A Secular Trinity  

A Secular Trinity  

Allan Jones                                                                                                  04 June 2023

Trinity Sunday. In churches everywhere, preachers will be trying to explain the mystery of a dogma that makes no sense, but arose out of genuine experiences.

In the early Church three experiences needed to be reconciled. The first experience, from their Jewish origins, was the oneness of God. The second was the influence of the man Jesus of Nazareth, whose deeds and teaching seemed to have divinity written all over them. The third was an inner vitality in the fellowship, which they called the Holy Spirit, the power of God within human minds.

These experiences were genuine, and they are what is reflected in that very early blessing of Paul in II Corinthians. Years later, when the ending to Matthew’s gospel was being written, the same threefold formula is put in Jesus’ mouth – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Then came the theologians. They wanted to turn experience into creed. First they created the doctrine of the Incarnation. Jesus didn’t just have a spark of the divine; he was God become man. Then they created the doctrine of the Trinity: God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Spirit in their minds, were all God. The formula was: one substance, but three persons. Total nonsense. But it became the creed of orthodoxy for 15 centuries. Creeds are designed to exclude and punish, and this one excluded and punished many.

Then came the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment, and scholars and thinkers began to realise that these creeds, over which wars had been fought and people put to death, didn’t really make sense. Feuerbach pointed out that the concept of God was of a superhuman being constructed out of human qualities enlarged, and we had created God in our own image. More recently, discovering how the Universe began removed the need for a creator. Biblical criticism discovered the human Jesus, concealed within the New Testament by his followers’ exaggerations, a truly great teacher and human, but not more god than we are. And psychology helped us understand the human mind, and how things we might attribute to outside influence come from deep wells of unconscious thought. We are fortunate people: within our lifetime so much has been discovered. In our time huge numbers of people have realized they have no need for God the Father, God the Son, or God the Holy Spirit. Some in the church regret and deplore the secular age. I see it as reality.

Being free of the Holy Trinity leaves us able to ask what really matters, what do I believe in, what commands my attention and respect as ultimately worthwhile? Geering uses the term “secular trinity”. I have a friend who says his trinity is climate change, social fairness, and race relations. Many people would say their trinity is faith, hope and love. Those are precious things, but we need to ask: faith in what? Hope for what? Love with what motive? Three is a useful number for our human minds to manage. More may be overwhelming, less may be single minded or obsessive. So if I may present a challenge this morning, it’s this: what is your trinity of ultimate concern?

I want to share a curious trinity I discovered for myself over many years of thinking. My trinity comes out of my career as a counsellor. Career based trinities seem to me a sensible idea.

Professional counselling is a fairly new discipline. In the 1880’s doctors in Europe and England were making great discoveries. In Paris a doctor called Charcot had classified and diagnosed Motor Neurone Disorder and Parkinson’s Disease, for instance. Charcot then turned his attention to mental illness. There were asylums full of patients, almost nil recovery rate, and no one knew what caused it. Charcot discovered that in all the societies he could research, there was a similar rate of mental illness, about 1 in 100. He formed a fallacious theory based on the dissection of patient’s brains that mental illness is caused by a lesion or wound on the brain. Then he said that where no physical lesion could be found, there was a mental or non-physical lesion. This, he said, was caused by heredity or past events.

Sitting in Charcot’s lectures was a young doctor from Vienna, named Sigmund Freud. (These men were all called ‘mad doctors’). Freud took these ideas back to Vienna, and began to practice and theorise and write. He coined the phrase ‘talking cure’. He proposed a theory of the mind that could not be tested and had no scientific basis, but it was a start, and it appealed to many doctors as a way forward when no one really knew the way. It worked, because attention is the best placebo ever.

Freud was called the father of psychiatry. He often acted and wrote as though he was God. He’s the first person of the counselling trinity. And like the Father God of the Hebrew tradition he was great, and flawed.

Move forward 70 years. In 1952 an experimental drug called Marsilid was given to TB patients. It caused euphoria, so it was tried on depressed patients. It was the first of the anti-depressants. In the 1960s a host of anti-depressants became available. These drugs are now used by 1 in 5 adults in the USA and by 1 in 4 middle aged women. They certainly work: they mask the symptoms of depression. Two groups promote them: the drug companies that make billions, and doctors, who are glad to have something to give for depression, which they still often don’t understand. And they work: they mask the symptoms. But along with the drugs came a false and unproved story, which is that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. The story goes: depression is a brain malfunction. It’s caused by depleted levels of serotonin. This has never been proven, yet the most popular anti-depressant is called SSRI – serotonin specific reuptake inhibitor.

Those who listen to depressed people know that depression is not caused by brain chemistry in most cases, except perhaps in bipolar disorder– it’s caused by the world. It’s caused by meaningless work, loneliness, a loss of values, trauma, loss of status and respect, lack of a healthy environment, no sense of hope or a secure future, poor parenting, relationships that don’t work.

People in the early church wrongly located the cause of things that were happening. They thought events and decisions and signs and wonders were caused by the spirit of God. But in the end, there’s us, and the world. Myths about anti-depressants are the third person of my counselling trinity.

Then in the 1930s a young man in Illinois set out to train for the ministry. His church required him to do some university study first. So Carl Rogers studied psychology, became fascinated, and eventually, along with Maslow and others, became a leading figure in humanistic or person-centred psychology. This transformed counselling. Instead of Freudian or Jungian analysis, suitable people could be trained quickly to help others. Rogers’ training programme was rigorous but simple. Counsellors needed three things: unconditional positive regard for their client, non-possessive caring, and in themselves, authenticity.

The years after the Second World War were chaotic, and humanistic counselling became the tool that helped millions. Many relationships were damaged by separation and trauma. Marriage Guidance was founded and based on person-centred psychology. The pace of living meant many people sought help, and Rogerian counselling was the basis for most practitioners. And all it is, is kindness and listening. As old as human nature, but not much practiced.

I don’t need to tell you who in the Holy Trinity corresponds to radical life changing kindness. Unconditional positive regard? Non-possessive caring? Authenticity? Humanistic counselling aka kindness and love is the second person in my secular trinity.

I’m not sure how those other preachers are going. But here’s where I got: from Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to Freud, Rogers and the truth about depression. But more importantly, what is your trinity?