Perichoresis: Sharing in God’s Life with C. Baxter Kruger
JMF: We’ve never covered perichoresis as a word, and what does it mean, and why is your ministry named Perichoresis? C. Baxter Kruger: We just wanted to figure out what would be the hardest thing to actually pull off in the universe [laughter]…. So we just figure a name like that… No. Oh, goodness. The word means, technically, mutual indwelling. What attracted me to it early on was the way in which the early church was grappling to explain how the relationship of the Father, Son, and Spirit works, and how can there be […]
JMF: We’ve never covered perichoresis as a word, and what does it mean, and why is your ministry named Perichoresis?
C. Baxter Kruger: We just wanted to figure out what would be the hardest thing to actually pull off in the universe [laughter]…. So we just figure a name like that… No.
Oh, goodness. The word means, technically, mutual indwelling. What attracted me to it early on was the way in which the early church was grappling to explain how the relationship of the Father, Son, and Spirit works, and how can there be three in one. For me, to come to see Jesus as the Father’s Son, as the Anointed One and the one in and through and by and for whom all things were created, and to say and to speak the name of Jesus Christ is to say Trinity, and humanity, and creation are not separated but bound together in relationship.
I started thinking, Steve and I were talking about this, we were excited about this, like, how do we talk about this person Jesus in this way? Then we talked about the idea of starting a nonprofit ministry that was essentially Christologically focused, helping people recover the early church’s vision, and we were talking about how do you summarize this in one word. We talked about “Immanuel,” we talked about “union,” both of which are great words that summarized what we were talking about, but those are words that are used all the time.
I said my favorite theological term forever is perichoresis. It’s just right at it. It’s saying it all in one word. It says union without loss of personal distinction. It says Father, Son, Spirit relationship – oneness but not enmeshment. It’s just a classic word, and I was naïve enough to think that a word like that would not be a marketing problem. The interesting thing about it is, it’s not a marketing problem with the younger generation. They love stuff like that. They just love words like that.
We’d backed into it there, but the other thing I think is interesting about the word is as we march historically, the old divisions between science and religion – or at least some of those parts of division are beginning to, not fall away, but we’re having conversations – and it seems to me that there is a lot of scientists out there who’re trying to come to some concept of how things can be united and yet remain what they are without being psychologically enmeshed or absorbed. I think that word and the concept of Perichoresis is going to be very much the forefront as we move into the third Christian millennium, and in terms of the larger discussion.
JMF: In the description of the ministry of Perichoresis, you have written that you have established critical dialogue with scientists, with doctors, lawyers, counselors, and teachers, and provided a relational theological vision for a new integration – overcoming the inherited divisions between those disciplines.
CBK: Yes. That’s again a Christological affirmation. Once you see that Jesus is not just one individual and a sea of individuals that are unrelated, but he is actually the one in, and through, and by and for whom all things are created and are sustained. Then in him, in the person of Jesus, you’re talking about the point of unity. You’re talking about the one who holds it together, and so that gives us a whole new vantage point for international politics, a whole new vantage point for law and justice and what are we trying to do, and who are the people that we’re involved with.
Instead of recognizing people according to the flesh, like Paul says, don’t recognize people according … he doesn’t recognize people according to the flesh. Paul said, “one died, therefore all died.” All our divisions, and all the ways that we recognize and honor one another is out – there’s only people bound up in Christ and the giftedness in that. That’s the way we look at people. That revolutionizes the way we go about our relationships, it gives us a framework to know that I’m not ever going to meet a person in the planet [including the Calvinist] who is not included, and is not a joint heir with me, and a participant in the life of the Father, Son, and Spirit. To know that’s who I’m dealing with radically changes the way that I approach… (or theoretically, radically changes, and we still fall to our own prejudices, thanks), but it gives us a foundation for a new dialogue.
Then when you talk about that in terms of economic theory, for example, where did our current American economic theory come from? It came from some philosophy. Some guy or group of guys’ way of thinking about the nature of economics. Thinking now in Christ that we are bound together in this relationship, we now have the responsibility to live in the unity of our relationship together. That changes some of the dynamics and what pushes our economy and the way we value different things. These are all implications. What I found is the more I proclaim this Jesus, the more I’ve got economists or physicists, or scientists. Or psychologists and all, and so when they see something of the implications for their field, immediately the want to have a dialogue, and that’s what’s beginning to happen.
JMF: Physicists and paleontologists, we tend to, as Christians, limit our dialogue to “creation vs. evolution,” and it’s a stark kind of a dialogue that draws lines in the sand, God against the evolutionist and that sort of thing. But what you’re talking about supersedes and transcends that kind of thinking.
CBK: It’s like a shift in paradigm – it’s like the Augustine-Pelagius battle – you’re either Augustinian or you’re gonna go to the Pelagian framework. But both of those are operating out of the same framework – they are both operating out of failed understanding of objective union – that Jesus has established a relationship with us, that he did that prior to our vote. The whole discussion has now got to be changed. In the same way, when you see in Jesus Christ that he is the one that established a relationship with us and with the whole cosmos, it is integrated in his own being, in his own person and his relation with the Father and Spirit. Now we’ve got a new paradigm or a way in which we can begin to think differently about some of these things, and not necessarily assume division – but begin to think, well, let’s explore this.
Let’s think through (for example) Boethius, shortly after Augustine’s time, came forward with a definition of “person.” He said that a person is an individual substance of a rational nature. Ever since then, that’s been the reigning concept of person in the Western world. Our educational system is established on that basis – an individual substance of a rational order, rational nature.
Let’s redefine person in the light of Christ. A person is one who exists in union with Christ and therefore in communion with the Father and Spirit, in communion with one another and in communion with creation. So you can be an individual and not a person, because a person is when you are participating in the relationship in which you exist. So you’ve got a very different concept.
What it means for me to be a person involves my relationship, in Christ, with the whole cosmos, with the environment, with the water, with ecology, with everything and not just in my backyard, so to speak, but in a global and cosmic level. Just that one little thing changes radically some of the implications. We ought to think about lots of things. That’s where we are right now in recovering the gospel of the ancient church – we’ve got a lot of work to do. We’ve got to re-think tons of things, and that’s where we need help. Thank goodness, we are a long way from being the only people on the planet who are wrestling with this. This is going on all over the place.
SH: Perichoresis is also a term used by the early church to describe and to talk about the Trinity. When you start to see that (I used to teach this, mind you, at a place called Harbor House with crack addicts and drug addicts)…the way we talk about the mutual indwelling, that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit mutually dwell in each other to the degree that they function as one – in relationship. Because we were trying to move away from a legal framework into one that showed them a loving Father rather than a condemning Father.
MM: Historically, the word perichoresis has been used for relationships within the Trinity, but from what I hear you saying, it’s like we are also invited into this relationship, too. Are we participating in perichoresis?
SH: And we function perichoretically when we do it. Absolutely. It’s almost like the butterfly effect.
CBK: It is a Trinitarian way of being, and we belong to that way of being, and we’re not going to function properly or be happy or prosperous when we’re living in a way that is alien to that way of being. It’s a fundamental word because it helps us to understand in marriage, how you can be one and yet not lose yourself in that co-dependent enmeshment, the boundaries that are established are real, but you’ve got one-ness.
SH: Separate and distinct but yet one.
MM: We’ve been invited to the party.
CBK: Well, it’s even stronger than invited to the party. We’re being told we’re AT the party. We’re included in the party.
MM: So we can either have fun, or we can choose not to.
CBK: Or you can stay and fight to stay outside and watch from a distance.
SH: You can certainly choose to participate or not to participate. You’re not going to escape the consequences of either side.
JMF: But there is no other way of existing or being, apart from this perichoretic relationship that God in himself has created through Father, Son, and Spirit and in which all the cosmos exists, including us, no other way of being.
SH: Amen. We move, we breathe, and we have our being.
CBK: It’s almost like you would say, ok, is it thinkable that this God who exists in this way, as Father, Son, and Spirit, in this perichoretic relation in which there is one-ness but no loss of personal identity – is it conceivable that this God would think up another way of being and wire the universe in that way? What we have revealed in Christ is … this is who we are, this is who God is, this is the way the cosmos is wired. That’s why Jesus did miracles. Because, it’s made for him. It’s built after the blueprints or the pattern of his own relationship with the Father and the Spirit. When he spoke, it was made to respond to him in that way.
JMF: Everything that exists then comes out of, as a product of God’s love.
CBK: Relational love is the Father, Son, and Spirit, it’s been called into being and sustained in and out of that. It has its stamp on it. This is where I think the theory comes forward. If we’re going to understand the nature of things or how they work, then, here’s the blueprint. We’re looking at the Father, Son, and Spirit relationship, we won’t understand who we are and what we’re made for, in what existence we have – here it is, this is the nature of the relationship. It’s other-centered, self-sacrificial, love, mutual delight, self-giving, for the benefit of the other – that’s the way things are made and they function like that.
JMF: But how do we think of ourselves, we don’t think of ourselves that way. Typically, at our heart-level we think of ourselves in negative terms. We see our failures …
CBK: Individual substances that are totally depraved!
JMF: We see ourselves as ugly, worthless on the outside, unlovable …
SH: And independent … functioning on our own and we have life within ourselves and we can produce that. What do I need with God?
JMF: Or at least we can struggle to produce it.
SH: In our fallen minds we think we can. It’s only through the quickening of the Holy Spirit that we get convicted to conversion to have a renewing of the mind to see that we never brought anything to the party in the first place.
JMF: But there is a healing in that, in fact, this is all about healing.
JM: There’s an aspect to this that I think we should pay some attention to. The perichoretic relationship between the divine and human natures of the person of the Lord Jesus Christ is one kind of perichoresis. Perichoresis of the divine and human nature in the person of Christ is not the same as the perichoresis between the Father, Son, and Spirit in the Trinity.
CBK: That’s correct. That’s why basically the former was dropped as the Trinitarian view of perichoresis emerged historically; the other Christological kind of moved to the background.
SH: Because of our fallen minds.
JM: I believe that we have to learn to integrate them and distinguish them – that there is a perichoretic relationship between the perichoresis in the Incarnation and the perichoresis of the Trinity. I believe this is important for the relationship to physics, to science. Because the divine and human natures, the divine nature of the Word of God, is spaceless and timeless. When the Word of God becomes flesh, what has been living eternally (and I like to use the … whatever space and time are a reflection of, in eternity, so that I can say un-created space-time) has made room and time for itself in the Incarnation. So now, in this one person – which is why you cannot use Boethian terms – in this one person you have space-time, having been created by God for God, as a man, in relationship with the un-created space and the un-created time that God is, as triune.
CBK: That’s another dimension of the word, the meaning of the word perichoresis: make room for another within you own space/time.
JM: You have inherent in this perichoresis, the way that transcendence and empiricism belong to one another.
CBK: You got a hold of something. Someone’s got a hold you right there. I cannot quite get it, but I smell it.
JT: Let’s bring it to a level that maybe people can grapple with by asking a really difficult question. If we are partakers of the divine nature, and I believe we are, and if all the world, all the people – whether they are witting or unwitting of their participation, how do you explain in human history events like the Holocaust?
CBK: Something of that enormous proportion, and pain and suffering, needs a deep and detailed answer, but there are basic things to be said. How do you explain the failure of the church? To me, the life of the Father, Son, and Spirit is not a computer life. Jesus is not programmed to love his Father. He’s three persons in relationship, and that life is one that involves (to speak anthropomorphically) mind, heart and will of each of the three persons. It involves the choice, and so the life of God does not exist as a pre-programmed thing. It exists as a relationship that’s real. Each person is real to the other person.
If the goal is adoption, if the goal is to create something that is not, and then bring that to participate in this Trinitarian life, then one of the things that has to be built into it, is our own distinct mind, heart, and will. Because otherwise we’re just computers with Christological software, we’re robots, and that’s not the point. So that will and that choice is there. We’re included in this relationship now. To participate, we must choose to do so in ongoing relational basis.
But to me, that is the crack in the door that allows in the snake. Because we can, in our own distinct mind, hearts and will, (although we’re united with the Father, Son, and Spirit and share in that life), we can, in our distinction, become very confused and very dark. In our darkness and confusion, we can act out, live out of that, and do harm to ourselves and to one another, individually, and corporately, and to the cosmos. The Holocaust is the extreme example of that. But any form of murder, any form of where we are acting out of our confusion and darkness which ultimately is not us – do not belong to us as God’s creatures, it comes from the evil one – that’s another discussion.
The other thing I want to put over the top of that is, in no way taking away from the pain that the Jewish people suffered, not only there but throughout their history, the other thing is, this beautiful scene in the Lord of the Rings, when they’re in the tunnel, and Gandalf is leading them through the darkness and they go across this bridge and this demon creature comes up with fire and it’s lapping at them, the bridge is falling in and Gandalf walks out and he slams the staff onto the ground and says, “you shall not pass.” Everything shakes, and the demon goes back down…
When I saw that, I thought, what God has done is that he has this stake in the ground as the death of Jesus. He is saying, here on this side is the human freedom. In your darkness you can do this, and this, and this, and you can do this to my creation, and you can do this to yourself and to other people. But I’m taking responsibility for your freedom and I’m putting an end to the consequences of it. At the end of this we have resurrection, where things are restored, and so we get back what was lost. You know, the Lord restores the years that the locusts devoured (in Joel’s prophecy). We get that back in the resurrection, so God is wonderfully taking responsibility for giving it to us and taking responsibility for it at the same time.
In the midst of that, we have to live with the consequences of our own darkness and what we do to one another and to the creation. We’ve got environmental tragedies going on around us right now that’s going to create a lot of trauma for a lot of people around the world. What the Jews went through is unthinkable. What any person that’s been murdered, the rippling implications and consequences of that for the family.
Now, what God has said is, it’s not enough just for me to punish the murderer, what I’m going to do, what I’m after is to restore the life of the one who’s murdered and to restore the relationship between the murderer and the one who is murdered, and bring both sides of the family back into one-ness and right relationship. That’s the vision of heaven, and the kingdom of heaven. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection he’s put an end to the implication, the eternal implications of the holocaust and is restored there. How you work that out, I don’t know.
JMF: Forgiveness. A person who has experienced something like that finds it very difficult. How on earth can you forgive somebody who kills your child? And yet in Christ we’re talking about God himself, taking on himself the consequences, the pain, the suffering of that, handing back life and restoration in such a way that forgiveness really does become possible.
CBK: He shares his forgiving heart with us, just like he shares his love with us. That’s the only possibility of forgiving someone who has created such a grievous problem for us and our lives and our families, is that, the love and forgiveness of the Father is given to us by Jesus, and we can choose to participate in that or participate in the darkness over here, which is to retaliate and to demand retribution …
JMF: … which is the spiral of human history.
MM: What about people who can’t forgive God, you know, not just the murderer …
SH: I was thinking about that, too, when you were talking about people who have had things happen to them. I like the line from whatever movie I saw and it says, Jesus might forgive you, but I’m never going to do it. I’m never going to forgive you. There are people who carry that kind of anger around that we’re not required…
MM: They’ve been hurt so bad …
SH: We’re not really required to do that. That kind of anger crucifies us on the inside. They will take you to your grave. We’re really not, I don’t think we’re required to do that, not until you’re good and ready to do it. People have a lot of guilt in themselves, other stuff like that.
JMF: The beauty is that, as with our faith, as with everything else that forgiveness already exists in Christ, we simply have not gotten to the place where we can see that and receive it for what it is – receive the healing that will come from it. Robert Capon talks about it in his books… he has one story in one of his books about it’s kind of a gangster scene where there is a hit-man and one of the gangsters is [what did they call it], snuffed or rubbed out, [there’s a word for it] and he shows how in Christ in the end, the snuffer and the snuffee are able to sit down together in the kingdom and have a drink together and be restored in relationship in spite of everything that took place between them.
Beautiful picture, very difficult, of course, if not impossible for us to enter into immediately, but through the death and resurrection of Christ, which we all have to experience eventually, we’re all going to die and there is only one way to die, there is only kind of death that exists, and that is the death of Christ and only one thing comes of that death, is the resurrection of Christ into which we have no choice but to enter – whether we receive it like the [dwarves] of Narnia, or whether we going to receive it like the children of Narnia…
SH: When John was talking earlier about the perichoretic relationship that exists in the Trinity, mutual indwelling functioning as one, and that is different than what we experience, I totally agree. I still have to think that, that’s definitely going on and it is shared with us – we just can’t see it. What we don’t have is the pair of glasses, it’s the understanding, it’s the fallen mind, it’s whatever you want to call it (besides sinful human nature – because I hate that terminology), but I do know that, that perichoretic thing is going on with us. Jesus is in us, he lives in us, we mutually indwell in him. The glory of it is that, we see it, we get a glimpse of it on this side, but we will see it in totality on the other side.
JM: Live forever as a child of God is bound up with his eternity.
SH: That’s true. Inescapably so.
JM: You could have perished, I mean, you could be nothing. But he said, no.… There are many, many testimonies, I think three or four I’ve seen myself, where people come out of the Holocaust, I think Corrie Ten Boom gave one… I’ve seen Jews who have met their keepers, their prison guards, and they have had to, just because they can’t live with this anger, and they found forgiveness. How do they find that kind of forgiveness?
MM: They reject the name Jesus, but that’s the real source.
CBK: Jesus is really not into getting credit, you know. He’s really not worried about his … He’s more worried us living the life.
JMF: I read a book, I don’t even remember the name of the book or whether it was fiction or what it was, but at the end of the book, it typically reads, the end. This one said, the beginning. I think part of what we’re trying to say is that the gospel tells us, even to ourselves personally, regardless of how well we know ourselves and our sins and our sinfulness [the way we know ourselves best], we have not come to the last page of our story yet. For one thing, in terms of all of our history of our pain, and our suffering and our experiences that bind us and tear us down and we have not come to the end of the story where we see ourselves as we were created, and as we really exist in Christ as good and beautiful and part of a perfect creation. When we come to that end, last page, then we see ourselves that way, we’ve really come to the beginning.
JM: That’s Till We Have Faces … [reference to a C.S. Lewis book]. We’re gonna have a face at last…
SH: You’re not going to be looking at a smoky mirror …
JT: It takes one more question, since we are about to run out of time, and that is, speak for these last few minutes, some eschatology here, you’ve got the popularity of books like Left Behind, and people looking for a second return of Jesus and… Speak to this culmination of all reconciliation …
CBK: My golden rule on eschatology is: whatever we say about the last things, we must not assume the absence of Jesus Christ today. We’re talking about the second coming, we cannot assume that it means he is not here now. He is here now. He said, I’m not going to leave you orphaned, I’m going to comfort you, you’re going to discover you’re in my Father and I’m in you, that’s what’s real. So to me, eschatology is largely about repentance and the conversion of our minds. It’s about the restoration of proper seeing and sight. Jesus is not absent, the life of the Father, Son, and Spirit is not absent. The kingdom of heaven is not absent, but we’re like the dwarves in Narnia. We are sitting in our worlds, our own relationships, we are oblivious to what is really happening. Eschatology is the second, and third, and fourth, and fifth, and sixth coming of Jesus to reveal himself to us in our darkness, and it’s we who are in the dark, as Jesus says, we’re the ones that are getting light.
That’s the process that involves history in space and time, just like it takes some time for a person to go from being a baby, to those hard years of adolescence, and then they’re close to adult-teen years where they know everything about everything, and everybody around them is really stupid. Then they begin to learn, wait a minute, I don’t know so much. Then they begin to learn some things for real. And that process it takes time. You can’t have 42 years of experience given to you by reading one book.
So history is the time and space given to human race by the Father, Son, and the Spirit to get to grips, to live out their own theories on who we think God is, and the way we think this works, to kill ourselves, to maim and destroy someone – it’s the space and time God has given to us today so that we can come on the tutelage of the Spirit to see who we really are in the life of the Father, Son, and Spirit, and choose personally and willfully to participate in that with all our hearts, soul, mind and strength, because we’ve experienced evil, we’ve experienced the chaos, we’ve experienced the darkness and we don’t want it. We don’t want any more to do with it. That’s almost inconceivable to think that, but that’s what human history is about – it’s the education of the human race.
JMF: Thank you so much for being with us again, Dr. Kruger, and thanks Steve, thanks to everyone in the panel.