Along the Way: Mastery or Mystery?

​The longer I explore a theology of human sexuality, the more I realize that the differences we hold regarding it are produced by something larger than the topic itself.  With respect to anything, we are directed to a great extent by whether we fundamentally view our knowledge in the context of mastery or mystery.

When knowing is mastery, we view our knowledge as a closed system of completed inquiry.  Our knowledge becomes a “final word” that provides us with certainty.  The mastery system goes to seed in arrogance. When we view knowing as mastery (and ourselves or our group as having mastered something), then right and wrong are fixed categories assessed in terms of agreement or disagreement.  A leader I know who is in the mastery system summarized it this way, “ You are free to explore and ask questions so long as after having done so you end up where we are.” 

When mastery is the context for knowledge, what we know becomes a destination.  New knowings are incorporated only if they confirm and conform to what is already known.  Alternatives are seen as defections and departures from truth.  In the mastery system, “others” are menaces and suspect. People are “in” to the extent that they conform to “what is” and are willing to defend it.  The image of the mastery system is the fortress. The personification of it is the gate keeper.  The one-word summary for the mastery system is obscurantism.

When knowing is mystery, we view our knowledge as an open system of ongoing inquiry.  Our knowledge is an “intermediate word” that provides us with conviction.  The mystery system exudes humility.  When knowing is mystery, ourselves and our groups view right and wrong as fluid categories that are enhanced by further knowledge.  A leader in the mystery system was E. Stanley Jones, who captured the dynamism of faith by saying, “I am a Christian in the making.” [1]. When asked to name the best years of his life, he would say, “the next ten.”

When mystery is the context for knowledge, what we know becomes a waystation on the journey to know more. New knowings are integrated into existing knowledge—sometimes confirming it, and sometimes revising it.  Alternatives are seen as opportunities to discover new aspects of truth.  In the mystery system, “others” are messengers and welcomed.  People are “in” to the extent they genuinely want to contribute to “what is” and are willing to enhance it.  The image of the mystery system is the forum (E. Stanley Jones called it “the round table”).  The personification of it is the explorer.  The one-word summary of the mystery system is openness. 

The fork in the road with respect to what we know and how we know is whether we choose to view knowledge about something in a mastery system or mystery system.  We see this playing out on many fronts today.  Human sexuality is one.  In the rest of this post I want to mention a few characteristics of a mystery system that especially influence our theology of human sexuality, and also set those characteristics in the context of the current United Methodist situation.

First, the mystery system recognizes the complexity of the matter.  Our sexuality is made up of multiple factors and cannot be painted with one brush (e.g. heterosexuality is right, homosexuality is wrong)—it is more complex than that.  The mystery system acknowledges the complexity and welcomes a multi-faceted exploration.  Many factors come into play.  The mystery system welcomes an interdisciplinary approach, with the conviction that truth anywhere enhances truth everywhere. With respect to human sexuality this means incorporating insights from the behavorial and physical sciences that show the nonbinary nature of sexuality and the spectrum of diversity on which it exists.

Second, the mystery system believes in progressive revelation.  Theology is a deepening and widening enterprise.  The Church has experienced the evolutionary nature of belief in the past with respect to such things as cosmology, racial equality, slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights, divorce, and women in ministry—to name a few.  On every occasion, mastery and mystery systems competed for outcomes.  In these cases (at least in the United Methodist context) mystery has prevailed, and the Church has altered its beliefs, moving into greater love and inclusion.  The mystery system welcomes this as a sign that God’s plan to reconcile all things in Christ is coming to pass (Ephesians 1:9-10, Colossians 1:20).  The mystery system believes human sexuality is a another arena where God is at work to bring the Church into a new day.

Third, the mystery system believes that “iron sharpens iron,” and that knowledge increases and is enriched through conversations that include a diversity of views.  In the mystery system the line is drawn when harm is done.  But prior to that, the mystery system operates on the conviction that there is no such thing as a “pure church” and that the Church advances when love (not legalism) prevails.  Mystery does not eliminate boundaries, but it does not begin with them. Universals (e.g. the human family and the common good) create the vision,  generate the conversation, and ignite the conviction that God has given us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18).

Fourth, United Methodism has chosen mystery over mastery in its theological hermeneutic called the quadrilateral.  This hermeneutic incorporates all three of the elements above, and it integrates the past (Scripture and tradition) and the present (reason and experience) into a theological task that shapes the future.  Believing that mystery better describes what it means to be co-creators God, United Methodism adopts a hermeneutic that enables us to live in Christ and serve Christ with a “generous orthodoxy.” [2]

If as has happened before with respect to other things, we live in mystery (not mastery), we will see the Church in general and United Methodism in particular embody the truth that “Christ is all and in all” (Colossians 3:11), move toward the oneness Jesus himself prayed for (John 17:21), and bear witness to what Jesus himself said would happen, “When I am lifted up, I will draw everyone to me” (John 12:32).


[1]] E. Stanley Jones, ‘Song of Ascents’ (Abingdon, 1968), 17.

[2] Kenneth H. Carter, Jr., ‘Embracing the Wideness’ (Abingdon, 2018).




Posted in Along the Way

Along the Way: On Point

​If I were a pastor, I would make youth ministry the cutting edge of my church’s mission.  There are a number of reasons why I would do this.  I write today only about one, and it is a reason fueled by Paul’s words to Timothy, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young.  Instead, set an example for the believers” (1Timothy 4:12).

That’s what a growing number of young people are doing—setting an example the rest of us should be following….and….being looked down upon for doing so.  I have watched as youth do their dead-level best to protest evil, only to be demeaned and caricatured for doing so.  Two stories illustrate the point.

Not long after the murders at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, student leaders who spoke and acted in favor of measures to prevent future shootings were said to be motivated more by a desire to skip school than to end gun violence.  I remember thinking, “What kind of demented thinking does it take to produce that kind of backlash?”  In the midst of their grief and fear, courageous young people literally took to the streets doing what they could to say, “Enough is enough” only to be ridiculed by some for doing so.

Similarly, Greta Thunberg has been targeted by obscurantists time and time again.  The day after Time magazine named her its Person of the Year, none other than Donald Trump assailed the choice and in typical trumpian fashion made disparaging remarks about her.  I could not believe my ears, but then, considering the source, I saw how small-mindedness can live even in the White House.

And again, this past week at the Davos economic summit, Steven Mnuchin demeaned Thunberg, telling her to go to college and learn what’s really going on.  That from a Secretary of the Treasury whose economic expertise (after going to college) has made him a leader in the “Feed the Greed” system that has increased our national debt by a trillion dollars during his time in office, and further widened the gap between rich and poor in this nation.

Paul’s words to Timothy have rolled down the corridors of time into our congregations (and congresses) where older white males maintain their power, even to the point of disparaging those who have eyes to see our nakedness.  The Church should be at the forefront encouraging young people to continue speaking and acting on behalf of the common good.  Youth ministry should be the place where prophets are made, and where prophetic ministry is celebrated. Youth groups should be training grounds for nonviolent living and resistance to evil.  

As an older adult, it is easier  for me to see now that God provides us with a recurring window of opportunity to see and hear things in ways that impede us from doing so once we are sucked into communities and systems whose status quos and sacred cows “buy our souls” in the name of loyalty.  That window of opportunity is youth and young adulthood.  Paul commended it in Timothy, and the Church should be commending our young people, who still attend, and have not given up on institutional Christianity.  

God provides each generation with an opportunity for humanity to make a fresh start.  God gives us young people.  We dare not squander the gift.  Our calling is clear: we must not despise them because they are young, but rather rejoice as they set examples for those of us who are older and who too often have allowed the world to squeeze us into its mold.



Posted in Along the Way

Love: Trinitarian Love

​For much of my Christian life, the Holy Trinity has been simultaneously a central doctrine and a marginal attraction.  I would never hesitate to say, “I believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” but either out loud or to my self I quickly added, “but it’s a mystery we will never understand.”  The second phrase kept me from exploring the first one.

Of course, the Trinity is mystery, and we will never understand it.  But thankfully, a few years ago I came to see that it is a mystery intended to draw us into it, like a magnet draws iron filings to it.  I am grateful to Richard Rohr’s book, ‘The Divine Dance’ for opening the door to my knew experience of the Trinity. [1]

Simply put, the Trinity is the paradigm for everything. [2]  It is Reality revealed and expressed. As such, it is the revelation of love.  We see this in some key ways

First, the Trinity is the union of love that we explored in the last post.  Every person in the Godhead is loving itself in the other two persons because they all “are” in the others.  In this dimension it makes no sense to think of the separateness of beings in the Trinity because it is one Being. [3]. With respect to love, this means that love is singular–or as Jesus put it, the second great commandment is “like unto” the first one.  The love of God, neighbor, and self are not three loves; it is one love in three manifestations.

This is very significant because it prevents a gradation of love.  There is an odd spirituality which affirms a love for God without a corresponding love of others.  St. John squelched that idea in his first letter when he wrote, “Those who don’t love their brother or sisters whom they have seen can hardly love God whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20). “  The Trinity says there is only one love, and it is either present or absent, real or imagined.

Second, the Trinity is the purposefulness of love.  Love is one, but not the same in every case.  We say of the Trinity that the Father creates, the Son redeems, and the Spirit sustains.  Theologically, it’s not that distinct.  But it is a revelation that love is not a generic, one-size-fits-all thing.  It manifests differently in order to achieve different purposes.  

Like the Father, some love creates, generates, and ignites.  Like the Son, some love redeems, restores, and renews.  And like the Spirit, some love sustains, preserves, and guides.  We do not have to overthink or overplan these differences.  All we have to do is love.  Love achieves its own purposes.

Third, the Trinity is the joy of love.  We must not overlook the fact that one of the early metaphors for the Trinity was a dance (perichoresis).  I have never been to a dance that lacked joy.  In fact, a dance floor is one of the most joyful places we can ever be. [4]

Some non-Christian religions use the metaphor of dance to sound the note of joy better than some Christians do.  The fourteenth-century Sufi mystic, Hafiz, wrote of 

“the God who only knows four words

And keeps repeating them, saying:

‘Come dance with Me.’ [5]

I can only ask, how does religion in general look as a dance?  How does Christianity look with a dancing Trinity?   How does love look when it only knows four words, “Come dance with me” ?

In these ways, and more, the Trinity is the lens through Whom we look to see the nature and expression of love.  And because we are made in the image of God, we can manifest this kind of love in our humanity.

 

[1] Richard Rohr, ‘The Divine Dance’ (Whitaker House, 2016)

[2] Rohr’s book develops this idea in a wide variety of subjects.

[3] This is why Christianity is a monotheistic religion.  

[4] Amazing, isn’t it, that with this understanding of the Trinity, any Christians could have been against dancing.  The prohibition comes from a “ joy stealing” spirituality rather than a joy-infusing one, and may reveal the person’s lack of restraint more than it does dancing itself.

[5] Part of a longer reflection in “Matthew Fox’s Daily Meditations,” October 6, 2019.

Posted in Love

Along the Way: Dreaming

​For the first time in our nation’s history, Martin Luther King Jr. Day falls in the midst of a presidential impeachment/trial process. [1]. The juxtaposition of these two things shapes my thinking as we observe MLK Jr Day today.

On the Day of Pentecost, Luke used the words of Joel to describe what was happening.  The passage Luke cited includes the words, “Your young will see visions. Your elders will dream dreams” (Acts 2:17 from Joel 2:28 CEB).  For some reason, I assumed that Luke meant young adults would look forward as visionaries, while older adults would look back as dreamers.  Reading Luke’s words for the first time, decades ago, I was young.  So naturally, I located myself in the first sentence, and I wanted to be a visionary.

But now I am an elder, dreaming dreams.  And I have come to realize that dreamers are not those who look back.  Looking back is about memories, not dreams—it is to become nostalgic and long for “good old days” sanitized by time to appear better than they were.  That’s not dreaming.

Martin Luther King Jr. helped me stop misunderstanding Luke’s words, and enabled me to realize what living in God’s pentecosts (decisive moments in history) means.  He was a young man when he stood before the nation and declared, “I have dream.”  His words were forward looking.  Dreaming was not about looking back.  Quite the contrary.  Dreams are prophetic imaginings of new way.

 Later he reminded us that dreams are not just for the young. They are within all of us at every age. When Luke wrote that elders would dream dreams in God’s Pentecost, he was saying that people of all ages can be filled with the Spirit and imagine a new way.  Dreams and visions are not directional (backward/forward), they are transformational.  Martin Luther King Jr. helped me see this.

Yesterday in her ‘Sunday Paper,’ Maria Shriver captured what Martin meant as she wrote, “Each of us can decide at any moment to no longer simply be an observer, and instead to rise up out of our comfort zone and march, or imagine, or go within, and come back out with an idea that will surely help others.”  [2] People young and old can be filled with the Spirit, can be given the strength to love, and accept the call to rise up and call out evil through the nonviolent and prophetic pursuit of the common good. [3]

This year, I am experiencing Martin Luther King Jr. Day as an invitation to recommit myself to “no longer be an observer, and instead to rise up out of our comfort zone” to speak and act as disciples of Jesus whose eyes have seen “the coming of the glory of the Lord.”  Today is a fresh opportunity to join the growing number of people young and old who are crafting new wineskins  to carry God’s wine that we call the Kingdom of God, beloved community, etc. Today is a day to reenlist in the movement King personified and Micah 6:8  summarized  as doing justice (practicing fairness, equity, and inclusion), loving kindness (embodying God’s hesed, shalom, and compassion), and walking humbly with God (as servants).

We are living in a Micah moment in history—a time when many of our leaders have failed us (see Micah chapter three), a time when the Holy Spirit is once again turning to the people en masse, to mobilize for “the practice of the better” (Richard Rohr’s description) that turns the words of St. Francis’ prayer into actions,

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,

Grant that I may not so much seek

    to be consoled as to console;

    to understood as to understand

    to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive.

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.

It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.


 [1] MLK Jr Day and the impeachment/trial of Bill Clinton occurred close together in 1999, but they did not overlap.

[2] Maria Shriver’s ‘Sunday Paper,’ 1/19/2020.

[3] King’s book, ‘Strength to Love’ is a moving and instructive description of how we are called to live in perilous times.  Walter Brueggemann’s book, ‘Journey to the Common Good’ is another powerful word about the same thing. 

Posted in Along the Way

Love: Amazing Love

Every language has a word or words for love.  The biblical languages of Hebrew and Greek are no exception. The two main words are hesed and agapé.  [1]  In both words, love reaches its apex as “love for the sake of the other.”

This kind of love includes altruism, philanthropy, etc.  But it is not defined by these ideas.  They reflect a commendable desire to live unselfishly, and that would be a major step forward for some people.  But hesed and agapé do not merely describe an other-orientation , they describe a sense of oneness with others.

Our being created in the image of God (that we noted last week) is a good place to focus our look at God’s amazing love.  It is love based in actual likeness.  But it is not a love based on our merit, but rather on our essence.  If that were not so, God’s love would be spasmodic and conditional.  Instead, hesed and agapé are continuous and gracious.  We refer to this as steadfast love.

God’s love says, “You are mine’” and in addition to the idea of our being a cherished possession of God, it means we are beloved children of God.  In a very holy sense, God sees God’s nature in us, and it is a real seeing because we are made in the image of God.  This means that God’s love is amazing, not because it is transactional or obligatory, but because it is a genuine Heart-to-heart relationship—a Lover/beloved relationship.

Part of the amazing nature of this love is that Jesus said we could love others the way we are loved by God.  It’s the second great commandment: , “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Matthew 22:39).  Of course it means loving others the way we like to be loved (as per the Golden Rule), and it includes the psychological truth that our capacity to love others usually reflects the extent to which we love ourselves in a healthy way.  But again, there is more goung on in Jesus’ words than that.

Loving your neighbor “as yoyrself” is recognizing the oneness between yourself and another person in the same way God recognizes the oneness between ourselves and God.  We love others “as ourselves” because in a genuine (though indescribable) way, they are us!  Buddhists have a word for it: interbeing—an essential oneness that everyone shares with everyone else.  Bringing the word alongside Jesus’ words that say the same thing, we find that love is amazing because it exists and expresses itself because of a radical oneness in the whole of creation.  How we love anyone is how we love everyone.  And how we love anyone is how we love God (1John 4:20-21).

That’s amazing love.


[1] This post is not a word study on love.  For that, I recommend William Mounce’s ‘Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words’ (Zondervan, 2006), 424-429.

Posted in Love

Along the Way: What’s Going On?

We are living through an intense time of polarization, with resulting fragmentations of all sorts and sizes.  Every day adds new impetus for asking, “What’s going on?”  The depth and breadth of our conflicts makes a blanket answer impossible.  I limit my frame of reference in this post to the fractured state of contemporary Christianity in general, and how it is expressing itself in my denomination—the United Methodist Church.  Even on this smaller field multiple factors are in play, which also go beyond the scope of a blog-length post.  But this more specific context does provide a basis to ask, “What’s going on?” in a way that can face us in a helpful direction.

In Christian circles, one of the allegations is that we have differing views due to varying commitments to the authority of Scripture.  And that plays out along this general line of assertion: conservatives believe in the authority of Scripture, and progressives do not.  Right now, that assertion is being used to attempt to answer the question, “What’s going on in the United Methodist Church? ”  The marketed assumption is that conservatives are the “true Bible believers” and everyone else is less so, or in some cases, not at all.

The problem with that allegation is this: it isn’t true.  And….conservatives who are honest about it know it’s not true.  Across the theological spectrum, Christians affirm the authority of Scripture with equal devotion.  Conservatives simply do not have the corner on that market.  To make the authority of Scripture the answer to the question, “What’s going on?” is a straw-man allegation which ends up misleading people and obscuring a larger perspective with respect to the question.

A more accurate response to the question has to do with the fact that we are living in a pivotal moment, a time of fundamental change—what some have observed in history as axial ages.  We can see this from the Bible itself, where God said about a time roughly 2,700 years ago, “Look I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it?” (Isaiah 43:19)   This biblical passage was written during the very time called the axial age by Karl Jaspers, a period of time running from the 8th through the 3rd centuries BCE, with “new things” happening everywhere.  Isaiah’s words are a sign that Scripture recognizes the dynamic nature of history and the unfolding nature of revelation. [1]

A full description of our new axial age is beyond the scope of my knowledge, and of this blog. [2]. As before, our new axial age is transforming things in multiple fields of knowledge and in numerous places. Suffice it to say that it is this larger reality (not the authority of Scripture) which provides the backdrop for exploring the question, “What’s going on?’  Simply put, we are living in a time of awakening, and the end of our polarization—or the perpetuation of it—hinges on whether we are those who accept this, or reject it.  It is not about the authority of Scripture, but rather about the belief that God is doing “a new thing,” and God’s question to the people of Isaiah’s day is now the question God is asking us, “Don’t you recognize it?” [3]

Our new axial age is, as they all are, simultaneously a recovery and a discovery.  In our case, it is a recovery from a nearly 600-year period of analytical rationalism that has served us well in many respects, but has failed us in others—one being the separating of things to the extent that egotism and ethnocentrism have room to create falsehoods based on superiority and expressed in conflict.  Truth is couched in right/wrong categories which eclipse its both/and dimensions.  Dualistic thinking takes charge, and we take sides where someone has to win while designated “others” must lose.  We descend into sectarianism where, in fact, everyone loses.  Nationalism and other forms of groupism define and control us. For the past 600 years (the “Enlightenment era”) we have been on this downward spiral, reaping the whirlwind in terrible ways today, and bringing us to tipping points which threaten our future.

 But our new axial age is also a time of discovery—of “treasures old and new” as Jesus put it when teaching us about the Kingdom of God, in contrast to the fallen kingdoms of this world (Matthew 13:52).  In fact, he taught that it is our call to be the kind of people who keep both old and new things together.  We are called to be nondual thinkers who live a unitive consciousness.  We are called to bring separated things together.  We are called to pour Kingdom wine into new wineskins.  We are called to rediscover Wisdom and consecrate our knowledge to its advancement.

Our new axial age is recovering/discovering the oneness of all things.  The physical sciences at the micro level (atomical and genetic) and macro level (astrophysical and cosmic) are revealing the universality of all things in ways we’ve never known before.  We are called to be co-creators with God in furthering the trajectory of God’s eternal plan, “to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10). 

This unification does not ignore differences, but  it refuses to turn them into conflicted hierarchies. It does not ignore evil, but it interprets it differently than fallen-world ideologies do. It’s energy is expended in creating community and living for the common good.  It is rooted in love (hesed/agapé) where restoration, not retribution, is the spirit and aim. It refuses to create “others” based on some notion of superiority.  It seeks to live in a common human family that understands loving is more difficult and messy than labeling.  It calls for the end of in/out thinking.

“What’s going on?” is not answered by an assertion of the authority of Scripture by one group against another.  “What’s going on?” is addressed by the recognition in our day of what others before us (like Isaiah) have recognized—that there are times when God does a new thing, and when God is doing so, we are called to join in.


[1] For more about the Axial Age see, (1) Mark W. Muesse, ‘Age of the Sages: The Axial Age in Asia and the Near East (Augsburg, 2015), and (2) Karen Armstrong, ‘The Great Transformation’ (Anchor, 2006).

[2] I may write more about this.  If I do, I will use the same title (“What’s Going On?”) with a numbering system, so you can immediately spot sequels.  They will be included in this “Along the Way” category if you want to re-read them.

[3] My initial exploration of this question resulted in my book, ‘Fresh Wind Blowing: Living in God’s New Pentecost’ (Cascade Books, 2013).

Posted in Along the Way

Love: God is Love

Three words sum up the essence of everything: God is love.  They not only tell us who God is, but also who we are, and who/what everyone and everything else is.  At the creation level of cosmos and cells, love is seen in the law of attraction. [1]  In our humanity we see love in the imago dei, which gives us an existential likeness to God.  In short, love saturates all of life, revealing Reality as it is meant to be.

But true as this is, we must not leave love in the abstract.  When we say that God is love, we are not simply declaring a grand idea, we are describing a glorious relationship.  Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann sees it in the name of God we call Yahweh.  Through this name God reveals the relational essence of the divine nature, entering into our lives with mercy, grace, faithfulness, forgiveness, and steadfast love. [2]. Yahweh is the name of God through which we see God’s love (hesed).

At the outset of this series, the realization that God is love is the centering vision.  It locates us at the Source.  To acknowledge that God is love is the transforming vision.  It means that nothing other than God has the final say in our lives (Romans 8:38).  To believe that God is love gives us hope.  It brings the present moment into our lives to be a redemptive force in whatever ways we need to be free. [3]

In the course of this series we will move around the circumference of the circle of love, noting one thing after another.  But no matter where we are standing, we will be making our exploration in relation to one Center: God is love.. As they say, “It doesn’t get any better than this.


[1] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin saw the union of creation and theology in the word love.  He wrote about it in nearly all his books, especially ‘The Divine Milieu.,’  Ilia Delio has made Teilhard accessible to us through her Omega Center.  Her book, ‘Compassion’ (St Anthony Messenger Press, 2011) traces the theme of love through Sts Francis and Clare.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, ‘Theology of the Old Testament’ (Fortress Press, 2009), 215 ff.

[3] This is Paul’s affirmation in Galatians 5:1.  St. Ignatius of Loyola made freedom one of the hallmarks of his understanding of the Christian life.  Father James Martin’s book, ‘The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything’ (HarperCollins, 2010)) is a good guide into the life of freedom.

Posted in Love