From Religion : A Secular Trinity of Grace, Love and Fellowship

Categories 6 From Religion

The Christian religion makes much of its doctrine of the Trinity. So much so that the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church defines it as ‘the central dogma of Christian theology’. This is despite the fact that the word ‘trinity’ doesn’t even appear in the Bible! Like many religious doctrines it has generated more heat than light. It has led to disputes and persecution. No-one can easily define it. The concept of three separate persons in one godhead, co-equal, co-eternal, etc ….. renders the doctrine at best a ‘mystery’, at worst incomprehensible. It feels contrived. It has neither definition nor relevance. To use philosophical language, it doesn’t refer.

But there is an alternative secular, non-doctrinal, more allegorical way of interpreting the idea which is more meaningful and more widely accessible. Unusually for him, since he is the author of a doctrinal approach to Christianity, the apostle Paul offers this interpretation in his famous ‘grace’ in his second letter to Corinth, where in chapter 13 verse 14 he writes ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all’.

The allegory here is that God means love, Christ means grace, and the Holy Spirit means fellowship. The moving idea of the allegory is that human fellowship, or relationship, is enabled by grace and love. This is an appealing and morally rich idea. Moreover, the idea is offered with universally inclusive potential – it is ‘with you all’.

We can therefore imagine the nature of friendships, of communities, of whole societies, even of the human world, where the qualities of grace and love are foundational. Grace can describe physical movement as in ballet. It also describes human nature and behaviour. Gracious behaviour includes being kind, polite, generous, forgiving, encouraging, merciful, compassionate. Grace is the quality which enables all these and other virtues. It is the Greek word ‘charis’. Love in the idea is very specifically conveyed by the Greek word ‘agape’ which is strongly distinguished from selfish ‘eros’, and signifies a love which loves the other rather than the self. These qualities in people and in societies, generate ‘koinonia’, the Greek word for fellowship. And this interpretation is available to all, atheists included, since it depends on no doctrinal belief.

One long time friend of mine is so taken with this secular concept of moral trinity that he now signs off all his letters with the phrase ‘grace, love and fellowship’.


2 thoughts on “From Religion : A Secular Trinity of Grace, Love and Fellowship

  1. Geoff Crocker on

    Thanks Paul.

    Trinitarian belief has been fundamental to much religious war (see and It separates Christianity from Judaism and Islam.

    I try to show in this section of the site that religion does have a contribution to an atheist spirituality, but it doesn’t have a monopoly on spirituality, and is not therefore its unique root, but one of its expressions.

    Elsewhere on the site and in my book ‘An Enlightened Philosophy – Can an Atheist Believe Anything?’ I argue that a doctrinal interpretation of religion is far less meaningful that an allegorical interpretation, and has unfortunately led to religion’s decline in contemporary secular thought. Paul did, I think, start this doctrinal emphasis which as you say borrows from Plato, and is more cerebral than spiritual.

    Secularists don’t need imposed doctrine and in fact oppose it in favour of a more open intellectual pursuit.

    Glad we agree on the moral trinity and thanks for your closing greeting!


  2. paul oxborrow on

    No objection at all to your ‘moral trinity’ – but then neither would any religion, as it all comes from religious roots. Which war did the doctrine of the Trinity lead to? Arguments, yes, but warfare? How much light it might have shed is a matter of opinion – about which you might allow alternative beliefs. ‘Doctrine’ or ‘dogma’ is merely the explanation of belief/opinion – what Plato called ‘logos’ – and is as necessary for secularists as for religious thinkers – in whom it might or might not become ‘mumbo jumbo’, and might or might not ‘refer’, depending on how much sense it makes. Paul furthered the explanation of Christian beliefs, but he certainly didn’t start it. Christian doctrine has always worked with allegory, but not with that alone.
    Yours, in grace, love and fellowship,
    Paul Oxborrow

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