Perichoresis: That word does not mean what you think it means

I am reading Alan Jacobs, A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love right now, part of an attempt to make me a better reader, since I study and teach texts. What follows is perhaps not the hermeneutics of love, but I hope it is at least helpful? To soften it, I do think Jacobs has written an interesting, if at times challenging (I am more a philologist than literary critic) book. Sometimes I wonder why we need to work our way through Bakhtin to reach the end of the journey, but I imagine it is all worth it.

Anyway, in his discussion of Bakhtin, Jacobs mentions the Russian critic’s Orthodox background (even if Bakhtin was not himself particularly orthodox), and after a brief nod to theosis writes:

Moreover — and this is a still more important point for our purposes here — the God in whose image we were made and are being remade is a Trinity, that is, an intrinsically relational being. Here again we must invoke a doctrine that, although not unique to Orthodoxy, is characteristic of it: perichoresis, the eternal loving dance in which the persons of the Trinity are intertwined. To become deified … is to learn to practice with our neighbors the perichoretic movements that are so awkward for fallen human beings. (63)

There are two weaknesses here, one which this section shares with the preceding paragraph about theosis, and which is entirely forgivable, since no one can read everything. I shall quickly dispense with the first weakness, which is a lack of deep engagement with Orthodox thought on these points. Jacobs is neither a professional theologian nor, indeed, Orthodox. His métier is English literature and literary criticism. And he knows that body of literature very well. To complain that he does not reference Zizioulas on the Trinity or any of the Russian spiritual masters or contemporaries of Bakhtin discussed in Louth’s Modern Orthodox Thinkers would verge on the petty. It would have been nice to see such engagement, nonetheless.

Then again, perhaps such engagement may have saved him from the other weakness, which is an error of fact.

Perichoresis is not about dancing, despite many westerners thinking so (most recently Richard Rohr).

The first place I learned that this word is not about dancing was Edith M. Humphrey’s book Ecstasy and Intimacy, her last book as an Anglican (she is now Orthodox). She phrased it very well, and if my notes were with me instead in a shipping container in the port of Vancouver, I’d share her thoughts with you. Alas.

Anyway, the O in perichoresis is long, not short (an omega, not an omicron). If this were about the ‘divine dance’ (into which we are allegedly invited in the minds of some), the O would be short. Instead, it is related to the verb choreo, translated by the big, fat Greek dictionary (affectionately known as LSJ) variously, depending on context. The most relevant of the brief definitions:

make room for another, give way, withdraw

after Homer, go forward, advance

to be in motion or flux

have room for a thing, hold, contain

The related verb perichoreo:

A.go round, “σὺ περιχώρει λαβὼν τὴν χέρνιβα”  Ar.Av.958π. τὴν Ἑλλάδα Thalesap. D.L.1.44.
II. rotateAnaxag.912.
2. to be transferred to, come to in succession, “ἡ βασιληΐη π. ἐς Δαρεῖον” Hdt. 1.210 ; “ἡ ὀργὴ π. ἐς τό τινων μίασμα” D.C.40.49.

The noun derived therefrom in Classical Greek is given by LSJ simply to mean ‘rotation’. This is obviously not exactly what Greek theology means while talking about the inner life of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity. From what I can tell, when the word was used by St Gregory of Nazianzus (possibly the first to apply perichoresis to the Holy Trinity), it referred to mutual coinhering or mutual indwelling.

Thus, the choreo has to do with making room, and peri, literally ‘around’ as a prefix, has to do with the mutuality of the three. The point is not that the three divine Persons are dancing and making room in the divine dance for each, as cute and happy that image is. That is actually a very poor analogy, especially given the apophaticism of St Gregory in other places, that is, given his insistence on divine incomprehensibility and the utter unlikeness of God to us.

Rather, it has to do with the divine ousia, the essence of God Almighty, whereby that which the Father is, so also is the Son, and so also is the Holy Spirit. Whatever one does or is, so are the others. They have a single nature, substance, essence, and thus, although three persons, they mutually coinhere in perfect love. They do not ‘dance’ and let the other have room to dance. It is more intimate than that.