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).




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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