Saturday, June 6, 2009

Dance of the Trinity

About five years ago, while reading a working paper of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) entitled The Trinity: God's Love Overflowing, I was introduced to an ancient theological concept. Yes, it was an ancient concept but one new to me. The concept is communicated by the Greek word perichoresis. The term, perichoresis, and the theological concept associated with it has helped me think about the doctrine of the Trinity.

As the paper Trinity: God’s Love Overflowing made me aware, “God’s triune life in ineffable communion is described by ancient church tradition as a perichoresis: the mutual indwelling, mutual interaction, and mutual interpenetration of the persons of the Trinity. In this everlasting and interactive divine communion, each lives with, in and for the others. All is held in common except the distinctiveness of the persons in their mutual relationships of love. Confessing God as Triune, we affirm that this eternal life-in-communion of the Triune God is freely and gladly extended to us and to the world.” John of Damascus, in the 8th century, used the Greek term perichoresis in his attempt to explain Jesus’ statement, "I am in my Father, and my Father is in me."

That is a pretty heady theological definition of perichoresis. I like to think of perichoresis as describing a type of divine triune dance. The idea is not original. In his book Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis, commenting about the Trinity, writes “The whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this three-Personal life is to be played out in each one of us.”

Angels Dancing on the Head of a Pin
In the lobby of Barbour Library at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, there is a contemporary sculpture (photo right) entitled Angels Dancing on the Head of a Pin created and presented to the Seminary by Dr. Rudolph Weingartner in memory of his wife Fannia. The artist could place only eleven angels on the head of a pin. I love that sculpture and enjoyed seeing it evertimne I entered the lobby of Barbour Library. Personally, however, I am not at all concerned about knowing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. I am concerned, however, with knowing what dance they are doing, learning the steps, and joining in. I think the dance might be the same dance as the Triune God, a dance whose steps and rhythms might best be described by the Greek word perichoresis and the concept it points to.

I am not the world’s greatest dancer. It was a revelation to me not long ago, while trying to learn how to square dance, that “bowing toward your corner” meant bowing to the person or partner opposite you and not a space on the floor, and that “do-si-do” meant back to back and was not just some made up gibberish. Nevertheless, I think dancing must be like any physical activity. At first, when you are just learning, you have to think about what you are doing and the movement seems stilted, even mechanical and forced. You are not really dancing, not really enjoying the steps and rhythms of the dance, until you have practiced enough times to dance without thinking about it. Then the movement becomes fluid and organic. That is the sort of dance I imagine Angels dance on the head of a pin, and which might serve as an image of the Triune God, a fluid organic well rehearsed dance.

One reason I like and am fascinated by the image of dance as a way of beginning to appreciate the doctrine of the Trinity is because I think, as C. Baxter Kruger has written in his book The Great Dance, the image suggests that “God is not some faceless, all-powerful abstraction. God is Father, Son and Spirit, existing in a passionate and joyous fellowship. The Trinity is not three highly committed religious types sitting around some room in heaven. The Trinity is a circle of shared life, and the life shared is full, not empty, abounding and rich and beautiful, not lonely and sad and boring.”

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