On the Feast of St. Basil, theologian of the Trinity, Daily Theology’s celebration of the Christmas season continues with a guest post by Dannis Matteson.
“What will it take to make the engagement in dialogue an expression of truly and specifically Catholic spirituality?”
Philip Murnion asks this question in the introduction to Catholic Common Ground Initiative Foundational Documents. As polarization in our church seems to grow wider every day, so does the relevance of this question.
The Catholic Common Ground Initiative (CCGI) was founded in 1996 by Cardinal Bernardin as a response to increasing polarization in the Catholic church. CCGI’s founding document, Called to be Catholic puts forth seven principles of dialogue which provide a framework for how to gather conflicting individuals in dialogue. In response to the CCGI Murnion Lecture in June, 2014, Fr. Michael Place described Common Ground as a spirituality above all else. He emphasized that, “CCGI is not conflict resolution, it’s a spirituality. It’s a way of life. It returns to Jesus.”
If spirituality is a way of life, then spirituality of common ground is a way of life that constantly reaches for communion with others. After all, “Common ground is holy ground,” Cardinal Bernardin proclaimed. Spirituality of dialogue and common ground, then, encompasses a way of life that walks on holy ground towards unity while looking to Jesus’ teaching and example. “In a phrase, it has been dialogue that is a graced participation in mystery” (Libscomb, CCGI Foundational Documents, 94).
To approach dialogue as the expression of a spirituality is a critical challenge for our church today, and especially for our smaller communities. A tool that might help us enter into this spirituality of dialogue actually lies right under our noses: the doctrine of the Trinity. Engaging our belief in a triune God would deepen our spirituality of common ground and enliven our approach to dialogue.
First, let us consider how the doctrine of the Trinity came to be. The doctrine of the Trinity is more than a mathematical expression of the Three In One. It is a testament to the fact that our God is relationship. Our belief in a triune God was born not out of philosophical equations, but rather out of real experiences Christians have had of God as relationship throughout history. Scripture such as Paul’s benediction at the end of 2 Corinthians portrays this experience early Christians were having of God as three persons working in union: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you” (2 Cor. 13:13). The Trinity came to define the relationship among The Creator, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit and is reflected in the Nicene creed’s “one in being with” (now “consubstantial with”) language.
Perichoresis became a popular symbol to describe Trinity as dynamic relationship. Perichoresis is a Greek term that signals a cyclical movement, like that of the turning of a wheel (Johnson, She Who Is 220). The earliest use of the term in theology is attributed to John Damascene in his articulation of the Trinity. He comments on the unitive motion elicited by the triune God, noting, “for there is one essence, one goodness, one virtue, one intent, one operation, one power—one and the same, not three similar one to another, but one and the same motion of the three Persons.” (John of Damascus, Writings, 186).
If all of this still seems rather technical, let me skip to the core of what it means to worship a triune God. We have been created by a God who exemplifies relationship in God’s own being. God is not a singular monarch, but rather three persons in relationship with one another, constantly showing mutual love and respect for the other. Leonardo Boff calls this “radical coexistence, cohabitation, and interpenetration of the three divine persons… total circulation of life and love, in perfect coequality, without any anteriority or superiority.” The Trinity is a community, a communion, mutual hospitality, and, “according to the Doctrine of the Trinity, God lives as the mystery of love among persons” (LaCugna, God for Us, 378).
So where does spirituality of dialogue come in to play? The thing about the doctrine of the Trinity is, there is a catch. It is not enough to be able to explain the nature of God as three in one. That is not the point of the Trinity. The point is that we are implicated in this triune relationship. We as Christians are expected to participate in this coequality, mutual hospitality, and mystery of love. Dialogue provides us a vehicle towards this aim. Cardinal Bernardin, in his October 24, 1996 address, Faithful and Hopeful, describes dialogue as an exercise of relationship: “In dialogue we affirm, examine, deepen, and rectify our own defining beliefs in relationship to another person. That relationship involves opposition but also sincere respect, trust, and expectation of mutual enrichment.” Dialogue is a way to practice mutuality in relationship with our sisters and brothers in the community of the church. In this way, it is also a participation in the Trinity.
Anytime Christians work to build unity, they are practicing their trinitarian faith. Archbishop Lipscomb, who addressed the inaugural conference of CCGI in 1997 expressed the goal of unity in his reference to Communio et Progressio which states, “But in order that this dialogue may go in the right direction it is essential that charity is in command even when there are differing views. Everyone in this dialogue should be animated by the desire to serve and to consolidate unity and cooperation” (no. 117). As a church, we are held accountable to reflecting the Trinity. Initiating dialogue is a concrete form of doing this: “This accountability implies that the church, for all its humanness, cannot be treated as merely a human organization. The church is a chosen people, a mysterious communion, a foreshadowing of the Kingdom, a spiritual family” (Called To Be Catholic).
What will it take to make the engagement in dialogue an expression of truly and specifically Catholic spirituality? It would take a genuine attempt to hold one another accountable to reflecting our triune God in relationship and in dialogue.
Dannis Matteson just began her work serving the Catholic Common Ground Initiative in October of 2014. She recently received her M.A. in Systematic Theology from Catholic Theological Union as a Bernardin Scholar and is excited and honored to continue the legacy of Cardinal Bernardin at CCGI. In addition to her work at CCGI, Dannis serves as a campus minister at Saint Xavier University in Chicago alongside her husband, Thomas Cook. Dannis’ theological interests include Trinitarian theology, political theology and eco-feminist theology. Aside from ministry, Dannis and Tom spend their time taking care of their puppy, Paulie, biking on the Chicago lakefront, and living the lifestyle of discipleship.