A Modest Proposal to Replace the Priesthood with the Practice of Threeing

by Paul Ryan

Jerry waved his hand.
“What is it, Jerry?” Sister Agnes said.
Jerry stood. “Sister, I think I can explain the Trinity.”
Jerry was sincere and Jerry was arrogant.
Sister Agnes heard only the arrogance.
“Sit down, Jerry.”
“But Sister…
“Sit down.”

In Catholic High School in the fifties, The Blessed Trinity was a mystery to be worshipped, not a riddle to be explained. There were Three Persons in One God.  But how was three-in-one possible? Don’t ask. The infallible Pope said it was so. That was all you needed to know.

Jerry’s explanation of the Trinity after class didn’t make sense, but his struggle to understand did. Jerry and James were fraternal twins who had recently moved to my neighborhood. I was a friend to both of them. Balancing friendship with twins fascinated me. Somehow, we were a working trinity. Our families were not. Each family was plagued by alcoholism.

My father was split in two. Sober he was terrific. Drunk he was terrible. My mother stayed with him, torn between the despair of hiding liquor bottles and the hope of Sunday Mass. The priest framed my father’s alcoholism in moral terms. To a fifteen-year-old boy this meant my father was bad; my mother was good.  I was split in two.

After high school, I joined the army of the good. I joined a monastic order of the Catholic Church. Perhaps if I became a full time worshipper of the Triune Mystery, God would redeem my father from drink and stop the suffering of my mother. Perhaps I could be made whole. It did not happen. I loved the monastic life, but in the 1960’s the Second Vatican Council threw my monastic order into chaos.  After four and a half years with the order, I left.

Three years later I married the daughter of my mother’s best friend.  While I had been in a monastery, she had been in a convent. A match made in heaven?  Not quite. Before our daughter was a year old, what God had joined together came asunder. If my relation to God was flawed by a young man’s hubris, I couldn’t see it. If God knew the secret of three, he wasn’t telling my wife and I. Now our daughter would have to grow up split between her father and mother.

My work on three-person relationships began in earnest after my nuclear family broke up. I joined a video art collective in New York City called Raindance. I focused on how video feedback might “correct” communication in small groups, such as the collective. Previously, I had worked directly with the author of Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan (1964). Now, following McLuhan’s dictum “the medium is the message,” I was setting out as an artist to address human interaction using the medium of video.

While part of the Raindance Video Collective, I simultaneously took part in a series of experiments with video feedback and small groups at Roosevelt Hospital’s Center for the Study of Social Change.Al Scheflen, author of How Behavior Means (1974), lead the experiments. Scheflen had been part of a group of six professionals and six graduate students who spent years studying family therapy sessions on film, frame by frame.  What they saw was hard to take. All six graduate students were married. All six eventually divorced.  The professionals developed serious physical aliments. Scheflen himself began to go blind.  This research gave Scheflen a very grim view of human behavior. He argued it doesn’t matter what poetry is going on in your head, your interaction in small groups is controlled by a very restricted repertoire of behaviors that we share with other mammals: greeting, parting, combat, courtship, territory and a few others. “I can show you baboons doing the very same things”, Scheflen would often say.  This repertoire of behaviors were understood as two-party interactions, or variations on two-party interactions.

While I could see what Scheflen was saying, I thought things need not be that grim.  Given the power of video to let us study behavioral patterns, perhaps, as an video artist, I could “invent” new behavior patterns, three-person patterns that would give us more flexibility in our interpersonal relationships. Over the next five years I organized and videotaped over thirty hours of three-person improvisations. I worked with trained dancers from Brenda Bufalino’s company and people with no training. After each production session, I would watch the tapes over and over, looking for key patterns that could stabilize three-person behavior.

My explorations were guided by a new way of thinking.  I had been fortunate to meet the lucid theorist of communication, Gregory Bateson. Trained as an anthropologist, Bateson authored the best paper on alcoholism I’ve ever read and helped found the field of family therapy (Bateson 1972).  Bateson did not think in terms of isolated individuals, but in terms of circuits of relationships. The philosophy I’d studied in the monastery helped me understand his new way of thinking in circuits.  For thinking about triads, I followed the writings of Bateson’s colleague, Warren McCulloch (1965), to the writings of the American philosopher, Charles Peirce (1931-35). With these three thinkers to guide me and the three-person improvisations on video to review over and over, I was able to invent a repertoire of cooperative behavior patterns for three people based on a new concept, in effect, a new circuit.  This new art of behavior I called Threeing. I have presented Threeing in various art venues, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Threeing is a three-person solution to relational confusion. At the core of this solution is a voluntary practice in which three people take turns playing three different roles. Through this role playing, a clarity and ease about relationships emerge.  This clarity and ease can be cultivated by practice and developed into stable, healthy relationships. In a sense, Threeing can be described as a “yoga” of relationships. When you learn Threeing you stretch your capacity to relate in three different roles. Just as practicing yoga can keep a person healthy and thriving so the practice of Threeing can keep relationships healthy and thriving.

In contrast to family settings, in Threeing the roles for relating are not fixed.  Three people rotate through three different roles.  Each role is defined in a very broad way.  The first role, the initiator, invites you to express your sensibilities and feelings spontaneously, to be such as you are regardless of any other.  In the second role, the reactor, you maintain your own sensibilities, but you express yourself in response, even reaction to the person in the first role.  The third role, the mediator, is the most complex.  You attend to both the spontaneity in the first role and the responsiveness in the second role and mediate between them.  Once three people establish a fundamental circuit of relationships among themselves using these three roles, they can go on to establish more complex circuits of relationships with four, five or more people.

Given the recent sexual scandals in the Catholic Church, I want to suggest how Threeing could replace the priesthood. Unlike Swift’s ‘modest proposal’ to eat the babies of the starving Irish, this proposal moves beyond satire to suggest an operative social order. I will explain how the ongoing performance of the practice of Threeing would enable us to regulate sexuality, protect children, end the oppression of women, respect gender preference and cultivate  meaning.

The Rival Male and the Relational Dilemma

The priest is an institutionalized rival male. His Roman collar certifies that, like a eunuch, this celibate male can be trusted to spend time alone with a married woman. She can confide in him, even confess her sins to him, without fear of betraying her husband.  Her husband does not have to worry that the priest will usurp the husband’s role. All three roles are fixed in a hierarchy. The woman is subordinate to the husband, the celibate rival, ranked above the husband, uses his authority to reinforce the marriage of the husband and wife.

The Roman Catholic clergy now admit they have covered up the activities of pedophile priests who prey on the children of marriages which they themselves sanctified.  Children who are taught to call priests ‘father’.  Accordingly, any statement by the clergy designed to reestablish sacred trust in the fixed hierarchy of relationships should be met with the virtue of distrust, especially by the mothers of the violated.

As anthropologist Roy Rappaport argues convincingly, the ‘sacred’ dimension of any statement is a transformation of the experience of the child-mother bond (Rappaport 1999).  An infant experiences complete trust in the numinous presence of the mother. As the child grows, this trust gets transferred to a set of unquestioned fundamental propositions. For a religion based on fundamental propositions, there must be keepers of these articles of faith who maintain the viability of belief by respecting the continuity of trust that begins with the numinous bond between the child and the mother. In Catholicism, these keepers of the belief system are the rival males, the priests. In effect, they take their ‘infallible’ verbal power from the numinous non-verbal experience of security provide by the mothers of the faithful.  When they abuse their power by covering up pedophilia, they abuse both mother and child.  To abuse mother and child is also to violate the unspoken understanding that an institutionalized rival male has with the father of the child.

Threeing offers an alternative to the re-sanctification of the rival male as a priest with verbal authority in a fixed hierarchy of relationships. Threeing offers an alternative resolution to the problem of what I can the ‘relational dilemma’. Let me explain.

The Latin root of the word ‘relationships’ is a verb that means to bear or to carry a child.  The word ‘difference’ comes from another part of the same verb. This shared root makes sense. We differentiate ourselves from our relatives by referencing the experience of childbearing.  For example, my cousin on my mother’s side was carried by a woman (my aunt) who was carried by the woman (my grandmother) who also carried my mother. The very word ‘relate’ suggests that the question of relationships is really a question of how we organize the differences among us.

In traditional families, differences are organized in fixed roles. The father plays his role.  The mother plays her role.  The children have their roles. When you play your role, you play your part in the whole. The whole family depends on each person playing his or her part. Grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins also have roles, and there are rules for maintaining these roles. For example, a Korean once explained to me that although his uncle is younger than he is, and a boyhood friend, he must nonetheless address his uncle in a formal family term that indicates the respect required in that relationship.  Such rules of address keep the overall organization of differences in the family system clear and balanced.

The differences within a two-person relationship cannot really be understood as differences, unless there is another relationship available for comparison. This explains why love is blind. The two lovebirds see each other, but neither sees the relationship they are in as a relationship. Without a third person, the exhilarating play of differences between two lovers easily goes to extremes. Courtship can be very dramatic.  In truth, courting lovers do not want to see the relationship, they want only to see each other.  They are jealous of any third person precisely because the very presence of a third person invites scrutiny of their relationship as well as questions about how their isolated two-person relationship fits with other relationships in their community.

Relating to one person with no comparison available, you might say, “You’re no fun.”  With a comparison available, you could say “I have more fun with him than with you.”  Of course, such a comparison is cruel because it implies that you will soon make a choice and leave the person you are with and go have fun with the third person.  Here we have the fundamental relational dilemma. On one hand, it takes three people to understand and balance relationships as relationships; on the other hand, each person within a three-person relationship is constantly faced with a choice between the other two. Acts of choice cut us off from relationships as relationships.  The choice of one person tends to break off the relationship with the other person. Yet choices that exclude a third person leave the two remaining people without a way to balance their relationship as a relationship. Relationships are subordinated to choice.

This dilemma about choice and relationships generates a cluster of partial solutions to relational balance for two people, among them risking periodic interaction with outsiders that allows the two people in the partnership to renew their mutual choice of each other.  In effect, they are saying that despite whatever ambiguity or second thoughts about our mutual commitment have arisen within our relationship, it is at least clear that each of us prefers the other to any third person. In Western society, the “rival” has been institutionalized as eunuch, celibate priest, or starving artist who threatens to run away with the possessed woman but could not afford to support her childbearing. The rival female becomes the childless nun, the whore, or the mistress without property rights whose children are bastards. Threeing can replace the priesthood because Threeing offers a more complete resolution of the ‘relational dilemma’ that the institutionalized rival.

Threeing resolves the relational dilemma by neutralizing the excluding effect of choice on relationships. The exercise of choice is not between mutually exclusive partners but between unambiguous positions included in one figure which regulates interaction, i.e., the relational circuit. Mapped on the floor, the relational circuit outlines six unambiguous positions (Ryan 1976, 85, 91, 93). Following a simple choreography, participants move through the different positions in the circuit. Once participants learn the choreography, or flow pattern, they wordlessly take turns in the different positions, according to their sense of what is going on relationally. Interaction takes place with sound and movement. Three people use the circuit to understand and balance their relationship by continually changing positions, continually rotating through the three roles. A difference in position makes a difference in the relationship. No one is excluded. No one is forced to choose between two others. No one is fixed in a ‘rival’ position. Choice is exercised so as to balance relationships among three, not exclude one for the sake of two. Threeing does not reinforce one two-person relationship at the expense of a third person.  All choices in Threeing serve to support the three-person relationship as a three-person relationship. In Threeing, the function of the triad is to reinforce the triad.

In the novel Beloved, Toni Morrison provides an example of a ceremony that is very much like Threeing.  The grandmother preacher Baby Suggs orchestrates the ceremony in a clearing in the woods. Morrison describes how men, women and children take turns in three roles: laughing, dancing and crying. Their relationships are strengthened by the performance of the ceremony (Morrison 1991: 107). Likewise, in Threeing, participants rotate among the three roles in accord with the choreography indicated by the relational circuit.  Nothing is exchanged.  Performance is all.

Regulating Sexual Relationships

We are a bisexual species. Two biological sexes mean two gender roles, variations on those two roles or the generation of anomalies. The function of Threeing is not to eradicate sexual roles or make  ‘add-ons’ possible. The difference between two-person gendered roles and the three roles proper to Threeing is a difference in kind, not degree. A person who moves from a gendered couple to Threeing is moving from one kind of relating to another kind of relating. Different rules apply. Threeing offers three roles outside the terms of our bisexuality. Threeing creates and reinforces triadic relationships as genuine triadic relationships.  Neither gender is privileged. Threeing is a relational system that offers both women and men the same range of roles and choices. In a formal sense, Threeing is indifferent to gender and sexual preferences.  Were Threeing to become normative, gender would not be marked by a male/female hierarchy and homosexuality would not be ‘abnormal’. For Threeing to become normative, we must understand the difference in kind between the practice of Threeing and the practice of sexual intimacy (Ryan 2002).

Even given the practice of Threeing, a sustainable trisexual practice does not seem possible. Biology is not destiny, but the bilateral symmetry of our human bodies does direct us toward two person intimacy. Moreover, humans are bisexual, not trisexual. However, Threeing may be able to make a difference in our sexual practices indirectly. Assuming the art of Threeing, we could design and deploy utopian communities based on Threeing that experimented explicitly with different sexual practices. This would not be without precedent. In the nineteenth century one of the most successful utopian communities, Oneida, survived for thirty-one years without monogamy.  According to Spencer Klaw’s book Without Sin (1993), it was a healthy community.  Of course, it included a charismatic leader named John Noyes, a thriving economy, and a rich theology of being guiltless.  Interestingly enough, there was a rule of three.  No one approached a potential sleeping partner directly.  Every proposal for intimacy, every time, had to go through a third party.  Evidently, Noyes’ sister was a very skillful matchmaker, and very busy.

Yet this is not the nineteenth century. We are beginning the twenty-first.  We don’t trust charisma and we don’t trust the gender arrangements we have. Can  Threeing make possible sexual practices beyond monogamy? Only experimentation can answer that question. Consider this scenario for a relevant experiment.

An invitation process might move from female to female to female and then through three males. With six people, each person can enter into ten different triadic combinations. Participants could cycle through all ten recombinations, practicing as frequently as they deemed necessary to maintain their commitment to each other. The practice of Threeing might have an erotic dimension but it would not include intercourse. The participants would determine rules of sexual engagement outside the practice of Threeing unbounded by monogamy.  It is conceivable that under such an arrangement, the practice of Threeing could restructure the emotions of exclusivity clustered around monogamy.  The emotional experience within the practice of Threeing could become so reliable that participants would be freed from the normal emotions of jealousy and resentment now associated with monogamy. A stable polyamourous culture with multiple sexual encounters outside Threeing might be established.  All this, of course, is only speculation. Currently, there are no practitioners of Threeing now experimenting with issues of sex and gender.

Ritual Threeing

For the preponderance of the population, monogamous heterosexual couples, even the thought of experimental Threeing would be destabilizing. The very idea triggers ambiguous desires. The actual practice of Threeing, without clear and prior resolution of these ambiguities, could be devastating.  We come to the realm of ritual.

Roy Rappaport defines ritual as ‘the performance of more or less invariant sequences of formal acts and utterances not entirely encoded by the performers.’(1999 p 24).  Leaving aside for now the question of utterance, Threeing is a sequence of formal acts not encoded by the performers. To synthesize the disjunct between the two gender roles and the three roles in Threeing, it must be unambiguously clear that sexual intercourse is not part of the ritual practice of Threeing. For monogamous heterosexual couples participating in Threeing, it must be understood that the invariant sequence of ritual Threeing neither includes sexual intercourse nor licenses infidelity outside Threeing.

Given a unambiguous ritual context, Threeing will support monogamous heterosexual relationships. The simplest way for monogamous couples to practice Threeing is as part of a set of three couples: three males and three females.  Six people, three from each sex, can both maintain monogamous dyads and engage in the triadic practice. The ritual practice of Threeing would give six people a stability analogous to the double eye formation in the game of Go (Lasker 1960) .  Go is about controlling territory and capturing opponent’s pieces.  Security can be established for one’s own pieces only when six or more pieces are configured around two separate empty spaces.  This secure formation appears as on the board as two open eyes.  This double eye formation prevents any of the pieces from being captured. Similarly, three couples organized to practice Threeing, could secure their relationships without need of an institutionalized rival. The practice would provide the security and stability necessary to raise children, not the words of the priest.

Let me present a scenario with three heterosexual couples: Al and Diane, Bob and Emily, and Carl and Francis. All three couples are far from family and want to set up a mutual support system for raising their own families. Al and Diane invite Bob and Emily to Three, with the understanding that they will maintain their monogamy.  Bob and Emily agree. Both couples then invite Carl and Francis to Three with them under the same terms.  Carl and Francis agree.

With three couples, eighteen mixed gender combinations are possible.  Twelve of the eighteen combinations include monogamous heterosexual partners.  The remaining six combinations do not. These six combinations are appropriate for Threeing.  If heterosexual partners are included in the same ritual of Threeing, confusion between their dyadic dynamics and the dynamics of Threeing would muddle emotions.

The six partner-free, combinations are:

1. Diane, Emily and Carl 2.   Al, Bob, and Emily

3. Bob, Carl, and Diane 4.   Emily, Francis, and Al

5. Diane, Francis and Bob 6.   Al, Carl, and Emily

If these six people ritualized the practice of Threeing in a crisis-proof setting on a regular basis, they would experience a rich range of emotions in a recurring pattern.   This range of emotions would correspond to the complex expressiveness possible in the roles of initiator, respondent and mediator.  Given the secure emotional experience of nuanced differences in a ritual setting, each person could translate that emotional richness into the play of differences within his or her heterosexual dyad, outside the practice of Threeing. Grounded in such a recurring emotional experience, couples would be better equipped to raise children. Ultimate trust would not rest with an unquestioned priesthood but with an ongoing network of self balancing relationships among six people.

Were the practice of Threeing to be undertaken seriously, practitioners would have to recognize that relationships between genders are subcircuits of relationships between generations.  The prime biological function of our differentiation into two genders is the propagation of our species. Gendered relationships imply generations. The implied third party, the child, provides the actual linkage over generations. In Catholicism the priesthood linked generations by interpreting the larger context of birth and death. If the practice of Threeing were to replace the priesthood, then practitioners of Threeing will have to develop a cosmology that addresses the larger context of birth and death.

Such a linkage between ritual, community and cosmology is important for ritual itself. While there are exceptions, generally the emotions organized through ritual must be linked to a stable canon of cosmic meaning shared by the community.  Without  being contextualized by  a canon, the ritual organization of  emotions can hardly be sustained.  Similarly, without linkage to a canon, ritual Threeing, and experimental Threeing, would degenerate into group narcissism.  We come to the realm of liturgy.  By liturgy, I mean the public work of integrating rituals into a canonical order. Rappaport sees canons as constructed by utterances, symbols that create an order transcending the time and place of the ritual. Traditional canons link the self-referential indexical experience of ritual with an eternal order, outside time and space. I see the possibility of constructing a canon that links Threeing to the ecological order.

Linking our species to the ecological order rather than an eternal order is now critical. Humans have become an heretical species.  Orthodoxy on this earth holds that any species that destroys its environment destroys itself.  Humans are doing just that. Through a combination of erroneous epistemology and advanced technology, humans are destroying the environment that supports their life. We are without an operative orthodox understanding of how to live within the constraints of our ecosystems.  Rather than participate in our ecosystems we consume and destroy them.  Our priests have done precious little to combat this heresy. In part, this is because their power is linked to a language-driven belief system that is blind to the environment. For example, sacred texts originating in the deserts of the mid East that offer a ‘promised land’ are little help in decoding the ecologies of North America. Not surprisingly, this language system is intertwined with the power position of the rival male.

Based on my work with Threeing, I see a way to create and maintain a canonical liturgical order grounded in ecosystems. Since codifying Threeing in 1976, most of my efforts have been in the context of creating sustainable societies that do not destroy the environment. My choice of this context is driven by my belief that Threeing makes possible an approach to the creation of a canon that would make a critical difference in reckoning with our environmental crisis.  Let me explain by citing an argument made by the biologist, C.H. Waddington. .

Waddington began by observing that as a species we transmit information over generations both genetically and through speech and writing. Speech and writing inevitably result in authority structures, someone telling someone else what to do.  The child is told, ‘No, don’t touch, the oven is hot.’ His or her perceptual system is stunted and his or her behavior is linked up to the language commands of others. (Witness the ‘infallible’  pronouncements of the Pope as a classic case.)  Based on his examination of how modern painters had sweated blood to see nature without language, Waddington suggested institutionalizing this artistic achievement for the human species as a whole. He thought we could generalize the silent success of painters such as Monet, Cezanne, and van Gogh and evolve an information transmission system based on shared perception of environmental realities rather than language (Waddington 1970).

Because Threeing is a nonverbal practice and because that practice can be linked up to perceiving ecosystems using video, I was able to codify a notational system for creating the sort of information transmission system Waddington described. Based on this notation, called Earthscore (Ryan 1991), I have designed an environmental television channel dedicated to monitoring the ecology of a region for the people that live there so they can develop sustainable policies and practices (Ryan 1992 p 243 ff.). Actually built, such a system would, in effect, provide a canon for sustainability. Unlike canons based on the words of sacred scriptures, this canon would be linked to perception. Blind faith would not be required. People living in a place could verify what they perceived electronically by visiting the ecological sites being monitored.

By reason of the intrinsic link between ritual and liturgy, a formal association that supported the practice of ritual Threeing would need to involve itself in the construction and maintenance of such a canon.  In a fully developed association of six people, one would be a member of three different sorts of triads: a ritual triad, an ecological triad and a work triad.  The work triad would do what was necessary to support the members of the association.  The ecological triad would work on interpreting the constraints in the natural world. The ritual triad would support each member directly. In order to preclude confusion between dyadic gendered intimacy and triadic ritual intimacy, the ritual triad would not include one’s monogamous partner.  In the work triad and in the ecological triad, the interaction would not be so intense that dyadic patterns would disrupt the process. Just as in the ritual triad the group would rotate through six different combinations of people, so in the work triad and the ecological triad, the group would rotate through the remaining fourteen different combinations of people. Obviously, groups that were multiples of six would have a richer mix of differences to work with.  More people make for more options in recombinations. Repetition of particular triadic partners could be minimized. In all triadic recombinations, participants should be precluded from recombining with the same partners as much as is reasonably possible.  Otherwise, two people can subtly work to exclude a third party in order to recruit a ‘better’ third party. Such recruitment would reactivate the two-against-one dynamics that lead to the institutionalization of rivals.

Rappaport argues that ritual arose among humans as a response to the capacity to lie provided by the invention of symbolic systems, particularly language (Rappaport 1999). By constructing heavily indexed ritual experiences that were invariant and trustworthy, humans offset the possibility of deception inherent in symbolic systems. Digital technology deployed in cyberspace significantly magnifies the possibility of lying by our symbolic making species. I believe that working with the Earthscore notational system we could create a canon that would be a reliable reference for trustworthy communication in cyberspace.  Such a canon would not be based on Sacred Scripture such as in the Jewish and Christian traditions. Unlike such religious traditions with master narratives controlled by priests, this canon would be grounded in ongoing monitoring of ecological systems by self organizing communities. Linked to the ritual practice of Threeing, such a canon would stabilize healthy arrangement of gender differences amid thriving ecosystems.

Paul Ryan is a video artist and Associate Professor of Media Studies at The New School in New York City. He authored Cybernetics of the Sacred, Video Mind Earth Mind, and (forthcoming) The Three Person Solution. See www.Earthscore.org.


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