Friends, I’m going to share one of my favorite words with you today. And yes, I learned about it from Moltmann. The word is perichoresis. You pronounce it perry-ko-ray-sis. (When Moltmann says it, he sort of drags out and softens the last two syllables, so it sounds like “perry-ko-reeeeyzzzsssis.”)
Perichoresis is a Greek word. It’s made by a combination of two words: Chora, a noun which means “space” and the verb form, chorein, which means to make space, and peri which means “around”. So perichoresis, roughly translated, means to make space around. More specifically, it refers to the way in which someone or something makes space around itself for others or something else.
One simple way to describe perichoresis theologically is to call it the idea of God’s mutual indwelling. God can be both in Godself and also in us, for example. In a more active sense, it is the idea of God moving in and through someone or something. It’s like a swirling or, the metaphor Moltmann likes to use, a dance. (That’s partly due to some confusion because the Greek word for dance is choreuo, so it’s become kind of a play on words.)
So: Perichoresis is used to describe theologically the divine dance of the three Persons of the Trinity. Father, Son and Holy Spirit make room for each other, move in and through one another, dance with one another, in such a way that creates a mutual indwelling while still maintaining space for each individually.
Of all the ways people have tried to explain to me what happens in the Trinity and how it works and what it’s for, this is the metaphorical description that has made the most sense. To me, it’s the metaphor that most easily and readily describes the energy and heart and intention of the Trinity. For example, water, ice and vapor have been used to explain how God is both three and one at the same time. And if you take that in a broadly ecological sense, and imagine rain falling and rivers freezing over and the heated mist of fog rising up again to the sky, you can get a good sense of the movement of God in this same dynamic way. But mostly when we hear water, ice and vapor, we’re more prone to envision them sitting on a table in three separate jars. What are we to know of God from that? But the minute you say “divine dance,” there’s no way to imagine the life of the Trinity as a static thing. It also keeps us from imagining the Trinity as a wooden, rigid thing, with those annoying straight arrows as if the movement of God is as simple as Point A to Point B and Point C. UGH. (This is why I love this art above- no straight lines, but a swirling, active movement.) Perichoresis also prevents us from falling into the idea of a hierarchy within God, where God the Father is at the top, and Jesus is the middle, and the little Holy Spirit gets totally neglected WHICH YOU KNOW I REALLY DO NOT APPRECIATE. There are a zillion theological problems when we try to make God a hierarchy, not least of which is that it gives humanity an excuse to try to copy that in our own systems and structures…and I don’t need to tell you where that has gotten us.
If you read John 14, you can hear Jesus describe a mutual indwelling. I am in the Father and the Father is in me. And then, how cool is this, you see Jesus extend that mutual indwelling to US: the one who believes in me will also do the works I do. And then, a few verses later, the Spirit abides with you, and will be in you. In John 15, this description continues as Jesus says he is the vine, and we are to live in the vine. Mutual indwelling, divine dance, perichoresis…these are ways of describing what it means for God to live within Godself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and also what it means that God makes room around Godself for us to live in God, too. We are not the same, but we are moving together.
Bonus points: perichoresis is also a fantastic way of envisioning the idea of Jesus as fully human and fully divine. In fact, this is how the term was first applied theologically*, and then later was used in reference to the Trinity. But all those questions of how Jesus can be of two natures, one substance, etc. etc…. Here is one way to describe a reality deeper than we can extrapolate in bland theories. Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, mutually indwelling both natures, while neither is subsumed by the other. How can that be? Not arrows. Not separate canisters of substance. Perichoresis.
There’s so much to say about perichoresis, but I hope this brief introduction has given you a good place to begin.
*Church history note, if you’re interested in this sort of thing: This term has actually been used extensively in theology in various forms, as far back as Origen. John of Damascus is the one who brought the idea into trinitarian thought, and whose work Moltmann used as the grounds of his own thoughts on the trinity.