The following paper was written for a graduate level course in Interpersonal Relations. The paper has been modified for publication here. This paper began as a mind-map first draft. Click here to learn more about my method for prewriting papers via mind mapping.
God, Self, & Other as a Perichoretic Model of Wholehearted Being
…remember that these things are mysteries and that if they were such that we could understand them, they would not be worth understanding. A God you understood would be less than yourself. -Flannery O’Connor, Personal Correspondence, October 1959
God exists in a Trinitarian relationship in which the three parts of the trinity, father, son, and holy spirit navigate narrative and ongoing dialogue in a state of perichoresis. Perichoresis is a constant movement of all members simultaneously giving and receiving, each being filled while also pouring out. God uses this relational model for us relationship with him, to dialogue with our own lived narrative, and to relationship with each other. Using the figures illustrated on the final page of this paper, I will outline how the perichoretic model of the trinity is echoed in humans in the dialogue and movement between God, Self, and Other and how this model is vital to experiencing life as a whole and healthy person.
It will be helpful to begin by defining terms. God is Trinitarian, inherently mysterious, and the embodiment of beauty, love, and creative power manifest in the universe. I understand self to be primarily our lived narrative, our understanding of our lived narrative, and our active present part in experiencing being human within our lived narrative. I understand Other to encompass relationships, all that blossoms out of relationship, and the working out of story interactively with other humans and in relationship with God. I believe that when we experience these categories interacting perichoretically we are in our most whole and our most redemptively human state.
(See Figure 1.) God is a being revealed in and through story, thus we must have relational capacity in order to engage with God. I believe God is seen most fully when we approach the venture towards knowing him/her with a heart open to our own story and with a relational posture open to engage God not as an extension of ourselves and what we want to believe, but as an Other who is separate from us but knowable if we submit to knowing relationally. Esther Meek would extend this argument to being known by God, when she states, “You cannot be known by God without being different and being forever in joyously unfolding relationship with him” (Meek, 2014, pp 76). Since the church is the body of Christ, and Christ is a member of the Trinity, then it follows that fully knowing God and being known by God requires an active relationship with other humans who make up the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-27, ESV). One way God works out his/her relational nature is in how God, through Christ, has extended to a creation ailed by the choice to sever connection with God through brokenness and sin the opportunity to return to a life giving perichoretic relationship with God via Christ. Through Christ’s sacrifice and subsequent victory over death, which is the consequence of our sin, we are able to turn towards God’s beauty and return to relationship with the source of life, beauty, and story.
All artists retain a living connection to their work. God, as the ultimate creative being relates to us both as a loving parent and a creator-artist invested in calling fully back into life the beauty he placed in us which was marred by the original sin of the first man and woman, recorded in Genesis chapters 1-3. The creation narrative of genesis speaks heavily into not only God’s investment and care for creation, but also the nuances of the creation of humans as relational beings. Both Genesis 1:26 , which states “Let us make man in our image”, and Genesis 2:18, which states “It is not good for man to be alone”, underline a theme: to be created in the image of God is to be relational and placed in community and relationships.
Through story, God invites us to reflect and image him (Allender). Through co-creation of stories, art, relationships, nations, etc God’s image can be seen through us and what we create. Reminiscent of Carl Roger’s vision of a skilled therapist (1995), God is sensitive, present, responsive, and relationally focused. When our narratives contain stories of harm without resolution we often lose, or fail to develop in the first place, the ability to allow ourselves to participate authentically in relationship. Through relationship with God, who offers us attunement, containment, and an invitation to be welcomed home when we discover our hearts have turned from him even those of us with broken stories can find ourselves drawn back into relationship with self, other, and God via the hope offered by our living, relational God.
Engaging the Self
(See Figure 2.) God blesses selfhood. God’s narrative invites us to be own our unique selves, bearing by his/her design unique gifts, unique stories, and unique experiences of the world. However, a Self is not a self without a context. I believe it is through being known by others that we come to know our own selves. Similarly, if we fail to see our own selves and our story outside of the context of God’s intentional, personal investment in each of us and the place he has given us in his story, we cannot know ourselves well or fully, and in the failure to see ourselves accurately, we will be limited in how authentically we can experience God and others. Frederick Buechner eloquently summed up the necessity of relationship in becoming a mature and whole individual when he stated in his book The Sacred Journey “You can survive on your own; you can grow strong on your own; you can prevail on your own; but you cannot become human on your own” (1982, pp 46).
From our earliest moments of life, we are sustained and developed through relationship. Human infants, deprived of relational contact with another person rarely survive (Shore, 2014). During infancy we physically depend upon the presence of an attuned human being to regulate and sustain our body (Shore, 2014). As we grow this actually changes very little. The human body requires the limbic systems of other humans to stabilize and regulate our emotional regulation and even our physical states (Lewis, Amini, & Lannon, 2000, pg 86). Even individuals who have experienced relational trauma and subsequently chosen isolation as a lifestyle establish some relationships, seeking and creating counterfeit versions of connection and relationship with pets, online communities, television personalities, or even, in extreme pathology, inanimate objects. As the individual becomes increasingly isolated from the living limbic system of other humans, the individual fails to connect with community. In this loss of connection to community, a person loses a part of how they are meant to reflect the image of God.
I believe our ability to connect (to self, other, or God) is directly related to our willingness to honor our known story, our body, and our implicit memory- and on our willingness to do the work of integrating data from those ways of knowing into a cohesive narrative with a desire for objectivity. We are creatures defined by stories. We create and tell stories because we are created the image of a God who is a storyteller and exists for us within the context of story (Allender, 2005). God’s relationship to humans takes place in narrative- in our own lived experience and in the greater narrative contexts where our stories play out on a macro level. Many of us, however, would rather not live our story. When we refuse to collate our lived experience in a cohesive narrative we lose touch with self. If we choose, out of defiance or fear, to not engage the loss or trauma that has disintegrated our narratives into disjointed fragments we become static and immobile in our lived experience- disconnected and unable to experience our own story and disconnected knowing God through his/her engagement in our story. When we deaden our ability to experience emotions about our life experience in this way we simultaneously deaden our availability to participate in the perichoresis of life with God and Other. As Jones writes, “it is not a matter of repressing our emotions and feelings so much as one of winning them back. We ache for their restoration, not their destruction” (1985, pp 184). This restoration of the emotional life in a cohesive narrative is vital for the recovery of our ability to engage relationally with God and other.
Martin Buber defines an I-thou moment as a transcendent moment of shared connection that is the goal of all communication (Buber, 1970). I believe our ability to experience an I-thou with both God and others is relative to our own mental health. I believe that only to the degree that we have a cohesive narrative are we available to enter I-thou relationships. In sinful fragmented states we relate to others as objects in a fruitless attempt to use others in an attempt to remedy our fragmented state.
Engaging the Other
(See Figure 3.) It is only when we engage other people from a place of authenticity in our own stories, and with attention to the glory imparted to them by God that we can begin to know relationship that reflects the perichoresis intended for the community of God’s people. Until we enter the work to grieve our own brokenness, bless our own beauty, and acknowledge the imago dei that makes each individual sacred and worthy of love we are limited to objectified, transactional relationships with others in a style Martin Buber refer to as “I-It” (Buber, 1970).
The other is important because it is relationships through which we develop the ability to navigate the world and ourselves. When we share our stories with one another, we are relationally linked because our stories are bigger than us. Our stories are part of a larger narrative and our stories of beauty and brokenness matter because they give life and context to this meta-narrative (Allender). Pulitzer prize winning author Marilynne Robinson sums up this eternal nature of our stories in her 2004 novel, Gilead:
I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try. (Robinson, 2004)
The Role of the Therapist
As a therapist I want to be a bridge. I think the loveliness of a healing relationship and the beauty God has placed in the capacity to heal through relationships is in that in a relationship with attunement, containment, and the capacity of rupture repair, humans can experience a bridge to God’s presence (Allender, 2016). In being seen and cared for, often for the first time in our lives, therapy can be a bridge to developing trust, relationship, and attachment with God. In The Wounded Heart Dan Allender writes “a father is called to be a secure, trustworthy, and life-generating surrogate for God until the child develops the capacity to see his or her heavenly Father as the only perfectly trustworthy Source of life” (1990). I think an attuned therapist can serve the same role for an adult in order to create the bridge to trusting God that a person’s caregiver(s) could not be when the person was a child.
A therapist gets to interact with a client in such a way that the therapist “other” can create a bridge to experiencing God. By being present for the client in a way that reflects God’s love and attentiveness a client can implicitly learn from a therapist the skills to regulate themselves (Lewis, Amini, & Lannon, 2000, pg 171). and to grow the ability to trust and receive goodness from future others and from God. This movement towards self-regulation and relational openness constitutes a movement towards mental health and serves as a bridge out of a stuck, disconnected place leading into the movement of the perichoresis of wholeness
On Being a Christ Follower
We bear the image of Christ when we accept our identity as people of and in relationship with Christ and begin to live lives that reflect the fully-image-of-god-bearing nature of Christ’s life. Following Christ calls us not to give up our identity and the unique creator-given marks of what makes up each of our unique selves. Instead, Christ calls us into the dance of relationship with himself. God manifest both humanity and diety in Christ so that we would have an earthly “other” with whom we could see our own humanness working out in a way that was fully whole, fully integrated, and fully well. To be in the image of Christ is to be in relationship with this fully whole person of Christ. In some ways, this is the ultimate therapeutic relationship, but incomplete without the work of the church, which 1 Corinthians defines as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-27).
Through the church, with all its ails and failures, we walk with the body of christ, weaving together a narrative as we learn, hopefully, to grow our ability to be in relationship moving towards wholeness and integration. It is the body of Christ through which we bodily and manifestly experience Christ active in our world. As we experience the ordinary moments of life together, we grow together, and in the movement of self pouring into other, and other into self in movement towards God, we worship. “The God who is love and family, who was born in a barn, is a god who is found, first of all, in our homes, in our families, at our tables, in sunrises, in our joys, and in our arguments” (Rolheiser, 1999). While Rolheiser’s words paint a lovely picture, life in community is often painful. Flannery O’Connor masterfully summed up the pain of experiencing the humanity of the Other within the church and the mystery that this group of humans also make up the Body of Christ:
the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it. “ (O’Connor, 1988)
(See Figure 4) Figure 4 illustrates what my theology of self, other, and God defines as wholeness: spiritual and mental health. In this model of health, self, other, and God are simultaneously impacting and enhancing each other. In this model, the self is known via a cohesive narrative of self and story, via the context of dialogue with others, via placement within the relational context of an active, loving God. Simultaneously, the naming of our story and acknowledgement of both the beauty and brokenness in it allows us to know and be in relationship to God more wholeheartedly, while our relational experience is bringing us awareness of our beauty and brokenness in such a way that we become more tender towards and more relationally conversational towards God. While self and other are helping us know God, and other and God are helping us know self, also God and self are helping us know the other and engage in relationships that bring honor to the other and invite them, with us, into relational spaces that transcend consumption or objectification but bring about authentic experience of one another in the context of a created world.
This model illustrates constant moment- God bringing truth and beauty to ourselves and our stories, our selves bringing blessing and engagement to God and others, and Others helping us know ourselves and the incarnational body of Christ worked out in the church. Complex and vibrantly mobile, this model illustrates perichoresis between God, Self, and Other that models the trinity itself. This type of life, a life of constant blessing and growth while giving self away and caring for self, seems impossible. It may be that even at our most healthy we only capture a glimpse, in this life, of this way of being. I believe this is the way Christ engaged the world around him, in order to model for us how to live life now, and to provide hope and a vision of what we can experience as we transition, in that holy movement from death to life, finite to infinite, earthly to eternally, from isolation and brokenness into ownership of our own beauty and ability to engage the world for good.
Allender, D. B. (1990). The wounded heart. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.
Allender, D. B. (2006). To be told: God invites you to coauthor your future. Colorado Springs, Colo: Waterbrook Press.
Allender, D. (2016, April). Obstacles for Kingdom Calling. Lecture delivered for Allender Center Lay Counseling Certificate Weekend #4. The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, Seattle, WA.
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