“The Principle of the Triad”

by Sam Buntz

In the course of reading, connections seem to find you – sometimes, they happen to bubble up naturally in one’s consciousness, sparked into formation and movement by the influx of knowledge.  At other times, they appear to have had you in mind, waited for you in ambush, and pounced – that’s the sort of experience that found me today.  I had been reading an essay by Soren Kierkegaard, entitled “Love Abides,” in The World Treasury of Modern Religious Thought (edited by the great and magnificently named scholar, Jaroslav Pelikan.) In the essay, Kierkegaard argues that earthly love—as opposed to eternal love—considers love as a bond between two people, almost like a business contract, which gradually wears out, or expires, or at the very least changes over time.  For, put simply, earthly love is subject to time.  But heavenly love is not a relationship between two people, but between three—there are the two parties and then there is… love itself.  Kierkegaard, characteristically, is trying to be subtle and indirect, but he, being one of the great Christian thinkers, knows that another term for “love itself” is God—since “God is love.”  Kierkegaard says that while earthly love between two people can wear out and die—thus proving that it never really was love, in the truest sense—eternal love “abides,” because it is not contracted between two fallible earthly bodies, but is a sustaining bond brought into existence through the power of God, which never passes away or loses its force.  (I’m getting to the big connection that struck me—wait for the next paragraph.)

Whereas earthly love is a relationship constructed through human power, rather than through real love—with one lover loving less or demanding more from the other, oppressed and haggard lover—eternal love escapes this problem, because the two persons do not have their love sealed, with dubious wax, betwixt only their two solitary selves, but through God’s grace, and so find their love grounded in a higher love.  And, of course, eternal love is not confined to particular numbers of people—a person grounded in it can love everybody because that person loves the God-in-people as opposed to loving only the natural, physical shell of the human form.  It is the lover’s fidelity to the third party—to love itself—which abides eternally, which endures everything, and proves itself not to be “Time’s fool,” though indeed “rosy lips and cheeks within his [Time’s] bending sickle’s compass come.”  Anyway, almost immediately, after finishing the Kierkegaard essay, I picked a book off my shelf by C.S. Lewis entitled The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature and flipped it open at random, landing on a page in which Lewis describes a concept in Medieval thought which he refers to as “The Principle of the Triad,” best exemplified by a quote he provides from Plato’s Timaeus: “It is impossible that two things should be joined together without a third.  There must be some bond in between to bring them together.”  I was fairly floored by the correspondence.

It struck me that these two selections from Kierkegaard and Lewis/Plato should be saying essentially the same thing—the first through a very perceptive and essayistic style and the second through a scholarly idiom.  Whether this conjunction happened by coincidence or through the agency of that providence, which governs the reading habits of would-be scholars, I thought it was worth exploring.  The truth in these two coinciding statements seems to me to have been demonstrating itself in my own experience of the world, lately.  I’ve been noticing how many of the relationships I see around me—whether of the sexual-romantic nature or simply between friends—seem to be constructed on the basis of human power.  Two parties contract with one another, and the attempt to sort out who the stronger partner is—who will control the future and destiny of the relationship—seems to determine everything.  And sex, it seems, in these relationships—whether sex in the literal sense, or sex simply as a faint promise, a lure—seems to have infinitely more to do with power, with the methods by which the terms of the initial contract of worldly “love” are fulfilled or shattered, than it has anything to do with abiding love.  Everything can be reduced to the crying of wares—the satisfactions and penalties of power-based desires, which you could also call karma, or simply “the law of cause and effect,” an idea not so foreign to Christianity, where it is often said that you reap what you sow.  It is this law—the Law—from which St. Paul so fervently wished to escape, more so, even, than he wanted to escape from Moses’ law.  And the sowing and the reaping are perpetual, cyclical—the seasons wax and wane, relationships dissolve and solidify.  And perhaps there is a core of real love in all of these affairs, and maybe they could not even exist if there was not some love sustaining them, acting from however great a distance: the world would probably tumble into the Abyss if there were not.

But still, the principle in operation, at large, in the world is power and not love—though there is one point we should probably make to clarify what we really mean by power.  If we wanted to, we could think of love as power that is increased by yielding and that is generated and fructified through humility—which is one of the meanings of the image of Christ Crucified.  It is that force which renounces selfish claims in order to arrive at possession of and by the Whole or the All—that is to say, by God, by Love (which is itself, strangely).  But power in the worldly sense functions just as we have all come to expect power to function: it’s only reward is the pleasure generated by putting a foot on someone else’s throat (figuratively or literally).  William Blake put this so well, when, speaking of worldly love, he said, “Love seeketh only self to please, / To bind another to its delight, / Joys in another’s lose of ease, / And builds a hell in heaven’s despite.”  But Blake knows that eternal love does just the opposite, as he makes clear in the first verse of the poem just quoted.  I suppose that for all of these reasons, this is why the Gospel of John refers to Satan—whom we can take to be the anthropomorphic representation of this pure, selfish power—as “The Prince of this World.”  We are fortunate that this malign power is not the king of this world—though many thinkers, such as those who specialize in “sociobiology” or “evolutionary psychology,” still apparently think this is the case, as Nietzsche did in an earlier time.  Yet, there is no point arguing whether this loveless power is prince or king, when we can know through direct experience that real Love is certainly a higher power and a real presence.

To return to the subject of the relationship between two as opposed to three: in the present, fallen state of nature, the contact we appear to have with one another is never really contact, never really communication—we just bounce off one another.  No matter how hard we attempt to bridge this gap through our own intellectual and rational devices it is impossible to really heal the split: I am I and you are you, and never the twain shall meet.  Sexual union both symbolizes and parodies this union of selves, which we strive for but fail to attain, simply due to the natural, worldly fact that I am I and you are you.  Just as the gaps between atoms are more significant than the mass of the atoms themselves—and things are, hence, mostly empty space—our contact with one another remains doubtful, remains mostly empty space.  But love permeates not only the spaces occupied by material atoms, but the void spaces surrounding them (metaphorically).  And so, it is the third person (love) that eliminates the distance and the distinctions between person number one and person number two.  Neither of the two people now approach each other as a subject approaching an object, but, as Martin Buber would have put it, as a subject approaching a subject—they sense the eternal truth of that love which abides, and fills up the void-space inside and outside of both persons.  The self-same power—the humble power of love—fills both people and the space between them, allowing that uninterrupted communication which, in a state of nature, would have been absolutely impossible.  The Protestant Swedish mystic, Emmanuel Swedenborg, may have hinted at the higher spiritual reality behind this truth, when he asserted that in heaven, the spirits of married lovers are fused together to form one being, a single angel.  And Blake also claimed that, seen from a higher visionary perspective, the souls of humanity seemed to form one figure, one “Human Form Divine”—Christ, Himself.

I am not suggesting that all of this should be immediately apparent to us – the fun and attraction of these power games will continue to have their appeal to the great mass of humanity.  Yet, just as children glutting themselves on candy eventually get a stomachache, discontent is bound to set in.  That discontent can lead to world-weariness—instead of love, it can lead to indifference, ennui, chronic grouchiness—a general hardness of the heart.  And maybe we will need to go through these cycles many times, becoming temporarily weary before we renew our appetites again.  But it is impossible that anyone can go around for so long without eventually developing a yearning to exchange this system of action and reaction for a world in which love seeks to please more than self.  Such yearning comes from a state of divine discontent.   Then, we will not want to look in the mirror and engage in the narcissistic contemplation of our own forms, but in contemplation of that Form of which we are ourselves the corroded image.  And perhaps, “in the fullness of time” we will learn what it means to, “Know even as [we are] known,” to see the distinction between lover and beloved all but vanish in the power of love that abides.


by Sam Buntz

“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting: / The soul that rises with us, our life’s star / Hath had elsewhere its setting / And cometh from afar.”   — William Wordsworth

We do not know where and how we began.  Sometimes, like Satan in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, we’d like to think that we “know no time when we were not as now; know none before us; self-begot, self-raised by our own quickening power.”  But that—despite it’s power as rhetoric—would be a lie.  We sense something behind us—some vast mountain of shadow—and would, perhaps, like to know more about it, if the routine in which we are so dumbly pent could be interrupted for maybe a moment or two.  And we note the mystery of origins not only in our own individual instance, but in that of life at large and the universe itself.  Like the genesis of the individual human, we are led to believe—by Darwin and other authorities—that life too began with a single cell, a seed planted in some primordial swamp.  Similarly, the Big Bang theory leads us to believe in the same metaphor—in a seed that expands and grows.  Isn’t it odd and beautiful that this sympathy exists, that the macrocosm and the microcosm should mirror each other so perfectly, and that the story of one should be so easily nested in the story of the other?  Odd how our own organic history of expansion should be premeditated by the movements of the inorganic cosmos?

But there is something unnerving about a mystery nested in a mystery—something unsettling about this dwindling away to a single particle, a single instant that would expand outward to create us.  And, more disconcertingly, we cannot yet conceive of what comes before that Origin: there is the first particle, the first seed, and then – silence.  We lose the aid of even space and time to help us organize and map out the terrain—the mask that greets us is simply a blank.  We cannot yet know “the face we had before we were born.”  But we are not, thankfully, granted any prospective parts of the seed, no heterogeneous material, no further sub-atoms of the atom.  In the case of origins, naturally, any notion of a primal plurality can be ruled out:  we seem to have started out as One.  Matthew Arnold writes that the very shores of the ocean sense this fact, mingling this deeper sense of a primal unity with actual geology, with the fact that all the larger landmasses once really were one (yet another instance of the aforementioned sympathy): “For surely once, they feel, we were
 / Parts of a single continent!” The multiplicity swirling around us and within us — all of this devolves back into One.  But it is a small, inscrutable One—an egg that we cannot enter into, in order to see the as of yet unrevealed embryo in its most primal state of incubation.

Rather than expanding forever—which seems to be a process of becoming more diffuse, more saggy, in a way—it might strike us that we wish, instead, to contract.  Just as there are times when we like to become more and more—to incorporate a wider and more dazzling array of information—there are times (and they may be the more important, the most crucial) when we would like to shrink down and discover the minimal—what the African-American Baptists used to call “the little me in the big me.”  We sense the mystery of the seed—where it came from, who planted it—might be contained in that still-unbroken kernel of the self, which remains undisturbed despite all of our outward press.

But a wall confronts us.  We don’t live from our core—we are established in our axis, but remain unaware of it.  Our attention emanates outwards from that axis, but it can only look-out from the top, cannot remain cognizant of its grounding in the foundation.  Although we have our being, our essence, in the small stillness of the center, our awareness is like the tip of a water-plant waving a little ripple on the surface—we are all out of sorts with our roots.  Consciousness skates, skips, speeds—it rarely dives.  Our energies begin by forcing us outward—just like that “dark energy” which purportedly controls the acceleration of the universe’s expansion.   And the outward press only increases in intensity and drive. Despite all this, we do sense the reality of that moment, that time in early childhood described so well by William Wordsworth, when we were at once both more self-contained and more attuned with the visible environment—rather than diffused throughout it, like an insidious vapor, possessing neither our own center nor the realm of peripheral nature.

The better part of private life—and by “better” I do not mean larger, but superior—consists in trying to rediscover this forgotten center or axis, a task rendered all the more difficult by the fact that our outward energies only accelerate.  Strange that Dante could say that “Each thing most desires to return to its origin”—which strikes us as true—while at the same time we find the counter-truth—the notion that the most fervent desire of each thing is to get as far away from its origin as it possibly can (an origin hinted at and buried within the self)—to be equally valid.   Both truths apply to different levels of our being.  The former and greater truth elucidated by Dante applies to our most real self, the inner self—which, despite being who we really are, is also the portion of our being to which we possess the most fleeting access.  We lead our outer lives according to the later, more realistic yet more disheartening truth—which is precisely that our existence consists of a flight from origins.  This is, in a sense, the fundamental conflict of our humanity, this distinction between the inner self’s desire to contract back to origins, to concentrate itself, to return to its source, and the outer self’s need to press onward, pursuing a gleam that brightens even as it grows farther away.  Our observation of this fact is at least as old as St. Paul—“for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.”  Paul’s outer self shares a set of affections differing from those of his inner self.  The center and the circumference are not in rapport.

Yet, does our external lurch really impede us as much as we think?  Aren’t we always in the same place we always were, still founded in the small, secret cell of our own being?  The illusion increases, but the reality remains the same, and it is only the initial difficulty of turning away from the magnetism of the one that prevents our coming to a more rapid understanding and awareness of the other.  Even though we assume many dazzling guises and costumes, what we actually are remains quite simple—our turning away from it is not so terribly momentous that it proves impossible to reverse.  It is simply a matter of transplanting our attention from one layer of reality to another.  And we discover that what seemed so elusive—the Origin, what really came before that tiny cell, that first minute of being—was in fact not a mountain of shadow, not what appeared potentially dreadful from our distorted vantage-point, expanding away from it.  It was more familiar that anything we had yet encountered in our earthly sojourn.  It was Home.