‘A threefold cord is not easily broken’ writes the sage, Qoheleth, author of the book of Ecclesiastes, a book full of impenetrable conundrums, tensions and contradictions.
Much of what he writes resonates with despair and a general sense of the futility of human existence. Qoheleth is a prophet of doom. Or perhaps he is only that kind of prophet insofar as he is a teller of fables.
Fables must strike fear if they are to convince. Hence, the nightmarish depictions of Heinrich Hoffman, the 19th century psychiatrist and author of Struwwelpeter, and the fate of Conrad, the ‘little suck-a-thumb’ who falls prey to the ‘great long-legged scissorman’. Also, the morality tales of La Fontaine; Qoheleth would have approved of La Fontaine’s tale of the vain fox who lost his luscious piece of cheese by succumbing to flattery.
Qoheleth is concerned, for the most part, with the falling apart of social and moral infrastructure and with a society’s falling away from God. But he also writes as an individual, for other individuals. So he is a prophet for our times. We live in an individualistic age, where the right of the individual has, for a couple of decades at least, ruled over the considerations of the needs and interests of the ‘other’. These days, individuals who sense that other individuals are claiming the same rights as themselves have also sensed a certain safety in numbers. What we are seeing as the relentless ascendance of the far right in Europe and America is the product of this solidarity of self interest.
We also love brinkmanship and being taken to the threshold in both fiction and television drama, and, more worryingly, in politics and international affairs. News is now documentary drama, preceded, more often than not, by health warnings. Perhaps we are still a little in thrall to Struwwelpeter and, for all our declared freedom of the individual, also slightly in thrall to the vicarious thrill of stern religion. Religious fundamentalisms are invariably coloured with a vermilion streak of violence which can be disturbingly seductive.
This ostensibly religious violence, and the fascination which it holds for a growing number of people (even, one suspects, if they are not themselves overtly religious) also translates into the dangerous ideologies of certain political strongholds, both here and abroad. Religion and politics, when corrupted, make for a dangerously potent mixture. In some cases, there is an almost erotic appeal to the more extreme collective manifestations which it releases. Think only of the recent displays of military and nuclear egocentricity in North Korea, the modern equivalent of Emperor worship.
To state that both religion and politics are prey to corruption is to state the obvious. What is perhaps less obvious is the fact that a serious battle for the ultimate good to prevail in all religions, and in politics, is being fought from the centre ground, both theologically and spiritually. While these two disciplines should, and often do, work together, it is the spiritual which concerns most people, even if they do not consider themselves to be particularly religious. There is a sense that something else is going on ‘out there’ at a more ‘abstract’ level, whatever you happen to believe about God.
Trinity Sunday invites Christians to consider what they really believe about God and, by implication, what they believe their religion should be for the world. But what Christians often fail to pick up on, as they say the Creed on Trinity Sunday, is that belief alone is fairly ineffectual when it comes to facing down religious and political extremism. In fact it can cause religion itself to become toxic. Like any organism deprived of light or oxygen, belief needs the nutrients which come with head-heart thinking if it is to mature into what we call faith. It needs to be informed by intelligent love.
Perhaps this is where the doctrine of the Trinity is helpful, both for Christians and for anyone trying to make sense of religion and of its place in the world of today. The Trinity is a depiction of intelligent love. It is the love of three ‘persons’ constantly renewed and energised within the one ‘substance’. It is not about three divine individuals with a shared common interest.