Posted by on Sep 17, 2017

The Divine Dance Part Three: 

An Exclusive Doctrine or a Source of Boundless Openness?

Exodus 14:19-31, Psalm 111, Romans 14:1-12, & Matthew 18:21-35

Sunday, September 17, 2017 – The Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Knox-Metropolitan United Church – Regina, SK – Treaty 4 Territory

Cameron Fraser

I’d like to invite us to begin by becoming attentive to our breath. If you are comfortable, I’d invite you to gently close your eyes, perhaps to lay your hands open in your lap, and to be attentive to the feel of your breath…

Richard Rohr would tell us that all within all things, and all around us, and in between us, is a flow – that the ancients were pointing towards when they began to use to the word God – and that the goal of the Christianity, as is the goal of all religion – is union with that flow.

This morning, we continue in a series called The Divine Dance drawing inspiration from the book of that name by Richard Rohr, Franciscan friar and Director of the Centre for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico – a book exploring one of the most ancient doctrines, or theological innovations of the Christian Tradition – that at the core, God is three, God is relationship, and to use one of the most ancient metaphors for this idea, that God is a dance – a dance that beckons to be joined.

This is the 3rd in a 4 part series, the 1st and 2nd can be found on our website, and while connected, and building on one another, the goal is that each week’s reflection will also really stand alone. Our previous reflections have explored Rohr’s suggestion that a ‘traditional’ understandings of God as a being, rather than being and relationship itself – are perhaps less traditional than we might think and that in fact the opposite may have been what the ancients were pointing at when God was first described as a divine perichoresis (or circle dance).

When I first read Rohr’s book this summer one of the things that most intrigued and excited me was how he brings his articulation of God into conversation with the ideas of other faiths, most concretely in the book itself, with Hinduism, but in more generally, about how his ideas open Christianity to discussion – it’s not addressed at one particular point but it is a thread that is constantly present, so it makes it harder to summarize – but that is what I wanted to explore today – what all this means for Christianity as a Tradition in conversation and in community with other ways of knowing faith (and by extension, non-faith ways of understanding).

Now as I’ve worked away at this reflection over the past week I’ve found it to be the hardest yet to wrestle into 4 pages of a sermon. Many of Rohr’s invitations are quite abstract and lean to the mystical, and operate in perhaps a different paradigm.

So, I offer these thoughts at the beginning hopefully to put this time into a context. That I share today as one working these thoughts through in my own mind rather than – which I hope it ok – and perhaps recognizing that what has gripped me wouldn’t be gripping to others – but in hopes that my understanding of this thread of thinking will be of benefit and interest. I’ll also note that this might raise more questions than answers, which itself I think is exciting, and I hope will be embraced as an invitation to further discussion and inquiry – to which I’ll offer again that a group has been gathering on Tuesday mornings for coffee and conversation and to grapple through these ideas in more detail.

Early in the book Rohr offers this intriguing thought: Looking out at reality from inside the Trinity – as a way to know, love and serve God in all things, the metaphors rituals and doctrines of other religions are no longer threatening, but actually helpful in understanding your own faith. God as Trinity makes competitive religious thinking, largely a waste of time…[because] the only possible language with which we can talk about God, is metaphor.

Often Trinity is taken up in expressions of Christianity to mean that God, while one, is in fact three, that there are three persons to God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – that each is unique and individual and paradoxically separate – yet unified.

Now what is often lifted up as essential, in this idea is the identity of the three persons and that they must all be divine – which as Rohr points out, this can be deeply limiting, because it is based on the idea of divinity as being and as object – and the understanding that God is best imagined as unchangeable monarch, separate and distinct (even if benevolently so) from creation.

Now many other faiths seem at surface to hold such understandings as God, and so Christianity is able to be in dialogue to some degree, but where this dialogue breaks down is around ‘the Son’ or our understanding of Jesus.

Judaism and Islam both understood as monotheistic faiths (as in having one God) seem then to affirm the same thing as a Christian understanding of God as a creator being (in many understandings of the Trinity – the Father) and the idea of the Spirit is often de-personalized in many Christian understandings to be this abstract presence or power of that Father-God who is elsewhere while his power is present in the Spirit.

But where so many Christian theologies tend to view themselves as separate (and often therefore superior) to Judaism and Islam in particular is in the divinity of Jesus. When Christians affirm that Jesus is not simply a prophet or teacher (a perspective affirmed by both Judaism and Islam) and not even one in whom the Spirit of God was uniquely present (again an idea that could fit with Jewish and Islamic theology) but that Jesus is in fact a third person in the Trinity – fully divine – this is where conversation breaks down.

I can recall being in a lecture where we were discussing whether Jews, Christians, and Muslims meant the same thing when we said God —and the lecturer’s insistence was that we could not possibly do so —the reason being Jesus. That if Jesus is indeed God, indeed the second person of the Trinity then we cannot possibly mean the same thing by God as others faiths who use that word.

Now I think in liberal circles, we tend to respond by essentially theologically demoting Jesus – to perhaps simply a divinely inspired teacher, or maybe a human who is so in touch with God that God’s presence was uniquely with him – both of which conservative Christians would criticize, essentially on the grounds of turning God – who they insist must be three – into two.

Now Rohr would argue that this notion sits upon the very concept he has been arguing against in his whole book, the concept we’ve been playing with in the first two parts of this series, the idea that perhaps the Christian notion that God is a separate being may not be what our tradition is in fact inviting us into.

If God is separate being, than to call Jesus or the Christ, God, is to say that of all the humans who have ever-lived, that this one, and none other, is an embodiment of that being who is, in all other cases, separate from creation.

But when, as Rohr argues throughout this book, God is in fact not a being, but being itself, existence itself, that in which to use St. Paul’s words, we live, move and have our being, then it opens up new possibilities.

Suddenly personhood within Trinity – that there are 3 persons to God – Father, Son, Holy Spirit – can mean something else – because we use person to mean separate individual – but that’s not what it means in the ancient world from which these concepts are emerging.

Per Sonare the Latin origin of person, the language that would have been used by the theologians who wrestled this mystery into words, means sounding through or expression.

So then the idea of Father – Son – Holy Spirit – can become metaphor – which Rohr would insist, all religious language must admit to being.

Rohr would suggest that the metaphoric nature of our words for God as expressed in the traditional formulation of the Trinity might be well expressed in a liturgical moment, of prayer – a prayer he picks up and quotes a number of times in his book…

God for us, we call you Father. 

God with us, we call you Jesus. 

God within us, we call you Spirit.

Now if these three persons, are not static identity, but sounding throughs, metaphors, then these statements are not once and for all exclusive doctrines that separate Christianity from other ways of being, but they become something more like this…

That God (understood to be existence and relatedness itself) is for all things – is benevolent, not to be feared, not to be appeased, not to be obeyed, but to be accepted, and lived in harmony with – and that when the Christian tradition has used “Father” this is what is being pointed to.

That God (again understood to be existence and ground of all being) is not separate from reality, not existing on another plain – but is vitally present – to be found with – that the Christian understanding about Jesus is pointing to this.

That God – ground of being, relatedness itself – is not only expressed in a benevolent universe – that creativity and cooperation lie at the core of all things – that not only is this immanent, all around us – but also within all things – and that our understanding of Spirit – is our Traditions way of pointing to that.

Now those last few paragraphs were hard for me to write, because even within my own mind, I bounce back to the idea of God as out-there being.

And if Christianity is not about an exclusive relationship to an out-there being, or about the formation of an exclusive group that has access to that being, but about an invitation to relationship with a reality both transcendent yet immanent – an expression, necessarily, as all religions do, using metaphor, story and ritual, not as end in and of itself, but as means to union – then rather than being in competition with other faiths, might actually need the gifts of other faiths (and non-faith world-views as well) to understand what it is trying to point towards.

For this Rohr enters into discussion with Hinduism and the concept that there are three qualities God —and therefore all reality —sat, chit, ananda.

Sat – being itself.

Chit – consciousness or knowledge.

Ananda – happiness or bliss.

Now a 4 page sermon does not give me adequate time or space to enter into everything Rohr offers about this – but to try to summarize several chapters in a few paragraphs…

Sat as being might help us understand what the ancients were pointing with notions of God as Father/Creator/Mother not an external being but being itself – this seems quite in line with what we’ve been speaking about these past few weeks.

Chit as knowledge or consciousness is helpful, but also challenging, if Jesus/the Son/the Christ/God enfleshed is pointing not to a person, but sounding through a way of knowing and understanding, of being conscious of the way things truly are – then the pattern of life/death/resurrection embodied in the Christian stories of Jesus’ life, concepts that are reflected in all his teachings, and the solidarity expressed in his ethic, become not simply a one time example to be worshipped, but a manifestation of how being, how reality operates.

Ananda then as happiness and bliss perhaps helps us to understand what the Christian tradition calls living in the Spirit – or joy, or oneness.

Now, I think that inter-faith dialogue often operates in such a way that it sounds like we’re suggesting that one is pointing to another, as if putting Father/Son/Holy Spirit beside Sat/Chit/Ananda is saying that either Hinduism was actually pointing at Christianity or the other way around. But I think what Rohr is suggesting here is that in fact both are pointing beyond themselves – to use a concept from earlier in this reflection – that both are soundings through.

Now I’ve been returning to the very traditional language of Father/Son/Holy Spirit, and this reflection doesn’t give time to lift up that in Scripture itself so many terms of God are used, many of them lacking the very obvious emphasis on maleness found in the three we may be more familiar with. The United Church Song of Faith reminds us that even a triune understanding of God can be more diverse…

Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer

Mother, Friend, Comforter

Source of Life, Living Word, Bond of Love

When we become comfortable with the idea that even our traditional words and stories have for centuries been understood, especially in mystical circles of the Christian Tradition as metaphor, which isn’t the same as false which is often the accusation what conservative critics of these lines of thinking.

Metaphor means to say something true about something that cannot be fully captured in words – but the problem with metaphor is when they cease to point at something beyond themselves, and become the thing itself.

Because things can be fully understood – mysteries can be infinitely understood.

And as Rohr would suggest, and I think I agree, to understand this as metaphor is not to cease to honour it, far from it, because to treat Holy Mystery as a thing that can be contained in systems of theology, I would argue is what lacks reverence and honour.

And if we become comfortable that at the heart of our Tradition is not a being, but an invitation to dance with metaphor and ritual and therein enter the dance of being itself, of existence at its most real, then we can learn the steps of our tradition and bring them to a dance that includes different ways of moving to the music – and when we can imagine that the goal is not to make everyone dance like us, but for all of us – human and non-human alike (which incidentally is where I hope we’ll move to explore in the final part next week) then we’re really dancing!