffering of Love
So what is this divine flow? What does this dynamic expression of relationship look like?
In a word: vulnerability.
“There’s a perfect balancing in the Trinity that protects personal identity and total oneness at the same time. We are told that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit… each have their uniqueness, and yet they create a deeper and more solid oneness by surrendering it lovingly to one another.”
The Trinity’s very nature is a continual flow of unconditional self-emptying and unconditional infilling. The Father fully pours himself out for the Son, trusting that as he does, the Spirit will pour into him, and the cycle goes on. God is content in himself, fully loved and fully loving.
And the entire universe, Rohr would add, is patterned after its Creator: designed in Relationship, made in Love:
“…[I]f reality is anything, it’s absolutely relational…. All this orbiting, exploding, expanding, and even contracting is Infinite Love at work. Everything you have ever seen with your eyes is the self-emptying of God into multitudinous physical and visible forms.”
Furthermore, we human beings are made in Love’s likeness, created in God’s image. Our primary identity derives from our relationship to God: our sonship! “Trinity is and must be our stable, rooted identity that does not come and go, rise and fall,” Rohr writes. “This is the rock of salvation.”
In general, we are pretty comfortable with the idea of an Almighty God—it’s familiar, expected—but an All-Vulnerable God…? (This, in my opinion, blows the doors off of the theodicy conversation, of God’s role in the face of suffering.) The very act of creating, Rohr writes, “could even be called the ‘suffering’ of God.” He goes on:
“The Christ learned this self-emptying, or kenosis, from his eternal life in the Trinity. It is not just Jesus who suffers, but the cross is the visible symbol of what is going on inside of God!”
Joining the Dance
Pictured on the dustjacket of The Divine Dance is a rendering of a painting called The Hospitality of Abraham (also called The Trinity), by Andrei Rublev, a fifteenth-century Russian iconographer. The piece depicts three men, ostensibly the three visitors of Abraham in Genesis 18, reclining at a table.
Rohr explains that these three men are also meant to represent the three Persons of the Trinity ‘The Father’ in the painting wears gold, representing perfection, fullness, and glory. ‘The Son’ wears blue, which Rublev considered the color of the human: “sea and sky mirroring one another—and therefore God in Christ taking on the world, taking on humanity.” And green was donned by the ‘the Spirit,’ symbolizing the “divine aliveness that makes everything blossom and bloom in endless shades of green.”
Rohr then points out that there is a conspicuous ‘space’ left in the painting:
“They’re circling a shared table, and if you look on the front of the table there appears to be a little rectangular hole painted there. Most people just pass right over it, but art historians say that the remaining glue on the original icon indicates that there was perhaps once a mirror glued to the front of the table!”
We are meant to see ourselves existing within the Trinity! There’s “room at the table for a fourth,” writes Rohr.
The Trinitarian God, existing in whole and perfect communion, Relationship itself, Love itself, invites us—you and me—into the flow of Love. This is how we “participate in the divine nature,” by accepting God’s invitation, by joining the divine dance that has taken place from the beginning of time.