Excerpt: The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three: Discovering the Radical Truth at the Heart of Christianity – By Cynthia Bourgeault
Forthcoming from Shambhala Publications, July 9 2013. Pre-order/advance copies now available.
My first challenge in writing this book will be to persuade you that there is anything here worth considering at all. With so many urgent practical issues facing spiritual humanity, why waste time with the Trinity, a doctrine that most of the world (and even much of Christianity) regards as contrived and irrelevant? It takes a real stretch of the theological imagination to claim that it was ever a part of the original Jesus teachings or that it does a single thing to clarify or enhance these teachings. In fact, the eminent twentieth century theologian Karl Rahner has claimed that if the Trinity were to quietly disappear out of Christian theology, never to be mentioned again, most of Christendom would not even notice its absence!
By way of a circuitous response, let me offer you a story which was told to me by my longtime friend and teacher, the Abkhazian dervish elder Murat Yagan.
In the years immediately following World War II, Murat recounts, he spent a time ranching in a remote corner of eastern Turkey. There he became friends with an elderly couple, with whom he frequently shared a meal. Life had been good to them, but their one sadness was that they missed their only son, who had left some years before to seek work in Istanbul. Though he indeed had become a successful businessman, they had infrequent contact with him and missed him greatly.
One day when Murat appeared on their doorstep for tea, the old couple were bursting with pride to show him the new tea cupboard that their son had just shipped them from Istanbul. It was indeed a handsome piece of furniture, and the woman had already proudly arranged her best tea set on its upper shelf. Murat was polite but curious. Why would their son go to such expense to send them a tea cupboard? Why, for a piece of furniture whose ostensible purpose was storage, was there such a noticeable absence of drawers and cabinets? “Are you sure it’s a tea cupboard?” Murat asked them. They were sure.
But the question continued to nag at Murat. Finally, just as he was taking his leave, he said, “Do you mind if I have a closer look at this tea cupboard?” With their permission, he turned the backside around and unscrewed a couple of packing boards. A set of cabinet doors swung open to reveal inside a fully operative ham radio set.
That “tea cupboard,” of course, was intended to connect them to their son. But unaware of its real contents, they were simply using it to display their china.
To my mind, that is an unsettlingly apt analogy for how we Christians have been using the Holy Trinity. It is our theological tea cupboard, upon which we display our finest doctrinal china, our prized 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 the elderly lady to set forth her prettiest teacups on the new piece of furniture. But what if, unbeknownst to nearly everyone, inside it is concealed a powerful communications tool that could connect us to the rest of the worlds (visible and invisible), allow us to navigate our way through many of the doctrinal and ethical logjams of our time, and place the teachings of Jesus in a dynamic metaphysical framework that would truly unlock their power?
It’s simply a matter of turning the tea cabinet around and learning how to look inside. That’s what this I’m proposing to do in this book.
In a nutshell, I will claim that embedded within this theological formula which we recite mostly on automatic pilot (“In the name of the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit”) lies a powerful metaphysical principle that could change our understanding of Christianity and give us the tools so long and so sorely needed to reunite our shattered cosmology, rekindle our visionary imagination, and cooperate consciously with the manifestation of Jesus’ “Kingdom of Heaven” here on earth. That principle is called The Law of Three, and the metaphysics that derive from it can be called “ternary metaphysics.”
The Law of Three is, I believe, Christianity’s hidden driveshaft, and its presence so far has been only intuited, never explicitly identified by theologians. It is distinctly different from the speculative formulations of Patristic theology, or even from the well-worn metaphysical roadmaps of sophia perennis (the “perennial philosophy”) in which Wisdom alternatives to doctrinal orthodoxy are nearly always couched. Comprehensive, profoundly original, and like all driveshafts concerned with forward motion, it is Christianity’s authentic temperament, the key in which theoria and praxis come together, in which all its teachings begin to hang together.
But this principle is almost entirely unheard of—not because it is particularly hidden or buried, but because the conversation about it has so far gone on within circles that have been considered strictly off limits to traditional academic and theological inquiry. It does not belong to any body of knowledge that theologians generally consider germane to their studies. It is not a part of patristic theology, or the neo-Platonic underpinnings on which that theology rests. It is not a part of classic Christian hermeticism, or of the great tradition of sophia perennis. And while inklings of it can be discerned in certain Christian mystical streams (particularly those flowing through Jacob Boehme and Teilhard de Chardin), it was articulated only in the early twentieth century by the Armenian-born spiritual teacher G.I.Gurdjieff, and until very recently it has been studied and transmitted exclusively within that stream of contemporary esotericism known as the Gurdjieff Work.
That is about as far off limits as one can get.
Admittedly, the times changing. Only a generation ago the term “Gurdjieff Work” would have evoked well-nigh universal blank stares. Now that the Work has finally begun to come above ground (“outed,” to a large degree, by the contemporary enneagram personality typing movement, with which it shares a considerably overlapping body of esoteric material), people are looking with newfound curiosity at the eclectic and wildly original metaphysics that this one-of-a-kind spiritual genius G.I. Gurdjieff (1866-1949) claims to have synthesized from Wisdom Schools he discovered, after a long search, in Central Asia.
The Law of Three, according to Gurdjieff— together with its companion piece, the Law of Seven—comprise what he calls the foundational “Laws of World Creation and World Maintenance.” The interweaving of these two cosmic laws is depicted in the symbol of the enneagram, whose nine points reveal (to those properly initiated) the direction and energetic dynamism through which the world maintains its forward motion. During the ten years I participated in the Work, we studied these laws assiduously, applied them to the solution of both ordinary problems and cosmic mysteries, and danced their laylines in the famous Gurdjieff movements. We even heard in passing that the Law of Three had had its origins deep within the oral traditions of the Eastern Orthodox Church and that the mysterious prayer “Holy God, Holy the Firm, Holy Immortal, Have Mercy on us” might indeed reflect a vestigial awareness of the primordial forces in the Law of Three. But no one I met in the Gurdjieff Work seemed particularly interested in reintegrating this powerful transformative principle into Christianity (most seemed to feel that Christianity was beyond salvaging), and certainly most the Christians I knew from my daily rounds as an Episcopal priest and retreat leader were totally wary of anything that smacked of esotericism.
So for a long time, I simply kept these two streams separate, allowing the knowledge I’d gleaned from my years in the Gurdjieff work to inform my personal efforts at inner awakening. While I wondered from time to time whether there might really be a connecting link between the Trinity and the Law of Three, it all seemed too tenuous and fraught with difficulty to pursue.
What broke me out of this holding pattern came from an entirely unexpected quarter: a surprising discomfort I noticed myself experiencing around one of the more popular theological initiatives of our time, the effort to reclaim the Holy Spirit as “she.” Motivated by a sincere desire to recover the “divine feminine” within Christianity, the groundswell has steadily built toward this feminine re-imaging, which indeed has a certain linguistic justification as well as a strong archetypal appeal. As a woman priest generally identified as being on the progressive end of the theological spectrum, I was surprised to find myself digging in my heels. But something from my days in the Work was evidently clicking in as I kept realizing that the whole notion of a “feminine dimension of God,” belonged to binary metaphysical system, based on the cosmic balance of symmetrical opposites, whereas the Christian metaphysical milieu, by its very Trinitarian lineage, belonged to a ternary metaphysical system. I didn’t know quite what that meant yet, but I knew that in this apparently harmless accommodation to gender equality, contemporary theologians were making a seriously wrong turn, risking the loss of a far greater metaphysical treasure.
My attempt to give voice to some of these concerns bore fruit in an article called “Why Feminizing the Trinity Will not Work, ” which appeared in the Christmas 2000 issue of the Sewanee Theological Review. It is essentially the seed of this book. With heart in mouth, I formally introduced the Law of Three into the Christian theological conversation and tried to suggest a strategy by which Christianity’s “missing” feminine might be found simply by loosening our fixation upon the three persons and allowing the Trinity to flow into new configurations according to the inner dynamism of the Law of Three—rather like turning a kaleidoscope. Since then many people have asked me to develop these ideas further. This present book is an effort to draw together the teaching and writing I have done on Trinity and the Law of Three over the past dozen years and hopefully, to create a unified overview of how the Law of Three works, why I see it as the metaphysical driveshaft of the Trinity, and why it is so important to reclaim it.
The book does not intend to be a comprehensive study of the Trinity or an attempt to dialogue with traditional theological understandings. As our exploration unfolds, I will offer a brief survey of some of the more exciting developments in contemporary Trinitarian theology (which might indeed cause Karl Rahner to take heart), but I do not intend to build on them in any formal way. While it is indeed encouraging to see that some of Christianity’s most persuasive thinkers are embracing the Trinity in terms more closely in line with the inherent dynamism of the Law of Three, my task here is to contribute the one piece which is uniquely mine to bring to the table.
To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever written specifically about the Trinity and the Law of Three, no one has yet attempted to interweave Christian metaphysics and G.I. Gurdjieff, and most certainly, no one has ever attempted to demonstrate how the Trinity, when “rotated” according to the Law of Three, does indeed yield a magnificent roadmap of divine becoming in which mystical vision, cosmology, evolution, history—and yes, Christianity’s missing feminine—all come together in a seamless tapestry, which indeed looks something like the classic archetypal vision of “the seven ages of man,” but on a far vaster scale. That is what I hope to unfold here.
This book is basically in three parts. In the first, I will introduce the Law of Three (starting from that original article in the Sewanee Theological Review), explore its basic principles with the help from some recognized reference points in the Gurdjieff Work, and show you how to work with it on a practical basis. For the Law of Three is indeed intended first and foremost as a practical tool! Its domain is not just cosmology and metaphysics; it is equally at home solving interpersonal problems, affecting political outcomes, and navigating through impasses of every shape and form. We will also be learning some of the core principles of ternary metaphysics, which will come into play in the final section of the book.
In the second part of the book I will tackle the more difficult question: Why do I think this Law of Three has anything at all to do with the Trinity? The case is admittedly hard to make from a historical standpoint, since Trinitarian theology predates Gurdjieff’s articulation of the Law of Three by a good sixteen centuries. But I will attempt to flesh out my argument on the grounds of dynamic affinity more than linear causality. My hunch is that Christian metaphysics has always been inherently ternary (precisely because of the Christ event at its epicenter) and that the core notion of the Trinity arose out of the collective imagination of the early Christian fathers to hold the space for this realization until its actual working principles could be more fully articulated. For all its notorious doctrinal sticky wickets, it nevertheless held the line against a certain gnosticising tendency inherent in Christian theology from the start and insisted on the centrality of the incarnation and the spiritual principle of kenosis—self-emptying, or descent— as the fundamental touchstones of Christian self-understanding. In this section I will unpack some of these intuitions in more detail, then call on Jacob Boehme, that most magnificent of medieval visionary cosmologists, to help me build a bridge between the outermost known reference points in traditional Christian mysticism and the Law of Three.
The third part of my book will be the most challenging—partly because it is so very personal, and partly because it is, frankly, a world unto itself. I would probably describe it a “metaphysical prose poem”— more art than theology— and the best way to get into it is the way you get into a turning jump rope: you simply leap into the middle and start jumping to its rhythm. I apologize in advance if this will leave some readers behind in its admittedly eccentric conflation of mystical vision, metaphysical “math,” and quasi-cosmology; you may wonder what realm of reality I think I’m describing here. I wonder the same thing myself. But it is for the sake of this final section that I am really writing this book.
I have to confess that this prose poem, (if that’s what it is) emerged, pretty much “as is,” from a single, very intense spate of visionary seeing not long after I had completed that original essay on feminizing the Trinity. In the final paragraph of the article, as you’ll shortly see, I issued the challenge: “The solution is not to abandon the ternary principle, but to apply it, permitting the Trinity to flow again.” One afternoon I found myself taking myself up on that challenge. What did it mean to “permit the Trinity to flow again”? What would happen if I applied the basic tenet of the Law of Three—“the interweaving of three separate forces creates a new arising on a new plane “—to set the familiar static triangle of Father-Son-Holy Spirit in motion, generating new patterns of itself?
Whoosh! That’s really all I can say. In less than an hour the conventions governing this “turning” of the Trinity all fell into place with that a kind of mathematical elegance that confirmed I was on the right track. What emerged over the next couple of weeks was a breathtaking glimpse of the journey of divine Love into time, through time, and out of time—from Alpha to Omega, from origin to final “Consummatum est.” In the vastness of that canopy I could finally taste the spaciousness out of which had emerged that profound Pauline hymn of Colossians 1:12-20:
He is the image of the unseen God
And the firstborn of all creation,
For in him were created
All things in heaven and on earth:
Everything visible and everything invisible
Thrones, dominations, sovereignties, and powers—
All things were created through him and for him.
Before anything was created, he existed
And he holds all things in unity;
He is, moreover, the head
Of the body, the Church.
As he is the Beginning,
He was first to be raised from the dead,
So that he might be first in every way;
For in him the complete being of God
By God’s own choice came to dwell.
Through him God chose to reconcile
The whole universe to himself,
Everything in heaven and everything on earth,
When he made peace by his death on a cross.
At long last I could see how this great cosmological hymn was not merely an ecstatic raving or an antiquated Christocentric hymn now relegated to the status of “mythology” after the Copernican revolution six centuries ago knocked Christianity off its cosmological footings. It is our Christian charter and birthright. For truth, real truth, is seamless and indivisible. Christianity is either Christocentric or it is not; Christ is either literally the one in “whom all things hold together,” or he is not. A claim that fundamental must be consistently and reliably true; it cannot be true in one realm (the realm of “faith”) and false in another (the realm of empirical reality.) Modern and post-modern Christianity’s schizophrenic attempt to live in both realms has gradually sapped its strength and blurred its vision. But how in the name of intellectual integrity could one do otherwise? Suddenly I could see the resolution to that impasse. It simply required the full wingspan of Trinitarian space/time—unlocked by the Law of Three—to assign each of Paul’s visionary truths to their proper cosmic domain so that faith and cosmology could reunite in a single visionary whole. My map was showing me how to do it. I emerged from that period of intense “download” with my Christian mystical imagination rekindled and my confidence renewed.
For the next dozen years that vision percolated beneath the surface as I gradually found my place as a spiritual writer and teacher. It was with me as I wrote my other books: The Wisdom Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, Chanting the Psalms. It was there as I led workshops and established Wisdom Schools; it was in the back of my mind whenever I found myself quoting that marvelous quip from G.K. Chesterton: “Christianity isn’t a failure; it simply hasn’t been tried yet.” But I could never see any way to speak directly about what I was seeing; it was so far outside the usual stream of theological conversation. Who would ever have the patience as I wove the pieces together? Among my Wisdom students, we began joking about it my “posthumous book.”
And if truth be told, I was content with that verdict. But a glimmer of hope that I might yet live to see the sprouting of this vision was rekindled last year when a group of my most senior students volunteered themselves as guinea pigs to see if the material could actually be taught. So the grand experiment began, in a three-session Wisdom School following more-or-less the layout of this book. In the first two sessions we laid the groundwork with a thorough study of the Law of Three and the basic ternary predisposition of Christian metaphysics (including a crash course on Jacob Boehme.) Then, in the third session, we began to unpack the vision.
That session will long remain in my heart, not simply as an accomplishment, but as the gift of a life task fulfilled. And it is at the urging of these dear friends and intrepid wisdom seekers that I have returned to the task of putting the material in publishable form. “If thirty-five of us can get it,” one of them said, “Why not the whole world?”
So there you have it. I will do my best to make the ride as smooth as possible. But in the end, my commitment is to getting there, because I know beyond all personal doubt that there is indeed a ham radio concealed inside this Trinitarian tea cupboard. And in the midst of this long winter of our Christian discontent, when spiritual imagination and boldness are at an all-time low and the church itself hovers at the edge of demise for lack of an animating vision, perhaps now more than ever the time is ripe to remove the packing boards from this tea cupboard and release its contents.
Copyright © Cynthia Bourgeault