“Christianity’s Hidden Driveshaft:” Cynthia Bourgeault’s Law of Three as Trinitarian Template of Transformation


When I first started teaching I wondered: where is the power of education? Or, to frame the question in Christian terms that remain my most natural mode, where is the power of Christ to transform lives? Somehow it seemed to me that Christian education should always be about the business of transforming people and changing society. But where was that power?

The partial answer that I have come to at HKIS iindexs service-learning, which culminated in the creation of a new course in 2003 called “Humanities I in Action.” Eventually, this course led to my research and what I call social conscience education. However, my recent study of the work of Episcopalian priest and mystic Cynthia Bourgeault has caused me to reflect more deeply on not only how Humanities I in Action came into existence, but more generally how innovation occurs. In her March, 2014 keynote presentation at Earlham School of Religion entitled “Harnessing the Law of Three,” based on her book The Holy Trinity, Cynthia makes an audacious, universal claim how all new phenomena arise in the universe.

This blog entry first explains Cynthia’s understanding of Gurdjieff’s “Law of Three” construct, then sees the creation of Humanities I in Action through this conceptual lens. This background serves as a springboard to consider Cynthia’s provocative assertion that the Law of Three is not only “Christianity’s hidden driveshaft”(Holy Trinity, 3), but a general law that gives rise to transformation.

Gurdjieff’s “Law of Three”

Before explaining her big idea, some context is necessary. Cynthia explains that early on in her career, her own spiritual quest was fueled by a similar concern about the power of transformation. Following her ordination as an Episcopalian priest and pastoral work with congregations in the late 1970’s, she came to the disheartening realization that most of her parishioners were not being transformed into new creations in Christ. Followers of arguably the most compassionate human being to ever walk the planet ended up being “judgmental, rigid, and exclusive. What’s wrong with this picture?” (1:01)

Cynthia spent the next ten years of her life studying the writings and practices of G.I. Gurdjieff (1866-194), an enigmatic teacher from imagesCentral Asia. Gurdjieff’s short answer regarding how to help people change was contemplative practice. Such mind training allows practitioners to escape the fight-or-flight, for-them-or-against-them binary mentality that change advocates commonly possess, and opens them to aligning with the singular cosmic dynamic that he called “The Law of Three.”

Gurdjieff believed that all potentially transformative situations have three lines of imagesdirection: affirming, denying, and reconciling. Rather than a binary-driven, Hegelian thesis/anti-thesis/synthesis model, the Law of Three proposes that transformation results from the coming together of not two, but three forces. Cynthia gives the example of a sailboat that needs more than the two forces of winds and sails; a third element, a helmsmen, is needed to connect and coordinate these energies to propel a boat in a direction. She claims that in every situation when a conflict appears at an impasse, the third force of reconciliation is always available. Discovery of this ever-present, but invisible reconciling dimension brings about a new arising, a “new creation,” that lifts the system to a whole new level.

Cynthia explains further, “Note that reconciling is not the synthesis, but a mediating principle between the other two. This is a ternary, not a binary, system. Instead of paired opposites, we have the interplay of three energies that in turn creates a whole new realm of possibility” (“How Change Happens, Oneing, July, 2014). Boldly, she claims that this fundamental process details how all original phenomena arise in the universe.

The Law of Three, Cynthia contends, is most clearly explicated in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which for most Christians is an abstract doctrine of little practical use. Yet she argues it is a theological theory of new arising, providing a universal template for change, ranging from the atomic to the cosmic, a process that lies at the heart of every economic, social, and political issue.

Origins of Humanities I in Action as a “Law of Three” Process

If the “Law of Three” is indeed the cosmic principle of all substantive change, then it should be readily apparent in our own lives. In the context of this blog, I will apply the Law of Three to the creation of the Humanities I in Action course, which I believe, as I’ve reported frequently, has brought something new to our school curriculum and community.

Does the genesis of the Humanities I in Action course fit the Law of Three? The original impulse for the course came in 1997 when my colleague George Coombs and I visited Ateneo High School in Manila, Philippines, which had a compulsory grade 12 course combining sociology, theology, and service-learning. In trying to develop a similar course at HKIS, the next year George and I introduced the Foshan orphanage trip into our grade 10 interdisciplinary Western Tradition course in 1998. The experience was profound for students, and spoke of the transformative potential of service-learning.

However, several years later one student complained to the administration that traveling foshan04hum1 022to a Chinese orphanage for a weekend did not fit the curriculum of a “Western Tradition” course, and the assistant principle for academics agreed, making it clear that this trip would not continue the following year. Deeply discouraged and convinced that integrating service into the curriculum was what I was called to do, I spoke to a close colleague of mine about whether I should fight for the trip to remain in the course or to let it go. He advised me to wait and see what would develop in the remaining 8 months of the school year.

I followed his advice and a new idea did emerge: I could move the trip to the grade 9 curriculum which studies China as one of its world cultures, embedding the orphanage experience more naturally into this course. In time, this gave birth to the “Humanities I in Action” course.

Employing the Law of Three perspective, I proposed a new service-learning model in a conventional grade 10 course (affirming force). The student complaint and administration’s agreement called my innovation into question (denying force). My colleague supported my intention, but at the same time recommended that I wait for something new to develop (reconciling force). What emerged was a new grade 9 platform that allowed a far more innovative and comprehensive integrated service-learning curriculum than the once-a-year orphanage trip that I was shoehorning into already full grade 10 curriculum. In retrospect, the denying force was absolutely necessary to bring forth the new course, which laid the foundation for my dissertation research and the material on this blog. Thus, the development of what I came to call social conscience education certainly follows the Law of Three model.

Lessons of the Law of Three

In her talk Cynthia draws two key lessons from the Law of Three, both of which can be seen in my personal example of the beginnings of the Humanities I in Action course. First, the perceived resistance by the denying force is not the enemy; rather, it is a necessary energy to bring about the desired transformation. Change-makers usually see themselves righteously battling conservatives and recalcitrants who out of ignorance or lust for power thwart forward-thinking solutions. This blindness to the rightful role of second force shuts down the humility, patience, and imagination of would-be problem-solvers. Even more counterintuitively, she explains that reformers have to humbly realize that their affirming force will “never be the outcome. That’s not peace-making, that’s totalitarianism (1:13),” she asserts.

The second lesson is that a third force is always present. In a conventional binary approach to problems, third force is obscured. Because of ego identification with fixed categories, social change instigators are “third force blind” (1:14), leaving the latent transformation undiscovered. This is why contemplative discipline is essential to bringing about the transformative outcome. Spiritual practices help activists to “disidentify,” lose the righteousness of certainty, and cultivate sensitivity to unforeseen options. The Law of Three advises that change advocates who are locked in a dualistic struggle can only “overcome” their adversaries by “striv[ing] in all situations to align minds and hearts with third force” (Holy Trinity, 206). Mysteriously, the reconciling third force, such as the surprise election of Pope Francis, can simply appear to come out of left field.

Why the Law of Three Matters

In this final section, I’d like to reflect more broadly on my attraction to Cynthia’s admittedly speculative Law of Three hypothesis. As a teacher, I’m really only interested in ideas that have some benefit to my students. As many have observed, modern society suffers from a fragmented worldview, and my students hunger for some explanation of the whole. I’m constantly on the look out for stories, theories, and images of wholeness that connect the subjective and objective, the personal and the social, the concrete and the abstract, the particular and the universal. Whether it’s Wilber’s AQAL, Sheldrake’s morphogenetic fields, or Swimme’s journey of the universe, such “grand narratives,” so out of fashion in postmodern philosophy, remain appealing to me because students respond enthusiastically to the quest for wholeness. Seeing that each individual participates in a beautiful, dynamic, and yet fragile whole – that their lives matter in some empirical and poetic way – is an inspiring vision. I suspect, as I will share in a future entry, that even investigating questions related to a whole-world consciousness results in a growth in integrity in students.

Cynthia’s Holy Trinity is such an attempt to provide a big picture perspective. She seeks to rehabilitate the deeply Christian idea of the Trinity, revealing the Law of Three as “Christianity’s hidden driveshaft.” She contends that the world’s largest religion has suffered from a lack of both vision and nerve in recent times, moving slowly to consider the theological relevance of science’s new discoveries; instead, it retreats reflexively to doctrinal formulations of the past. On social issues, too, much of Christendom appears to favor conservative approaches to progressive ones. By contrast, the Law of Three offers a practical and flexible template to consider personal decisions, weigh ethical issues, and to engage in dialogue about religious and scientific differences, all in search of reconciling forces that may take individuals and society to new levels.


While I expect it will take many years for Cynthia’s Law of Three to work its way into even the most progressive churches and parochial schools, I believe this kind of creative thinking is necessary to re-vitalize Christianity. Cynthia offers a compelling participatory cosmovision that re-imagines the relationship of God, the universe, and human beings. It has the potential to excite Christians about a dynamic and interactive cosmos, while at the same time employing language that invites other traditions into the conversation. Whether future scholars and practitioners accept the vision is less important than the implicit message that the Christian tradition and modern thought can together search in good faith for reconciling third forces. Such theological innovation offers hope that perhaps faith can assume its proper place as restorer of human civilization.


Bourgeault, C. (2013). The holy trinity and the law of three: Discovering the radical truth at the heart of Christianity. Boston: Shambala.

How Change Happens: An Interview with Cynthia Bourgeault” (2014). Oneing.

Additional Information

  1. To see an earlier entry using the Law of Three lens to interpret the award-winning documentary, “Searching for Sugarman,” hit here.  
  2. Cynthia speaks about the Law of Three in this interview, “How Change Happens” from Oneing magazine, July, 2014.
  3. Additional Cynthia’s Teaching on the Trinity:

All Things Change and Grow
Monday, February 26, 2018

It is hard for me to understand why some Christians are so threatened by the notion of evolution. Are they not observing reality? Why this stalwart attachment to inertness? Perhaps static things appear more controllable? I suspect such resistance largely comes from our ego and our unconscious. I do recognize the human psyche’s need for stability, security, and superiority. These ego-needs are so strong that they allow people to ignore or misinterpret what is visible all around them, and even to ignore their own obvious “growing up” and healing processes. Even our cuts and bruises heal themselves—by themselves.

Today, every academic, professional discipline—psychology, anthropology, history, the various sciences, social studies, art, drama, music, and the business world—recognizes change, development, growth, and some kind of evolving phenomenon. But then we go to church and think we must switch heads. Somehow, Scripture study and systematic theology thought themselves above the fray, untouched by our constantly changing context. In its search for the Real Absolute, theology made one fatal mistake: It imagined that any notion of God had to be static and unchanging, an “unmoved mover,” as Aristotelian philosophy called it.

Yet there is little evidence that this rigid god is the God presented in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and even less in our Christian understanding of God as Trinity, who is clearly much more an active verb than a noun. But then, this central doctrine of the Trinity had very little effect on practical theology or the ordinary lives of most Christians. We preferred a stable notion of God as an old white man, sitting on a throne—much like the Greek God Zeus (which became the Latin word for God or “Deus”), a critical and punitive spectator to a creation that was merely a mechanical clock of inevitable laws and punishments, ticking away until Doomsday. What a negative world view!

This is not a God you fall in love with, because humans are not programmed to fall in love with mere principles and forces. Love demands both give and take, which is what we mean by a “personal” God. And this is exactly what people of deep prayer invariably experience—an inner dialogue of give and take, of giving and being received. This is why the mystics consistently use words like mercy, forgiveness, faithfulness, and healing to describe what they experience as God.  These all imply a God who does not just impose rules, but in fact changes them for us! If God is Trinity, then God is Absolute Relationship, even inside of God. And every time God forgives, God is saying that relationship is more important than God’s own rules! Did you ever think about that?

I am convinced we are still in the early years of Christianity! Our appreciation for the Gospel is evolving too, as we learn to honor context as much as text. The Christ Mystery itself is still “groaning in one great act of giving birth . . . as we ourselves groan inwardly, waiting for our bodies to be set free” (see Romans 8:22-25).

The Metaphysical Lens
Wednesday, March 15, 2017 

Guest writer and CAC teacher Cynthia Bourgeault continues exploring Trinity and the Law of Three.

we see reality impacts the nature of our reality. As Richard often says, “How we see is what we see.”

If you wear glasses, you likely often forget that they’re even there! Only when you take the lenses off do you realize how much your capacity to see is informed by the lens through which you are seeing. When we talk about metaphysics we are speaking of a specific lens by which we have tended to perceive reality. Like glasses that we’ve grown accustomed to but are no longer strong enough, we need a “system update” in our Christian tradition. I believe the Trinity is our necessary new lens.

When we look at the Trinity from a metaphysical standpoint rather than simply a theological standpoint, it’s not so much about persons in relationship as it is about a process by which the world is constructed and maintained.

The vast majority of the world’s metaphysical systems are binary. They work on the principle of paired, equal opposites. We see great archetypal polarities that are somehow held in balance: male/female, dark/light, conscious/unconscious, good/evil, action/being. Our dualistic minds feel comfortable in that kind of binary swing. Binary systems prefer symmetry and come to resolution in stasis or stillness.

My hunch is that Christian metaphysics are not binary—as traditional religious metaphysics are—but ternary (having three parts). This is precisely because of Christ (as Richard will share in a couple weeks) and the Trinity.

Ternary systems have three independent forces coming together to form something new, a fourth thing. Perhaps the simplest example is a braid. You need at least three sections of hair for a braid to hold; the braid is then a new creation. The interweaving of threeness results in something that didn’t exist before. It is not just a swinging back and forth between two old things that were already there, but a drive into a brand new dimension.

While a binary system is by nature stable and symmetrical, a ternary system is asymmetrical and innovative. Unlike a pendulum, it cannot come to equilibrium within its own orbit; it seeks stability in a new plane, through a resolution that is at the same time a new arising. It corkscrews its way through time, matter, form—whatever plane is at hand—in a riot of uncertainty and new combinations, the whole of which is the fullness of divine reality.

I believe that Christianity has, from the start, been a ternary swan in a binary duck pond. Once the ugly duckling has been correctly identified as a baby swan, we begin to see valuable clues for healing the schism between theology and metaphysics and for tapping into a ternary system’s inherent aptitude for dynamism, change, and process. That, I believe, is the real reason for paying more serious attention to this obscure principle of the Trinity.

A New Arising
Thursday, March 16, 2017 

 Guest writer and CAC teacher Cynthia Bourgeault continues exploring Trinity and the Law of Three.


From a metaphysical standpoint, the Trinity is primarily about process. It encapsulates a paradigm of change and transformation based on an ancient principle known as the Law of Three—or ternary metaphysics, as we saw yesterday. This principle was developed by the Armenian-born spiritual teacher, G. I. Gurdjieff. (I became familiar with the Law of Three through ten years of participation in the Gurdjieff Work.)

The Law of Three, according to Gurdjieff, comprises what he calls the “Laws of World Creation and World Maintenance.” The basic foundational principles are:

  1. In every new arising there are three forces involved: affirming, denying, and reconciling.
  2. The interweaving of the three produces a fourth in a new dimension.
  3. Affirming, denying, and reconciling are not fixed points or permanent attributes, but can and do shift and must be discerned situationally.
  4. Solutions to impasses or sticking points generally come by learning how to spot and mediate third force, which is present in every situation but generally hidden.

Let’s consider a simple example. A seed, as Jesus said, “unless it falls into the ground and dies, remains a single seed” (John 12:24). If this seed does fall into the ground, it enters a sacred transformative process. Seed, the first or “affirming” force, meets ground, the second or “denying” force (and at that, it has to be moist ground, water being its most critical first component). But even in this encounter, nothing will happen until sunlight, the third or “reconciling” force, enters the equation. Then among the three they generate a sprout, which is the actualization of the possibility in the seed—and a whole new “field” of possibility.

The entire Paschal Mystery plays out as a fairly straightforward configuration of the Law of Three. If you assign affirming as Jesus the human teacher of the path of love; denying as the crucifixion and the forces of hatred driving it; and reconciling as the principle of self-emptying, or kenotic love willingly engaged, then the fourth, new arising revealed through this weaving, is the Kingdom of Heaven, visibly manifest in the very midst of human cruelty and brokenness.

Christianity’s Hidden Driveshaft
Friday, March 17, 2017 

 Guest writer and CAC teacher Cynthia Bourgeault continues exploring Trinity and the Law of Three.

Ternary metaphysics shift us away from the comfortable and static dualistic operating system that we’ve grown accustomed to using—with its corresponding polarities of in/out, right/wrong, matter/spirit—and places our reality into forward drive and dynamism. In a ternary system, in place of paired opposites, the interplay of the two polarities calls forth a third, which is the “mediating” or “reconciling” principle between them. The crucial part of a ternary system, and what sets it apart, is that it mediates creativity.

We can see the Law of Three in action in our everyday lives. Twofoldness leads to cyclic recurrence. We get locked into “this” or “that” thinking, and so the pendulum swings back and forth or stays stuck at an impasse (think of every argument or conflict you’ve ever been in). All progression, however, or forward motion through time, operates under the Law of Three: the impasse between two opposing forces is mediated by a third force that causes a new creative arising to emerge. It’s not quite the triad of thesis, antithesis, synthesis, because the “third force” is always an equal player (not a combination of the first two oppositional energies). There is no progression apart from the Law of Three and no Law of Three apart from progression.

This deceptively simple point is actually at the heart of Christian metaphysics, if only we knew how to tap it better. The Law of Three is, I believe, Christianity’s hidden driveshaft, and its presence so far has only been intuited, never explicitly identified by theologians. Comprehensive, profoundly original, and like all drive shafts—concerned with forward motion—it is Christianity’s authentic temperament, the key in which theory and practice come together, and in which all of Christianity’s teachings hang together.

The sacred mandala of the Trinity compels us to understand that this is what God is always doing. God has basically one agenda, which is to widen and bring into new, creative, diverse manifestations the flowing love of the Trinity. This is the Trinitarian believer’s opportunity: to bring third force into all sorts of situations, to make it appear like magic where it never appeared before.

The Opposition Is Never the Problem

Sunday, March 19, 2017 

 This week Cynthia Bourgeault, one of CAC’s core faculty members, continues exploring how the Law of Three can be put into action to facilitate positive change in the world.

We’ve been exploring the Law of Three in a theoretical way, getting acquainted with its major precepts and a few of its peculiarities. But what do some concrete examples of Law of Three in action look like? Consider the following Law of Three triads:

seed/moist earth/sun = sprout
flour/water/fire = bread
plaintiff/defendant/judge = resolution
sails/keel/helmsperson = course made good

But these are only textbook examples, while the Law of Three is all about action. It is one thing to recognize a Law of Three configuration in a theoretical exploration; it is another thing altogether to recognize it in actual life and be able to work with it confidently and skillfully.

The single most liberating insight to come out of my work with the Law of Three was the realization that what appears to be the resisting or opposing force is never actually the problem to be overcome. Second force, or holy denying, is a legitimate and essential component in every new arising: no resistance, no new arising!

That realization in and of itself radically rearranges the playing field, shifting the focus away from trying to eliminate the opposition and toward working collaboratively for a more spacious solution. According to the Law of Three, once an impasse is reached, it can never be solved by going backward but only forward, into that new arising that honors all the players and brings them into a new relationship. (Einstein seems to have been on to this insight in his famous dictum that a problem can never be solved at the level at which it is created.) The three forces are like three strands in a braid; all three are required for the weaving.

One woman in a group I was working with was almost instantly able to turn around a very difficult standoff with an ultraconservative bishop when she realized that his resistance was not the problem to be solved but a given to be worked with. With an almost visceral “Aha!” she relaxed her sense of polarization and was stunned to learn the next day that he had miraculously softened his stance. While it was not clear to her who had actually been the broker of third force here, it was clear to her that the two relaxations were not unrelated.

One can only imagine how greatly the political and religious culture wars of our era could be eased by this simple courtesy of the Law of Three: (1) the enemy is never the problem but the opportunity; (2) the problem will never be solved through eliminating or silencing the opposition but by learning to hold the tension of the opposites and launch them in a new direction. Imagine what a different world it would be if these two simple precepts were internalized and enacted.


About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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4 Responses to “Christianity’s Hidden Driveshaft:” Cynthia Bourgeault’s Law of Three as Trinitarian Template of Transformation

  1. Pingback: “If you Will, You May Become All Flame:” Teachings of the Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers with Cynthia Bourgeault | Social Conscience and Inner Awakening

  2. Pingback: Body, Mind and Heart: A New Curriculum Approach to “Service, Society, and the Sacred” | Social Conscience and Inner Awakening

  3. Pingback: Saving Starfish: In Search of Genuine Service in a Chinese Orphanage | Social Conscience and Inner Awakening

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