Rhythm: for theology that takes time and experience seriously

So, what does rhythm have to do with theology anyway?

Quite a lot, as it turns out. This might not be immediately obvious, though.

Most theology is more interested in content than form, meaning that it tries to articulate timeless doctrines as if from nowhere. Theology only recently has started to pay attention to who is speaking and to the context in which doctrines are articulated, which influences the kinds of questions that are asked and discussed. If you start to ask questions like ‘who are these humans who are responding to God, who receive revelation?’ both in general and specific terms, the significance of rhythm starts to become clearer.

The Underlying Assumption of Most Doctrine

Here are some examples of what most people probably think about when thinking about doctrine: the doctrine of creation, for example, is usually about origins, which, in our current conversation, is about the degree to which evolution and the biblical creation narrative are compatible. Theological anthropology is about whether or not humans have a soul and what it means to be “made in the image of God.” And doctrines of the Trinity tend to be about the relations between the three persons and the degree to which these relations correlate with their manifestation in history.

But all of these questions begin with the assumption that we can pull ourselves out of our limited, time-and-space-bound, creaturely perspective and see God, ourselves, our origin, salvation etc. from a distance. This is impossible. As creatures in time, we cannot see our origin in the way that we can see the origin of something else, like a tree. It is even doubtful that we can do that! The origin of an oak may be an acorn, but the origin of that acorn is another tree and so on. We extrapolate backwards, but the embeddedness of the process in time means that we never actually witness the origin from the outside. We extrapolate from the inside. It’s even more difficult when talking about the origin of something like an idea. We act like we can attribute an idea to a certain person, but of course that person knows that the origin of the idea is mysterious – a blend of many different factors, some of which are identifiable and others that are not. Yet theologians sometimes behave like they can see the origin or nature of creation itself as a whole, as if from the outside. It is much more likely, however, that we can only identify partial origins.

The same is true for theological anthropology. Much ink has been spilled over what way exactly we are (or are not) made in the image of God. The perspective this assumes is the viewer-in-the-gallery-perspective in which we can look at the image and then compare the replica, or, again, look at the original and compare the image. But if we are IN the image, how could we possibly do this? The same problem manifests in thinking about the Trinity and its relation to history as if we can see the relations between them as a third-party observer.

This is not necessarily to denigrate or dismiss centuries of theological work, much of which I love and rely on. But it nevertheless exhibits a certain, persistent perspective that tends to force theology into a certain mold. Theologies that speak in this way are helpful as far as they go, but the point is that they actually tend to not go as far as they think they do.

The objection at this point is typically that God has revealed timeless truths to us in scripture and as such has gifted us with something of God’s own universal perspective as well. Perhaps. But if so, this seems to me to be the case only in a very limited sense. God has not given us a universal, systematic theology, but stories of God encountering people.  The character of scripture is such that God revealing God’s self to people within the context of time and history and it is only from those events that we then make observations about the nature of God, and these have always grown and deepened through the history of God’s people. After all, Israel was surprised by the incarnation. So, if you’re mostly interested in distilling universal truths off of scripture, you are arguably not very interested in scripture – the whole of scripture – including its temporal form that takes place in the midst of human experience.

If you’re tempted to object that we now have a complete canon and therefore we understand the whole while the characters in scripture did not, think again. This would be a rather premature eschatology. If you really believe this then you’re not really waiting for the new heaven and new earth. In other words, one of the things that this canon tells us is that we’re still waiting for some things to be revealed.

vs. Approaching Doctrine out of Rhythm

So, how about this instead: Suppose we assume that theology’s primary purpose is not to assert timeless doctrines, but to use speech to help connect people to the divine? This would include a whole host of things like telling the biblical story of God’s interactions with the world and connecting particular believers to that story, identifying healthy patterns of life and thought that open a person to the divine, articulating how and where human experience intersects with the divine. In this case, doctrine is not an end in itself. It serves the purpose of facilitating the human connection with God.

This is not to simply construct a god in response to experience in order to address human needs that may or may not be legitimate. But it is to acknowledge that God cannot be spoken about without simultaneously implicating human experience, even if that experience is radically challenged or overturned in the process. If this is the case, then theology should factor that experience into its articulations (1) if its objective of facilitating human connection to God is going to be successful and (2) if it’s going to avoid unacknowledged and unanalyzed assumptions about experience creeping into doctrine unawares.

Suddenly, the question of who is speaking and the context in which they are speaking is important because it will help answer questions about whether or not and in what way theology is opening connection to the divine.

And now, enter rhythm.

One way to think about human experience as part of doctrine-formation is by thinking about rhythm. Rhythm is a fundamental part of reality and is therefore universal. You cannot really talk about creaturely context and experience and identity without at least acknowledging rhythm. However, rhythm is also not homogeneous. It appears in many different ways, to different people, in different cultures and dimensions of existence. The category therefore very naturally starts to make us aware of diverse and particular speakers and contexts as well.

If we start to think about various Christian doctrines in light of speaker and context, then we see rhythm implied in almost all doctrines: What does being rhythmic creatures mean for theological anthropology? The biblical creation story has an oscillating, rhythmic form – how is that form part of the relationship between the creature and the divine? We describe two members of the Trinity using images related to rhythm in the human life – Word and Breath – what does this mean for how we think about the Trinity, the Incarnation, Pneumatology? If we are rhythmic creatures, does that mean that our rhythms are somehow “saved” and sanctified, and if so, what do “saved” and sanctified rhythms look like? What is the significance of the rhythms of church life for its identity as the body of Christ? How do we, as rhythmic creatures, relate to the end of time and the Christian hope of the new heaven and earth while still within time?

I’m sure you can think of others.

The point is that focusing on rhythm prevents theology from floating away into timeless-god’s-eye-view because it’s always reminding us of who we, the speakers of doctrine, are and so incessantly asks the question of why these doctrines matter for our relationship to the divine. But this is something that other kinds of religious speech – liturgy, art, prayer – have of course understood for a long time. As such, it makes sense to rely on one of their central categories to help theology to take form seriously as well.

1 reply »

  1. Excellent!

    Yes, rhythm surrounds our daily experience from our alarm clock beckonings to lunch dates and evening rituals. Most of the Book of Isaiah is poetry which cannot be possible without rhythmic beats and pulses. This duality of living and moving our being in sync with rhythm is an ideal context for spontaneous improvisation with God and participating as co-creators in an unfolding universe.

    Great article!


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