Name Untroubled, I Will Trouble Your Name

Spirituality of Improv, The Holy Trinity

My friend Laurie and I have been reading Cynthia Bourgeault’s The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three One of Bourgeault’s central points is that we make a mistake when we think about God as a person, and the Trinity as persons. What if we were to think in terms of process, rather than persons? Not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but Unmanifest, Manifesting, Manifested. Her emphasis in this formulation is on action. God is unmanifest, huge cosmic, beyond our knowing and understanding. God is manifesting, reaching out to us, trying to lead and teach us. God is manifested, active in our lives, a continuous presence.

I really like this, but I am given pause by one aspect of it, mostly because it seems to contradict some of my thoughts on the spirituality of improv. Bourgeault describes this trinitarian process as affirming, denying, and reconciling. If God is unmanifest, than “God manifesting” is really the opposite of that. God, who is beyond our understanding, becomes human in Jesus, and is therefore understandable, or at least partially so. These first two movements of the Trinity seem to contradict each other. How can something that is eternally beyond our knowing become known? For Bourgeault, this is exactly the magic of the process. We affirm one thing, then we affirm something that contradicts it, and then we find that, instead of existing in continuous opposition to each other, a third thing happens that reconciles the first two. So the ineffable, mysterious God becomes known in Jesus Christ, and remains both known and deeply mysterious in the actions of the Holy Spirit.

Another book I’m reading, Scott Weems Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why has helped me to understand this. In fact, reading the two books together has been positively thrilling! Weems, a neuroscientist, says that our brains are full of contradictory thoughts. They’re a little like the United Nations, where countries are in constant and vociferous arguments with each other. Sometimes these arguments are about petty things, but sometimes they entail the clash of world views. But our minds don’t just leave these thoughts in conflict. Our minds work to reconcile them, and it’s the very process of reconciling two discordant thoughts that causes us to laugh. Humor is the result of reconciliation.

You can see the parallel to Bourgeault. Essentially, she’s describing with theology the same process that Weems is describing with neuroscience. For the first time in my life, I find science and theology actively supporting each other, pointing to exactly the same thing and describing exactly the same process. I laughed when I realized this, and then realized that I had just experienced in my body the exact process that the books were talking about. Theology attempts to describe the unmanifested. Neuroscience describes the manifesting. I laugh because I realize that these two seemingly oppositional disciplines have been reconciled, and the trinity is fully manifested in my laughter.

Pretty good stuff, right? Being excited about this, I’ve begun to wonder how it might change the way I pray. Traditionally, Christian prayer starts with an invocation, often an invocation of the Trinity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I’m wondering what kind of trinitarian invocations we can use that invoke process, rather than persons. It seems to me that such an invocation would succeed best if it could actually trigger the process of affirming, denying, and reconciling in the people who are praying it. The art work and the poem I created to try to express this is just a first attempt, and I don’t think I really got it right. But I share it with you now, and will share other attempts as I continue to try to develop this practice.

A final thought about improv. At first I thought that Bourgeault might be contradicting one of the tenets of improv by claiming that denying is part of trinitarian process. In improv, denial is a real problem, and improv practitioners are taught to yes/and things, not deny them. But if Weems is right, I think that denial is baked-in to improv, although not in the way we usually think of it. Two actors take the stage. They both have things that they’re going to say, and ways that they’re going to react to each other. One gifts the scene with an opening statement, such as “tell our kids to be quiet.” This would be the “affirming” moment in Bourgeault’s scheme. The other then has to set aside whatever they were going to say, and whatever character they thought they might be playing. They are denying their own ideas in order to favor another person’s ideas. “Okay,” they say to themselves, “I’m not a lumberjack, I’m a parent. Or maybe I’m a great big lumberjack daddy!” They accept the gift the other actor has given them, and add to it, and this is the moment of reconciliation, which is why it’s funny. It’s also why it’s holy.

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