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).

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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