Another Look: Our Relational God

Trinity Icon, Rublev

Another Look: Our Relational God

This Sunday upcoming is Trinity Sunday, the day that bridges the two main divisions of the Church Year. We have been walking through the life of Jesus from Advent to Pentecost since last November. Now, we begin the days of “Ordinary Time,” when we live out the faith daily as Christ’s church, embraced by the Good News of salvation and filled with his Spirit.

About Today’s Art
“Many scholars consider Rublev’s Trinity the most perfect of all Russian icons and perhaps the most perfect of all the icons ever painted. The work was created for the abbot of the Trinity Monastery, Nikon of Radonezh, a disciple of the famous Sergius, one of the leaders of the monastic revival in the 14th-century Russia. Asking Rublev to paint the icon of the Holy Trinity, Nikon wanted to commemorate Sergius as a man whose life and deeds embodied the most progressive processes in the late 14th-century Russia.

…From the earliest times, the idea of the Trinity was controversial and difficult to understand, especially for the uneducated masses. Even though Christianity replaced the pagan polytheism, it gave the believers a monotheistic religion with a difficult concept of one God in three hypostases — God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Not only the uneducated population but many theologians had difficulties with the concept of the triune God; from time to time, a heretical movement, like Arianism, questioned the doctrine, causing long debates, violent persecutions, and even greater general confusion. Trying to portray the Trinity, but always aware of the Biblical prohibition against depicting God, icon painters turned to the story of the hospitality of Abraham who was visited by three wanderers. In their compositions, icon painters included many details — the figures of Abraham and Sarah, a servant killing a calf in preparation for the feast, the rock, the tree of Mamre, and the house (tent) — trying to render as faithfully as possible the events described in the text. (Genesis, 18:1-8)

• Alexander Boguslawski

The Holy Trinity
The Church’s belief in the triune God — we believe in one God who is three persons in one essence — is foundational for Christian faith. This teaching is fully spelled out in the Athanasian Creed. Of course, this doctrine is a mystery, transcending human mathematical logic. However, it is perhaps the most practically important fundamental teaching of the faith, for it clarifies who the true and living God is, and what he is like. In particular, it reveals that he is a personal, relational God.

This God who acts is not only a God of energies, but a personal God. When humans participate in the divine energies, they are not overwhelmed by some vague and nameless power, but they are brought face to face with a person. Nor is this all: God is not simply a single person confined within His own being, but a Trinity of three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each of whom ‘dwells’ in the other two by virtue of a perpetual movement of love. God is not only a unity but a union.

• Timothy Ware (Bishop Kallistos of Dioklesia), The Orthodox Church, p. 209

This mutual indwelling of the Persons of the Trinity has been known as “Perichoresis.” We use a word that comes from this — choreography — to describe the art of dance. The image brought out in the term perichoresis is that of dynamic movement and loving interaction, as in joyful dancing. As Peter Leithart describes it:

The unity of the Tri-unity should not be understood as “sitting together,” as if the Persons were merely in close proximity. Nor should perichoresis be understood as a static containment, as if the Son were in the Father in the way that water is in a bucket.

Rather, perichoresis describes the Persons as eternally giving themselves over into one another. It is not that the Father has (at some “moment” in eternity past) poured Himself out into the Son, but that He is continually pouring Himself into the Son, and the Son into the Spirit, and the Spirit into the Father, and so on. To talk about God’s “perichoretic” unity is to talk about a dynamic unity, and to talk about a God who is always at work, always in motion, pure act. It is to say that the life of God is peri-choreographed.

• “The Dance of God, the Dance of Life,” Leithart.com

Furthermore, through this knowledge of God, we come to know who we are as human beings. For we are created in the image of the triune God. As Genesis 1:26-28 (NRSV) affirms:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

Our social programme, said the Russian thinker Feodorov, is the dogma of the Trinity. Orthodoxy believes most passionately that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not a piece of ‘high theology’ reserved for the professional scholar, but something that has a living, practical importance for every Christian. The human person, so the Bible teaches, is made in the image of God, and to Christians God means the Trinity: thus it is only the light of the dogma of the Trinity that we can understand who we are and what God intends us to be. Our private lives, our personal relations, and all our plans of forming a Christian society depend upon a right theology of the Trinity.”

• Ware, p. 208

As human beings, we relate to one another in the “dance of life” on this planet. The relationships between the three Persons of the Trinity — dynamic, interactive, loving, serving — form the model for our human dance steps. Unfortunately, through sinfulness we corrupt the dance into a choreography of conflict.

However, now through the Gospel, Christians have been brought into a special relationship with the triune God. Through Christ’s incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension, and by the regenerating action of the Spirit, we prodigals have been brought home and embraced by our Father. Gathered into the household of faith, we now enjoy the feast of the fatted calf, and participate in the dance party that is taking place in the Father’s house. In this way we exemplify the reality and nature of God and bring his Good News to a world that has forgotten how to dance.

The four texts for this Sunday are: Genesis 1:1-2:4a, Psalm 8, 2Corinthians 13:11-13, and Matthew 28:16-20. From these four passages, the following truths emerge.

  • The true and living God is a personal, relational God who created us to be like him (Gen. 1)
  • The most important aspect of life is holy and healthy relationships (Gen 1, 2Cor 13)
  • As humans, we are created to live in relationships that are fruitful, exemplifying the goodness of creation and pointing to the new creation. (Gen 1, Ps 8, 2Cor 13, Matt 28)
  • God’s family, the church, is to be the ultimate exemplar of such relationships, living out the grace, love, and fellowship of the Holy Trinity in the world. (Matt 28, 2Cor 13)

I encourage you to take a few moments today and throughout this weekend to meditate on these Scriptures and contemplate the significance of the triune nature of God. Go further into these questions:

  • What does it tell us about who God is and what God is like?
  • What implications does it have for we humans, created in his image? W
  • hat does it say to the church, God’s ambassadors here in this world?

42 thoughts on “Another Look: Our Relational God

  1. Yup, like a fountain, scriptures come to life as we live them and can see their reality. A prayer and a salute.

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  2. thank you for your prayers, ChrisS, and I hope someday you will share your song with us here 🙂

    that phrase I mentioned ( ‘deep calling unto deep’ ) is from a Psalm and from a hymn. . .

    “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.”
    (Psalm 42:7)

    the hymn that I love is that Psalm 42, sung by John Michael Talbot, this:

    Chris, my husband is being buried at sea with all military honors by the US Navy, as is his right and as was his wish,
    so the phrase has an extra meaning for me these days

    more importantly, though, I find comfort in these words from the Book of Revelation:
    “and the sea will give up the dead that were in it”

    The Scriptures are rich and varied and sooner or later, so many of the phrases and verses touch parts of our lives as we live them out . . . I am learning this still

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  3. Yet so much of American Fundagelicalism KILLS the imagination except in certain narrow “Approved” subjects.

    For years after my time in-country, I had to push anything to do with God far out of my mind in order for the creativity to flow.

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  4. Is possible that God communicates with us using our ‘imagination'(s) during those times we go through for which we have ‘no words’, and that is a part of His providential care for us in our weakness and our confusion.

    Like an odd experience I had many years ago that lifted me out of a depression — a vivid mental image that popped into my head out of nowhere and lasted for about 20-30 seconds. I call it “Thirty Seconds over Narnia”.

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  5. Funny you used the verse “ Deep calls unto deep”. I’m writing a song now called The Journey. It alludes to initial encounters with God. It then goes to “the belly of the whale” which is life’s tribulations. The final verse goes like this:
    “Deep calls unto deep, the pain is now of no import
    Inheriting our keep, it is the table of the Lord
    We sit, we drink, we eat, Light is solid ground
    In the permeating peace, the peace, the peace
    I hear the gathering sound, the gathering sound
    Love is gathering ‘round”. (repeats and builds with choir )
    The melody is very touching so it will be beautiful.
    My prayers are with you.

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  6. And yet because of the angle of the heads and the direction of their glances the center of gravity of the icon seems to me to be not the chalice but the hands of the figure at left. How odd. Not being brought up in the tradition my response to icons is almost completely aesthetic. The best ones shimmer with hallucinatory vividness. They don’t speak to me, they sing, which is why they are beautiful whether one knows the language or not.

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  7. Is possible that God communicates with us using our ‘imagination'(s) during those times we go through for which we have ‘no words’, and that is a part of His providential care for us in our weakness and our confusion. Approaching grief through Celtic imagery and lament may offer some form for the expression of grief which needs an alternate portal that may not use ‘words’, so as prevent an inability to ‘express’ that grief in meaningful ways.

    Why is this important? well, for many reasons, that ‘grieving’ finds its own paths but can be positively directed in a good way forward, or not. Sometimes, repressed grief, for which there are no words, turns inward and not in a good way . . .

    “”Give sorrow words: the grief that does not speak
    Whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.”
    – William Shakespeare, Macbeth, 4.3

    for those moments when ‘there are no words’, some ‘imaginative’ expression can provide an outlet as Deep calls upon deep, and in the natural world, all around us, we see ‘meaning’ that resonates with our loss and some comfort comes from allowing ourselves to experience what is meaningful to us in ways unspoken. Even a holy silence in a garden where comes a small being eating grass and being ‘with’, this takes on the appearance of a ‘sign’ recognized as a gift of comfort for only for a moment, and that is all that is needed for it to stay on as a memory of blessing. A small rabbit, wordless, in a garden. . . . . it works for me.

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  8. And that movie had a ton of them.

    “… our situation has not improved.”

    “Nazis. I hate these guys ”

    “I TOLD YOU… DON’T CALL ME ‘JUNIOR’!!”

    “Son, I’m sorry… They got us.”

    “The doooog? You are NAMED AFTER THE DOG?!?”

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  9. –> “He chose… poorly.”

    One of the truly great lines in motion picture history.

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  10. I don’t have a large enough picture of the icon to identify the shape of what’s in the cup. If it were meant to be a calf’s head, that would, like the oak tree and the fact that there are three figures, merely indicate the “historical” elements. The meaning of it is quite something else. We receive what’s in the chalice as the body and blood of Christ; the physicality of it is a cube of bread saturated with red wine and hot water, so it would look something like Rublev’s. It’s all about Communion – that of the Trinitarian Persons with one another, and of us with them. The outline of the figures also forms a chalice shape.

    Dana

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  11. The center figure represents Christ, who is blessing the chalice and offering the Eucharist, from a sort of altar. He is dressed in a solid red, not a sort of gossamer robe like the others, because he became human, “putting on” our solid flesh (adamah=blood-red), and the gold stripe running over his right shoulder is the Roman sign of honor for the first-born son.

    Most people think that because of the colors of the robes of the other two figures, the gold on the left figure indicates the Father and the green on the right indicates the Holy Spirit; wwe have green vestments on Pentecost because the Holy Spirit is the Giver of Life. But I think my (extremely knowledgeable) Orthodox friend John is right, that it’s the other way around, because Christ is seated at the Father’s right hand. At the time this icon was painted, the vestment colors weren’t vested (pun intended) with any particular meaning.

    On Pentecost, we bring big potted trees and branches and other large greenery into the nave of the church. Pentecost Sunday is for us primarily a feast of the Trinity, so this is the parish feast day of all the Holy Trinity churches. The Monday following is specifically dedicated to the Holy Spirit; the joy and awesomeness of the feast sort of “spills over” into another day.

    Dana

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  12. “Impassability” doesn’t mean “unfeeling”. In the Greek, it means that God is not forced by any internal inclination or pressure to do anything. Therefore, he is completely free in his actions; or as another way to say it, that God only does things out of self-giving love. And because of the Incarnation, God knows every human feeling, so we don’t have to even entertain the thought that he is unsympathetic. (Hebrews)

    Why would we want that love that God IS to change?

    Dana

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  13. I get so sick of radical relativism and skepticism. In any two opinions that differ from each other, one is going to be closer to the truth.

    The difficulty is is in discerning which, but as Lesslie Newbigin pointed out, discernment is not an option. Sometimes we just have to hear what the Grail Knight told Indiana Jones:

    “He chose… poorly.”

    …and accept the consequences. This seems like one of those times.

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  14. Okay, amend my comment more toward the Life cereal, “I’m not eating it, are you eating it?” “I’m not eating it, either.” “Hey, let’s get Mikey…”

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  15. Nice article, nice short reflection on the triune nature of God, the idea of a relational God.

    “Our social programme, said the Russian thinker Feodorov, is the dogma of the Trinity. Orthodoxy believes most passionately that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not a piece of ‘high theology’ reserved for the professional scholar, but something that has a living, practical importance for every Christian. The human person, so the Bible teaches, is made in the image of God, and to Christians God means the Trinity: thus it is only the light of the dogma of the Trinity that we can understand who we are and what God intends us to be. Our private lives, our personal relations, and all our plans of forming a Christian society depend upon a right theology of the Trinity.”

    I liked this comment up until the “all in” last line. Not sure that my private life and my personal relations depend upon a right theology of the Trinity, and I think I’ve done fairly well with whatever odd concept I have of the Trinity up to this point. This seems a bit of a “You need to see this the way I see it” kind of statement. I would agree that a “healthy” view of the Trinity is better than an unhealthy view, but I’m not sure “right theology” of the Trinity is necessary to my life and personal relations.

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  16. It would be hard to drink a calf’s head.

    I only know it’s a calf’s head in the cup because I just looked it up.

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  17. +1. I guess we view God the Father as an elderly father – maybe even more so as a grandfather or great-grandfather – not as a young, vibrant new dad just learning the ropes.

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  18. The Trinity Icons are lovely, and I love what they’re trying to represent.

    I can’t help but view them with a bit of a chuckle, though. The body posture of all three figures seems to be saying, “Who’s going to drink that? Are you going to drink that?” “No, I’m not going to drink that. How about you?” “No, not me, either.”

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  19. Rublev’s Trinity Icon is exquisite.

    Poor Arius. Forever branded as the arch-heretic when all he was guilty of was holding onto the older more traditional view, shared by most of the early Church fathers and going back to Paul. It was the Trinitarians who had newfangled ideas, who were the “liberals” (if we want to couch it in those terms). How the passage of time changes our perspective. One can go from being a liberal to a conservative without changing a single idea!

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  20. As an Orthodox Christian, Rublev’s icon of the Trinity is as authoritative to me as Leviticus. That it is is as self-evident as the authority of Leviticus. I would never reject the authority of either, but I don’t know precisely how I feel about that.

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  21. With regard to the place of the cross in the divine dance of the Trinity: One thing it means is that even the dark things that the cross represents — suffering, death, injustice — in human experience are also part of the divine experience, and can be and are redeemed in the dance of the Trinity. That would be the limit of the meaning of the cross in the divine dance, if it were not at the center; but I think it means something more than that, and is actually at the center of the dance. I think it is the dynamic reality that love, human love and divine love, always involves suffering for the sake of the beloved. I think the Persons of the Trinity suffer not only for their love of sinful and imperfect humanity, but also for their love for each other, and they embrace that suffering in the overflowing love of the Trinity, so that the center pours out into every creative as well as redeeming act of God.

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  22. That sounds right, yet immutability and impassibility have been presented as absolute characteristics of God in much Christian theology down the centuries, while their “opposites” have been minimized and relativized.

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  23. If the Trinity teaches that neither the differences nor the similarities are VLTIMATE, that neither the figure nor the ground is VLTIMATE, that neither the analysis nor the synthesis is VLTIMATE, then perhaps the Trinity teaches us that neither the change nor the stasis is VLTIMATE.

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  24. Doesn’t match up well with God’s depictions in the Psalms, does it?

    There was SO much that the Calvinist view of God I was bequeathed missed by a country mile.

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  25. “It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.“ – Chesterton

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  26. To talk about God’s “perichoretic” unity is to talk about a dynamic unity, and to talk about a God who is always at work, always in motion, pure act. It is to say that the life of God is peri-choreographed.

    Nothing like Aristotle’s unmoved mover, although God’s immutability and impassibility have come to be defining characteristics of his being in philosophical theology. How would a being that can neither change or feel dance? And why would they?

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  27. I like William Blake’s name for that old grandfather god (whom he took to be a tyrannical demiurge rather than the God and Father of Jesus Christ): Nobodaddy.

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  28. Interesting that in Rublev’s Trinity Icon, and in so many places in ancient Christian iconography from the earliest church era, God is depicted as young, in this case as three young men. In an early catacomb image of Jesus Christ, he is depicted as a young man at play, rolling some kind of hoop, if my memory is correct. Yet somehow we’ve wound up with the pervasive, monochromatic image of God as an old man with an immense hoary beard sitting on a throne, sometimes called The Man Upstairs.

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  29. I’m a big proponent of imagination. It is a partnership with the Spirit. It is allowing an image to arise but then fostering it. Developing it. Chewing the cud. Anyway, I know there are those who don’t believe this sort of thing is from God but it works for me. One image that regularly comes at me is myself as a sort of electron spinning at something like the speed of light. I sort of dive into the bosom of the Lord and move around as a particle of Him. You might say it’s a stale scientific image but it’s quite intimate. Dizzying to the point of stillness. I was reminded of this by this post because of the interactive nature of these particles that are separate but one.

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