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The Third Way with Cynthia Bourgeault

Friday, August 26, 2016


The Third Way
Friday, August 26, 2016

Paul is a marvelous dialectical teacher. The word dialectic originally referred to the Greek art of debate. A dialectic (different than our political debates) does not move forward by either/or thinking. It’s when you play the two off of one another and then come to a tertium quid, a third something, what the inner wisdom traditions sometimes call “Third Force.” It is the process of overcoming seeming opposites by uncovering a reconciling third that is bigger than both of the parts and doesn’t exclude either of them. Such truth moves you and the conversation to a different level. Wisdom teachers have usually taught in a dialectical manner because they come out of inner experience, invariably tried by immense suffering, not just outer authority.  Think of Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa, and Nelson Mandela.

Paul plays off of seeming contradictions with ideas like flesh and spirit, law and freedom, male and female—holding them both and eliminating neither, until he gets to the reconciling third or the great spacious place called mercy or grace which then results in a “new creation” (Galatians 6:15). But most people try to understand Paul at the level of the initial binaries that he poses, interpreting one as totally good and the other as totally bad. Sadly, this is why so many people do not like Paul.

Cynthia Bourgeault, one of our Living School core faculty members, explains the nuance of the Third Way as follows:

The interplay of two polarities calls forth a third, which is the “mediating” or “reconciling” principle between them. In contrast to a binary system, which finds stability in the balance of opposites, the ternary system stipulates a third force that emerges as the necessary mediation of these opposites and that in turn (and this is the really crucial point) generates a synthesis at a whole new level. It is a dialectic whose resolution simultaneously creates a new realm of possibility. [Italics mine]

[For example,] as Jesus said, “unless [a seed] falls into the ground and dies, [it] 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 latent in the seed—and a whole new “field” of possibility. [1]

Bourgeault shares how Jesus brings third force to the situation of the woman caught in adultery. When presented with the polarities of stoning the woman or freeing her, Jesus says, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). Bourgeault writes: “He finds the thing that will put the terrible two binaries in a completely new relationship and creates a new kingdom . . . called compassion, forgiveness.” She goes on to say:

The manifestation of love is there in the situation, but you need to find it. . . . Third force is there because the Trinity is real, and if you are alert to it, you will be able to find it. . . . The problem is that most of the world is third force blind. . . . The capacity to midwife third force or holy the reconciling is for me the most powerful fruit of a contemplative spiritual practice. Without a contemplative practice, midwifing third force is virtually impossible. . . . But with a spiritual practice you will be better and better equipped to get into the dance which will allow you to see how to deliver third force in any given situation. [2]

Gateway to Silence:
Welcome what is.

[1] Cynthia Bourgeault, The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three (Shambhala: 2013), 16.
[2] Cynthia Bourgeault, The Shape of God: Deepening the Mystery of the Trinity (CAC: 2005), disc 4 (CD, DVD, MP3 download).

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Holding the Tension (an unpublished talk in Houston, Texas: 2007); and
A New Way of Seeing . . . A New Way of Being: Jesus and Paul (CAC: 2007), disc 2 (CD, MP3 download).

Image Credit: Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (detail) by Pieter Breugel the Elder, 1565.
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