Monday, October 3, 2016

time for catechesis

Catechesis (noun): educating and instructing people in life as followers of Jesus and members of the body of Christ. Stated another way, catechesis is spiritual formation, and it doesn't happen just once in a few classes which prepare us for baptism or official church membership. No, catechesis happens all the time. [1] We are being formed and shaped every day of our lives by the culture and society in which we are immersed, by our family and friends, by what we look at, listen to, read, pay attention to, participate in (say Yes to), and indirectly by what we ignore, refuse, unplug from, and say No to.

The question is not if we are involved in spiritual formation, but by what we are being formed and shaped. Leonardo Boff, a theologian from Brazil, observes that, "Each type of society tends to produce a religious representation suited to it. ... Thus, in a capitalist society - which is based on individual performance, private accumulation of goods, and the predominance of the individual over the social - the representation of God usually accentuates the fact that God is one alone, Lord of all, all-powerful, the source of all power." [2] As a result of our emphasis on the potential of the individual, our Western ideas of God are often reduced to a divine being who aids us in personal success and well-being.

Take a look at the Hebrew Bible. Much of it is set in a tribal context where factions are warring against each other; it is a world of "conquer or be conquered." It is no surprise, then, that Israel's stories are filled with imagery of a warring God, of a God who defeats all other gods, who is superior in battle, who crushes the enemy. However, adopting a view of God based in large part on our social context is problematic, because it makes culture our source of revelation and knowledge instead of God himself. In other words, we are shaping God according to our context instead of allowing God to shape or catechize us. This must change. The God who reveals himself as the trinitarian God should be catechizing our ideas of society, of church, of life as disciples of Jesus. Our ideas of community must come from a communal, unified God. Our ideas of leadership must come from a participatory, serving God. Our ideas about mission must come from an outward-facing, welcoming God.

In the Hebrew Bible, one of the names of God is Elohim. This is a plural noun which is, for the most part, used with a singular verb. Here we have a Person who is communal yet unified in purpose. And this should catechize us. Boff states: "If God means three divine Persons in eternal communion among themselves, then we must conclude that we also, sons and daughters are called to communion. We are image and likeness of the Trinity. Hence we are community beings." [3] There is a multiplicity inherent in the Godhead, but the three Persons are so comingled, so united in love, that they are a single God. Wherever you see the Father, you see the Son. Wherever you see the Son, you see the Creator. Wherever you see the Creator, you see the Spirit at work. The Greek word perichoresis is an attempt to explain the interaction between the Persons of the Godhead. In its simplest form, it means circle dance, a movement of persons where each one dwells in the other. It is a mystery of inclusion which "prevents us from understanding one Person without the others." [4]

The Trinity is often spoken about in terms of the Immanent Trinity (God related to Godself, the interior life of God) and the Economic Trinity (God related to creation, to the world). This is a way of distinguishing who God is from what God does, but in truth, the two are inseparable. Take a look at the picture of Scottish circle dancers below. Pick out one of the dancers and, in your imagination, erase everyone else from the picture. What that solitary dancer is doing makes no sense apart from all the others. They must be viewed as a whole.

Image from

We cannot separate who God is from what God does. Neither can we separate the Creator or the Father from the other Persons in the circle dance. In the creation accounts in Genesis 1:1-3, we find the Creator God, we find the Word of God, and we find the breath or spirit of God. One does not make sense without the others because they are in perfect unity. Likewise, the Creator does not make sense without creation (who God is and what God does are inseparable). In the account of Jesus's baptism, we find the Son submitting himself to a ritual of cleansing, the Father speaking words of love, and the Spirit alighting on the Son. The Father is not a Father without the Son, and the birth of Jesus in human form is made possible through the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1). Where you see one, you see the others. Jesus said if you saw him, you saw the Father (John 14:9). The Spirit does not speak on his/her own initiative, but only what the Spirit hears from Jesus (John 16:13-14; 1 John 5:6).

Leonardo Boff explains the implications of a trinitarian God: "Believing in the Trinity means that at the root of everything that exists and subsists there is movement; there is an eternal process of life, of outward movement, of love. Believing in the Trinity means that truth is on the side of communion rather than exclusion; consensus translates truth better than imposition; the participation of many is better than the dictate of a single one. Believing in the Trinity means accepting that everything is related to everything and so makes up one great whole, and that unity comes from a thousand convergences rather than from one factor alone.” [6]

So what does this mean for us practically? I have a few suggestions.

1. Read the Bible with an eye for community and unity. Look for the Trinity to appear in the stories, in the poetry, in the prophecies, in the letters. It is amazing how you will see the Persons of the Godhead popping up everywhere in the scriptures once your focus is on communion instead of looking for personal blessings, or rules to follow, or reassurance that God is on your side.
2. Make an intentional effort to be formed by trinitarian thinking and acting. Observe how often your thoughts or actions veer toward separation instead of unity, to "us and them" instead of "we," to binary thinking instead of creative collaboration, to self-determination instead of "better together," to reinforcing isolation instead of fostering communion. Then pray and ask God to transform this fractured way of being.
3. Engage in something communal right now. Talk to someone. Say hi to a neighour. Pick up the phone and call a person who has been on your mind. Plan an outing together with friends or, better yet, those whom you don't usually hang out with. Get outside of your own head, your own agenda, your own ingrained, comfortable habits, and engage with the world. Not to critique (which is separation) but to foster community (unity). Get out there and give your best self to the world.“For there to be true communion there must be direct and immediate relationships: eye to eye, face to face, heart-to-heart. The results of mutual surrender and reciprocal communion is community. Community results from personal relationships in which each is accepted as he or she is, each opens to the other and gives the best of himself or herself.” [5]

Being shaped by the Trinity means that we allow the communal God to change our way of seeing the world, the church, and ourselves. It means that we become part of a movement toward unity instead of separation. It means that we surrender any ideas and ideals we have adopted from our society and culture and adopt the larger purposes of the trinitarian God. It means that we leave competition, domination, and self-realization behind in order to pursue communion and life together. "We come from the Trinity, from the heart of the Father, the intelligence of the Son, and the love of the Holy Spirit. We are journeying in pilgrimage toward the reign of the Trinity, which is total communion and eternal life.” [6]

Amen. May it be so.

[1] Robin Parry talks about this idea in a short, 2-1/2 minute video. You can watch it here.
[2] Leonardo Boff, Holy Trinity, Perfect Community (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books), xi.
[3] Ibid., 2.
[4] Ibid., 14.
[5] Ibid., 3.
[6] Ibid., 7.