Tag Archives: How (Not) to Speak of God

Experience vs. Theology: A False Dichotomy

Imagine that I never talked to my wife of 16-years. No sharing of dreams, passions, likes or dislikes. Nothing.

Knowing that talking could lead to miscommunication, I, instead, choose to  experience her presence through snuggling up next to her or simply by being in the same room. After all, I reason, experiencing her presence is more life changing than any conversation could be.

Or so goes the common thought when it comes to God. Over and over again well-intention people pit experience against theology with a bias towards one or the other. To do this is to reduce the fullness of God, placing him inside a self-defined box where he ceases to be who he really is.

Theology, contrary to popular culture, isn’t having information about God or holding to the right doctrine. Simply put, theology is the study of God – meaning that we are dong theology every time we think about Jesus, talk about Jesus, read the Scriptures, ponder the deep meanings of life, etc.  Stanley Grenz & John Franke defined theology in their book Beyond Foundationalism as the “ongoing conversation among those whom the God of the Bible has encountered in Jesus Christ.” Accordingly I love theology as it brings me closer to Jesus while also giving me a glimpse into the different facets of him.

Experience, similar to theology, is another way of knowing God. Which is to say that it is a way for us to emotionally encounter the living God who actively seeks us out. Experience in this way is more than simply having a charismatic phenomena happen in, through or around you. Sadly, though, I would have to say that charismatic phenomena is what most people think about just like folks tend to reduce “theology” into “doctrine.”

In returning to our analogy, reducing God to an experience would be akin to  snuggling up with your spouse while never talking to them. While snuggling up with them is great, it doesn’t capture the fullness of who that person is as you would never hear their dreams, passions, hearts, or concerns. Similarly if you just talked to your spouse while never snuggling with them, you would lose a portion of who they were as skin to skin contact brings an intimacy that can never be replaced by conversation.

This is why I am a HUGE proponent of embracing both experience and theology. I want to know Jesus in all his glory – meaning that I want to both experience his presence as well as hear his thoughts.

To think back over my life is to note that I have been dramatically changed by encounters with God through both physical experiences and theology.  For every charismatic phenomena I’ve experienced or every sweet time of just being in his presences, there is an equally powerful encounter with God through a theological chat with a friend or via an amazing book.

The way I live my life – the way I see the world – the way I talk to my children – the manner in which I treat my wife – the way I approach my work – everything I do is influenced by the memorial stones of experience and theology. I cannot and will not separate experience and theology. They are two wings of a plane that work together to give flight to that which should never fly.

The fact that we are even having this conversation about experience and theology is amazing thing. The ancient world, as noted by N.T. Wright in Paul and the Faithfulness of God, did not separate action (experience) and belief (theology) as they saw the two explicitly intertwined.  The idea that we fallible humans can somehow can stand above the fray of life and come up with the “correct” view of God is a modernist bound-set reductionary concept.

We can no more separate our experiences from our theology or our theology from our experience than we can  turn lead into gold. The ancient world was correct in that the two concepts are intertwined to the point that they almost become one.

As such, I would say a better way forward would be to embrace the mystery of the entanglement between experience and theology. Let us do both with an eye towards walking with Jesus into the unknown of the future.

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

Why I call myself a Christian Mystic

I know it is risking as the term “mystic” is seen in a negative light by a lot of folks within the American Christian culture. Yet when I wrote the biography for my upcoming book, I called myself a “Christian mystic.”

Why did I do that?

I did it because I think we need more mystics with their embracement of the mystery of life in the American Christian culture. The last few hundred years have been spend trying to define everything. And why this desire to know gave us a lot of cool technology, it also cost us something (NT Wright touches on this in chapter three his book Surprised by Scripture).

The Oxford American College Dictionary defines “mystic” as “a person who…believes in the spiritual apprehension of truths that are beyond the intellect.” In a similar manner the Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines “mystical” as “having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence.”

So in a lot of ways, the term “Christian Mystic” is an oxymoron in that Christianity begin with an understanding that people would have a spiritual experience that is beyond our understanding. Yet in reality most of what passes as “Christianity” these days denies any spiritual experience as it is all about rules, logic, behavior, etc.  This is true even in Pentecostal and Charismatic circles where folks are taught how to get God to do something (i.e. having enough faith, pray long enough, fast long enough, etc.)

If one looks back towards history we see Christian mystics who promoted a deeper understanding of God and an embracement of the mystery of life. I’m thinking about Desert Fathers, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila among others. In more modern times, A.W. Tozer noted that “a mystic is a believer who practices the presence of God.” C.S. Lewis once defined Christian Mysticism as “the direct experience of God, immediate as a taste or color.”

I think David Benner said it best in his book Spirituality and the Awakening Self:

“A mystic is simply a person who seeks, above all else, to know God in love. Mystics are, therefore, much more defined by their longing than by their experience. They long to know God’s love and thereby be filled with the very fullness of God…Christian mysticism is participation in this transformational journey toward union with God in love.” (emphasis added)

So when I call myself a Christian Mystic, I’m referring to the desire to pursue an intimate relationship God rather than knowing about God. It also speaks to the desire to live in the mystery of not knowing rather than seeking to know everything. This doesn’t mean you are anti-intellectual; rather it means that you recognize human intellectual pursuits will never explain God. As Peter Rollins said, “That which we cannot speak of is the one thing about whom and to whom we must never stop speaking.”

Rollins also repeats an old anecdote that captures the concept of a Christian Mystic in his book How (Not) to Speak of God. I’ve posted it below for your enjoyment.

“There is an old anecdote in which a mystic, an evangelical pastor and a fundamentalist preacher die on the same day and awake to find themselves by the pearly gates. Upon reaching the gates they are promptly greeted by Peter, who informs them that before entering heaven they must be interviewed by Jesus concerning the state of their doctrine. The first to be called forward is the mystic, who is quietly ushered into a room. Five hours later the mystic reappears with a smile, saying, ‘I thought I had got it all wrong.’ Then Peter signals to the evangelical pastor, who stands up and enters the room. After a full day has passed the pastor reappears with a frown and says to himself, ‘How could I have been so foolish!’ Finally Peter asks the fundamentalist to follow him. The fundamentalist picks up his well-worn Bible and walks into the room. A few days pass with no sign of the preacher, then finally the door swings open and Jesus himself appears, exclaiming, ‘How could I have got it all so wrong!”


(Source note: I’m grateful for Dr. Brad Strait who wrote a similar article on being a Christian Mystic. Some of the quotes above was pulled from his article hence my desire to source his site.)

“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.