Given that truth in mythology is not a matter of factual or historical accuracy but rather the degree in which its stories express and reveal to us the reality of what we are, I’ve been reflecting lately on a persistent fascination of Christian mythology: the triune nature of God. (I’m using the uppercase ‘G’ here to acknowledge that this particular doctrine of Christian orthodoxy is more an article of theology than mythology proper.)
We don’t find the three-in-One god in the Bible, but only in the conceptual and logical meditations of scholars who are making a case for identifying that literary character with ultimate reality.
I’m wondering: If the attractor for all this trinitarian theology is not really in the Bible, then perhaps it lies within us, in the nature of those who find such reflection so deeply interesting – as if we are pondering the mystery of our own existence in a mirror. Not that we are gods – that’s not what I’m suggesting – but that our theological constructs of God are, at least in part, projections and intimations of ourselves, the deeper truth of what we are.
We’ll see if this works, but I’m going to arrange a number of ideas in a single graphic, intended to serve as the “mirror” in our contemplation of your three-in-One nature as a human being. If you can be patient, I’ll do my best to guide you through the picture in a way that minimizes your risk of getting lost in the details. As we move along, I’ll put key terms in bold text.
Starting left of the midline, your triune nature is depicted as consisting of “animal,” “personal,” and “spiritual” dimensions; what we’ll call your first nature, your second nature, and your higher nature respectively; or, by way of a shorthand summary, body, ego, and soul. I’ve arranged them in this vertical fashion to represent the developmental sequence by which they awaken and come “online,” starting at the bottom and going upwards.
Thus, your body or first nature is where your journey begins. Looking just to the right of the midline, I am tagging it as possessing basic survival drives that conspire to keep you alive and move you toward what you need to be healthy. Your first nature as a human being operates mostly below the threshold of conscious awareness, and its drives are compulsions rooted in animal instincts that are not only primal but also very ancient, reaching back many millions of years and across numerous lines of prehuman species.
Your ego or second nature comes next, as the social construction of a personal identity – of a member in good standing who performs your assigned roles in general agreement with your group’s standards of “right action” and a “good person” – in a shared understanding known as conscience. As a mechanism of social conformity, conscience serves to restrain certain impulses of your first nature and redirect their energy into behavior more aligned with group values and aims. We can also think of conscience as the cultivation of desire, in a manner that serves – or at least doesn’t undermine – the common good.
The path of your constructed identity entailed the formation of a stable center, which in turn provided your developing personality with ego integrity – a unified sense of self. Establishing an internal locus of control and agency gradually made it possible for you to depend less on others and enjoy creative freedom.
Complications early on, in the form of abuse, neglect, trauma or chronic stress, tend to make this journey to a centered identity more problematic, resulting in a personality whose center is outside of itself in neurotic attachment.
Under provident conditions the construction of a stable identity continued by the guidance and inspiration of your tribe, preparing for the awakening of your spiritual (or higher) nature. Whereas in premodern society this coordination of spiritual education by a deeper reflection on the symbols and sacred stories of faith was the province of religion, today an individual might well be on his or her own to figure things out. Carl Jung observed that “modern man” is “in search of a soul.”
The real work in any case is surrendering your ego to the higher power of transcendent virtues and ideals (exemplified in the deity) and sacrificing (literally making sacred) your time, energy, and resources in service to the will of god – i.e., to the realization of those divine virtues and ideals in your life with others. Together, these three “moves” in the traditional worship of god are the essence of devotion, making theistic religion essentially devotional in focus.
Healthy religion – and your own spiritual practice – will stir the waking of your higher nature, even to the point of encouraging you to “let go of god.”
Second-nature religion (aka theism) can forge such a strong bond between you and your deity, that breaking through to a soul-centered spirituality is frought with anxiety, guilt, and shame. To let go of god can be easily misconstrued as a rejection of god or rebellion against god, which is frequently how authoritarian theism will play it against you. Insiders will accuse you of abandoning the faith, of turning your back on god and them, and try to persuade you back into the fold.
For you, however, the surrender of devotion has deepened into a full release of ego consciousness for a profound and ineffable experience of inner peace. Descending away from your center of identity, which also entails letting go of your god, you lose yourself – some spiritual teachings refer to this as dying to the conditioned self – in an unbroken communion waiting quietly in the grounding mystery of your being.
Simultaneously another passage opens, this one inviting you to give yourself in service to the higher virtues of genuine community: chief among them compassion, goodwill, lovingkindness and generosity. Whereas the descent of a post-theistic spirituality to inner peace is possible only by the subtraction of ego consciousness, this ascent of higher purpose is only possible insofar as your separate center of identity is affirmed, transcended, and included (distilled in the term transpersonal) – not by subtraction but addition.
This in turn introduces an exponential factor, multiplying with others to produce the transformative effects of a liberated life in community.
The descending path, then, involves letting go of god and leaving god behind (i.e., “up there” at the surface of ego consciousness), while the asending path involves letting go of god in order that the divine virtues, which had earlier been attributed to god and glorified in the worship of god, can be internalized, assimilated, and embodied (from Christianity, incarnated) in your life with others.