Someone very dear to me became a dancer in a spiritually dry period of her life.
A growing sense of the imbalanced cerebral-ness of the Protestant church that ranked concrete care and even obedience as a remote second to right doctrine, along with a sense that her heartfelt questions were chalked up to “not doing quiet times and evangelism well enough,” and thus dismissed, made for a long period of holding on alone in a wasteland.
She had learned salsa dancing in the cramped living room of a large Ecuadorian family in Guayaquil
The spiritually dry period has passed, in God’s mercy, as she has been embraced by friends, teachers, and pastors who share in some measure her outlook.
Her comment on that spiritually dry period: “Dance was the one spiritual thing that kept me alive.” Her comment on salsa in the context of Latino culture: “It redeemed my body. It made me whole.” Now she finds that Christians who learn of her expert skill at salsa, both men and women, beg her to teach them, and start to air issues of broken self-perception in need of redemption.
I have continued to ponder these things. As part of my own epistemological work, I have to date made only half-articulate attempts at expressing the implications of my Polanyian and Merleau-Pontyean conviction regarding the bodily rootedness of all thought. Our lived, embodied, subsidiary awareness (think of how you maintain your balance on a bike), while not infallible, and neither, precisely, necessary nor sufficient to articulated knowledge, is nevertheless profoundly the critical root of all our understanding, as well as our way of being in the world. I have wondered how to tap into body knowledge, and how to put it into words that make any sense! In conversations about dance, I have listened for clues, and sought to understand the therapeutic-ness of dance in these terms.
Our Western theological tradition has been freighted with an approach to reality that generally sees things as things (duh, you say!): substances, things in themselves, with essential defining features known as attributes. And we have exalted unchanging-ness: things that are eternal and still, over things in flux. Our theology might be: God is a Spirit (substance)—infinite, eternal, unchangeable (attributes), in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, and truth. “I Am That I Am” is taken to affirm God’s eternal and unchanging substance. Heaven is eternal stasis. Thus, our anthropology might be: man is a rational (attribute) animal (substance). We strive for self-actualization, or actualization of God’s image in our selves. That image had often been taken to be our rationality. Substance-attribute thinking is manifest in our dictionaries: the dictionary is full of definitions “by genus and difference”: a drake is a male (difference, attribute) duck (genus, substance). This is the way we go at life, ever since Socrates quizzed his students into uncovering essential attributes in rational inquiry to get at unchanging eternal, rational reality.
The substantival approach has furnished at best a problematic understanding of the Holy Trinity. Three persons (persona), one substance (substantia)? three substances (hypostasis), one substance (ousia)? How to describe the Trinity without being heretical has been a perennial challenge. How to see ourselves as bearing that image has been a constant temptation to speculation. How the Trinity holds the key to the universe and to my identity has seemed accessible only to scholars with great gifts and training.
In recent years I have begun to study the work of “Trinitarian theologians,” such as Colin Gunton and John Zizioulas. They have resurrected the ideas of Church Fathers in the 300s AD in Eastern half of the Christian Church, such as Gregory of Naziansus. This morning I had the chance to hear a veteran historical theologian, Les Fairfield, effectively summarize their insights.
“Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are all terms that imply an Other, that imply relationship. And the relationship is intimate; it is one of trust, reciprocity, and cooperation. Scripture tells us of the reciprocal relationships between the Persons of the Trinity. In fact, what it is to be one of these Persons is to be in relationship. Gregory of Nazianzus talked of persons as persons in relation. Gregory of Nyssa suggested that the ‘cooperative relational activity’ of the Trinity, active and continuous as it is, constitutes their divinity.
“Thus, basic reality at its heart is community—reciprocal, loving, active community. Thus, says Zizoulas in Being As Communion, There is no life without community, no human nature without reciprocity. A child not nurtured in personal relationship cannot even survive. The West, with its substantival approach, has had it all wrong.
“In the early 700s, John of Damascus described the interrelationship of the Persons of the Trinity with the term, perichoresis—‘dancing around.’ Contrast this to the static, clunky Western idea.” It was when he said, “clunky,” that I began to think once again about the healing quality of dance in my dear dancer’s life…
As I listened I was also tracking on the fact that most of the Western tradition has exalted unchanging stillness over changing motion, being over becoming. I know that recent centuries’ critics of Enlightenment Reason have repeatedly blasted eternal “essences”; Nietzsche ridicules the “concept mummies,” that suck the life out of anything they get their hands on. The worst offender, for Nietzsche, one might guess, is the ens realissimum—God, the highest, most abstract, and general concept. “I am afraid we’ve not stopped believing in God,” Nietzsche quips, “because we’ve not got rid of grammar!” Other philosophers and artists have repeatedly challenged and attempted to subvert the “clunky-ness” of Being.
But our theological tradition has exalted God’s immutability, his eternality. He has been said to be impassive, meaning, not subject to emotional change. I raised this in a question: in light of perichoresis, how are we to understand God’s unchangingness? Les responded: “There are two kinds of unchangingness. One is to be motionless. The other has to do with faithfulness—God’s character is utterly faithful. God selects this or that action in this or that circumstance, but his character is always the same. The Western tradition, with its Platonic legacy, plus the Roman legal context from which persona and substantia were first drawn, picks up on the first kind of unchangingness. Contrast the Father as he is represented in the story of the Prodigal Son: he runs to his son! He rejoices passionately over him! He throws a party.”
I could see the implications for dance: in a dance, two (or more!) people respond to each other in artistic communion. There is continual movement, an unfolding reciprocity. There is unchanging centering even as there is continual overture and response. I was recalling many things my dear young dancer has told me of the experience. There is no way, in a dance, that either partner has greater significance. The two are mutually interdependent. (I remember watching her trust her fledgling partner while learning aerials…)
It would be impossible for “clunky,” “static” substances ever to dance! –Or if they succeeded in dancing, they would no longer be clunky, static, substances. They would be persons in relation, perichoresis.
Dr. Fairfield offered a couple additional comments in conclusion: “If God is Relationship-in-Action, then the image of God must be relational. If as in the West you take human reason to be the way in which we image God, then the imago Dei is something that an individual possesses. But when you see that the image of God must be relational, Genesis 1:27 jumps off the page: ‘male and female he created them!’ Adam and Eve are different but alike. A single individual cannot embody the image of God; it takes at least two. Adam and Eve were different but alike.
“Finally, in Christ God is setting about restoring the reciprocity, overcoming the isolation, and ultimately the death, that the Fall brought into relationships. God comes down to rescue the rebellious spouse, the daughter of Zion
A highly skilled couples dance, such as swing or salsa, linking in a team one male and one female, especially evokes the “different but alike” dimension. Thus, it is not solo dancing that especially captures “the religious.” It’s not about dance as channeling some divine inbreaking, some mystical force. It’s about, in the body, achieving the most Trinity-likeness, transcribing the way of being of reality at its heart: particular persons in interpersonal communion. Partners in mutual trust wordlessly invite and respond to each other’s moves to the end of lively communion. There is no absorption of the one into the other, but mutual enhancement: each shows the other off to advantage. It takes at least two to embody the image of God. The better your skills, the better the dance.
Our bodies know things, in their embodying, that may never have been worded by us. I do not think that any body knowledge on its own is incorrigible. In fact, I think the static clunkiness of the West, the disconnectedness of mind from body that often unwittingly infects our churches and our self-perceptions, is itself a case of body falsehood. But even so, a body change can somehow put us in the way of knowing. To see Jupiter through a telescope, for example, you have to put your body in position with your eye to the eyepiece. To stand a prayer of a chance of fielding a fly ball, you have to position your body to receive it. To learn to touch type, you have to practice. My young dancer put herself and her partners in position to experience the communion that images the Triune perichoresis. And while dancing by itself could not have saved her, it put her in the way of redemptive healing. She grew in embodying the doctrine as her body tacitly reoriented its metaphysical stance.
When I think of the stranglehold a disembodied, disconnected, static clunkiness still exercises so pervasively and pretheoretically especially in circles of good-hearted, well-meaning Christians, I realize that it is reasonable to expect that it will be most effectively reshaped by something operating on the pretheoretical level. I do not at all mean to deny that the Spirit must do his work! But I affirm that we may expect him to utilize sensible and concrete means to do so.
I am well aware of how dance is often viewed as overtly sexual activity. Must it be that only wives and husbands dance, and do so in the privacy of the bedroom? I believe that this outlook itself is tainted with the faulty conceptual disconnects of the West, and the misalignment of Christian morality in terms of them. The notion that the body is the seat of sin is hardly a biblical one! Sin is misdirected inordinate desire, birthed in the heart. In our zealous effort, actually, to externalize and pigeonhole right and wrong behavior, we have rationalized that repressing the body, “fleeing”, will do the trick. We have in the process so polarized and, in the fleeing, so oversexualized intergender relationships as to be guilty of failing to appreciate God’s creation for its beauty. In an era in which family sexual abuse, even what should be the natural realization that we may enjoy the natural physical beauty of a family member or friend without it being about sexual relations, doesn’t always exist intact enough to offer an example.
Obviously one must proceed gently here. There are no overnight fixes. But many people do not entertain any other possibility than running in the opposite direction from such intimate bodily communion as dancing. We do not consider that perhaps experience with the act itself might not be what we have been condemning, but might rather reorient us to make the heart distinction more adeptly. Some dance is merely sexual activity. Some dance isn’t. Dance per se, I believe, is not, although it is, per se, intimate embodied communion. It is the orientation of the heart, and its embodiment, that makes sense of the distinction.
Consider that as more and more lovers of Jesus express hitherto guarded longings to dance, they are saying, this isn’t about sexual intercourse or lust, though it is about appreciating God-shaped bodily beauty. It’s about honoring, not dishonoring, your partner. It may be that we the watchers need to redeem our (“clunky”!) viewing of the dance. If so, I’m thinking that actually getting up and dancing may hold a key.
And like my young dancer, we may find ourselves in the way of metaphysical and theological realignment, and apprehend redemption.
 The Rev. Dr. Leslie Fairfield, Emeritus Professor of Church History, Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, speaking in a Sunday School class at Ascension Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh, Lent, 2007.
 --at which point in the talk, I began singing in my head the last line of the musical, Les Miserables: “To love another person is to see the face of God…”
 —nor, as Lynn, Les’s wife, with a grimace, noted in a whisper to me, what is known as liturgical dance!