Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
Divine In-Dwelling: Invitation to a Trinitarian Theology of Religions
by Bruce Alderman
Richard Rohr and Mike Morrell have written a very accessible and engaging book on a topic typically confined to abstruse theological treatises: the perichoretic relations of the 3 Persons of the Trinity (and, by extension, of all creatures participating in the divine being of God). I have not yet finished the book, but I am more than halfway through it, and they have thus far successfully avoided ever mentioning theology wonkish terms like perichoresis or circumincession. But these concepts -- of the "dancing around," dynamic interpenetration, and mutual in-dwelling of the divine Persons of the godhead -- are central to the gently subversive and radically relational psychocosmology they unfold. So I hope you will forgive my indulgence in them here.
Although no longer a practicing Christian myself, I have remained interested for many years in Trinitarian thinking as a distinctly Christian expression of nondual spiritual insight -- and have wished for just the sort of unpacking and broad metaphysical application as it receives in The Divine Dance. (See Raimon Panikkar's The Silence of God: The Answer of the Buddha for a more specialized and rigorous philosophical analysis of Trinitarian perichoresis in light of the core Buddhist concepts of emptiness and dependent co-origination). Readers of my 2015 paper, Integral In-Dwelling: A Prepositional Theology of Religions, will know that my own recent theological and (post-)metaphysical reflections have been animated by the potential of Trinitarian insights to inform an integral-pluralist model of interreligious relationship. As I argue in the paper, a generalized concept of Trinitarian "circumincession" -- the entanglement or in-dwelling of each being by all beings -- opens the door, I believe, to a deeply participatory and relational (or post-pluralist) understanding of religious diversity, particularly when applied not only to persons but to religious communities as well.
Rohr and Morrell acknowledge this potential early on in the book: "Once you look out at reality from inside the Trinity, you can and will know, love, and serve God in all that you do. The metaphors, rituals, and doctrines of other religions are no longer threatening to you, but often very helpful. God as Trinity makes competitive religious thinking largely a waste of time."
There have been several recent attempts to build models of religious diversity on a Trinitarian foundation -- with perhaps some of the most well-known examples being S. Mark Heim's books, Salvations and The Depths of the Riches. But Heim's approach still treats the Trinity in the "substance-oriented" vein of traditional Christian metaphysics that Rohr and Morrell (rightly) critique: it conceives of each person of the Trinity rather statically as representing a particular ontological and phenomenological domain that may be accessed by different religious traditions for distinct soteriological ends (with only the Christian tradition providing access to all three Persons or Domains of the Godhead, and thus to the fullest soteriological possibilities).
The Divine Dance, however, locates the liberative power of Trinitarian thinking not in the individual substances of the Persons themselves, each concretely defined, but rather in the dance between them -- shifting from a nounal object-orientation to a more verbal one which emphasizes flow and inter-being. Rohr and Morrell suggest that substance metaphysics traditionally has inclined Christian metaphysics towards a pyramidal model of being, with God at the top as the supreme substance -- and I would suggest this has contributed to the pyramidal inclusivism common to Christian interreligious relations as well (where other traditions are recognized, and included, if they are at all, as partial revelations of the greater Christian truth). Heim's approach still operates under this model. A truly Trinitarian (perichoretic) orientation, on the other hand, would promote a more circular, entangled, multiplistic metaphysics -- a participatory metaphysics of kenotic love and entangled co-becoming.
In “Integral In-Dwelling,” I explored the concepts of perichoresis (divine "dancing around") and circumincession (the mutual in-dwelling of each being by all beings) in prepositional rather than verbal terms -- highlighting the creative, pre-positioning power of with and in, around and through, for instance, to set the vectors, the clearing, for the unfolding dance of being. A prepositional theology is a theology of relations. And prepositions, I suggest, function somewhat like light: in the very act of presenting the various objects and elements of experience (in what-ever configuration), they tend to absent themselves.
Rohr and Morrell also comment on the light-like play of God: "Light is not really what you see; it is that by which you see everything else. God is the Great Empowerer, taking the forms of inherent grace and constant evolution. Trinity is so humble that it does not seem to care who gets the credit. Like light, you do not see God; but God allows you to see everything else through really good eyes."
And Rohr and Morrell invoke the divine dance in prepositional terms as well when they speak of the persons of the Trinity in the sacred roles of for (Father), alongside (Son), and within/between (Holy Spirit).
"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."
This is the kenotic, gifting agency of the divine community. Like salt and light, working in and for. This is the direction, I believe, in which a circumincessional theology of religions would lead us: a theology of in-dwelling is a theology of co-presence, a vision in which each being, each religious practitioner or tradition, can be seen to enfold the totality, or the potential for the realization of any aspect of the totality. Prepositionally, we exist with/in and through, for and against, and as one another, with our light and life between and beyond.
Does a Trinitarian theology of the mutual in-dwelling of traditions vitiate interreligious relationships? Does it undermine the need for dialogue across traditions – rendering each tradition a self-sufficient whole, with no need to interact with or learn from others? The possibility for such an interpretation is present, of course; but in my opinion, in light of the prepositional orientation I've hinted at above, the principle of co-presence or universal circumincession has great potential to effect the opposite result: that is, to enrich and reinforce the entire field of interreligious relationship. For, while each being or form is in-dwelt by the totality of all forms (or at least the alethic truth of those forms), and therefore has the potential to realize some aspect of each, in reality we only ever actualize a limited amount of that potential – developing richly along certain evolutionary pathways, perhaps, while leaving many others relatively untrod. In interfacing closely with other traditions, we are afforded the opportunity to learn something about our own implicit capacities and potential forms of being, which we may then unfold in our own unique ways. As Richard Kearney (2010) argues in Anatheism, his wonderful book on religious hospitality after the death of God, “Only through the shock of affinity through alterity does something new emerge."
Interreligiously, such a model might inspire modes of encounter similar to Deleuze’s becoming-animal: Not a process of imitation, not a conscious choice to adopt a costume or to mimic another being's ways, but the invitation to draw close to the other until, imperceptibly, in that zone of maximal proximity and indeterminacy, becoming eventuates. We awaken what is always already, but in so doing, it becomes what it never (yet) was.
Put differently, a practice founded on the recognition of perichoretic and circumincessional co-presence, of being inseparably with and in, is a practice which invites us also to put ourselves in between, in the thick midst of our co-becoming. For in any of our projects of becoming, as William Desmond (1995) reminds us, we are always delimited and sustained by an overdetermined excess -- the ontological excess which is our milieu, an overflowing betweenness which always escapes final dialectical synthesis in our individual projects of self-determination (or systematic theology). This excess of the between, I would argue, is inseparable from our being-with/in-one-another. The “/” of with/in is never finally erased. And as Desmond (1995) observes, this excess has the capacity to startle us into agapeic astonishment -- into the primal innocence of appreciative wonder at and for the other as other. In practice, this is a call to gelassenheit, to a hermeneutics of care (Levin, 1989) and the exercise of the imparative method (Panikkar, 2015): a knowing which doesn’t take co-presence to mean that our interpretive categories fully exhaust or capture the being of another, or that our light leaves no shadows, and yet which trusts its assurance that mutual illumination, mutual incandescence, is always possible.
In my view, The Divine Dance issues a strong Yes to such possibilities, and represents for our time the welcome flowering of seeds long dormant – or at least frequently suppressed and crowded out -- in the Christian tradition. As a non-Christian, I've remained theologically and philosophically connected to some of the richness of the tradition through folks such as Raimon Panikkar, Catherine Keller, and William Desmond, and I've explored several different trinitarian visions over the years in my own personal reflections, but often a lot of the re-translation of Christianity for modern contemplative tastes strikes me as a "stretch" -- trying to get more mileage out of a failing car. But Rohr and Morrell's trinitarian contemplative theology strikes me as fresh and "indigenous" (enough) to the tradition to be compelling. So I will close with a small confession: This is the first book in very many years to make me consider Christianity again as an attractive and compelling path for myself.
Richard and Mike, thank you: may this vision flourish.
Alderman, B. (2016). Integral in-dwelling: A prepositional theology of religions. Retrieved from
Desmond, W. (1995). Being and the between. New York: SUNY Press.
Heim, S.M. (1995). Salvations: Truth and difference in religion. Maryknoll,NY: Orbis
Heim, S.M. (2001). The depth of the riches. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans
Kearney, R. (2010). Anatheism: Returning to God after God. New York: Columbia University
Levin, D.M. (1989). The listening self: Personal growth, social change and the closure of
metaphysics. New York: Routledge.
Panikkar, R. (1989). The silence of God: The answer of the Buddha. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis
Panikkar, R. (2015). Religion and religions: Opera omnia vol. II. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Rohr, R. and Morrell, M. (2016). The divine dance: The Trinity and your transformation. New
Kensington, PA: Whitaker House.