Perichoresis and kenosis in Salinger’s “Teddy”

A few months back, I was reading a New York Times interview with Anne Lamott on her favorite books. When asked what book made her want to be a writer, she answered with J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories (a collection you remember me swooning over a few posts ago). Lamott said she loved the ninth story, “Teddy,” saying, “I still remember the moment when the little boy Teddy, who is actually a sadhu, tells the reporter on the ship that he first realized what God was all about when he saw his little sister drink a glass of milk — that it was God, pouring God, into God.”

So because of Anne Lamott, and my love for Salinger, I thought I would spend this post exploring “Teddy,” perichoresis, and kenosis.

Perichoresis

“I was six when I saw that everything was God, and my hair stood up, and all that,” Teddy said. (p. 189)

Let’s start here, with panentheism. So Teddy is a described as a Hindu holy man, but so much of what he says can be seen as ascetic Christian theology. (Minus the whole reincarnation thing.) Panentheism, for example, is the belief that God’s spirit is in all things. It’s not that everything is God, but the one God is in all. 10-year-old Teddy isn’t exactly describing panentheism, but to me it’s a worthy interpretation, at least for us here at T&L. What might Teddy teach us about Christian theology?

“It was on a Sunday, I remember. My sister was only a very tiny child then, and she was drinking her milk, and all of a sudden I saw that she was God and the milk was God. I mean, all she was doing was pouring God into God, if you know what I mean.”

So if we view this as panentheism, you can understand this metaphor as perichoresis–God pouring God’s self into God’s self while receiving God into God’s self. Fun, isn’t it?

Periochoresis is an understanding of the Trinity. No one part of the Trinity can stand alone. The Son wholly relies on the Father; the Father the Spirit; the Spirit, the Son. I’ve heard it described with birthing imagery: the Father gives birth to the Son, but the Father cannot be a father without the Son, therefore the Son gives birth to the Father. And so on.

So I love the imagery that Salinger gives to this: milk pouring into milk. The milk in the glass receives the milk in the carton.

Kenosis

A little later in the story, Teddy describes to Nicholson what I understand as kenosis, something even more interesting than the milk metaphor, if you ask me.

Kenosis is derived from the Greek word for “self-emptying” (κενόω), a term used to describe the incarnation. Christ emptied himself of his divinity and took on the human form (Philippians 2:7). Teddy mentions this self-emptying as a vomiting up of all the stuff one knows intellectually in order to hold what you might know intuitively.

“You know that apple Adam ate in the Garden of Eden, referred to in the Bible?” [Teddy] asked. “You know what was in that apple? Logic. Logic and intellectual stuff. That was all that was in it. So–this is my point–what you have to do is vomit it up if you want to see things as they really are.” (p. 191)

I’m working on another post on Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos, on the symbolism of Adam’s fruit. In that book, the apple represents useless information (information not translated to true knowledge or wisdom). In “Teddy,” the apple is learned knowledge, logic that holds one back from really knowing.

Can you actually “know too much”? Can your collection of facts about God keep you from knowing God?

“The trouble is,” Teddy said, “most people don’t want to see things the way they are. They don’t even want to stop getting born and dying all the time. They just want new bodies all the time, instead of stopping and staying with God, where it’s really nice.” He reflected. “I never saw such a bunch of apple-eaters,” he said. He shook his head.

I love Teddy’s commentary on epistemology. How do we really know what we know? Is it by labeling this thing or that? Or is it by connecting with God or with nature? He suggests we teach children how to really listen–to meditate, to see how things are, not just what they’re called. He says he’d want school children to “vomit up every bit of the apple their parents and everybody made them take a bite out of” (p. 196).

“I’d want them to begin with all the real ways of looking at things, not just the way all the other apple-eaters look at things–that’s what I mean.”

Conclusion

This short story has helped me see perichoresis and kenosis played out in different ways and explained with less lofty language. As for perichoresis, I’m able to see the Trinity as someone tangible like milk being poured into milk. As for kenosis, I’m deeper into my exploration of what that fruit in Genesis 3 really says about humanity, knowledge, and Adam’s sin. Was Adam and Eve’s curiosity really at fault–or is there a deeper truth to that story?

About Lauren Sawyer

I am an assistant instructor at a graduate school in Seattle, Washington, and I hold a master of the arts in theology and culture. I love coffee, rainy days, and John Updike. Learn more about me at laurendeidra.com.

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