A perennial story of humankind is the generational narrative of fathers and sons who are unified by a shared spirt. This eternal drama has been playing and replaying, generation after generation, for so long that its looping (and transpersonal) themes have profoundly impressed themselves on our collective traditions, memories, and ways of life. The Christian doctrine of God as Trinity partly represents the ideal roles of the archetypal Father in relation to the archetypal Son as they share intimate communion through a common Spirit that eternally binds them together in an unceasing mutual exchange of love. There is a great deal of practical significance in the Christian understanding of God as Trinity, since Trinitarian theology at least partly signifies these perennial, archetypal Ideals.
It is important to remember these archetypes emerged in traditional societies that practiced traditional gender roles. So it is easier to grasp the meaning of these ancient symbols by attempting to understand them in their original wordings within an ancient context. Ancient mythology creatively uses gendered symbols (feminine and masculine) such as the Great Mother and the Great Father to communicate insights that often extend beyond gender categories. This means the archetypal significance of gendered symbols is not necessarily exclusively relevant to only one gender. The media and the meanings should not be too tightly conflated. Nevertheless, erasing gender when interpreting ancient mythology would create unnecessary, anachronistic confusion. Since I am interested in highlighting some of the archetypal significance of Trinitarian theology, I will use the symbolic language of the Father and the Son along with its corollaries. But understand that the meaning of these archetypes are not exclusively relevant to men.
Fathers and sons have fulfilled important roles through history. According to the Trinitarian Ideal, fathers have been responsible for raising their sons to know the ways of their people. Good fathers love their sons dearly and desire the best for them as responsible members of society and contributors towards the common good. Good fathers wisely judge and guide their sons in their budding development with the intention of bringing their sons to complete maturity, while allowing them to realize their full potential. Good fathers provide security and order and standards for their sons that support their growth. Good fathers teach their sons the boundaries and expectations of the family and adult society to prepare them for entering into adulthood. Good fathers instil their spirit within their sons to be a guiding light and helpful presence throughout their sons’ lives. And good fathers eventually allow their sons to bravely leave behind the comforts and securities of their fathers’ households, and move out into harsh and treacherous lands to actively conquer threatening forces of the unknown. In other words, good fathers teach their infant sons the ways of their forefathers, and then encourage their adult sons to venture out on their own, beyond the familiar boundaries of their fathers’ territory, heroically exploring new lands and advancing the known domain of their ancestors. Good fathers therefore allow their sons to evolve in this perennial, heroic, generational adventure, as sons revitalize the ways of their forefathers for the good of those living today and tomorrow.
Good sons love and honour their fathers throughout their childhood development. Good sons listen to their fathers and learn the ways of their people from their fathers who act as generational representatives of their forefathers before them. Good sons obey and respect their fathers’ authority, trusting that their fathers are genuinely concerned for their wellbeing. Good sons deeply internalize the traditions of their fathers and carry them in their hearts wherever they go. Good sons cherish their traditions so dearly that they refuse to let them die with their forefathers. Good sons intimately learn and know their fathers’ ways for the sake of regenerating and reincarnating the living spirit of their fathers for present and future generations. When the time has come, good sons bear the responsibility of adulthood, and intelligently carry their traditions forward in response to the new challenges of today and tomorrow. Good sons engage in this process by moving beyond their fathers’ domain of safety, while still carrying their traditions in their hearts, and actively assimilating new experience and information from unknown territories with the known ways of their fathers, thereby participating in the perennial pattern of creatively updating the past for the present and future. In other words, good sons make all things new.
Fathers may fail their sons if they do not adequately or correctly teach their sons the ways of their forefathers or the ways of society. Fathers may also fail their sons if they rigidly oppose their sons’ desire to heroically venture beyond the security of home and become transformed by encountering that which remains new and unknown. Fathers who expect their sons to strictly adhere to their cultural traditions without any freedom to adapt whatsoever risk crushing their sons’ exploratory spirit of sonship and stunting their growth. Overly obedient sons may learn to present themselves as identical copies of their fathers before them, but they will have become spiritually dead inside in exchange for choosing the path of strict conformity. Permanently shackled to the heavy burdens of dead tradition, they will have paid the high but necessary price to receive approval from their tyrannical fathers.
Likewise sons may fail their fathers (and their children) if they carelessly and rebelliously ignore their fathers’ wise instruction, making a mistake that will ripple through the generations after them. Sons may also fail their fathers (and themselves) if they do not voluntarily embark on the hero’s journey by harnessing their youthful spirit of sonship towards bravely advancing beyond their fathers’ familiar domain, creatively regenerating their fathers’ spirit and traditions in themselves for the future benefit of their sons and their society. Fathers fail their forefathers when they unsuccessfully teach their traditions to their sons or rigidly discourage their sons from advancing beyond them. And sons fail their future sons when they fail to learn their fathers ways or if they fail to heroically leave their fathers house to be transformed by the unknown.
These archetypal themes appear throughout the biblical story surrounding the activity of God as Trinity, particularly in the drama of the Incarnation of Christ. The Apostle Paul describes some of the Son’s heroic journey in the following hymn from his letter to the Philippians. He introduces the hymn by encouraging his readers to be of one spirit and one mind as they are united in Christ and committed to patterning their behaviour after his example:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
The Son’s heroic journey of descent becomes his pathway of ascent to the most exalted realms. It is this Christlike pattern of behaviour that Paul encourages his readers to practice in their own lives and relationships. Paul, at least in part, is encouraging his readers to adopt the courageous and transformative Spirit of Sonship as their own—the Spirit that inspires us to voluntarily venture towards life’s most incredible challenges with an intimate love and trust in the Father in hopes of becoming transformative agents of recreation.
Christ voluntarily left behind the securities and comforts of his heavenly home to assume the new form of a human being. He continued loving and serving his Father as he acted as a heavenly ambassador in a foreign land, sent by his Father to represent his Father’s ways to estranged people. Christ faithfully followed the leadings of his Father’s Spirit within, daily seeking direction from his Father in solitude and prayer. Carrying and honouring his heavenly Father’s Spirit in his heart, Christ reinvented and revitalized the traditions of his earthly forefathers, challenging and changing them where they had become dangerously rigid and dead, thereby fulfilling the perennial task of the eternal Son. Christ demonstrated his heroic spirit of Sonship most clearly in willingly facing down the threatening and unknown forces of suffering, evil, and death in his crucifixion, and conquering them while becoming transformed in the victory of his resurrection.
The Father, Son, and Spirit clearly need one another to form an interdependent Living Reality that continually contributes towards the good of all people and the revitalization of the world. The Father and Son without the Spirit cannot share a common bond or power of life, which causes them to become relationally estranged and impotent to renew historical traditions. The Son and Spirit without the Father cannot be solidly grounded and oriented within ancestral wisdom, which leaves them vulnerable to developing historical amnesia and disordered identities. The Father and Spirit without the Son cannot proactively explore beyond what’s already known and heroically adapt in the face of new experience, which dooms them to a future of spiritual ossification and extinction.
Future progress always belongs to the children of every generation. It is up to the Son to intimately know the ways of the Father and creatively embody them in his way of life. The Son must continually learn and regenerate the Father with the help of the indwelling Spirit for each successive generation. It is up to the Son the learn his Father’s ways and reform his forefathers traditions to meet present circumstances without betraying their original Spirit. The Son, with the help of the Spirit, is the perennial source of fresh creativity, vitality, newness, and transformation, the perennial explorer of new territories previously unknown and unconquered.
Any society that persistently fails to honour the Holy Trinity, either willfully or by foolish neglect, will suffer and eventually perish if it stubbornly continues in unrepentance. This isn’t just true for explicitly “Christian” cultures for the archetypal symbolism of the Trinity I’m referring to here is a universal process that all healthy, thriving societies have practiced throughout history. The Father, Son, and Spirit also symbolically parallel the perennial evolutionary processes of ongoing conservation, ongoing creation, and ongoing regeneration, which need to be coordinated for stable adaptation. Together they form a powerful and eternal Living Reality that must be respected if we truly desire to flourish.