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.
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.