Karl Rahner was a German Jesuit, a brilliant man, a deep thinker and a very familiar name in Christian theology – some would say his work fairly dominated Christian Theological thought in the 20th century. And yet it’s said he claimed that if the doctrine of the Trinity were to quietly disappear out of Christian theology, never to be mentioned again, most of Christendom would never even notice its absence. That sounds like a pretty provocative statement, but, let’s face it, even though great turmoil and even some bloodshed may have accompanied the development of Trinity as doctrine back in the fourth century, the concept has, historically, been a bafflement – the kind of mystery that, while inviting to some, makes most people sort of shrug and wonder how to talk about God in a way that might be more satisfying.
Cynthia Bourgeault seems to feel that way – and she seems to want to help. She is an Episcopal priest, deep thinker and author, and currently producing some pretty provocative theological writing herself. She definitely agrees with Rahner’s remark, and begins her book entitled The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three by suggesting that most of the modern world – and even much of modern Christianity – regards the doctrine of the trinity as contrived and irrelevant – that it takes a real stretch of the imagination to claim that it was ever a part of the original teachings of Jesus, or that, as a doctrinal statement, it does a single thing to clarify or enhance those teachings.
She goes on to tell a story – “a circuitous response”, in her own words, to the question of the usefulness of the doctrine of the Trinity – a story about her friend the Abkhazian dervish elder Murat Yagan.
It seems this dervish-elder knew a happy elderly Turkish couple who lived in a remote corner of their country. Their one sadness was that their only son had left some years earlier to seek work in Istanbul. He had, indeed, become successful, but the parents had very infrequent contact with him. One day, Murat visited the old couple, who were giddy with pride, and couldn’t wait to show him the new gift their son had shipped them. It was a tea cupboard, upon which the mother had already arranged her best tea set. Murat was polite but curious. “Are you sure it’s a tea cupboard?” he asked. They were sure. Until, with their permission, Murat carefully turned the unit around, removed a bit more packing material, and a set of doors swung open to reveal a fully functional ham radio set. The “tea cupboard” was, of course, really meant to connect them to their son.
This, Bourgeault finds, is a very apt analogy for how Christians tend to use the Holy Trinity. It’s our theological tea cupboard, upon which we display our finest doctrinal china – our prize assertion that Jesus – a human being – is fully divine. This is not necessarily a bad thing, just as it was not a bad thing for an elderly woman to set her nicest china on a new piece of furniture. But what, asks Bourgeault, “what if…inside (it) the concept of the Trinity is concealed a powerful communications tool that could…allow us to navigate our way through the ethical and theological logjams of our time – and place the teachings of Jesus in a dynamic metaphysical framework that would truly unlock their power?”
THIS is provocative. It’s very heady stuff. And while, as you might imagine, this subject, among 21st century mystics and metaphysicians can quickly devolve into a morass of spider-webby connections – something like chaos theory, or string theory – Borgeault lifts out of the morass a single, clear concept that may not only be worth exploring, but can be reasonably and effectively presented as a seed for further reflection, in the time we have today.
Borgeault begins by acknowledging that there is a long history of Christian thought that invests deeply in the personhood of the Holy Trinity. This was necessary in order to establish, as we noted a moment ago, a linguistic and conceptual framework upon which human beings might “hang”, for one thing, our understanding that Jesus is fully human and fully divine. This kind of thinking also lent to the propagation of an understanding that the Trinity is, then, about persons – whose names are Father, Son and Holy Spirit and who live in an eternal, self-generating and self-sustaining community. Complex inter-relationship of these persons notwithstanding, this cornerstone of Christian experience has long unfolded in the understanding that it is a fact that these three persons exist and that they are the three unique manifestations of the unseen fullness of God. And while Borgeault has no interest in refuting the sanctity OR the factuality of this tenet of our faith as Christians, she doesn’t seem to want to stop there. And I, for one, am interested in where she’s going.
She’s interested in articulating how helpful it may be for us to explore moving away from focus solely on personhood and, also, considering that the Trinity may be more about how God moves and flows – how God changes from one form (or state) into another within that which can be created – how God permeates the flexibility – the uncertainty – of creation with a wholeness of divine being. The idea that God – that the Holy Trinity – may be as much about process as persons. And how that process captures a manner of change and transformation based on an ancient metaphysical principle known as the Law of Three.
Now the persons of the Holy Trinity are not secondary, rather Borgeault wishes to explore the extent to which they unfold or manifest according to the Law of Three. And she supports her exploration by asserting that this Law of Three is a dynamic principle that has always lain, unacknowledged, at the foundation of Christian self-understanding.
We are made in God’s image which, instead of being defined by physical appearance, actually connotes freedom – free will – freedom of expression – freedom to create. The nature of physical life on this planet involves movement forward, manifestation – we are inspired in spirit and we have the gift of manifestation – of arising – of making that which will come about. Part of what sustains such creativity – such expression – resides in the tension of opposites. But only part. To stay embedded in that tension risks remaining embedded in a system of binary thinking – if not this, then that – which can become unnecessarily limiting. A ternary system – or system of three – envisions a different mix. In addition to the necessity for paired or balanced opposites, the very interaction between them calls forth a third force – a mediating, or reconciling principle that generates a synthesis or creation at a whole new level. The Law of Three, then, has to do with an interaction of opposites, the resolution of which creates a new realm of possibility.
I know. That’s a lot. Let’s look at a simple illustration:
Speaking about a seed, Jesus said, “…unless it falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single seed.” But if it does fall to the ground and “dies”, it enters a sacred transformative process. Seed, the first, or affirming, force, meets ground, the second or resisting force. But it is not until sunlight – the third or reconciling force enters the equation, that “the three” generates a sprout – a whole new “field” of possibility.
That’s basically it. In every new arising there are three forces involved: affirming, resisting, and reconciling. But it is the interweaving of these three that produces a fourth – a new dimension.
But the process is not static. These are not fixed points or permanent attributes, but can and do shift and must be discerned situationally. And finally, not just any three items constitute a trinity, but only those sets in which the three can be seen as dynamically intertwined.
The implications of this energetic principle – the Law of Three – ancient – metaphysical – can be seen and felt in every area of life – from the most comforting to the most confounding. Here’s some comforting examples: a braid of hair is made of three strands, but makes something different – a fourth thing – the braid itself. Flour and water can be combined, but when fire is added, they become something different – the staff of life. A child is begotten through the interaction of sperm (the affirming force) and egg (the resisting force) in the act of lovemaking. What results is not simply the continuation of the parents, but a new life – with a whole new horizon stretching before her and the dynamism of manifestation imprinted within her. She is “a new triad” – not only a new creation but a creative force herself – containing within her the potential for the bringing into being yet another new realm of arising.
That’s probably enough for now. There’s a good deal of spiritual energy in the dynamism depicted in the newness of life. It might be okay for us to live into the spirit of this kind of thinking – this kind of perceiving the nature of the Trinity – how God changes from one form (or state) into another within that which can be created – how God permeates the flexibility – the uncertainty – of creation with a wholeness of divine being.
Perhaps Bourgeault is on to something by suggesting the Holy Trinity is not just about the persons of the Trinity. That the nature of the Trinity is applicable across a broad range of disciplines simply because it is also a cosmic law – an organizing principle that allows the world to be what it is. And while we’ve looked at the surface of this principle, it bears remembering that this triad of manifestation is also the triad of maintenance – equally applicable in the domains of psyche as it is in matter. Think of the nature of relationships and how God permeates the flexibility inherent in them – how tension in opposites sometimes enters relationships, and how Godly movement may occur. Solutions to interpersonal impasses – according to the Law of Three – generally come by learning how to spot and mediate the third or reconciling force, which is present in every situation, but usually hidden. That may be the kind of subject upon which a parish committee on spiritual development might spend wonderfully productive time reflecting.
Please do not misunderstand. The reflections at hand are not about displacing the faith received. They are merely, in some ways, about expanding how we encounter God’s presence. I felt we were invited to go in this direction with the Trinity as a result of last week’s gospel lesson. Jesus spoke of the coming of the Holy Spirit, saying, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, you will be guided into all truth…”