Joining the dance

Cynthia Rigby writes about perichoresis or "mutual indwelling." This term is usually used in theological circles to reference the relationship of the Trinity, but can it also reference how we belong to one another?

This column’s theological theme is perichoresis.

Have I lost you yet?

I see people roll their eyes, sometimes, when an academic uses technical language that isn’t commonly known. I can understand that. What good are the teachings of the church if they cannot be understood and never hit the ground? There is a need for us theology-types to work harder at being accessible and relevant.

The thing is, there is really no English word that can be substituted for perichoresis, so it might be that we are losing an important dimension of the concept if we simply set it aside and choose another word for the sake of making things easier to understand. Theological words are hard to understand because they reference realities that are incomprehensible, in the sense that we can never know everything about them. By keeping their complexities in sight, and refusing to break them down into manageable bites, we position ourselves to know the mysterious God and to participate in the mysteries of God, which is another mystery.

But perhaps I am already sounding too much like a systematic theologian. Give me another couple of paragraphs to introduce or renew your understanding of perichoresis; then I’ll be talking about loneliness and belonging, feeling cared for and being needed — concepts with which you, me, and every person who has ever lived easily resonate. Then, at the end, I will tell a true story that in recent days has helped me imagine what the church’s teaching on the reality of God’s perichoresis looks like “on us” when we glimpse it in our actual lives. It looks like fewer boundaries, and more connections, fewer “I can’t imagines,” and more “I’m going to really try to imagines.” It looks like a less polarized world, characterized not only by everyone feeling like they belong and where everyone who comes is included, but where those who are not there are missed.

A brief history of perichoresis

Perichoresis was taught to me (at Princeton Seminary, circa 1986) as meaning “interpenetration” or “mutual indwelling.” It refers primarily to the character of the relationship of the Father, the Son and the Spirit in the life of the triune God: the lives of the three are distinct, but never separate; they “mutually indwell” one another, meaning that they share life so completely that they are simultaneously united as one and distinguished as three. Fourth-century theologian Gregory of Nazianzus, reveling in not only the seamless beauty but also the dynamism of this, testifies in Oration 40 that “No sooner do I conceive of the one than I am illumined by the splendor of the three; no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the one.”

This emphasis on the triune God going, circling or dancing around in God’s own life as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is a favorite metaphor of contemporary theologians who believe God is inviting human beings to join in God’s redemptive work (John 14 and 17), to abide in Christ (John 15), and to love one another as they work side by side (1 John 4:6-8), praying: “Your kingdom come! Your will be done!”

But won’t toes be stepped on?

Ever since I read Willie Jennings’ book, After Whiteness, I have been trying to conceptualize his charge: “Theological education must engage its center work —  to form in us the art of cultivating belonging.” It seems to me that one way to go at it – but not the only way – is via perichoresis; sharing life together and belonging go hand-in-glove. After all, didn’t the Word of God become flesh and live among us so he could demonstrate to us that “in life and in death we belong to God?” (1 John 1 and the Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church(U.S.A.).)

Isn’t God’s belonging to us as a fellow human being the central way Christians believe God conveys God’s invitation to dance, at least for those of us who didn’t accept God’s other invitation: “You will be my people and I will be your God” (Jeremiah 30:22)?

But belonging is not always a popular idea. In our society, we have done major work, these last few decades, setting up boundaries to warped understandings of belonging in order to protect people from harm.

I remember, for example, the first time I heard of sexual harassment when I was asked to sit on the committee that was developing policy at Princeton Seminary when I was working on my master of divinity. I remember when my friend Steve wouldn’t get out of my car at a gas station between Austin and Dallas on the way to a meeting because he was a Black man riding with a White woman; I remember when a pastor friend of mine lost his job when his beloved congregation couldn’t accept someone who was a one-time sex-offender, and who had paid his dues to society, as he returned to church.

“Belonging” is a word that can connote subordination or subservience as well as intimacy and steadfastness. It is a tricky word. But it is something we need to risk opening ourselves up to if we are going to live perichoretically, or if we want not only to sympathize with people, but to empathize with them, or if we want to overcome our societal polarizations.

We need not only listen as others tell their stories, but to try to find ourselves in their stories, and them in ours.

But what does it look like when we glimpse the Holy Spirit at work in the world, breaking down the boundaries between“us” and “them” and helping us believe that everyone is welcome to dance because we all belong to God?

Glimpsing How Things Are (Really) and Should Be (Actually): a true story

I stop at Whole Foods on the way home. I’ve just chaired a meeting that’s gone well and, earlier in the day, had productive meetings with students, ones who haven’t yet been at seminary a year but are already catching on to what thinking theologically looks like. I meander through the aisles, using Christmas as an excuse to buy more than usual, chatting with other shoppers about the quality of the brown sugar brought in from the farmer’s market for $1 a bag and how beautiful the potted orchids are.

By the time I get to the check-out line with my overflowing cart, I am limping, and I realize I am a half hour late with my next dose of meds, which I have to take every three hours. My hands are growing stiff and I feel the quantity of saliva in my mouth rapidly increasing, so I grab a napkin and try to swallow to stop the drool. There isn’t really a table or surface I can put between my meds and the floor so that if I drop one of the small yellow ones (which I do, on average, about twice a day) they will keep them clean enough to take.

And then I make a bad move. I decide to take my meds in the car. All I have to do is push the cart outside, and … whoops. Stuck. In a crosswalk between Nordstrom and Whole Foods. A wheel on my cart is wedged in a crack in the concrete, and I can’t even budge it.

“Hey, would you help me?” I ask a man who comes out of the store (this comes out of my mouth slurrier and softer than I intend.) He is slim, White, mid-30s, and wearing Dockers. He glances at me quickly and nervously, punches his key fob and hops into his car.

“I’m not drunk!” I yell encouragingly, wondering at how differently I am perceived now, wearing the same dress as when I chaired the meeting a couple of hours ago, or even a half hour before in the store.

“I have Young Onset Parkinson’s,” I say, and I see a flicker of something like concerned relief cross his face. “I don’t usually walk this badly, but I forgot to take my meds, and anxiety makes my symptoms worse.”

“My cart is stuck,” I say, gesturing. “Can you unstick it?”

“Sure,” he says, doubtfully. “Do you have a … car?” As we walk toward my car he scrambles to apologize.

“You just never know … about people,” he says.

“Yeah, well. Thanks for taking the time to find out,” I say.

We arrive at my car and there’s an awkward pause as he is deciding whether or not he should ask to put my groceries in when a woman bursts out of the car next to me, singing what seemed to be a medley of Christmas carols and praise songs. She is African American, wearing a cotton print dress, and her name is Sheryl.

Sheryl had noticed I was looking for help and waited for her opening.

“I can take it from here,” she tells him. He leaves, Sheryl puts the groceries in while I take my meds, and then we talk and sing a lot, and pray a little, until the ice cream in my groceries is too melted to be recovered. And so Sheryl and I drink the melted ice cream from the carton and discard the evidence in a nearby trash can, before we head home.

Dancing together. Healing together. Belonging to one another. Perichoresis at work.

“Theological education must engage its center work — to form in us the art of cultivating belonging.” — Willie Jennings