Tag Archives: Mystery

Learning to Embrace Doubt

Barna Group released a study yesterday stating that the majority of Christians have either doubted their faith or are currently doubting their faith.  40% said they worked through doubt at some point in their journey while 26% of those surveyed said they still experience doubt. Only 35% said they never doubted the faith.

The authors of the study went on to explore what happens to those who doubt (i.e. who do they talk to, what do they do, etc.) before coming to the conclusion that “doubt is a catalyst to spiritual growth.” Hence their suggestion for “lead pastors and spiritual mentors to view seasons of spiritual doubt in their constituents as fertile soil—not as dangerous ground.”

I would have to agree with this conclusion as I feel that followers of Jesus should learn how to embrace doubt and unanswered questions rather than seeking to move past them. To quote a previous post:

It may sound strange in a society of answers, but not knowing can actually do more to free your soul than all the answers in the world. Learning to be conformable with unanswered questions means living a life of trust. We trust Jesus with our concerns and questions. We trust the Holy Spirit to guide and direct ourselves and those around us. We trust the Father with the future and what might or might not happen.

Trusting Jesus. What a novel concept… yet it something we in the Western world don’t do very good. Rather than trusting an invisible, perhaps-distance spirit who may or may not be real, we like trusting in our understanding of the Scriptures. The Scriptures, after all, can be touched, read, seen, and studied.

Even those who focus on experiencing God fail to truly trust him with unanswered questions as they bounce from spiritual high to spiritual high. If I can only experience him then my doubt will be gone… or so the thinking goes.

So, you may ask, how do we learn to live with unanswered questions?

In my newest book, The Mystery, the Way, and the Journey: Embracing the tension of the unknown (currently in process), I talk about rediscovering three fence posts that point us forward into the darkness of the unknown:

  • The written Scriptures as viewed through the incarnation of Jesus (i.e. Jesus is true God of true God so let us look to him when reading the Old and New Testaments.)
  • The community of believers who have followed Jesus throughout the ages (i.e. not only those around us today, but those who have gone on ahead of us)
  • The Holy Spirit who is the corner post holding everything together (i.e. when all else is lost, the Spirit remains)

Following these fences posts into the darkness while embracing doubt and unanswered questions is to be honest with ourselves in acknowledging the complexity of the world in which we live.  And in doing so, we are also recognizing the complexity and mysterious wonder of the Creator God.

He is not a simple being who can be described in simple terms or made to dance to the tune of our thoughts and desires. The focus of Christianity, Bishop Kallistos Ware reminds us, is not to “provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder” (The Orthodox Way)

Dionysius the Areopagite said it best in the 5th or 6th century:

Unto this Darkness which is beyond Light we pray that we may come, and may attain unto vision through the loss of sight and knowledge, and that in ceasing thus to see or to know we may learn to know that which is beyond all perception and understanding.

My Next Two Books

It may seem a bit premature to some, but I already have plans to write a second and third book. =)

The second book will explore how we are to embrace the mystery of living between the ages. As I talk about in The Here and Not Yet, modern Jesus followers are living between two ages where we experience both victory and suffering, life and death. The key to living between the ages is to embrace the tension that comes with the mystery of life.

While I don’t have the full outline in front of me (yeah, I outlined this book early this year), I do know that I would like to explore the concept of the mystery in this book. One of the sad things about modernism is that it took the mystery out of life. Everything could be explained by science, logic and reason… or so the theory went. With the rise of postmodernism, the West cultures are realizing that we humans need a bit of mystery and beauty in our world.

This doesn’t mean that we need to stop exploring our world or seeking scientific reasons for things. Far from it!!!! Rather we need to learn to embrace the tension between the known and the unknown, the pursuit of knowledge and the mystery of not knowing. To live in the mystery is to recognize that there are something things that we will never know. And that is okay as we trust the One who does know. Besides, sometimes the questions are the answers.

The third book on my heart will dive deeper into the spiritual battle of the ten plagues of the exodus. As long-time readers know, I spent a good year or so trying to locate some sources that identified the various Egyptian gods and goddess targeted by the ten plagues. Initially the result of this research was to be included in my first book, The Here and Not Yet. However that book expanded to the point that I had to take some things out…this was one of the topics that I removed.

As there are some really cool concepts in this essay, I would like to expand upon it with some additional research. Perhaps finding some up-to-date books on classic Egyptian religion about the time of the exodus (granted that may mean looking at two different time periods as there is no set historical date for the event)…. Once I have a bit more understanding of the Egyptian religion at that time, then I can look at how the ten plagues targeted the god/goddess and effected the lives of the people.

Of course, I would love to write a book looking the inaugurated eschatology framework of the early church fathers. Yet this might have to wait and become a thesis for a future Master of Theology or Doctorate program after I complete my Master of Ministry degree…. Yeah, I’m a bit nuts…but, hey, it’s a fun kind of nuttiness so I’m happy with it. 😛

“How (Not) to Speak of God” by Peter Rollins

rollins book 2Peter Rollins is a postmodern pastor, theologian and philosopher born and raised in Northern Ireland. In 2006, he published his first book, “How (Not) to Speak of God,” as an attempt to bring the mystical approach of viewing God into the wider Christian community of the Western Church. The core of this endeavor can be found in the following statement articulating the tension between mystical humanism and religious fundamentalism:

“That which we cannot speak of is the one thing about whom and to whom we must never stop speaking” (page xiv).

Drawing heavily on postmodern philosophy and the tradition of medieval mystical thought (especially that of Meister Eckhart), the book itself was directed to those engaged or interested in the “the emerging conversation” (page xvi). Accordingly, Rollins spends the first part of the book providing a theological framework for this view of God before shifting into a more practical outworking of the material. While Rollins’ application of his theoretical framework is interesting, this review is going to focus solely on the theological first part of the book.

In the first chapter, Rollins introduces two very important concepts. The first is that each of us unconsciously projects our view of the world on to the Scriptures, affecting the way in which we see and understand God. Once we know this, then we are able to understand the second major concept, that of mystery and concealment. It is this later concept that serves to drive the book forward as Rollins explores how God can both be concealed and revealed at the same time: “revelation embraces concealment at one and the same time as it embraces manifestation and that our various interpretations of revelation will always be provisional, fragile, and fragmentary” (page 18).

Chapter two builds upon this foundation by “exploring how such thinking critiques the idea of theology as that which speaks of God in favor of the idea of theology is the place where God speaks” (page xv). The core of this exploration is the concept that while we must continue to speak of God, we must also recognize that our words will always fails at truly defining or describing God. This “a/theology”, as Rollins calls it, is an “uncollapsible tension between affirming our religious ideas while also placing them into question” (page 28).

The next chapter continues to developed the a/theology concept with a focus on virtual of doubt. Rather than trying to know everything completely, a/theology focuses on the Holy Saturday experience between the shock of the cross and the glory of Resurrection Sunday. Namely that the decision to follow Jesus on Holy Saturday, when the future is unknown, is the true decision while the same decision on Resurrection Sunday, when the future is certain, is a false decision. This embracement of doubt causes one to realize that “God is not revealed via our words but rather via the life of the transformed individual” (page 44).

Peter Rollins in 2015
Peter Rollins in 2015

The theme of doubt and mystery continues to build in chapter four with Rollins exploring how the “rediscovery of mystery, doubt, complexity and ambiguity in faith helps us come to a more appropriate understand of religious desire” (page xv). For Rollins, it is the “seeking” after God that is important rather than the “finding” Him as other traditions have done (page 53). This core thought behind this can be understood in the following statement:

“A true seeking after God results from an experience of God which one falls in love with for no reason other than finding God irresistibly lovable. In this way the lovers of God are the ones who are the most passionately in search of God” (page 53).

All of this mystery, doubt and complexity on whether one can fully talk about or understand God leads to question how we can understand which reading of the Bible is “good and which reading is not” (page 64). Rollins tackles this question in the fifth and final chapter of part one during which he “draws out the centrality of love in Christian thinking” (page xv). Rather than having an infinite number of ways in which one could interpret the Scriptures, love provides the boundaries that keep the interpretations in check. This prejudice of love is draw from Rollins view that it was the “central interpretive tool that Jesus employed when interpreting the scriptures” (page 65).

In reflecting on part one of Rollins book, I found myself really enjoying and agreeing with chapters one through four. The mystical concepts of the unknowable yet knowable God is something I have embraced over the years, primarily through the reading of the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity. In this tradition, they have something called apophatic theology which attempts to describe God by what He is not just like cataphatic theology seeks to describe Him by what He is. The back-and-forth nature of the Eastern Orthodox’s apophatic and cataphatic approaches to theology creates a sense of mystery which fits beautifully with Rollins a/theology viewpoint.

My main disagreement with Rollins is over the centrality of love in chapter five. Rather than seeing love as the central interpretive tool used by Jesus, I see Jesus embarking on the mission of God as seen through the lens of Kingdom Theology. God is the Creator King who created humanity in His image as a signpost to all of creation declaring His rule and reign. After breathing life into humanity, the Creator King beckons them to join Him in His mission to establish His kingdom throughout the earth. Jesus, in entering into a specific culture at a certain time and geographical location, joined His Father on this mission while destroying the works of the evil one and challenging the different contemporary interpretations of the kingdom. We, as followers of Jesus, are to embrace the mystery of the inaugurated eschatological kingdom established by Jesus and allow that mystery to guide us in how we view God and the Scriptures.

It is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers…

It is easy to forget that Christianity is about a relationship with a person (i.e. Jesus) and not about having answers to all of our questions. No matter how much we study or how many years we follow Jesus, there will always be unanswered questions. Rather than getting upset at this, we should embrace the mystery and wonder of the Creator King who actively seeks a personal and intimate relationship with each of us.

Kallistos Ware

A Pull To The Mystical Side Of Christianity

Coptic icon of Saint Anthony the Great
Coptic icon of Saint Anthony the Great

A few days ago I admitted my desire to listen to the song of the Sirens of Doing…the song that takes one heart and pulls it into the active world of busyness. At some level, everyone struggles with listening to their song as it courses through our culture like the Mighty Mississippi runs through our nation.

Some are able to sit on its shores and causally fish for a while before walking away into the stillness of the woods. Others, like me, long to float the river of busyness thinking that they can tame the rapids and wilds of the coursing waves. It is a strong desire that is on one hand a blessing while being a curse in the other hand.

The one thing that keeps me sane and anchored to the shore of calmness is an equally strong pull to the mystical side of Christianity. For those unfamiliar with that term or its association with Christianity, let me assure you that it is a good thing and not a snare of the evil one. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines “mystical” in the following manner:

  • having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence
  • of or relating to mystics or mysticism : resulting from prayer or deep thought

Throughout the history of Christianity (and Judaism before that) there have been followers of Jesus who have basked in the mystery of God without trying to define or explain everything they saw, felt or hear. Some of these Mystics followed Antony the Great into the starry skies of the desert away from the river of busyness and the cry of the Sirens of Doing. Yet in doing so, one wonders whether or not they forsook the mission of the King to proclaim His rule and reign…

The anchor and the river… the tension of the song and the breath of the wind…..living between two worlds…..doing and being…understanding and mystery…..

To bring these two worlds together….to join the doing with the being… the contemplative with the mission….it is a hard tension to maintain…yet it has been done before by the Celtic monks of old who not only had their beehive caves but also their monasteries close to the local villages – becoming the hospital and anchor of the people, drawing them away from the Sirens song….

This past week as I’ve fought the Siren’s song I couldn’t help but think about the future and what I would like my legacy to be…to be known as a pastor who started a big church that touches a lot of lives? As the man who worked his way up the corporate letter, giving away his money and time to the church? As a pastor who started this and that ministry/church? The mystic who sought God through the mystery?

Good things all of them….all powerful legacies to leave behind …but do they fit me and the call that the Lord has given me?  At the moment I don’t have an answer…just lots of questions…perhaps that’s why I’m on Sabbatical?! =P

In ending, I would like to leave you all with a quote from Eugene Peterson as his writings have influenced my life and ministry style these last few years:

“Three pastoral acts are so basic, so critical, that they determine the shape of everything else. The acts are praying, reading Scriptures, and giving spiritual direction. Besides being basic, these three acts are quiet. They do not call attention to themselves and so are often not attended to. In the clamorous world of pastoral work nobody yells at us to engage in these acts. It is possible to do pastoral work to the satisfaction of the people who judge our competence and pay our salaries without being either diligent or skilled in them. Since almost never does anyone notice whether we do these things or not, and only occasionally does someone ask that we do them, these three acts of ministry suffer widespread neglect.

“The three areas constitute acts of attention: prayer is an act in which I bring myself to attention before God; reading Scripture in an act of attending to God in his speech and action across two millennia in Israel and Christ; spiritual direction is an act of giving attention to what God is doing in the person who happens to be before me at any given moment.”

-Eugene Peterson, “Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity”

Colossians: Suffering and Mystery

Cross on wallPassage: Colossians 1:24-2:5

Audio file of sermon can be found at the PRV website.

Sermon

  • There are two themes or concepts within this passage
    • Suffering for the sake of others
    • God’s Mystery

Suffering

  • The first point is Paul’s suffering
    • He is a servant of the church
    • His suffering is to their benefit

The Kingdom NT Right now I’m having a celebration – a celebration of my sufferings, which are for your benefit! And I’m steadily completing, in my own flesh, what is presently lacking in the king’s afflictions on behalf of his body, which is the church. I became the church’s servant, according to the terms laid down by God when he gave me my commission on your behalf, the commission to fulfill God’s word. –Colossians 1:24-25

The Messsage:  I want you to know how glad I am that it’s me sitting here in this jail and not you. There’s a lot of suffering to be entered into in this world—the kind of suffering Christ takes on. I welcome the chance to take my share in the church’s part of that suffering. When I became a servant in this church, I experienced this suffering as a sheer gift, God’s way of helping me serve you, laying out the whole truth. –Colossians 1:24-25

  • St. Paul’s conversion
    • Commissioned to “carry my (God’s) name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
    • Acts 9:15b
    • Yes, St. Paul’s commission is not for everyone… I understand that
    • But each of us has a commission from Jesus to preach the Gospel and to love others as ourselves
    • This means that there will be times when we will have to celebrate, as Paul did, our sufferings on behalf of the church
      • Meaning, that there are times when we must set aside our own passions and dreams
      • Set aside our wants
      • For that which benefits and blesses the whole body
      • This is called humility

For by the grace given to me I say to every one of you not to think more highly of yourself than you ought to think, but to think with sober discernment, as God has distributed to each of you a measure of faith. For just as in one body we have many members, and not all the members serve the same function, so we who are many are one body in Christ, and individually we are members who belong to one another. –Romans 12:3-5