Snarky Faith 12/13/16
A rundown of the new bestselling book, The Divine Dance, with co-author Mike Morrell. Mike wrote the book with spiritual heavyweight Father Richard Rohr. Does the Trinity really matter today in contemporary Christianity? Morrell and Rohr would assert an affirming, “YES!” So join us as we delve into why the Trinity matters in today’s world, what this means for us and how we can return again to our spiritual roots. Anyone in the mood to dance with us?
Tune in to find out more…
Download an exclusive bonus chapter to The Divine Dance over at Mike’s blog here.
WARNING: this interview may rankle the ire of Calvinists and the Gospel Coalition, but that just means all the more snarky fun for the rest of us! Enjoy.
Title: The Divine Dance Interview with Mike Morrell
Program: Snarky Faith Radio
Host: Stuart Delony
Stuart Delony: Well, good afternoon, and welcome to another round of Snarky Faith Radio. I’m your host, Stuart Delony.
In this season of the holidays, I bring you good tidings in the form of an announcement. My trusty co-host, Ben Triplett, who’s been on pre-paternity leave, now has a son. Yes, this last week, Deacon Elm Triplett was born. He is healthy. Everything is well with father, mother and child. So we just wanted to give a shot out and a congratulations to Ben.
Now, let’s hop into the show. This show is going to center around the book The Divine Dance that was written by Richard Rohr and Mike Morrell. So without further ado, here’s the interview with Mike Morrell.
Stuart: So joining me here today is Mike Morrell. Mike is an American intelligence analyst. He served as a Deputy Director –
Mike Morell: [laughs]
Stuart: — for the Central Intelligence Agency as well as the acting director twice. First, in 2011 and then, from 2012-2013. Thanks for joining us, Mike, and my biggest question is how does a guy that’s in the CIA write a book about the Trinity?
Mike: Well, if I told you, I’d have to kill you, Stuart. [laughs] We would call it Extraordinary Rendition.
Stuart: Yes. No, I’m totally kidding about that. Yes, there is another Mike Morrell out there that works for the CIA which is funny when I when I was looking up the bio stuff on it. That guy popped up, and I was like, “That’s not the Mike Morrell that I know” unless he’s aged horribly in the past while since I’ve seen you.
Mike: [laughs] It’s my well-kept secret.
Stuart: It is. It is. No, no. So, so Mike, a little bit about your bio. Mike is a Communications Director for the Integral –
Mike: — I say integral, but, you know, it’s maybe a potato, potato thing.
Stuart: Maybe. I don’t pronounce things right all the way so I’ll probably go with your rendition. So, yes, so you are the Communications Director with Presence International. You’re co-founder of the Buzz Seminar, and founding organizer of the Wild Goose Festival. It is wonderful to have you here today. When we begin to talk about your book, The Divine Dance, that you wrote with Richard Rohr, how does this even come about? How does one track down Richard Rohr? He seems like an elusive character like Big Foot or something of that nature.
Mike: [laughs] I think there is considerably more sightings of Father Richard than there are of the Yeti. It’s true. One doesn’t normally just ring him up. I got to know Father Richard over the past decade due to some things I was involved in.
Years ago, I worked with Spencer Burke of TheOoze.com which was a clearinghouse for post-modern Christianity conversation back in the day before social media was fully a thing. TheOoze served as a place where people posted articles, had a very rockin’ message board, and we had this semi-annual gathering called Solarize, a learning party. At Solarize, I would actually say, it was one of the early Solarizes, like maybe 2001, where Spencer introduced Richard to a lot of progressive evangelicals.
Spencer is a Thomas Merton in enthusiast. He was into contemplative prayer before it was cool, and he brought Richard into the awareness. I know of me and a lot of other young evangelical leaders as well as folks like Brian McLaren, and so, there was that connection.
We had him out – the last time we had him out was Solarize 2007, which, gosh, that was nearly 10 years ago in the Bahamas. We were suffering for the Lord, and it was this all-star lineup. We had Father Richard. We had Brennan Manning, N.T. Wright, Rita Brock, who just released this amazing church history book at the time called Saving Paradise, Michael Dowd from Thank God for Evolution.
Because the passport laws had just changed at that time, suddenly, people needed a passport to travel to the Bahamas. Not nearly as many people were able to make it out as we had anticipated, so it was an intimate gathering of about 100 people with all of these luminaries. Some of us who organized the event got to have a private, mini retreat with Father Richard afterward where he taught us the enneagram and led us in certain exercises. That was really special.
Then, when I helped start the Wild Goose Festival, we also had him out at the first several of those. He was a big supporter. The Center for Action and Contemplation continues to be a big supporter of the festival.
With that background with him, and also, with a background in publishing, I was approached by my good friend, Don Milan [sp] who is an Acquisitions Editor at Whitaker House, actually, a charismatic publishing house who really wanted to publish him. I knew of a couple of conferences that he did – that Father Richards did nearly a dozen years ago on the Trinity that I thought were interesting and that could make the adaptation to book form. So we talked, and to my delight, he agreed to let me have a crack at them to translate those from spoken form to written form. It ended up being a rather collaborative process with him being more involved in the project than I initially anticipated. We were able to create The Divine Dance.
Stuart: This is a book that I think is really hit a nerve, a good one, in culture because it is selling. Have you been surprised at the book sales so far?
Mike: It’s been really pleasant to see how much it’s resonating with folks for sure.
Stuart: I remember when you first mentioned doing this book, I went on Amazon, and I pre-ordered it.
Mike: Thank you.
Stuart: Well, there’s more, and so with that, I’m waiting and waiting. Other people I know have gotten their books, and I’m like, “What?” So I go on Amazon and they send me a message that, “Oh, they had run out of all the pre-order books.” And I’m like, “Isn’t this why I pre-order things?” No, eventually, yes, I got the book, went through it, and I’ve really enjoyed it.
It’s one of those books that, for the interview, I will read it through fast, but it’s one of those things that I need to go back and let it seep into my soul more as I’m going through this. It’s not simply something that you’re reading through for facts. You’re, also, reading and letting it move you in the process. I’m looking forward to going through it again as I have time to let my soul digest a lot of that.
This book, The Divine Dance, is centered around really re-talking about the Trinity or putting different words to how we talk about the Trinity. I wanted to ask you this, and this is still part of the book, but, ultimately, why does the Trinity matter and what is its relevance to Christians on a day-to-day manner? As you guys have in the book, oftentimes, in a lot of people’s Christian walk, if you were to just pretty much take out any theology that’s involving the Trinity, everything would seem the same in a lot of ways. It shouldn’t, but I think in a lot of people’s lives, it does. Tell me why this matters.
Mike: Sure, I think the short answer to that is that our images to God matter. We become what we behold. I think when we study American civil religion, I think that it kind of gravitates toward two poles, and both of these have a sort of monad God, a sort of Unitarian God.
One of them is this very Zeus type figure, austere into smiting, is going to make a list and check it twice. This is the God of sinners in the hands of an angry God. It’s the God of American Puritanism, and there’s a way which this image of God, very austere, aloof and alone, is alive and well today.
If there is a Zeus god, I think there is also a Dr. Seuss god. A kind of sentimental Santa Claus that also proliferates, maybe even more so today than the Puritan god, the airwaves of self-help, feel-good spirituality where God is equally alone but is kind of our buddy and can help us have our best life now.
What Father Richard and I are seeking to recover is this robust idea of God who is one but is a God who is one in diversity, that there is this unity within diversity. That God is community, a community of equals who is loved and is esteemed and who is love. It’s the energies of love.
One of the things that we took some fire on, I think we’ll be talking about this later in some of the critical reviews, is that we focused more on the relationship between the Trinity, perhaps than having this in-depth, technical exposition of who or what is the Father and who or what is the Son and the Holy Spirit. We’re really emphasizing this dynamic that, I think, is highlighted in scripture in, say, John 17 where Jesus talks about the flow and the relationship between the Father and the Son and asks that this relationship be extended to the believing community, into the friends of God. Indeed, this is like the – this isn’t in John 17 but sort of like a hologram or an avatar of all reality. That there’s this, I’m in you, you’re in me, we’re in each other, they’re within us. There’s this flowing that happens. There’s this cosmic language throughout scripture about all things co-adhering through God in Christ and that God is the all-in-all.
When we are looking at this relationship between things, the inner connectedness between things, where that lands for me on a day-to-day level is that we’re all connected. I’m connected to not only my family and friends, but also my neighbors, and my enemies that we’re all in this together in an image of God who is one and yet, who is community creating a world that is many in manifestation, and yet, is ultimately one. I think that’s precisely the image of God that we need today in our increasingly fragmented and contentious climate especially right now in the United States.
Stuart: I remember growing up in church and folks would always give me little, trite definitions on what the Trinity is. I know that some of our listeners may be from church backgrounds. Many of them aren’t as well. So, to first unpack this, when we’re speaking about the Trinity, is God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit in those ways, these little things that never completely made sense to me. I mean you describe it like the shamrock, like you guys mentioned in the book, or even like I’ve heard it’s like thinking of water, or vapor or ice, God in different forms. How would you explain this to a child because we’re both fathers? So how would you explain the Trinity in a succinct way to a child?
Mike: Oh, wow. [laughs] Just starting with the easy questions, I see. Before you added the child-zinger to the end, what I was going to say is that one way that I understand the development of the idea of the Trinity within Christian history is that we start off in the New Testament with people who are, basically, really good Jewish folk, who are really good monotheists. As monotheists, they would recite their most sacred prayers, the Shema. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Like monotheism, there being one god and not polytheism, is a major tenant of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, but Christians had a plot twist. The earliest Jesus followers said, “Whoa. There’s something here about Jesus that is clearly divine, that clearly reveals God to us.” Interpreting their idea of the Greek logos, they began to say, “This is actually the word of God coming in the flesh.” So there’s this idea of divinity in Jesus that they’re drawing on, and then, they recognized that Jesus taught that there’s this Holy Spirit of God that leads us into all power, and insight, and understanding and binds us all together. So somehow we believe in one god but we also, recognize that this God is manifest as creator, as Jesus, as Spirit.
You have some text in the New Testament that confusingly enough have all three showing up at the same time like in the baptism where Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist. It took several centuries for this to percolate and to work out. It was a community of mystics, mystic theologians, in one of my ancestral homelands, Turkey, in Cappadocia, where these early Cappadocian fathers and mothers began to articulate the idea of Trinity encapsulating this one god who is also a god within relationship within God’s self within community. The word they chose for this was perichoresis where we, also, get the root word of choreography. That it was a circle dance hence the name of the book, The Divine Dance.
Now, when I talk about the Trinity with my nine-year-old daughter who’s really smart, and actually, we’ve had conversations for years because we used to be part of a community in Raleigh that no longer exists called Trinity’s Place. There was always some conversation about the Trinity. I try not to over analogize it because I do think all of those analogies are not only a bit clunky but probably, also heretical in ways that I don’t fully understand, but we talk about that yes, there is this fellowship within God. God shows the beautiful diversity of all — between her and her friends or between us and our family that we have this oneness in love and in relationship and yet, we’re also different people. In the same way, or at least in a similar enough way, that that is what shows up in the heart of God as revealed through the lens of Trinity.
Stuart: That will preach. So with the book, you’re talking about this in terms of the Trinitarian revolution —
Mike: — Yes.
Stuart: — which is really just taking a large paradigm shift from this — and I’ll use some of your guy’s words — like this idea of the omnipotent monarch to the ultimate participate in life. Can you speak a little of this shift in ideology?
Mike: Yes, absolutely. Again, going back to that Zeus archetype, I think that we read that into scripture. There certainly are certain authors or strata within scriptures who, frankly, believe that, hold that view of the Sovereign, but what’s interesting, and I’m actually drawing a little on something I believe Brian McLaren mentioned several years ago, is that even in scripture when there is monarchical language toward God, the image that the writers had in mind was perhaps a Davidic king or an Israelite king, who was essentially was an exalted tribal chieftain. He had power but he was not absolute. When you get to the absolute monarchs like Louis of France and others later, they have even massively more power than kings in biblical days.
Then, when you get to the mechanized world view starting in the 19th century where things are increasing becoming more efficient and mechanized with the Industrial Revolution and you get the – oh, what is it called? I forget if it’s called the Rational Work Movement when people start breaking down labor into how many minutes can be saved, and they try to micromanage what people are doing in factories to this point in time wherein an Amazon factory, you have 45 seconds for a bathroom break or whatever. They time everything out. I feel like if you trace theology through this period, God becomes more and more, that becomes more and more this micromanager, this mechanized overlord who knows all, and sees all and can snuff you out at the drop of the hat. It’s kind of like the combination of the most absolute king plus an overseer on the factory floor. That is 180 degree opposite of the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
I think that Jesus does use language of kingdom and of God, for that matter, but he uses it in very subversive ways and says that, “I do nothing say what I see my Father doing.” Then, he tells us to do things like love our enemies and be kind to those who persecute us. That upends traditional, even for his day, images of fathers and kings and represents the vulnerability of God, a god who will turn the other cheek. What we’re saying is that this is the god who is exemplified in Trinity. That Trinity shows absolute deference toward one another, absolute submission and humility, but mutual submission to one another.
I just recently posted on my blog a remix of 1 Corinthians 13 and if we believe that God is love, then, probably, what can be said about love in this famous passage that’s read at weddings from Paul, can be said about God. I’ll just read it to you really quick.
“God is patient. God is kind. God does not envy. God does not boast. God is not proud. God is not rude. God is not self-seeking. God is not easily angered. God keeps no record of wrongs. God does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. God always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. God never fails.”
To us, that is what is exemplified in the life of Trinity.
Stuart: You were speaking to – and I know that it’s a really interesting thing when we begin to talk about the Bible, and context and different periods of history, and so speaking to language, can you talk a little about the problematic areas when we begin to only focus on male pronouns when we speak of the Trinity?
Mike: For sure, yes. This has been well trod by feminist theologians and other voices way more articulate than I, but as one feminist theologian famously quipped, “When God becomes male, then male is God.” Frankly, when we go back to these images and the effects that they have on us when we’re thinking of God in exclusively male terms, there’s — it’s just very limiting in our imagination and our repertoire.
If you ask anyone is God literally biologically male, everyone, or at least hopefully most everyone, will say, “No, not really.” Then, when you start to use feminine language for God in public prayers or worship, people freak out. I think that when we see God, Trinitarian or otherwise, in exclusively male terms, we’re limiting a lot of access to our share of humanity and to vital insights to the character and nature of God.
If in Genesis it says that God created us in God’s image, male and female, then there ought to be some profound theological reflection on what that means. There are, in fact, biblical images for God that are feminine, not the least of which is Ruah, one of the Hebrew words for the Spirit of God, which is the feminine word for God, a presence that gives life, breath, wind, inspiration.
That’s one of the reasons why my friend, Paul Young, when he wrote The Shack nearly a decade ago depicted the Holy Spirit as Sarayu, as an Asian woman, showing this element of breath and feminine energy. I think that’s it’s valuable to look at the feminine dimensions of all three persons of Trinity if we wish, and it is about the dynamism of relationality. In a lot of ways, relationality, at least stereotypically in our culture, is a more feminine domain. I think we cut ourselves off from a whole lot when we neglect that.
Stuart: Throughout the book, it seems that you and Richard are pulling from a lot of the traditions of Christian mystics, and I just really wanted to know what is the deal with you trying to go and mainstream the mystics? Aren’t they kind of like the spiritual hipsters of the Christian tradition that we have here?
Mike: [laughs] It’s true if they become too cool, then there’s just no point in reading them anymore.
Stuart: I know. Yeah. You’re kind of outing them in a way that I may have not wanted to. [laughs] No, but on that — but I do love the fact that you are bringing me in that whole — it’s kind of a chorus of voices that aren’t always heard, I think, in American Christian type circles. Speak to the importance of the voices of the mystics especially in regards to experiencing the Trinity.
Mike: Absolutely. It was important to both Father Richard and I that what we’re saying is grounded in this living tradition, this living lineage, that we’re not just making stuff up. It would be easy to say, “Oh, God is a dance. God is a flow.” That’s just hipster or hippy language. You must be a southern California hippy. In fact, when you look at the mystics from Meister Eckhart, John of Ruysbroeck, to just so many voices. They attest to this experience of Trinity and of divine dance. Because they are more tied in to this felt-sense dimension of spirituality, we felt like we should let them speak for themselves and illuminate what it is that we’re talking about.
Stuart: When we begin to speak of experiencing God — I always love it when I’m reading books that someone else articulates something that I’ve kind of been thinking about, but they put it in a very succinct manner or a much more eloquent manner than what is bouncing around in my head at the time. So in the book, you guys talk about really how the institutional church has framed the knowledge of God kind of in a second-hand manner in how we pass it on to others. For us to know about God, we have to go listen to a different expert like a clergy, pastor, all those. When we begin to do that, we kind of distance ourselves from really being able to experience God on our own. What should be our posture — what should be our approach towards experiencing God?
Mike: Absolutely. I’ve never been a Methodist, but I really do like the Wesleyan Quadrilateral because I do think it’s absolutely true that oftentimes we have a secondhand faith, a secondhand spirituality. We do pawn our own life and experiences off on others. I do think there’s an opposite extreme, though, where we make our own particular pursuit of our own particular experience king. I think, sometimes, that I see this in a pay-to-play, consumeristic, New Age spirituality, for instance, where it’s all about cultivating your own inner experience isolated from all else. Putting on my postmodern glasses for a minute, I don’t think there is such thing as an unmediated experience. I think every experience we have is mediated through the lens of language and culture et cetera, et cetera.
I like the idea of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral that it says that our authority is located in — let’s see, is it reason, experience, the — oh gosh.
Mike: Yes, scripture.
Stuart: There’s one more in the quad.
Mike: Yes, there is one more in the quad. I’m going to look it up right here. You can either edit it or just make me look ignorant. I don’t care. [laughs] Yes, let’s see.
Stuart: It’s experience. It’s reason. It’s scripture and tradition. That’s what it is.
Mike: Yes. Yeah, tradition, reason, experience and scripture. Experience is in there, and some of the denominations that I grew up in absolutely invalidated experience and said, “No, we have to go by scripture, and the creeds and there’s nothing else.” I think that when you have those four in a dynamic tension with each other, that’s where the real juice happens.
In The Divine Dance, we attempt to invoke tradition, and reason, and scripture and through those, lead one into one’s own experience. That’s why we spent so much time in the back of the book with exercises that people can do alone and in groups where they can have their own experience of God as community within their human community.
Stuart: When you begin to look at, especially — I mean it’s easy for us to — well, I spend half the time on the show bashing American Christianity, and it’s an easy target in many ways, but for us to be able to do this in a non-snarky manner, what — when you begin to look at this, and especially because as I was — this was dredging up some stuff in the back of my head when I was going through this book. What shift, do you think, does the church need in the western church? What shift does it need to really return more to our roots?
Mike: Mmm. Just that question? [laughs] Well, I think a lot of folks are doing some soul searching right now especially in the wake of the most recent election where we have this phenomenon where roughly, give or take, half of American is rejoicing, and half of us are mourning and grieving and asking ourselves, “How did we get here?” The fact that half of Americans that helped elect President-elect Trump are proud Evangelical Christians, proud conservative Christians, is, to me, very sobering and needs to be looked.
I am rereading Charles Marsh’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer right now and looking at the resistance that Bonhoeffer and the confessing church had to Hitler in his rise to power in the dwindling days of the Weimar Republic before Hitler was Hitler with a capital h. He was like, “Oh, there’s this dude, and he has some extreme rhetoric but, you know, he’s probably not going really enact all that extreme rhetoric, and he’s good for Christianity. He’s going to make Germany great again.”
Mike: I think that Bonhoeffer, when he was exploring religionless Christianity, underground seminary, the discipline of the secret, meaning to not gaudily proclaim faith but to simply live it. If people ask about what you’re doing, you can kind of let them know, but almost returning to this idea of almost like an underground church meeting in catacombs.
I think that — my prediction is that we will see a resurgence of ideas around New Monasticism that, when you think about it, they were — New Monasticism, as advanced by folks like Shane Claiborne, Jonathon Wilson-Hartgrove and others, was really huge in the George W. Bush years when there was what felt like an easy target to resist and kind of dwindled during the Obama years. It was sort of like, “Well, whatever. Things are getting incrementally better and maybe we don’t need to live our lives like acts of resistance anymore.” Whether that was right or wrong, I think what’s happening now with the incoming Trump administration is that a lot of serious friends of God in the way of Jesus are saying, “What in the world is happening here?” I think — to circle back to a more succinct answer to your question — I think we are going to need to really discern as faith communities the inner life and the outer witness that we want to have, and I think that there are some amazing resources available today, amazing people who are pioneering different ways of living out faith community that doesn’t always look like the Sunday morning gathering, and there are people who are doing “Sunday morning gathering” in inspiring ways.
I think of folks like Sara Miles and Paul Fromberg with St. Gregory of Nyssa out in San Francisco and, also, Mark and Lisa Scandrette out in San Francisco who are doing some amazing work with faith and praxis, and I was interviewing Cynthia Bourgeault last week myself for a radio show that I’m participating in with presence called the Convergence Network and it’s an interfaith radio show looking at the future of spirituality. Cynthia is, also, one of my heroes right alongside Father Richard who’s been a distance mentor to me. I was asking her a similar kind of question, and to my surprise, she said she felt like what churches needed to do was to strengthen their exoteric form, their external form, to be more accessible and more compelling. She’s like, “Get the basis of theology in ways that are more interesting and have a better public witness and that, yes, that will be the onramp to lead people to the contemplative journey or the inward journey.” She was actually talking about thinking about intelligently strengthening the outward forms. I do think it’s a, pardon the pun, a dance between what are those external forms that will really serve our communities and people who haven’t previously, in recent years, felt the need for spiritual solidarity community, but probably will with this cultural shift.
Then, what is the intelligent inward journey to take where we have a transformation of the heart and a transformation of consciousness? I think that folks like Father Richards, and Cynthia, and Jim Finley with the CAC Living School are doing a fantastic job looking at that inward and helping bring a lot of people along on it.
Stuart: When you mention in this context and I think it actually ties pretty nicely back into the book, you’re talking about change, and transformation and what’s needed. I know that one of the themes that you had in the book that’s essential to the Trinity is this idea of vulnerability —
Mike: — Yes.
Stuart: — is being able to step into this spot of vulnerability. Can you just briefly just talk about this vulnerability that’s at the core of the Trinity, and also, how that should, hopefully, change our posture in how we walk things out spiritually in the world we find ourselves in today?
Mike: Absolutely. I think that when we look at our sacred narratives, when we have a Spirit that’s hovering over the face of the deep, when we have a God that is biologically engaged with the archetypal couple in the garden, when we have a God who would rather than smiting enemies, literally, turns the other cheek and gives up the ghost in a state-sponsored execution, we have this God who is making God’s self vulnerable to us. This is not a god who stands like a distant watchmaker aloof from creation, but a god who dares to enter into the very real pain and suffering.
I think that oftentimes from a philosophical lens, theists of all stripes are left on the defensive when it comes to theodicy, the problem of evil, where is God, when it hurts, and we’re left holding the bag kind of like, “Well, why doesn’t God intervene, in these sort of dramatic ways, more often?” That’s a really complex question, but I feel like we’re all still trying to hold to this Zeus type being when, actually, our own source narratives says that, “Well, we don’t always see God intervening in these miraculous ways, but we do see God coming to be with us in the midst of the pain and the midst of the joy.”
Anarchist founder, Emma Goldman, said, “I don’t want to be a part of any revolution that doesn’t have dancing.” I think that’s the other aspect of vulnerability. Sometimes, I think it’s a little easier in our culture, at least in my context, to be vulnerable with pain, but sometimes, being vulnerable with joy can be even trickier. It’s sort of like do we have the phenomenon of the humble brag? People get so critical when someone expresses success they’ve experienced or something that they’re really happy about because we don’t want to be a bummer to our friends who might not be experiencing that level of joy. I think creating containers that are safe and generative for vulnerable experiences of both pain and joy are crucial for community formation.
Stuart: Up until this point in the interview, this has been us talking about how wonderful the book is, me throwing bouquets at you, but not everyone is having it. Not everyone is drinking from the cup and saying, “Yum, yum.” When you begin —
Mike: — That’s true. [laughs]
Stuart: There are some. There’s some out there. My first question, as I lead into this, is why do you think the Calvinist are such an angry, grumpy lot? [laughs] What we tend to do is that when we’re talking about this divine dance, it almost has this metaphor of a party. I feel like when you invite the Calvinist to the party, they’re that guy that doesn’t drink and just sits there quietly and judges everybody else at the party that you start to say, “Hey, what’s up,” or even for a family metaphor, they’re like kind of that obnoxious uncle that is racists and political, that loves to rant at you at Thanksgiving. That you’re like, “Yeah, you’re in the family, but overall, geez, you really make Thanksgiving uncomfortable.” So these guys, we have the Calvinist coming out because that’s what they do. They love to throw people out of the ship, out of the party. Sometimes, I feel that the only way that I can identify a Calvinist is from this stem of the TULIP sticking out of their asses.
Mike: [laughs] Oh, my.
Stuart: I said it, not you, so I can get in trouble for that. No, but what you had happening when this book came out, a bunch of folks are really loving on it, and then, you get the Gospel Coalition which they love to do that. Piper and that whole bunch, who also — which, actually, you should say that you’re probably in good company because Piper was the one who said farewell to Rob Bell in the process. So they come to this whole process and they’re kind of like [makes growling sound] and not happy with it because they are the party poopers of Christianity. What do you think? What are they missing? Maybe that’s my main question. What are they missing about this book?
Mike: [laughs] Sure. Well, before I respond to your direct question, I want to hashtag this: “Not All Calvinist”. I mean this sincerely. Some of my best friends are Calvinists. Last night, I was actually having a wee-hours chat with a friend of mine who has been Reformed his whole life, Conservative Reformed. He’s serving as a missionary overseas, and he reached out to let me know that he thought the Gospel Coalition review was terrible. He’s like, “Even if I might, at the end of the day, agree with some of those critiques — I don’t know. I haven’t read your book yet. — but I just want you to know that it was over the top, divisive and not cool.” I’ve had several Reformed friends reach out to me and say that. I think it’s the unfortunate situation where sometimes the loudest voices aren’t necessarily representative of the whole.
At the same time, I think sometimes stereotypes exist because there is a kernel of truth to them. I did spend several years in a PCA context, Conservative Presbyterian context, and I was introduced to cynicism, theological cynicism and negativity, for the first time when I entered into the PCA world as a teenager. Before that, I was probably in the opposite extreme. I was Assemblies of God, happy, clappy. We were all so enthusiastic, the enneagram Sevens of Christianity. So maybe, I needed a little dose of that snark.
I do think that the ways in which it is weaponized by the Reformed community, at least a lot of its loudest voices, is problematic. I think its primary reasons is that it has a cognitive bias, so it’s biased towards the right way of stating things whatever right means in this context, is the way that, in some ways, like theology is doxology, which, I think, probably everyone believes that what we believe about God is, in a way, a form of worship. For them, it’s almost like the words spoken are the primary mediator of worship and worth. So if you get the words “wrong,” it’s like a dire error. It’s like life is on the line, which I don’t fully understand given that they’re also bent towards predestination. What harm does it do? If my book is just encouraging the reprobate to be more reprobate, aren’t I doing the Lord’s work as the piece of clay that’s being thrown away by the potter? I don’t know.
I think that at the end of the day, I’ve summarized it a little bit. I’m actually just going to read it. I wrote a response to the Gospel Coalition review, which is also worth noting that it’s not, itself, written by a Calvinist, oddly enough. I’ve actually reached out a little bit to Fred Sanders who wrote the review. He’s a Wesleyan Armenian dude. I guess the Gospel Coalition is not an exclusive a club as I thought it was. I guess the enemy of their enemy is their friend.
I think that at the end of the day the difference is in the approach. The reason why it has struck this nerve with certain reviewers is — I’m sorry. — I think that it makes total sense that a cognitive- based, hierarchical, substance-oriented Calvinist approach to Trinity would be at odds with an apophatic, social and process-oriented, and Franciscan approach. I’ll break that down. This sort of cognitive, hierarchical approach, a lot of Calvinist would say that their favored theological lens for the Trinity is the monarchial Trinity, emphasizes the Father’s on top, the Son is subservient to the Father, the Spirit is subservient to the Son. It makes the Trinity about hierarchy. I don’t usually throw this word around much, but I actually think that that view might be heretical.
In fact, there was a big hubbub this past summer when Wayne Grudem, who also famously endorsed Trump and then, did it about-faced, and then, did it about-faced again, said, “Hey, hierarchical Trinity is where it’s at and our complementarian view of male supremacy is rooted in the hierarchical Trinity.” There were moderate Evangelicals who said, “No, actually, that is not in the creeds. It’s not in the Trinitarian theology. That is, actually, a heretical view.” I think that within Calvinist you do have folks who are in to that top-down model. They’re very much into the roles that each person plays in the Trinity. So they’ve got — it’s almost like pinning a butterfly to a board. They can examine, apparently, what the Father does and how that’s different from what the Son does, and how that’s distinct from what the Spirit does. Everything has to be neatly in an order and subordinated.
I’m not Roman Catholic, but Father Richard is, and we’re both drawing on this contemplative tradition. It’s very Catholic and Orthodox in a lot of its manifestation. There’s a more what’s known as an apophatic approach which says that — or negative theology — which says that God is so vast and unnamable that whatever we say about God is inherently limited and even, in some sense, wrong. That there’s a lot that transcends category, and so in some ways, the less said the better. So we draw on the apophatic lineage of mysticism.
We also draw on the social Trinity. The social Trinity emphasizes, what I believe is the biblical emphasis of the equality of the members of the Trinity, the mutuality of the members of the Trinity, the vulnerability. We’re process-oriented. I don’t know if the book would capital “P” process theology, but this idea of a relational God who makes Godself vulnerable to creation who is, perhaps, an outsized player in the dance of reality, but is, also, including the creatures in cosmos within this play who can all genuinely influence each other and a Franciscan approach. The Franciscan approach which emphasizes incarnation more than crucifixion that emphasizes the presences of God in all things especially in nature and the natural world. There’s this culture clash that is inherently happening when we’re writing this book from this perspective. When folks that are in a very different context look at it, it’s like speaking two different languages, like oil and water.
Stuart: What ends up happening too is folks in that arena of thinking, I guess you could say, tend to prefer — anyone can pull apart this statement — a small controllable God, a God that we kind of know everything we know, how big, how small, how wide versus this idea of this broad unknowable mystery perspective God.
Stuart: It’s that knowing versus being comfortable with mystery, as well, too. I think mystery can make a lot of folks uncomfortable —
Mike: — Indeed.
Stuart: — because you can’t pin it down and you can’t quantify it. I would also just go as far to say that if we had a God that we already know absolutely everything about, it would be a small God in the midst of that. I’ll move on from this but I will note that when you were using some terminology to describe some of these folks in their mindset, I was hearing that — are you telling me — actually, don’t answer this because it’s absolutely stupid and rhetorical, but you were using words like dom and sub and roll playing to describe the whole Calvinist outlook on everything like that. I said that, not Mike. So if anyone wants to get mad at me for all the comments that I’ve vaulted over at our Calvinist brothers and sisters, take it out on me, not him. Most of this is spoken in grand hyperbole, also.
Stuart: So moving on from that —
Mike: — No comment there. [laughs] I will say that my Calvinist friends would probably say that you have it precisely backwards. That we are the ones with the small god because we have conformed God to a cultural image of inclusion that ignores the rough edges of a god that absolutely has the right to judge humanity along the lines that happen to agree with the ways in which the Calvinist like to judge humanity.
I would say that the scripture that’s often invoked in these sorts of debates or articulations about God is “My ways are higher than your ways,” says God. The original context of that is actually God pardoning, forgiving and reconciling, that the higher ways of God that are actually mind-blowing are ways in which God is more kind and generous than we are.
As Father Richard and I say in the book is our idea of mystery is not that God is unknowable, but God is infinitely knowable. There’s always more to learn. The reason I ultimately left reformed theology is because I felt like I, basically, knew the broad outlines of it by the time I started college. I knew that I could spend a lifetime mining the particularities of that system, but it was a closed system. It stifled curiosity and it stifled empathy and open-heartedness, and I just couldn’t survive there.
Stuart: Well put and way more eloquent than the word I was going for in the midst of this. I appreciate this. So we’re going to hit a lightning round, not really that lightning.
So applying this Trinitarian Revolution, how does all of this speak to — and I’ll give you different topics and you can 30 seconds or so on this — Trinity and racism.
Mike: Trinity and racism. Again, the idea of unity within diversity. I think that some early attempts to mitigate racism came from well-meaning white folks who said I don’t see color. One, that is factually untrue, and two, even if it could be done, that’s an eraser of identity that is actually another form of racism or violence to say, “I don’t see this other culture, this other color, this other hue and way of being.” Trinity is a beautiful way of saying in the classical formulation the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, and yet, there is this unity. So we do have shared humanity, common humanity, and there are distinctions. There are differences. Those differences are beautiful, and that is what Trinity shows us.
Stuart: Okay, from racism, now politics.
Mike: Politics. Again, “everything belongs”, to steal a phrase from Father Richard. We talked in the book about the Law of Three, and I’ll just do a really quick and dirty version right here, and it will be longer than 30 seconds. I apologize.
In Hegelian dialectics, which tend to be the underpinnings of our dualistic conscience in the West. We see everything in this zero-sum game opposition. We have this thesis that comes out. We have an antithesis that opposes it with all its might, and the best we can hope for is some kind of compromise or synthesis. Well, there’s a different metaphysic, a ternary metaphysic, that’s not based on dualism. That’s known as the Law of Three.
The Law of Three comes from another Turkish teacher, a Turkish-Russian teacher, George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, who is also known for popularizing the enneagram. Gurdjieff is saying that there’s this Law of Three that says there is a holy affirming force, a holy denying force and a holy reconciling force. This is different from the Hegelian dialectic because holy affirming can be advancing something. It’s a value-neutral term. We could say that Trump is in the holy affirming position advancing his vision to make American great again. Then, we have a holy denying that is the activist community, the progressive community, the sane human community that says, “What the heck. We’re not going to stand for this. We are going to oppose it.” Now, in a Hegelian system, that’s all there is, and maybe, they would work out some kind of bloody compromise, but in a Law of Three, there’s also a holy reconciling force, a novel force that springs up, something that no one can anticipate, that shows a third-way thinking where there wasn’t previously a way to imagine a path out. We’re still waiting on it in this case.
Unfortunately, I cannot debut to you right now what the holy reconciling force is in our current political climate. What’s important to note is that this third force does not actually take sides, it actually, in some ways, maybe invalidates the best in these other opposing forces. For instances, there are a lot of poor, working-class, white folk who had good reasons to want to change, and therefore, decided, for whatever reason, to elect Trump. So this third force says that everything belongs. There’s a creative way out of this. We’re all in this together. No one is ultimately irredeemable or demonizable. We spend a little more time on the Law of Three in the book. If you really want a master class in it, I recommend checking out Cynthia Bourgeault’s book, The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three.
Stuart: What about — let’s hit the environment through the lens of Trinity.
Mike: The environment through the lens of Trinity. Well, if we look at Trinity as creator, redeemer, and sustainer of life. If we see this inherently pantheistic view of Trinity as a God who transcends but includes all of creation and all of reality, then, when we disrespect the Earth, we’re not only disrespecting our planet, we’re disrespecting a vital aspect of the body of God. We’re harming ourselves in a very real way.
I love how certain ecological theologians like Brian Swimme and Bruce Sanguin put it. They say even from a physical science’s perspective, a current model of the universe, what the so-called “Big Bang,” everything emerges from a singularity. There’s this one point of reality or matter that contains all there is and then, it expands outward in every direction. At what point does it cease to become one? It is still one thing in this dizzying, diversity of manifestation. To me, that is also Trinity, one god in this diversity of manifestation. When we recognize that, of course, a triune god would create a triune universe, so to speak. Then, how we take care of our world, suddenly becomes more personal.
Stuart: I have one last question for you that has nothing — well, it has to do with the book, but not really at all. I like to throw in these random questions that you may not have an answer for, but I want you to give a stab at this one. So you mentioned earlier that William Paul Young, the author of The Shack, wrote the forward for the book. I’ve seen the trailer. There’s a Shack movie coming out, not Shaq, not Shaquille O’Neal new movie. This isn’t Kazaam 2. This is the movie based on the book, The Shack. When we begin to look at this, one, can you name a decent Christian film?
Mike: [laughs] Oh, man. I feel like the answer to that is yes. There’s this go-to movie where I’m like, “Wow, this is a surprisingly good Christian film.” It’s not Fireproof.
Stuart: [laughs] What?!
Mike: [laughs] Well, the answer right now is no I can’t because I’m not referring to the thing I was thinking of.
Stuart: I think most movies that end up hinting at aspects of faith, and Christianity and spirituality, do so very well, but they often do it by accident. I think the intentional ones that you label a Christian film, end up being a steaming pile of stuff.
Mike: Yes, that’s true.
Stuart: Do you have hope — again, this is not an endorsement. This is no knock against William Young. Do you have any hope for a movie, The Shack movie that is coming out?
Mike: Yes, I do have hope. I haven’t seen the film yet, obviously, but I think that no one was more potentially skeptical about the possibility of a Shack movie being horrible than Paul. My understanding from chatting with him is that he’s been really happy with how Lion’s Gate has taken the movie and the direction that it’s taken it in. My hope is that it will be a beautiful translation of the book for even more people to engage in. That’s said, there are many different artistic modes of interpreting a book. I think that a movie is only one of those. It will be interesting to see, as the years go on, if there are other interpretations of the book as well.
Stuart: Well, Mike, thank you so much for being on the show. The book is The Divine Dance with Richard Rohr and Mike Morrell, and I want to end all this with how you guys ended the book. I don’t think this is anything that’s a spoiler. When you’re talking about really just the shift of how we embrace the Trinity you said, “As we embrace that, suddenly this is a very safe universe and you have nothing to be afraid of. God is for you. God is leaping towards you. God is on your side honestly more than you are on your own.”
Mike, thank you for your time. For those out there, if they want to find out more information — I know the book is on Amazon. It’s in book retailers everywhere. If people want to track you down in the Internetlandtopia out there, how can they find you?
Mike: Yes, absolutely. First of all, if you want a one-stop shop for the book, thedivinedance.org is a beautiful site that was designed for the book. It has a lot of background information. If you want to look me up specifically, I would love it if you visited me on my blog at mikemorrell.org, not .com or .net. Those are an insurance agent and a republican state lawmaker respectively. I don’t think the CIA Mike Morrell has his own website.
Stuart: It’s probably better that he doesn’t.
Mike: Yes, yes, but if you go to mikemorrell.org, and, in fact, I’ve created a very personal bonus chapter of The Divine Dance that I’m giving away on my blog. It’s where I tell more of my own story about this profound Trinitarian experience that I had several years ago that inspired me to collaborate on this book with Father Richard. If you go to mikemorrell.org/bonuschapter, you can download that chapter in its entirety. There’s exclusive material. There’s also some exclusive exercises in the bonus chapter that are not in the regular book.
Stuart: Well, Mike, thank you so much. Thanks so much for all the work I know you did with this book. Thank you for your time today. It was a pleasure to have you, and hopefully, we’ll have you back on sometime soon.
Mike: I’d love to Stuart. Thank you for having me.
Stuart: Alright. Thanks so much.
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Stuart: Well, that’s it for the show this week. Just a reminder as we end this broadcast, you can always catch us on podcast at www.snarkyfaith.com. You can also check us out on Twitter and Facebook. That’s all I got. So see you again next week. Later.
Transcribed by Miriam Delony