Richard Rohr wants Christians to see the Trinity as a divine dance

“The Divine Dance” by Richard Rohr. Photo courtesy of Whitaker House

(RNS) Catholic theologian Karl Rahner once wrote that Christians behave as “mere monotheists.” That is, if Christianity ended up dropping the doctrine of the Trinity, he suggested, the day-to-day lives of Christians would remain largely unchanged.

Richard Rohr wants to change that.

Richard Rohr, author of “The Divine Dance.”. Photo courtesy of Whitaker House

Richard Rohr, author of “The Divine Dance.” Photo courtesy of Whitaker House

A Franciscan priest and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, N.M., Rohr, alongside Mike Morrell, recently published “The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation” in the hopes of inviting Christians to renew their lives by thinking “trinitarily.”

The book has gotten rave reviews well beyond such popular Catholic writers as the Rev. James Martin and Sister Simone Campbell. Mainstream figures, including U2’s Bono and scholar and public speaker Brené Brown, have been encouraging their audiences to pick up a copy.

Why would so many people take an interest in a devotional book written by a contemplative priest about a mysterious Christian doctrine?

“I’m wondering if it’s just that consciousness is ready for it,” he suggests.

Spoken like a true contemplative!

RNS spoke to Rohr about his ideas on God, religion and what it means to be contemplative. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why do you think so many people are excited to rediscover a Trinitarian God?

This idea of a Being sitting out there, critically watching reality and judging it — usually judging it to be inadequate — is not creating happy people, or peaceful people, as we see in our politics. The old paradigm, without us realizing it, has been falling apart.

In your book, you mention that reimagining God might help heal our political divisions. How?

I think we all agree, no matter where you stand on the political spectrum, politics is not a happy worldview. It’s inherently dualistic, antagonistic and deceitful. It’s making us long for a bigger frame, a bigger worldview than either/or. Whenever you divide things into two, the mind quickly takes sides. It happens within a nanosecond. You identify with one side instead of the other, and decide that one side is better and the other side is, if not bad, demonic.

We’ve got to get out of this dualistic thinking. That is my most simple definition of what contemplation means: a mind that does not read reality dualistically but is able to hold contradictions until there’s a reconciling third, until there’s a broader frame revealed. I think that’s the law of three. You can’t choose sides but you have to stay in the flow. I think we are so tired of our fighting. Maybe it’s out of desperation that a lot of people are willing to hear this message.

Why does it matter that Christians have a dynamic, flowing understanding of God?

A God who is just concerned with being right is inert, inaccessible: The law is the law is the law; there’s no wiggle room. When you have God as relational, and if the basic definition of reality is relationality, then you’ve got an open system.

That’s what the beautiful biblical metaphors were trying to get to when they had God talking to Moses; God talking to Abraham; Abraham able to change God’s mind, as it were; Moses the same, knowing God face to face. This is good stuff! But we understood it in such a static way — that these were things that happened to really special people, like Abraham and Moses and Jesus. But we didn’t understand that they were revealing the basic pattern of reality. That pattern of reality is this flow.

If God is so dynamic, why did Christians come to understand the divine in such a static way?

What Trinity is saying, is: Don’t start with one substance, one being, and then try to make him three. This is what we get most of the first 2,000 years after Christ, and it looked like tri-theism, or like we were meddling with monotheism, or like a mathematical concept, and so a lot of people, including most Christians, didn’t know what to do with it.

But every science is discovering it’s entirely a relational universe. Nothing stands autonomously. Relationship is the thing, the core. See how this creates such a wonderful foundation for a Christian understanding of holiness? We’re inherently in relationship to God.

A lot of Christians might disagree with you here since “salvation,” to many, is an active choice to be in relationship with God.

That’s perhaps the biggest Achilles heel of so many Christians — that grace is an occasional additive merited by certain highly holy people.

Let me go back to the very first two verses of the Bible, where a beautiful verb is used. The Spirit is said to be “hovering” over chaos. The verb that’s used there refers to the wings of a mother hen protecting her young, guarding her eggs. We have the Spirit hovering over chaos, warming reality if you will. Grace is not extrinsic! The whole thing begins by an act of grace which becomes the physical universe. That matter, henceforth, is the revelation place of Spirit, and Spirit shows itself through matter.

The incarnation that Christians honor is the personal incarnation. We thought it happened 2,000 years ago. What Franciscan spirituality always believed is that the primary incarnation was creation itself. Nature was the first Bible. And we don’t know how to see the presence, how to honor the incarnate presence of God in the natural universe. I’m looking out right now on a beautiful blue New Mexico sky, the golden ashlands, green trees. How can you not be in awe of this universe? But we didn’t respect the first Bible, so we murdered and mangled the second. We weren’t ready to honor the Christ, really.

What would you say if someone said, “I can’t believe grace is active in the way you’re claiming because there’s so much evil and death in the world”?

The human egocentric psyche is simply not ready to see that death is a necessary part of life. If you look at the entire universe, everything is changing forms all the time, no exception. In Catholic funeral liturgy, we say that life is not ended, but merely changed.

I admit it: It does seem like an incoherent universe. That’s very true. But once you recognize this is the pattern of the universe, then Jesus’ death and resurrection is not a one time anomaly, a one-time accident; it’s revealing the shape of the universe and inviting us to have the courage to trust that it’s OK. The final chapter is resurrection.

You talk in your book about living in darkness, as if it’s a good thing. Is it?

If you take Moses on Sinai, and Peter, James and John on Mount Tabor, there’s always a combination of an apparition of immense light and the cover of a cloud. That’s letting us know that we don’t know. As Paul says, “We see through a glass darkly.”

Mother Teresa said she wants to be known as a saint of darkness because dark is a better teacher than light. After the fights of the Reformation and the rationalism of the Enlightenment, we wanted to be certain, to be right. That’s to want too much light. It’s a refusal of faith.

Along with the rediscovery of the Trinity, I think I see a longing for a theology of darkness or the cloud. The classic phrase coined by the 14th-century anonymous English writer — the cloud of unknowing — sums up this theology very well. You can’t live in total light: It blinds you. That lack of humility has probably done more to undo the Christian religion than anything else.

When you presume your little mind fully knows what goodness is and who the good people are, and what evil is and who the evil people are … you will most surely die. Darkness is good, mystics would say. That’s the liminal space where you ask deeper questions, where you make room for God because you can’t figure it out. The soul expands inside of darkness.

(Brandon Ambrosino is an RNS correspondent)

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  • Elizabeth Johnson was a fabulous thealogian, very smart, thoughtful, imaginative and wise. I have really enjoyed her work.

  • “Catholic theologian Karl Rahner once wrote that Christians behave as “mere monotheists.” That is, if Christianity ended up dropping the doctrine of the Trinity, he suggested, the day-to-day lives of Christians would remain largely unchanged.”

    I know that is heretical, and I think it’s true. Few Christians are very concerned about the whole trinity thing. It took a lot of hunting through scripture and creative interpreting to come up with this folly. It was probably the most ill-conceived product of a bunch of men trying to figure out exactly what their new religion was and was not. This made it possible to decide who was out and who was in. Of course religious types have been doing so since the first women and men who hung out and argued with Jesus. Most religions seems to have a similar problem. Not the Church of the FSM however!

  • I think you may be correct on that point. However, I tend to prefer **Christian** Franciscans, not Taoist Franciscans, so I will be skipping this guy’s book. Apologies to Fr. Rohr, but I’m going to pass on it.

    I’ll just stick with reliable evangelical books like J.I. Packer’s “Knowing God.” Most of all, I’ll just stick with the Bible itself. That’s really how a person gets to explore the Trinity, and it’s a pretty exciting exploration !!

  • You’re just cheating yourself, Ms. Leftness, when you reject the Bible’s teaching about the Trinity.

    (Cheating yourself out of what, you ask? Out of an exciting lifetime exploration about the nature of God, and of reality.)

    The Triune God is flat-out real, but your atheism is flat-out false. Atheism is a ripoff; it’s a lifetime scam. And I know you would rather explore and accept ***reality*** instead of falsehoods and ripoffs, wouldn’t you?

  • It is exciting to discover Christians, like Fr. Rohr, exploring ways to view how the Infinite comes to meet us mere humans, and what this means for living as Christians. His understanding of relationship is not a new idea, but in this viciously divisive political season (I am skipping tonight’s “debate”) it is well worth embracing.

    I am somewhat troubled by Fr. Rohr’s lack of clarity on actual evil; there is so much human behavior that needs to be emphatically condemned, and that makes relationship with God and other people difficult, if not impossible.

  • It’s fine with me if the concept of a trinity is critically important to you. Why do you feel threatened that it’s not important to me? I ask that question in that way based on how you concluded your comment making false claims about me, my belief system and my choices. It shows a significant level of agitation on your part.

  • I think your point on evil is well made. I believe that evil is real. Some would describe it as a mental illness, but regardless of one’s opinion of the source, evil is real in my opinion and experience.

    I’d like to see more from prominent theologians about systemic evil too. Do you have thoughts on that Mr. Clark?

  • A mystery so convoluted that no one can understand it, explain it or agree upon it even 1700 years later.

  • Metaphysics is a particularly tough nut to crack, some ability to grasp the concept of the Trinity does not exceed human capacity, but to fully comprehend it is beyond our capability, I think. Father Rohr’s concept of a “reconciling third” reality(?) strikes me as nothing more than a reiteration of the Hegelian Dialectic: Thesis, Antitheses, Synthesis: Not a very encouraging (nor original) construction. He draws from the Book of Romans in his characterization of “Nature (as) the first Bible,” but coming from him, it has more of the savor of pantheism. However, his declaration that,” We weren’t ready to honor the Christ,” has some merit; still, the Father is the One who decreed the timing of His coming and I’m not prepared to question His judgement. From my perspective, it is doubtful if any of us are naturally ready to Honor Christ at any time before conversion to His message.

  • Oh, I don’t feel “threatened” at all. Not only is the biblical Triune God totally real, but He’s also very exciting, with incredible, unbelievable power and beauty and love and wisdom and calmness (among other divine attributes!) that would stretch all your rational and explorative abilities for the rest of your life (and beyond).

    He’d be a very good fit for you, and likewise you for Him (umm, on His terms not yours. Works infinitely better that way.) If you reject the biblical Triune God in favor of non-biblical speculations, that’s on you — and I’m not losing sleep, thank you.

    But I don’t mind (calmly and happily) inviting you and the other skeptizoids to consider His offer for you to personally experience Him (Rev. 3:20). He knows you anyway and thinks about you every day (Jer. 29:11).

    The biblical Triune God IS a “critically important” Person, if I may borrow your phrase. That’s the truth.

  • Fine. I don’t think it’s important. You do. I don’t insist that you agree with me. I don’t agree with you.

    You know, your response above is one of the more civil comments you’ve ever made. You ought to try more of that. It’s a much better witness than snide comments and much more attractive to others. Keep it up.

  • The doctrine of the Trinity was created by Roman Catholics (4th century) who had little understanding and insight into the Jewish Scriptures (i.e. Phil 2:6, Jn 1, Col 2:9, etc used in an attempt to explain and justify this doctrine) which, by the way, was written by Jews who, by the way, was the people through whom we Gentiles come to know God, and His Christ, who is Jesus. The Jewish nation failed but that is another story. Still, the Jews knew the truth that God is One (i.e. the “Sh’Ma states “Hear, Israel! Yahweh is our Elohim; Yahweh the only One”. Deut 6:4). Jesus believed that also as well as confirmed that the Sh’Ma is the foremost precept of Judaism. The Jews had absolutely no concept of a “trinity”, “godhead”, or “triune god” as such a thing would be heretical and blasphemous. The Roman Empire took something inherently Jewish and just created all kinds of weird, unfounded doctrines and all but destroyed what Jesus, the Twelve, and especially the apostle Paul, tried to give humanity. Again, the Jews failed in their task to bring God, and His Christ Jesus, to the world, however, the apostle Paul was given a new gospel (which was not given to anyone prior to him) for all of mankind, including the Gentiles, and if we, especially the western world, would take the time to educate ourselves about the Jewish Scriptures(I didn’t say become a Jew), we would come to know a better Jesus, a better God, and a better gospel than we have now. Because what we have now is a frankenstein of little truth with Roman Catholic-pagan-evangelical-judaistic parts. There are more “christians” and “churches” in the world than there has ever been and the world is more corrupt than ever. And all so-called religions blame the others, and the world, for the corruption, instead of looking in their own sects and seeing the corruption. They believe that if everyone believes as they do then all would be well. They refuse to accept that the Truth “came to them”, not out from them. And if it came to you, then you cannot add to it, take away from it, obfuscate it, or reinterpret it.