Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Paul Lakeland on the Church as a Model of Divine Mutuality

I mentioned last week that theologian Paul Lakeland will be speaking tomorrow evening (Wednesday, April 30) at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church in Minneapolis (details here). I'm very much looking forward to this event, as are many other local Catholics.

In light of Paul's talk tomorrow night, I thought I'd share another excerpt from his award-winning 2009 book Catholicism at the Crossroads: How the Laity Can Save the Church. This excerpt focuses on the disconnect between the church's hierarchical structure and the reality that, as Christians, we are devoted to a Trinitarian God, that is, a God that is a communion of equal persons.

You may be wondering why I've chosen an image of dancers to accompany this post. Well, Lakeland, drawing on the language of the ancient Cappadocian fathers, suggests the image of dancers (and also of trapeze artists) as a helpful image for the dynamic, mutual relationship of the trinity and a model of church that's more in keeping with this relationship than is the hierarchical stratification we currently have.

One of the great ironies of the Catholic Church is that while it is devoted to a Trinitarian God it has resolutely adopted a hierarchical structure. One would think, on the face of it, that the ecclesial structure that God would want for the church would be one that took the hint from God's nature about the superiority of trinitarianism [i.e., a relationship of mutuality] over hierarchical stratification. Just as the call to Christian discipleship should suggest to us a life lived according to the values and choices of Jesus of Nazareth, so you would think the church of God would reflect what seems to be the divine preference for relationship. What would happen if we modeled the church on the life of God instead of on the structures of the Roman Empire or the Ford Motor Company? One would think that it would be a good thing. It would certainly seem that the efforts of Vatican II and beyond to build a communion ecclesiology represented steps in this direction, yet so much in Catholicism remains undeniably hierarchical. In fact it may not be too outrageous a statement to say that wherever hierarchy has been represented in the church's history as the fundamental structure of the church, the church has been envisaged in a manner antithetical to that community of persons which God's inner nature so clearly tells us is the preferred form of social life. When Vatican II made the hierarchical structure of the church secondary to understanding the church as the People of God, it took a giant step toward growing closer to God. Hierarchy does not reflect the divine life; mutuality does.

We Christians believe in a Trinitarian God, that is, that God is a communion of persons. Of course, there is not a lot we can say about what the inner life of God is like, but there are a few illuminating things we can say if indeed it is true, as we believe, that the one God is a communion of three persons. First and most important, while there is differentiation among the three persons of the Godhead, there are no ranks. All are equally and fully God, despite the distinctions that are traditionally asserted in the terminology of Father, Son, and Spirit or somewhat differently claimed in the language of Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Each is God; each is the whole God; each is equally God. Any image that the human imagination can come up with to represent the Trinity must, if it is to be acceptable, respect this equality. Second, the radical equality of the three persons of the Trinity does not extinguish their difference. Third, the difference that each expresses is something we encounter, as human beings, only in their relationship to our salvation, in what theologians call the "economic" Trinity. What these differences mean within the divine life is not for us to know, though Christians throughout history, especially the great mystics, have tried to come up with images that express something of the mystery. In any case, we surely know that the persons of the Trinity are differentiated in terms of what we might call divine mission or ministry. In plain language, they have different responsibilities in the plan of salvation. This is where we encounter the persons of the Trinity, in their relation to our salvation, in their different missions. But it is part of Christian faith that the way we encounter God is consistent with the inner life of God; if only because the self-revelation of God cannot be frudulent or misleading. We can then confidently assert that the equality with which Father, Son, and Spirit pursue their different missions cannot stand in contradiction to their life, which must itself be one of mutuality and interrelationship of equality within difference.

The inner life of the Trinity is the preeminent model for us of that higher accountability [which is] the real issue for the church [today]. The three persons of the Trinity do not have to explain their actions to one another. Their lower accountability is subsumed in the higher accountability of a relationship of total openness and perfect equality. The language of the ancient Cappadocian fathers of the church, as they searched for an image to envision the Trinity, is particularly helpful here. To them, the three persons are engaged in perichoresis, that is, in a divinely and intricately interwoven dance formation. This is no heavenly hip-hop, rave, or stomp. They are intertwined with one another. Picture talented quick-step dancers or aficionados of the tango. There is no way that they can successfully accomplish their mission without complete openness to and trust in one another. They will fall over and lose their dignity. Or think of the accountability of trapeze artists for one another. One slip and they might die. Success requires the trust that comes with total accountability. If this is the model for divine mutuality and Trinitarian structure, then perhaps the church should move more in that same direction. It is surely a salutary warning against any attempt to idealize church structures that, in searching for human metaphors to help us think about God, the hierarchical structure of the church does not immediately spring to mind.

Related Off-site Links:
The Call of the Baptized: Be the Church, Live the Mission – Paul Lakeland (The Progressive Catholic Voice, September 19, 2010).
Challenges to Us As Catholics – A 10-part series featuring excerpts from Paul Lakeland's book Church: Living Communion (The Progressive Catholic Voice, September 2010).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Paul Lakeland on How the Clergy Sex Abuse Scandal Reveals a Crisis of Leadership
Believing in the Trinity
In the Garden of Spirituality – Elizabeth Johnson
A Trinity Sunday Message from the Equally Blessed Coalition
The Call to Be Dialogical Catholics
Lover of Us All

Image: Helen May Banks (2011).

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