A Passion for Perichoresis – Dr Marty Folsom

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I still remember that day when I discovered the meaning of the F-word. Walking down the road in the fourth grade for my first after-school visit with a friend, he unveiled where I came from, what mommies and daddies do in secret, and what I would possibly do some day, but I could not imagine. I was in shock, and then denial. How could this be? How could all of this have been hidden from me? It all felt so big and impossible and gross. And my body showed no signs that any of this mystery was yet to be experienced.

It got worse. Surprises—a mixture of pleasure and shame—accompanied the journey of discovery. The whole path of realizing the unknown mysteries of sexuality was a route not well-marked. Many attempt to describe the bliss and aching of this development through poetry and scientific description. But none can actually reveal the concrete experience before one’s own body enters the process. Our experience as sexual beings leaves an indelible impression—yet most people never admit or reveal their passions. We are largely submerged beings whose inner currents are hidden—even from ourselves. The larger reality is a shadowy subject.

Coming to terms with this inexplicable physicality, I had an unfathomable sense of wonder, shame, and questioning as to the goodness of such a powerful physical force. It seemed that this part of my being was too good, an apple on a tree not to be eaten, yet a vital part of me, undeniably essential to my being. How was God to fit into this body awareness awakening in me? Does this mess come from Him and draw me closer, or distract and lead me away?  All the messages of the Christian world were warnings to avoid and defer discussion until an unknown point in the future.

Hang in there with me, I am wanting to show the profound relation of God’s being and ours. But more importantly I want to expose the profound differences, and how that informs and opens our understanding of our life with God.

When I finally experienced what it was like to be a male entering into a female body, again it was, because of my years of being trained to resist, an amazing experience of shame and pleasure all in one moment. I could sense from then on why people might think this was a religious experience. But this act must be distinguished from an experience of God. Sex cannot lead us to God or be a point of contact. But it is a gift of God that echoes the very passionate being of God in a way that informs the kind of beings we are created to be. Why is this so?

I do not want to reduce God with a comparison of proportion, meaning to propose that God is just a bigger or more intense version of humanity. With that line of thinking, sex would incorrectly be conceived as just a small taste of God’s life. If I say that “universe is to atom” what “God the Creator is to my act of creating (a poem, a book, or even a child),” I am wrong. “Universe to atom” is a comparison of proportion. On a grand scale, these words describe the biggest and smallest thing that I can conceive exist in the physical world. They are both within the category of existing things. Rather, when I say Creator, I am talking about God being in a category we do not share. God brings all things into existence and sustains them in all of their immensity, in all time and space. Forever the Creator is incomparably greater, not in the same category. God is the very source of the creation, all that is made is a derived, determined thing that exists because this personal being actually created it out of nothing—and unrepeatable feat. 

As creative human persons, we can only take the vast pool of created resources provided by God and play with them. We can interact with all that exists as a gift to be enjoyed and entered into with gratitude that responds to the Giver and not just the gift. This represents a comparison of participation—God’s Creativity and my creativity are not equal; but my act participates in the Original Act, entirely as a gift to be shared. This is not to diminish what we do as humans. It points out that we are not little creators. We dependently share in the created order, entering its gifts and challenges.  We can only be human within the limits and possibilities of what creation provides from the Creator, but we must not confuse them. The creation is not the Creator, but we share it as a resonating experience that owes its sounding forth from One whose being is the Original Sound that creates, where our sound only echoes.  We are not proportionally different, we are in different categories. But we are not separated, we actually share in the greater reality by the gift of participation—for which we were made. 

In Paris, I visited the Sainte-Chapelle chapel, whose sanctuary is entirely surrounded by stain-glassed windows telling the story of the Bible. The church was created to hold a relic thought to be the thorn of crowns of Christ. Thus, it is magnificent, not able to be reduced to words. Standing in its structure, one can only marvel and enjoy. Those who enter are either tourists who enjoy it for holy moments and leave or those who carefully maintain it. Both participate in what is already there.  Each values the presence of the others without confusing the part they play in the dance of the days as each plays their part. Without the original creation, tourist and custodian would not be present. Their presence is a participation in a greater reality.

As a creative theologian, I am like the window washer, one who polishes and makes clear what is already there.  My window washing is not proportional to the creation and existence of the light-filled majestic place that seems unimaginable to create. I am doing a job as a window washer that simply allows others to enjoy and engage the beauty of this magisterial reality.  Good worship should not focus us on how well we wash windows or position the lighting. It should let the Grandeur of God speak to us and draw is into the presence of the One who is the Embracing Reality, the Triune God who encircles, embraces, and penetrates us.  This Personal Penetration is the very being of God within the life of God.

Perichoresis is the term used to describe this mutual indwelling of the persons of the Trinity, this personal interpenetration. The Father is in the Son, the Son is in the Father, and so on.  This is the life of love and is mystery, but is revealed to us. We are invited to koinonia, to share a common life, as a participation in God’s life of self-giving, describing both what happens within God’s loving community and their work together in the world.

Here is where we must be clear in distinguishing. This mutual interpenetration of the Triune persons is a tempting image to connect with human penetration in the act of intercourse –to think they are similar, equivalently different. But this would be a mistake, in that it is a comparison of proportion.  The comparison would take the human experience as the starting point in understanding. Then one would attempt to envision God through these essentially sexual terms taken from our experience.  This flips everything on its head. We would miss God and divinize the human experience.

God has no body, so we cannot deposit physicality on Him. God exists eternally with this perichoretic union of being in the other; any image of human body parts could only be projecting a myth onto God. Perichoresis is more original and personal than human sexual experience or bodies.

Here we enter the big reorientation.  We begin by affirming that the God who created the world is discovered as “Christ in us” and subsequently that we find our being “in Christ.”  Christ is the Original, we are participants in His life.  His life originates in the personal communion with the Father and Spirit—that is the mystery of the loving way that God exits as one in the life of a shared love that constitutes one God.

Now we are boldly proclaiming that God has a personal pulsating life of mutual knowing and being known.  This is what Jesus revealed of Father and Spirit. As humans in His image, we have been created for participation in this greater reality of intimate knowing. But since the alienation of humanity from God, we function out of our separateness.  When we die to selfishness, we are on different grounds. We then share, or rather reenter, the Radically Other life of God for which we were created.

God, as revealed in Jesus, shows us that God’s existence consists of the loving union of three persons who are each particular in the Triune life of God.  The God of the Bible is a personal God—meaning existing in relationship, never solitary or singularly self-contained.

Each person of the Trinity actively participates in a dynamic existence.  Each of the Tri-unity has always gone out to meet and enter the life of the others. This defines the life of loving penetration we are calling perichoresis.

We must be very clear here; this is not a case of “universe is to atom” as “perichoresis is to human sexuality.” They are not in the same category. That would reduce God to existing as one of us on a grander scale.  When human sexuality becomes conceived as “participation in God,” then eventually the act becomes god, the experience of the divine.  It stops being a gift and becomes an idol. God is retired as unnecessary since the empirical has provided all that is deemed necessary.

But we can affirm that “perchoresis is to loving sex” as “Creator is to creative human act,” or as “San Chappelle is to window washer.” Now we have clarified that our act is a participation in the far grander reality. The source and essential reality has been made open and available.  We humbly enter in to enjoy, to participate as full persons, in a present, actual mystery that acknowledges the radically different character of the Creator/Stained-glass/perichoresis from the creative act/window wash/act of sex. 

Why is this important? In one case we end up worshipping the creation and our experience—fulfilling the individual self. With the other we end up participating in God’s life as gift—fulfilled as persons in relation.

Only by recognizing and living within the grander reality do we appreciate and share in the actuality we are meant to enjoy. We find our meaning in living and playing as those who have been awakened to the unimaginable, as personal and sexual beings.  This existence cannot find adequate words, but is essential to our being. We need not enter the act of sex to enjoy the gift of sharing the perichoretic life. That is only one expression of personal participation that shares God’s life. Eating and conversing in social intercourse are two obvious examples of other forms of shared mutuality that can participate in God’s life. That kind of communion is a better starting point for Eucharist than as a mere memorial event.

I am a sexual being made to enter into a loving life of affection, procreation, and nurture. But sex is not just an act. It is a way of being a human in a life of revealing God’s work in me.  I act to reveal what was already there, but with love, connection, and enjoyment as motive. I am a window washing that celebrates almost as a sacrament, the absolute sense of personal interpenetration.  My human act is a shadow of the light of the perichoresis that is the very being of God.  We cannot reduce God’s perichoresis to human bodily acts. But we can say that all personal interaction, including sex, shares in the Huge, Unfathomable, Indescribable way of being in God’s  perichoretic existence. We are made to participate in God’s gifts and be stewards in love of those ways of being.

God loves His creation and calls us to participate, not as atom to universe, but children who show up to genuinely share in the life of God: This means we are called to be fully persons who know and are known, and act like it, extending love in action. In opening up our stories and emotions we echo the life of God; we live in each other’s stories.

God’s story calls us to come home to the Abode of Perichoresis, a living Vine.  Our story is embedded in God’s story, not as a stone in a ring, but as a dynamic of entering a life as adopted children who come to share a life with the One who made us.  We then abide in this perichoretic vine, pruned and nurtured day by day.  We bear fruit that is not self-generated, but carries a flow of the passion of perichoresis that is for the life of the world, who can only receive it as gift. Perichoresis spills out and invites, it is not the wine of a self-contained God.

I am passionate about perichoresis.  This is not merely because it gives me a way to think about how one God can exist as the communion of three persons. My passion is fueled by the thought that the whole of creation, the entirety of human experience, and the direction of my life is a grace-filled, playful participation with that kind of God.  The very ground of personal interpenetration is a God out of whom personal interaction, and even sexuality, is a brilliant reflection, a resonant echo, a derived but full participation. The meaning of my existence is found in the mysterious love of the God who comes to bring me into that life. I cannot create it myself, I am a window washer for the glory of God.

The Holy Spirit is the agent who makes possible this participation, who perichoretically enters me.  There is no proportional comparison between God’s Spirit and my human spirit.  But the Spirit of God is the One who is the Lord, the Giver of Life who enables participation.  The radically distinct difference between the Holy Spirit and my spirit is not a ground for distance, but reflects all we have seen above, the divine origin of the possibility of the human act participating in God’s life.

Thus, like the universe and the human story, my story keeps opening up in audacious acts of discovery. Like discovering my own human sexuality, I am convinced that engaging perichoresis is essential to humbly understand, to experience, and to maintain a mystery that brings meaning. The depth and character of our human experience, whether in personal or sexual penetration, is always a mystery rife with possibility for abuse, but also for the fulfillment of who we are as persons. Only in understanding God’s dynamic nature can we begin to find our own participation in all that is hidden, waiting to be awakened with passion that ignite our lives.