The Trinities of Connection, Failure, Recovery and Unity


Jay B. Gaskill

In this century, religion is a continent splitting in half, exposing the deep fracture line between the irresolute and ungrounded on one side and the fanatically militant on the other. And within the cultural strongholds of the secular intelligentsia, religion is weakening its hold. Within midland religion’s several traditional strongholds, faith is embattled, wary and defensive.

Of course, none of this applies to the Creator.

Human history is a narrative about conflict, principally about competing forms of social organization. We sometimes forget that civilization is a recent development – it is our single greatest social technology. But history did not end with civilization’s arrival. In its various forms, civilization continues to evolve at differential rates appropriate to local circumstances and challenges. All human civilizations are fragile.

The durable forms of civilization are founded on a common moral infrastructure (without which they are mere transient alliances of convenience) and they are held together by laws and norms that implement the essential parts of their moral undergirding.

Civilizations that work to protect its members from predators – both without and within – are worthy of the title. Civilizations founded on a robust moral infrastructure are worthy of long term survival.

Did I mention that not all civilizations equal?

The evolution of any civilization takes place against the backdrop of a never ending internal struggle. And civilizations remain vulnerable to cultural infections. The human condition generates certain inherent tendencies – I think of them as moral pathogens or malogens – they are forces that, when unchecked, will reduce a civilization to savagery and take its members into the abyss.

The Connections Trinity

When civilizations survive and thrive, they do so by exploiting certain centripetal connections. These are the deep ties that bind us to the optimum human path. They form a connections trinity:

(1) connections to the ultimate moral arbiter (in shorthand – to the Creator);

(2) connections to our fellow humans as valued, law abiding co members of our civilization (shorthand – to our neighbors);

(3) …and our connections to the body of ethical precepts that binds rulers and ruled alike (shorthand – to the natural moral law).

Note – As incorporated by any functioning civilization, the moral law contains common principles that are consonant with the declarations in the Decalogue. Among them are those that uphold Veracity (prohibitions against false witness and fraud), Trust (prohibitions against oath breaking), Life (prohibitions against assault and murder and the injunction to honor those who gave one life) and Respect of Position (prohibitions against theft, trespass and invasion of relationships). Of course, the moral law is a much larger, more variegated and complex body than this, but I’m describing the beams of a foundation, not the architecture of the entire building or the customs of its inhabitants.

Without an anchor in trans-generational, pan-cultural moral verities (we might say, without the Logos), human civilizations drift into chaos. Without creative adaptability, they fall into extinction.

Working civilizations need functioning institutions that work to anchor the moral infrastructure (we call them religions), and they need vital creative subcultures especially when these creative forces are enlisted to affirm human civilized life.

The critical task of preserving the moral infrastructures that undergird our civilizations requires moral memory, and a powerful motivational force common among the traditional religious disciplines but uncommon within mere secular associations. But the modern and postmodern religious mindsets (including their “new age” versions) have acquired self-imposed limitations as the culture’s “ethical teachers”. Modern forms of spirituality are disabled in that a radically naiveté has given birth to a “hope-trumps-reality” delusion. This mindset has three elements: the departure from the classic rule-consequence model, the adoption of a love-conquers-all ethos without deep ethical rigor, and the uncritical use of therapeutic models for all moral conflicts, even the existential challenge of full-on evil.

Religions are vitally important to the moral and to the creative life (although religions are slow to recognize the latter). Because the current secular ethos presents such serious challenges to religious belief and institutions, it is particularly regrettable that many religious institutions weaken themselves by tending to frustrate our personal connections to the divine and by neglecting to support our creative subcultures.

But the limitations and failings of modern institutional religions are reparable. They are the same failures of connection, insight and universality that are shared with the secular world. They are the natural condition of the unenlightened mind.

The Ecclesial Failure Trinity

Thus we are called to face and overcome an ecclesial trinity of failure conditions:

(1) the seductive tendency to monopolize or marginalize individual, personal access to the numinous level of reality and to the divine presence;

(2) the disabling loss of the moral center, leading to in a descent into literalistic rigidity or into the free form therapeutic models, in effect leaving a lack of moral confidence facing a burning, fanatical certainty;

(3) institutional blindness to the universality of the divine presence as transcending religion itself, the fountainhead of creative inspiration, both spiritual and secular.

It seems that the full recovery of vital and relevant religious traditions and institutions is essential to the preservation of civilization. Without them (or some as yet nonexistent replacement) we risk the loss of our primary caretakers of our institutional memory – authoritative moral grounding still animates the great religious traditions. Without the robust, living religious ethical teaching traditions, we lose access to authoritative ethical guidance (as any perusal of the various secular “ethicists” hired by policy makers will reveal). And without access to living, vital religious communities, where will we find spiritual and ethical support? These critically important functions are not found outside religion in the modern, postmodern culture — not on the internet, not in casual home settings, not in our secular organizations or institutions.

The Recovery Trinity

I propose a long term recovery plan for institutional religions in which religions-in-recovery are called to a conscious, energetic commitment to three goals:

Religions worthy of the calling must intelligently and courageously support the eternal moral struggle. This is the perennial struggle –
(a) against evil (yes, evil is not mere sinfulness – real evil exists in the world as an active, malevolent presence, and we cannot define it away or deny it)

(b) for civilization (yes, religion needs to be a conscious, intelligent ally of civilization) and

(c) for human life (locally and writ large).

Religions worthy of a 21st century calling, must proactively and joyfully welcome and support human creativity in all its life affirming and intelligence respecting manifestations.
Religions must confidently and lovingly support right relationships with our family, neighbors, descendants and our future selves, with our civilization and its future iterations, with our creative potential and with the Holy One.

These goals help answer the “ultimate utility questions” of the type, “Why have religions, anyway?” We who are allies of the viable religious institutions need to be able to clearly answer the ultimate “utility questions” – both to each other and to the world outside: Why are religions really here? Why, if they weren’t here, would they have to be reconstituted? If they aren’t yet what they are supposed to be, why not? Why, if they are to become more relevant, why not now?

We who take up this calling need to understand that the relevance question transcends religion, denomination, sect and even the religion–secular humanist divide. No civilization owns the moral infrastructure common to all well functioning civilizations. No religion or sect can claim to own any particular religious-spiritual insight or method.

Seen in a universal context, the classic Trinity of Christian origin can and should be understood to transcend Christianity itself. I suspect that most practicing Christians can do this without surrendering the deeply particular – that historically rooted memory of divinee providence as it entered First Century Palestine and changed the world.

When we – anyone, Christian or Jew, Muslim or Buddhist, Hindi or Pagan – are able discern the great universal as it lives and moves in the holy particular, we are also able to see how each enriches each – and that neither diminishes the other.

Far too much holy blood has been spilled in the illusion that my holy inspiration came from a separate and antagonistic source from yours, or that the creator plays favorites.

The Moral Foundation Trinity

The larger moral unity is found in a truly fundamental trinity –

in the reverence for and affirmation of life, especially human life;
in the affirmation of reason – seen as including logic, creativity and compassion;
and in the love and joyful affirmation of ongoing creation, especially the human creativity that serves life and reason.
All of the civilization-supporting principles, precepts and rules are implied from the great moral trinity in the same way that laws imply adjudication and implementing procedures.

A Traditional Trinity to be Shared

In this connection, the “Father, Son and Holy Ghost” trinity of traditional Christianity can be understood to encode a universal nom-sectarian spiritual perspective, just as the Torah encodes its summary in a version of the Golden Rule as announced by Hillel the Elder.

Note — Decades before Jesus of Nazareth emerged among the human family, Rabbi Hillel the Elder was asked by a non Jew – who promised to convert if the question were answered – whether Hillel could summarize the entire Torah while standing on one foot. He stood on one foot and said “Do not that to your neighbor that which you find hateful to yourself. All the rest is commentary. Now go and study!” Later the man did study and was converted. Jesus later repeated a version of Hillel’s summary in response to a similar question, adding the Shema (the obligation to love G-d). This was the source of all the law and the prophets.

A universal, non-sectarian version of the Christian trinity might be simply put as, “Divine Word, Divine Spirit, and Divine Incarnation”. You can even substitute holy for divine, even leave “deity” undefined, but the unification of the three elements as a reality in our lives is the essential thing.

More Universal Than We Know

As I see this reformulation, the Divine Word is the Logos – the design of creation and the moral law, the source of being, goodness and creation. The Divine Spirit is that mysterious, leavening, healing and creative holy presence about which the mystics and prophets have reported for millennia. And the Divine Incarnation includes all the saints and bodhisattvas who have lived and will yet live among us. These are the holy souls who in our history have incarnated the Word and Spirit.

By its nature, such a trinity cannot be claimed by the “owners”. There is no denominationally owned moral truth or spiritual insight. Were it otherwise, the rights to fire are owned by the Neanderthal denomination and the music of the spheres is copyrighted by the Pythagorean sect.

I submit that this is a truly universal trinity; it is deeply relevant to our moral condition because each of the major religious traditions has ideas and precepts that mirror that Trinitarian model.

Most, if not all religious traditions have a set of doctrines, insights (or an implicit perspective) wherein some form of the Logos exists; it may be described as the holy path or moral truth or essence of being or state of being. The commonality here is in the lucidity and benign nature of the message, and its explicit or implicit nexus to the mystery of creation.

Christianity and Judaism share the ruach, the holy wind, holy breath or Holy Spirit. But the inter-religious commonality of the spirit that touches our souls reaches wider still. Certainly, all major religious traditions have captured stories that acknowledge the presence of the spirit of holiness in the human experience.

Note – I am particularly charmed by this pigmy chant, “In the beginning was god, today is god, tomorrow will be god. Who can make an image of god? He has no body. He is a word which comes out of your mouth. That word! It is no more; it is past and still lives! So is god.” As quoted in Sacred Texts Of The World, edited by Ninian Smart & Richard D. Hecht, p 348. Crossroad Publishing 1982. ISBN 0-8245-0483-6.

And every major religious tradition has formal and informal saints and prophets. Significantly, many of these amazing personages are revered as moral heroes even by the secular world. Surely they represent the incarnation goodness and holy being.

Holy Word, Holy Spirit, and Holy Incarnation. All the rest is commentary.


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