Important to Richard Rohr – important enough to use it as the title of a book – is the idea of the Holy Trinity as a dance.
At the heart of Christian revelation, God is not seen as a distant, static monarch but— as we will explore together— a divine circle dance, as the early Fathers of the church dared to call it (in Greek perichoresis, the origin of our word choreography). God is the Holy One presenced in the dynamic and loving action of Three.
Rohr, Richard. The Divine Dance: The Trinity and your transformation (Kindle Locations 444-446). SPCK. Kindle Edition.
Unfortunately, although Rohr has footnoted quite a number of things in his book, he has failed to offer sources for a number of his more speculative claims, including this one. So I’ve done some searching of my own.
Some other writers have asserted the same thing:-
Eugene Peterson: “The dance is perichoresis, the Greek word for dance.” (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 44-45.)
Peter F. Schmid enthuses: ‘ ‘Περιξωρησις [perichóresis]’ originally means ‘a dance around each other’ – what a charming, expressive and meaningful picture: God as a dancing triad, a dancing group!’
Jim Horsthuis proposes a ‘perichoretic theology of leadership’, in which the imagery of dance is prominent: [The] ‘favorite image of perichoresis is that of a dance. The image of a dance is compelling because it incorporates both movement and participation as it provides a measure of definition to dynamics of the Triune God. From ancient times there was a connection between perichoresis and dance. The Greek word for dance and perichoresis share the same philological home.’
George Cladis (1999): “Perichoresis means literally ‘circle dance’.” According to Joseph R. Jeter in Feasting On The Word, Vol 1, Cladis claims that
‘John of Damascus, writing in the seventh century C.E., described the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity as ‘perichoresis,’ which is a kind of circle dance in which the persons move around the circle in a way that implies intimacy, equality, unity yet distinction, and love.’
In 2008 Tim Keller published his book ‘The Reason For God‘, in which he develops this idea of the Trinity as Dance at some length. Keller says:
‘Each person of the Trinity loves, adores, defers to, and rejoices in the others. That creates a dynamic, pulsating dance of joy and love. The early leaders of the Greek church had a word for this—perichoresis. Notice our word “choreography” within it. It means literally to “dance or flow around.”’
This putative connection between perichoresis and dance provides a fertile breeding-ground for pious thoughts. This web site quotes Australia’s Good Samaritan Sister Verna Holyhead: “The Holy Spirit is leading us to our future, not by marching forward, but as in a dance”:-
“Theology has developed a word to describe the dynamic relationship between the Persons of the Trinity and the community of believers – perichoresis, or ‘dance.’ The Trinity is encircling and embracing us; a graceful movement of loving attentiveness into which we are invited as partners who must, in our turn, draw others in the dance by our loving outreach to them.”
And the idea has even found its way into a modern hymn…
Come, join the dance of Trinity, before all worlds begun-
the interweaving of the three, the Father, Spirit, Son.
The universe of space and time did not arise by chance,
but as the Three, in love and hope, made room within their dance.
The play of the Godhead, the Trinity’s dance,
Embraces the earth in a sacred romance:
With God the Creator, and Christ the true Son,
Entwined with the Spirit, a web daily spun in spangles of mystery, the great Three-In-One.
Mary Louise Bringle, from The Play of the Godhead, 2000
…and a rather touching poem:-
rhythms of grace?
Do you see
Are you captivated
by the wonder,
that flows from their
of their hearts
as they whisper
proclaiming their love
for one another
Do you yearn
to join the joyful
encircled in their midst?
to this heavenly
Will you dare to take
the outstretched hand,
kick off your shoes
Sally Coleman, from With Unveiled Faces, 2008
Jonathan Marlowe takes the idea still further:
‘The theologians in the early church tried to describe this wonderful reality that we call Trinity. If any of you have ever been to a Greek wedding, you may have seen their distinctive way of dancing . . . It’s called perichoresis. There are not two dancers, but at least three. They start to go in circles, weaving in and out in this very beautiful pattern of motion. They start to go faster and faster and faster, all the while staying in perfect rhythm and in sync with each other. Eventually, they are dancing so quickly (yet so effortlessly) that as you look at them, it just becomes a blur. Their individual identities are part of a larger dance. The early church fathers and mothers looked at that dance (perichoresis) and said, “That’s what the Trinity is like.” It’s a harmonious set of relationship in which there is mutual giving and receiving. This relationship is called love, and it’s what the Trinity is all about. The perichoresis is the dance of love.’
Cynthia Holder Rich concludes:-
It is no wonder, then, that we in the community of those who follow Jesus (and thus follow God, and follow the Spirit) are called into this divine dance – and equipped to gather others to take part in the dance with others. We serve a God who is essentially, intimately relational. We serve a God who is essentially, happily non-hierarchical. We serve a God whose relationships and relationality assist us and encourage us and call us into relationship – with God, with each other, and with the community of all God’s creatures. This should set the stage for us to become people who are able to live into and live out relationships marked by love and grace. This truth can help all who serve God to live into our vocation of those who live interdependent on one another, calling, leading, and following in the dance of ministry.
Back in 1973 Catharine LaCugna translated perichoresis as ‘the divine dance’, ‘even if the philological warrant for this is scant’.
Actually, the ‘philological warrant’ is non-existent. There is confusion here between two different Greek words. They may be close to one another in spelling, but that doesn’t mean they’re close in meaning (compare ‘god’ and ‘gold’!).
perichōreō means “interchange” when used in reference to the two natures of Christ and “interpenetrate” when it describes the actions of the members of the Trinity. A similar range of meaning is found for the cognate noun.
perichoreuō is also listed with the meaning “dance round”, but the primary references are found in Pseudo-Dionysius Aeropagita (5th century) and these uses are not related to the Trinity per se. Also, Lampe only lists three occurrences, whereas for perichōreō he lists many occurrences, both Christologically and in relation to Trinitarian discussions.
Perichoresis, then, does not mean ‘to dance around’. It means ‘to dwell together’. It was used by the church fathers – and continues to be used – to describe what theologians regard as the ‘interpenetration’, ‘co-inherence’, or ‘mutual indwelling’ of the members of the Trinity, and also of the ‘two natures’ of Christ.
Perichoresis is not the origin of our word ‘choreography’. The origin of that word is choreia, meaning ‘dancing in unison’, from choros, ‘chorus’. (So Concise Oxford Dictionary; see here for further details).
As Dwight J. Zscheile says: ‘Perichoresis is commonly mistranslated “circle dance”…While there may be an intentional pun on the Greek term for “dance,” they are in fact different roots.’
So what about John of Damascus, who is said to have set this rabbit running? Well, what he actually says in his Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (Book 1, Chapter 14) is that the three Persons of the Trinity ‘are made one not so as to commingle, but so as to cleave to each other, and they have their being in each other [kai ten en allelais perichoresin] without any coalescence or commingling.’
No mention of ‘dance’ there.
In fact, John uses ‘perichoresis‘ to refer not only to the relationship between the members of the Trinity (citing John 14:11) but also to the relationship between the ‘two natures’ of Christ (citing John 14:10). (However, when John talks about the blessed fellowship that believers have with the divine Trinity, he unfortunately limits this to the “saints” who are now in heaven and (allegedly) make intercession for us. More on John’s theology of ‘perichoresis’ here).
The whole idea of the Trinity as a ‘Divine Dance’ would appear to be based on wishful and sloppy thinking, and to have grown with all the vigour of an urban myth. Someone has set a hare running without checking first to see if the facts can chase it down.
But does it matter? Where’s the harm in a bit of creative re-definition? Why get stuck down by the meanings of words, when, with some of imagination, you can soar up to the sky (or, at least, enjoy the dance)?
Well, to put it bluntly, imagination that claims to have facts in its favour while flying in the face of facts is mere fantasy, and deceptive fantasy at that.
Actually, I think that the representation of intraTrinitarian relationships as not static, but dynamic, is true and helpful. I can see that using the analogy of ‘dance’ is reasonable (C.S. Lewis used it, briefly, in Mere Christianity). But, given the lexical and historical flaws involved (not to mention the absence any mention of the Trinity as dance within the pages of Holy Scripture), it is going much too far to build an entire Trinitarian theology (or, in Rohr’s case, an entire trinitarian book) on it.
See also this post.