Has it been long enough yet since Amazon Prime’s series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power concluded its first season? Long enough that I may discuss the finale without spoiling it for latecomers? Long enough that the passions surrounding it have cooled? For make no mistake, gentle reader, passions there have been aplenty. Tolkien aficionados have fretted over everything from whether the series is too “woke” to whether the actress who plays elvish protagonist Galadriel is too short.1 The show’s struggle with a contentious fan base is but one part of its real-world story, a drama that also features epic rivalries between Amazon and other media giants, dueling billionaires, and the winning over of television critics. Indeed, the off-screen power dynamics at play make it tempting to parody Tolkien’s original poem about the Rings of Power:
Three for the critics who rate the show high,
Seven for despisers in their halls of stone,
Nine for the viewers of Amazon Prime,
One for Jeff Bezos on his media throne.
Power—the quest for it and the conflicts it provokes—is as much an issue onscreen as it is off. In Season One’s final episode, as the first Rings of Power are about to be forged, Galadriel initiates a pivotal dialogue on the proper distribution of power:
Galadriel: “We must make three . . . . One will always corrupt. Two will divide.”
Celebrimbor: “But with three there is balance.”2
A political scientist might see this exchange as an invitation to discourse on the merits of having three branches of government instead of concentrating legislative, executive, and judicial powers in a single office. A philosopher, psychologist, or neuroscientist might apply it to the tripartite analysis of the human self from Plato (appetite, spirit, reason) to Freud (id, ego, superego) to Paul MacLean’s popular-but-problematic “triune brain” model (lizard brain, early mammal brain, late mammal brain). Since I teach theology and Christian worldview, though, let me put this quote in conversation with those disciplines.
I will start with this premise: love is a power. It burns like fire, energizes like electricity, pulls like gravity. And like these forces, it can be either life-enhancing or destructive, depending on how it is handled. Scripture calls us to love in imitation of and in communion with God, who is love (1 John 4:8, 16). But what does it mean for God to be love? And what can the answer teach us about the right use of love?
The Scottish monk Richard of St. Victor provides insight into our first question.3 If God were merely a solitary person, then his love would be narcissistic, turned in on itself and so disordered. “One will always corrupt,” as Galadriel puts it. Even in God, a truly charitable disposition has as its object someone outside oneself.4 But even the love between two persons can become selfish, obsessive, or codependent. Two may divide, as Galadriel feared, as each rival jealously guards personal power and enviously eyes the other’s. But two may also devour each other by their mutual exclusive possessiveness.5 Richard reasoned that “in authentic charity-love the greatest excellence seems to be this: to will that someone else be loved just as we are.”6 For love to be perfectly unselfish, it must open out to include a third person. The elves are right: “with three there is balance.” Richard believed his logic of love shows why God must be a Trinity.7
What of our second question? Richard led a monastic community, with all the social dividends and frictions that any group will experience. His trinitarian account of love implies the corresponding Christian practice of unselfish “authentic charity-love” that goes beyond both “just me” and “just you and me.” Contemporary feminist theologian Sarah Coakley offers a current angle in her “trinitarian ontology of desire”: the same Holy Spirit who bridges the binary between Father and Son in the Trinity also spans the divide between the sexes so that the “fallen differences” between them “are transfigured precisely by the interruptive activity of the Holy Spirit, drawing gender [and its associated desires] into trinitarian purgation and transformation. Twoness, one might say, is divinely ambushed by threeness.”8 If Richard would have us to look for a human “third person” with whom we may share the “charity-love” we enjoy, Coakley lifts our eyes to the divine Third Person who converts our desires so that we want to follow Richard’s ethic. In either case, elven wisdom rings true. One corrupts. Two divide, devour, destroy. Three bring balance and wholeness . . .
. . . perhaps even to our passionate opinions about The Rings of Power.
- This latter objection surfaced at a recent conference for Tolkien scholars in which I participated.
- The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, season 1, episode 8, “Alloyed,” directed by Wayne Che Yip, written by Gennifer Hutchison, J. D. Payne, and Patrick McKay, aired October 14, 2022, on Amazon Prime, Amazon Studios, 2022, 50:44–50:58.
- In the remainder of this paragraph, I summarize the argument of Richard of St. Victor, On the Trinity, Book Three.
- This claim is not unique to Richard but crops up across the Christian scholastic tradition, both medieval Catholic and early modern Protestant. See Thomas McCall, “What’s Not to Love? Rethinking Appeals to Tradition in Contemporary Debates in Trinitarian Theology,” International Journal of Systematic Theology (October 3, 2022), https://doi.org/10.1111/ijst.12619.
- I draw the image of relational devouring not from Richard but from Jon Tal Murphree, The Trinitarian Template: God’s Model for Human Relationships, 2nd rev. ed. (Kindle, 2021), 86, 92, 95, 120, 176–79, 188, 191.
- Richard of St. Victor, On the Trinity: English Translation and Commentary, trans. Ruben Angelici (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011), 3.11, 125.
- Does Richard’s logic lead to an infinite progression of persons to love? In other words, if two persons need a third “someone else” to make their love inclusive, then would not three persons need a fourth “someone else” for the same reason, and so on ad infinitum? Richard thought otherwise: as long as there are three, then each person experiences an intimate “I-You” relationship plus having a “someone else” with whom to share that relationship. It is unnecessary to multiply “someone elses” further.
- Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 6, 58 (emphasis in original). She explicitly disavows that she is implying a “third gender” theory (58).
As a married man, I have no doubt that “two” can create a great deal of friction and stress. And yet, marriage is to be between a man and a woman, two beings with naturally different perspectives. It is telling that trouble began in Eden when Satan succeeded in appealing to selfish desires on the part of one of them (the three lusts–eyes, flesh, pride) and that both the man and the woman became self-protective and accusatory when confronted by God for their sin. Our fallen human nature can corrupt and poison, and destroy any relationship if there is not an additional element to maintain it. I was personally confronted by the Lord with a verse from James: “the wisdom from above is FIRST PURE, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable.” I must be right spiritually to succeed in any relationship, especially marriage, but only the wisdom from above, from the Holy Spirit, can purify my passions, my desires, so that I can relate peaceably, gently, reasonably, etc. to others. The dark lord’s obsession with complete power over others sought to destroy all competitors. Smeagle was destroyed by the selfish desire that the ring inspired in him, completely dehumanized before losing his life and soul in his desire to repossess the ring. We can destroy ourselves even outside an intimate relationship. It is God’s Spirit, and only His Spirit, that can purify our motives to enable us to engage in healthy relationships.