Experience in Theology: From One Dimensional Quadrilateral to Multi-Dimensional Hexadecahedron[i]


by Tom Greggs.[i]


The idea of the Wesleyan quadrilateral is pervasive that it is almost no longer fittingly spoken of as ‘Wesleyan’.[ii] Theological statements rest on the coalescence of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience, and what is most particular in this for the theology of Wesley’s own time is the final of those four categories—the role of experience in theological statements. [iii] In distinction from Hooker who saw the sources of theology as Scripture, reason and tradition (alongside natural law),[iv] Wesley, adds the experiential in faith as a datum for the claims of the faith: the faith by which we believe is for Wesley, with his emphasis on sanctification, a contributory component of the faith that is believed, and thereby a source of theology.

In using experience as a datum of theology, however, there is a need to be aware of its limits. Experience is not some kind of uncritical, unadulterated subjectivist interiority. Experience is rather, for Wesley, an account of the experience of the church: ‘the experience not of two or three, not of a few, but of a great multitude which no man can number. It has been confirmed, both in this and in all ages, by “a cloud of” living and dying “witnesses”’.[v] Furthermore, Wesley is overtly aware of the limitations of this source of theological knowledge, and the capacity for self-deception:

“How many have mistaken the voice of their own imagination for this ‘witness of the Spirit’ of God, and thence idly presumed they were the children of God while they were doing the works of the devil! These are truly and properly enthusiasts; and, indeed, in the worst sense of the word.”[vi]

It is only in conjunction with Scripture, the teaching of the church (tradition), and reason that experience can recognize that which is sanctified, and thereby as that which is part of the material of theology. Doing theology is not a case of reflecting uncritically on any and every experience the human has, but rather a case of locating experience in relation to the other sources and norms of theology to judge experience’s capacity to offer theological truth: only when adjudged as part of the sanctified life can the experience of the creature be understood as s source for theology. Part of this judgment is a critical appraisal of experience because the sanctified believer realizes that the fundamental form of sanctification rests on the recognition of the believer’s own propensity to sin and self-deception, and the need to fall back on the grace and mercy of God.[vii] The one who does not, in being conscious of God’s presence in her spirit, repent,[viii] but becomes confident of her assurance, grows ‘haughty’ in her behaviour and thereby in the sense of confidence she may have in her own experience. There is always the need in relation to the category of experience to be reminded: ‘Discover thyself, thou poor self-deceiver! Thou who art confident of being a child of God … O cry unto him, that the scales may fall from thine eyes …’[ix]  Enthusiasm in the unlovely sense of the word is what it means to mistake our own voice with the voice of God; Methodism is more about the experience of the believer methodically and reasonably related to the life and experience of the church as a whole in its traditions as the church lives under the sovereign authority of Scripture as witness to Jesus Christ.[x]

This description of experience points out something very fundamental: in describing the quadrilateral of sources for theology, these four locations of theological data do not exist as independent and un-related or competitive sources of theological information; they exist rather only in relation to each other. Anna Williams points helpfully in this direction when she states about the point of the quadrilateral:

“do not stand on a par with each other: the claims of tradition, reason, and experience to the states of free-standing warrants are exceedingly weak. They serve as interpreters of scripture, rarely as autonomous alternatives to it. The claim of scripture to be the sole warrant is equally implausible…”[xi]

Key is the relationality of the different components of the quadrilateral to each other: they are ‘radically interpretable’.[xii] They do not function to provide end points to theological discussion, but starting points (as sources), and the interpretation of each of them rests in each’s relation to the others by and through which their interpretation will be made possible.

Theological method is not, for Methodism, about locating what Scripture, then tradition, then reason, then experience may say about a given topic, and then coming to some judgement on it. Theological method is about what each area of theological data says in relation and in conversation with the other. It is not that we have four squares, so to speak, but rather four sides to the one quadrilateral. Indeed, I would want to argue that we need to move from thinking about the single one-dimensional quadrilateral to thinking more fully about theology as a multi-dimensional hexadecahedron: an expression of the sources and norms of theology variously inter-related to one another in complex and multi-dimensional ways.


[i] The ideas in this piece (and some of its content) are taken from a longer treatment of these themes. See Tom Greggs, ‘On the Nature, Task and Method of Theology: A Very Methodist Account’, International Journal of Systematic Theology (2018), vol. 20, no. 3, 309-334.

[ii] Indeed, Anna Williams, discusses these in an extremely helpful summary as ‘warrants’, discussing Wesley largely in relation to her consideration of experience; see Anna Williams, The Architecture of Theology: System, Structure, and Ratio (Oxford: OUP, 2011), 89-91.

[iii] The origins of this approach to theology are, however, remarkably recent. The term ‘quadrilateral’ is not one original to Wesley, but is a coda or hermeneutical key for unlocking Wesley’s approach to theology, as described by the great Wesley scholar Albert C. Outler. However, it is certainly true (with an acknowledgment of the complexity of this and of these terms) that for Wesley the data of theology (the authority on which theological statements might rest) is fourfold. For a survey of Outler’s approach, see ‘The Wesleyan Quadrilateral – in John Wesley’, Wesleyan Theological Journal vol. 20:1 (1985), 7-18; cf. Gunter W. Stephen, Ted A. Campbell, Scott J. Jones, Rebekah L. Miles, Randy L. Maddox, Wesley and the quadrilateral: renewing the conversation (Nashville: Abingdon: 1997). The term is foreshadowed in the work of Colin W. Williams, John Wesley’s Theology Today (London: Epworth, 1960) in his account of authority and experience (ch. 2).

[iv] Cf. Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, edited by Arthur McGrade(Oxford: OUP, 2013), 1.16 & 3.9.

[v] Wesley, Sermons I, 290.

[vi] Wesley, Sermons I, 269.

[vii] As Wesley puts it in his sermon on the witness of the Spirit: ‘The Scriptures describe that joy in the Lord which accompanies the witness of his Spirit as an humble joy, a joy that abases to the dust; that makes a pardoned sinner cry out, “I am vile! …” And wherever lowliness is, there is patience, gentleness, long-suffering. There is a soft, yielding spirit, a mildness and sweetness, a tenderness of soul which words cannot express. But do these fruits attend that supposed testimony of the Spirit in a presumptuous man? Just the reverse.’ Wesley, Sermons I, 280. Cf. Luther: ‘God receives none but those who are forsaken, restores health to none but those who are sick, gives sight to none but the blind, and life to one but the dead. He does not give saintliness to any but sinners, nor wisdom to any but fools. In short: He has mercy on none but the wretched and gives grace to none but those who are in disgrace. Therefore no arrogant saint, or just or wise man can be material for God, neither can he do the work of God, but he remains confined within his own work and makes of himself a fictitious, ostensible, false, and deceitful saint, that is, a hypocrite.’ Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Jaroslav Pelikan and Daniel E. Poellot (ed.), Arnold Guebert (trans.), vol. 14 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1958), 163. 

[viii] This is a point that is made repeatedly by the Blumhardts. For a helpful account of the dangers of experience as a warrant or norm, see Williams, Architecture, 89-94.

[ix] Wesley, Sermons I, 281-2.

[x] See Clive Marsh ‘Appealing to Experience: What does it mean’ in Methodist Theology Today, ed. Marsh et al., 118-30 for an account of some of the complexities and issues at stake in the role of experience in Methodist theology.

[xi] Williams, Architecture, 94.

[xii] Williams, Architecture, 111.

A Holy Path?

by Christopher Collins.

“this path
carries the sacred and holy
around life’s circumference
in the expecting family
and excited toddlers,
and arm-locked lovers,
and funeral go-toers

“For what wears down your sole
Works in you to raise your soul
for on holy ground, you stand,
I made it so.”

From the anonymous poem “City Paths”[i]

This ugly, tarmac, dirty footpath is not holy ground, so I was prone to protest as I walked suburban streets in January this year.  I was sponsored to walk a hundred miles in the month and I deliberately chose to walk the same route of about three miles every day so I didn’t have to think too hard during an otherwise busy month. Over the thirty-one days I learned all the nooks, crannies and cracks of the walk. Met the frequent dog-walkers and the one-time passers by off to a funeral, or the pub, or both. It was, mostly, an unremarkable path. But, something kept nagging me about “holy ground” but I persisted in my resistance that this was holy.  The route had not been declared “holy” or “sacred” nor had centuries of pilgrims trod the path before me on a way-marked route guaranteed to lead to a holy place. Yet, over the course of the hundred miles, something began to change in me that transformed by ambivalence about tarmac which had seen better days into a eucharistic connection with this holy ground. This trammeled tarmac woke up something of God within me.

This has come back to mind since I joined in the “Camino to COP” as pilgrims passed through my circuit between Malvern and Worcester. The route was designed to get us from A to B and had no particular historical significance as far as we knew. Nevertheless, we reflected in our ramblings about what made this a pilgrimage as we weren’t following, as we would perhaps usually do on such a journey, a path described as sacred.

Was it a pilgrimage, we wondered, because we were walking it with a holy intention – to highlight the cause for climate justice and to demand that proper action is taken when the COP meets in Glasgow in November? Yes, that is surely part of it within the great tradition of historical marches – Jarrow, Salt and Washington to name a few.

But I’ve been troubled that this reduces the potential for holiness to what humans can do to the earth. We make it holy by walking it? Isn’t the ground already holy because it is made and shaped by the creator’s hand. It was God, remember, who declared the ground on which Moses stood as holy. We forget to our peril that Genesis tells us God formed humanity out of the ground of earth, and to the earth we shall all return. And isn’t it the attitude that we have complete dominion and control over the earth that has got us into the mess we were walking about anyway?

So I wonder if the pilgrimage was having the opposite effect. The holy earth shaping holiness in us as we felt the connection between our bodies and the ground under our feet pulling us closer and reminding us that we are all part the wholeness of creation. Reminding us that neither earth nor humanity can fulfil our destiny to flourish in God’s gaze if we don’t recognise the holiness in each.

The pilgrimage led me to a “thin place,” where, as Kerri ní Dochartaigh writes: “Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter. They are places that make us feel something larger than ourselves, as though we are held in place between worlds, beyond experience”[ii]

Which led to that led to the great hymn in Paul’s letter to the saints in Philippi:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who,…humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross”[iii]

For Jesus chose a non-violent path of humility that opened up the possibility of new life.

A Camino to COP reminds me that I need to let go of my vested interests in our domination over the earth and our siblings for whom climate’s crisis has a greater devastating impact than I can ever imagine. We are all holy, shaped by God in God’s image and that’s why we need COP26 to deliver a holy justice.


[i] You can read the full poem here: City Paths (revdchristopherjcollins.com)

[ii] Kerri ní Dochartaigh, “thin places”, (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2021), p.23

[iii] Philippians 2:5 & 8 [NRSV]

The Theology We Shy Away From

by Neil Richardson.

We Christians in the western world relate our faith readily enough (more or less) to our personal lives and our churches. We find it harder to relate it to national and international affairs. Think of our divisions or our silences about the nuclear deterrent, Brexit,  Britain’s housing crisis, and much, much more. Yet, in these dark times, King Zedekiah’s question to Jeremiah must be ours: ‘Is there a word from the Lord?’

   In listening for such a word, we may have to  wrestle with biblical and theological themes we usually shy away from. But the vocation of a prophetic Church is to preach the truth. We’re called, not to offer opinions, solutions or programmes for action, not even to preach Kingdom values – a slippery term! (1)- but the truth which sets us free, (John 8.32).

   To talk of ‘the truth’ these days is unfashionable, and can be intolerant and  dangerous. But this is our basic currency: the reality about ourselves, the Church, the world and  God,  the Ultimate Reality. And this, of course, includes the story of Jesus.

     What are the themes we shy away from? I suggest four: judgement and wrath, sin and  repentance.  I’m not arguing that we use the words themselves; they are widely misunderstood, or not understood at all.  They are certainly offputting, and we want naturally (but mistakenly?) to offer an attractive gospel.

    We must face the realities to which the words point, because there is no full gospel without them. To begin here with judgement: we know Christians shouldn’t be judgemental, (Matthew 7.1),  but what about God’s own judgement? When did we last preach or hear a sermon on divine judgement – final or otherwise?

   A cautionary note is necessary. Most of us have inveighed against a materialistic world and all its works. But we often think of that ‘world’ thought  as ‘out there’: a dark reality over against  the Church.  Thomas Merton, however,  searchingly asks, ‘Where do I look for the world, if not inside myself?’ In any case, what charge should the Church make against ‘the world’?

     John’s gospel points the way: ‘This is the judgement (Greek, krisis): the light has come into the world but people preferred darkness to light because their deeds were evil’ (John 3.19).

    Here is the primal sin:  we humans choose darkness, illusions and idols, putting them before light, truth and  the living God. And no-one, not least the Church, (compare prophets like Amos on Israel!) is exempt from this judgement.

     Our currency is truth.  And the reality about ourselves is what it has always been: ‘original’ sin, made though we are in the image of God. Sin, of course,  is a word almost impossible for the Christian preacher to use unless he or she explains it.  Many think it refers to moral failings, especially sexual ones; but they are the symptoms, not the root. Many reject the idea of sin  altogether as an outdated, unduly negative estimate of human beings. But as a great Methodist historian once wrote: ‘faith in human nature…. Is a recent heresy and a very disastrous one’ (2).

    Yet we can’t make ‘sin’ the centre of our preaching, even though the reality of it is all around us and within us, polluting almost everything. But we live in a culture which can’t or won’t face this reality. Maybe this is because we have become strangers to holiness and the holy.

    In the Bible, people become aware of their sinfulness in the presence of the holy God. ‘Sin’ is, first and foremost,  a religious and relational term; it is to  ‘fall short’ of God’s glory, (Romans 3.21). Isaiah and Simon Peter recognized their own sinfulness in the presence of the Holy One, (Isaiah 6, Luke 5.11). With this we come to the theme of repentance.

     The story of the prodigal son reminds us that ‘sin’ is a relational term, not a moral one.  But when did the prodigal repent? Not, I suggest, in the far country. That was where he came to his senses, recognizing on which side his bread was buttered. The change of heart came later, as his father ran to embrace him, before the son had even begun his carefully prepared speech.

   Samuel Coleridge, poet and theologian, wrote that Christianity is not so much the gift of forgiveness to those who repent, but the gift of repentance to those who sin. An overstatement? Possibly, but much nearer the truth than the widespread assumption that repentance is a condition of forgiveness.

     The wrath of God is perhaps the most difficult of the four themes we tend to shy away from. As I pointed out in my blog of 2018, it’s best understood as the opposite of God’s life-giving light: God ‘hiding his face’, (e.g. Isaiah 64.7, in contrast to ‘the light of his countenance’ in Numbers 6.25).  In this darkness, spiritual, moral and social, our idolatry and illusions slowly but surely dehumanize us, degrade our behaviour and damage our communities, (Romans 1.18-32)(3).

    This is difficult language. But these disasters which we bring upon ourselves underline the truth that this is God’s world, created, redeemed and permeated by his love. But if we go against the very grain of the universe and our own God-given natures, we run into, as it were, the adverse wind of his wrath – the sure sign, especially in our current crises, that this is not only God’s world, but that God cares passionately about it and for us.

     Our currency is indeed truth. It is the truth as we believe we see it in Jesus, above all in Christ crucified and risen.  In that gospel there is a deep joy and  a hope which is unquenchable in all the darkness and pain.  We can’t make ourselves praise God in the darkness, but the Spirit will help us so to do, even in such a time as this.  In the words of a saintly, early apostle to India, Father Andrew, (H.E. Hardy (4)): ‘Man’s affliction is God’s opportunity’.

                              

  1. See Eberhard Jungel on ‘value-free truth’ in his Theological Essays II , (T&T Clark 1995), pp.191-215.
  2. Herbert Butterfield, Christianity and History, (G. Bell 1949, Fontana 1957), p.66.
  3.  The homosexual practices referred to in this passage are now widely recognized as the exploitative, often oppressive and promiscuous relationships prevalent in the Graeco-Roman world.
  4. Author of hymn no. 172 in Hymns and Psalms, ‘O Dearest Lord…’.

How do you develop a ‘theology of grey areas’?

by John Howard.

When the powerful King David arranges for the death of Uriah the Hittite because he fancied Uhiah’s wife, the prophet Nathan condemns David for what he has done. It was brave of Nathan to do so but the issue was pretty clear. The powerful David abused his power to get what he wanted. Likewise John the Baptist was courageous in criticising Herod for his immoral behaviour. The powerful behaving badly is rightly condemned.

But what happens when the poor, the weak or the powerless behave badly? Rahab the prostitute is justified by her taking in of the Hebrew spies (Joshua 2). Subsequently through this act she is seen to have been complicit in genocide, but she is not condemned for this. It seems that as she is on the winner’s side – it is all justified!

Is this really how God sees things? Because Rahab was on ‘God’s side’ she can’t do a thing wrong? Surely that’s not how God sees it – even if it was how the writers of the book of Joshua saw it. She was poor, she was vulnerable but that can’t mean that she is innocent of moral wrong.

The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 & 6) challenges us to be on the side of the poor and the powerless. But how do we continue to support the poor and the powerless when they act unjustly? How do we act when others we are working with compromise their principals because of the extreme situations they find themselves in, through no fault of their own?

What does the Sermon on the Mount say about people who are poor and corrupt? Jesus’s teaching to the crowd is simply ‘Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.’ (Matt. 5.48)

Few modern day political issues are pure right and wrong. Take the issue that I spend a considerable amount of my time and energy on – the conflict between Israel and Palestine. It is very clear who the weak and the powerless are – the Palestinians. There is huge injustice done to powerless Palestinians, the Israeli army acts in terribly unethical ways, but there is still much in Israel that is good. The treatment of the LGBTQi community is hugely better than takes place in Gaza or the West Bank. There is corruption in the Israeli Government, but it is as nothing compared to the corruption in the Palestinian Authority. Where do we look in the bible to find a ‘theology of grey areas’ that addresses such issues?

In his sermon on love, in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul speaks of the primacy of love and seems to acknowledge the imperfection of the aspects of faith that are otherwise considered good. There is perhaps a recognition here of ‘grey area’: ‘As for tongues they will cease, as for knowledge it will come to an end… when the perfect comes the imperfect will pass away.’ The imperfect is transient, there will come a time when such dilemmas are past – but for the moment we have to deal with them.

In the letters to Timothy we have advice to a young leader in the church which recognises the extent to which those we work with – in Timothy’s case members of his church – might well fall short of what we might hope. In 2 Timothy 2 the writer addresses the relationship between the Christian pastor and those who fall short. The advice seems to be ‘(you) must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient correcting opponents with gentleness’(2:24). The advice then is to address the grey areas but in no way compromise with them. Can that be taken as suggesting that in our dealings with the poor and the powerless who are violent or dishonest, we are required to sustain the relationship with them but be careful to distance ourselves from the violence or dishonesty? That seems fine – until you are in the midst of a violent disturbance unjustly inflicted upon your colleagues, who react to defend themselves and in doing so behave less than perfectly. Standing by someone in the fight inevitably brings you into the fight itself, for right or wrong.

But the approach that makes no compromise of love seems to reflect Paul’s attitude elsewhere when he asserts the manner of Christian behaviour without making any compromises for relationships with those who behave in non-Christian ways.  We see Paul expounding this view in Ephesians 4.17 – 5.20: So then, putting away falsehood let all of speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another’(4.25).

It also seems to be the approach taken by James in chapter 2 of his letter. Here he speaks about behaving towards the rich and the poor without prejudice. He speaks about the rich as oppressors and so it is not too large a leap to suggest that he would take a similar approach for other oppressors – such as occupying forces. Here we might also make a link to Jesus’ teaching about turning the other cheek (Matthew 5.39). Each takes the very hard approach that the Christian response is always to uphold the integrity and honesty even in the most extreme of situations. One might wonder what Paul would say to refugees starving for want of the generosity of neighbours – is stealing food still theft?

Essentially this brings me to a very uncomfortable place. The biblical approach seems to be that Christians compromised by the behaviour of their non-Christian friends in struggles between the powerful and the powerless still need to uphold the highest principals of moral behaviour, turning the other cheek, sustaining non-violence, refusing to demonise the enemy, love even those who abuse their power over you, even if this then alienates you from your allies.

Communion in Diversity

by Anne Ostrowicz.

Reflecting back over this last academic year teaching RS in a secondary school in Birmingham, my mind is drawn to all I have been learning in my endeavours to chair the school’s new Diversity Forum promoting Equality, Diversity and Inclusion[i].

Seeing a pupil reading Malcolm X’s autobiography[ii], got me reading his story, too, and it turned out to be the most significant book for me of these last twelve months. As a teenager I had only heard of Malcolm X as a dangerous thinker. Why four decades later was I so captured by his story?

On the one hand there was a driving cause-and-effect necessity about his life-story: the environment he was born into stacked up pain and rejection including the early death of his father when he was just six years old (some believing he was intentionally run over by racists) which brought disintegration to his family, but also the downplaying by his schoolteachers of his academic talent. Both created a deep anger towards white people. Yet at the same time there seemed present a golden thread of grace running through his life, a vortex inexorably drawing him in closer to the hope that is Love. At 21, finding himself in prison, he began to read widely and voraciously, so launching his intellectual journey. When released, he expressed his new faith and philosophy in passionate dedication to Elijah Muhammed’s Nation of Islam. However, after his expulsion from that organisation, it was the Islam he met on hajj in the Middle East, and then in Africa, which drew him to embrace the family of all human beings, a growing revelation cut terribly short by his assassination.

So now alongside Martin Luther King Junior, Malcolm X is in the ‘canon’ of thinkers whose pictures wend their way around the top of my classroom walls. And whenever a new face goes up it doesn’t take long before a pupil will notice and ask, “Who is that, Miss?”, eagerly hoping to hear their story. Ideas get passed on powerfully to teenagers when they come ‘wrapped’ in the life story which produced them.

Seeking reading advice on theology and race, Professor Anthony Reddie encouraged me to read black liberation theologian James Cone. I began with his inspirational, The Cross and the Lynching Tree[iii], where the crucifixion is movingly interpreted as the identification of Christ with the oppressed of this world. I introduced Cone to my (mostly BAME) GCSE RS pupils who found his approach inspirational: now he regularly surfaces in classroom discussions and in written work.

Malcolm X’s autobiography led me to the autobiography of Martin Luther King Junior[iv], and then to another of James Cone’s books where he synthesizes the thinking of these two civil rights activists: the one who had a dream, the other a life which he described as a nightmare[v]. James Baldwin writes, “As concerns Malcolm and Martin, I watched two men, coming from unimaginably different backgrounds, whose positions, originally, were poles apart, driven closer and closer together.”[vi]

Whilst James Cone’s focus is theology, black theologian Willie James Jennings[vii] writes on all that has been lost not just in theology but in wider education in the West by the years and years of de-valuing the voices, wisdom, experiences and cultures of those not white and western, challenging those of us in education to steer the rudder of this heavy ship into new, deeper and rich waters.

My pupils teach me much, too. Listening to an assembly on how religion can be pro committed gay relationships, I was surprised to notice a pupil who I thought would be delighted by the content, looking stony-faced.  What was wrong? He pointed out that the assembly presented a binary approach to gender and sexuality, instead of his own experience of gender as a spectrum. The assembly had made him feel that who he is was not being acknowledged, his existence not worth including. I heard profound pain and frustration. Later he eloquently channelled his thoughts into the creation of an informative booklet on sexuality and gender which the PSHE department will be using in lessons this term.

As a new academic year begins, I look forward to communion with those I will meet. Listening to the tragic news about Afghanistan and of the refugees who will be coming to live in Birmingham, I wonder if there might be some way in which my school can be a part of welcoming them into our community.


[i] Begun Summer term 2020, a direct response to the death of George Floyd in the U.S.

[ii] The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Penguin Books, 1965

[iii] The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James H. Cone, Orbis Books, 2013

[iv] The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr, Abacus, 1999

[v] Martin and Malcolm and America, James H. Cone, Fount Paperbacks, 1993

[vi] I Am Not Your Negro, James Baldwin, p.37, Penguin Classics 2017

[vii] After Whiteness, An Education in Belonging, WJ Jennings, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020

Illuminating darkness: where is God in all this?

This is the second of our series of articles through the year from Spectrum, on the theme ‘Darkness and Light are both alike to Thee’. This month the article is by Inderjit Bhogal.

In this presentation I explore a model for ministry.

If I asked you to give me a summary of the Bible in a couple of sentences, what would you say?

In my view the first two verses of the Bible provide the key to unlock the rest of it. These two verses are a summary, and what follows in the rest of the Bible illustrates this summary. Use the wisdom of these two verses to reflect on where you find yourself now. I offer a few thoughts.

“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, and the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2)

This is the beginning, not the end.

There is a formless void, darkness, and what is termed “the deep”. God does not create this. It is just there. But God dwells in the midst of it all. This is where the spirit of God is, creating something new.

The “deep” is described elsewhere in the Bible as a trembling, a disturbance, a stirring, or a storm within a person, in the mind, in circumstances or in the environment around us. It is a stirring, which can also be scary, but in which new things happen. See for example, Jeremiah 23:9, Daniel 7:2 and John 5:2.

In Sanskrit the word is “vritti”, which signifies a whirlpool. 

This is what is being described in the two opening verses of the Bible. And such scenarios are real throughout the Bible.

The stories of the Bible are reflections of a people, their journeys in life, and how they experienced and interpreted God in the midst of the harsh realities of their meanderings and troubles, conflicts and hurts, and the points at which they found meaning and hope.

The Word of God is discerned by the people of the Bible as they reflect on their often terrifying and troubling experiences. Their reflections reveal God who is with them in their travel and travail as the still and secure and creative presence at the heart of it all. When everything seems out of control the love and presence of God holds firm. Biblical witness illuminates and unfolds this insight.

The life of God flows in the “deep”, and is the ground of all creation. God weaves darkness and the deep into all creation, makes new and beautiful things, and calls human beings to share in this work, to protect and take good care of life and all created things, and to do all things with wisdom (Genesis 1:26-28).

The work of any true guru, and ministry, is to model exactly that. To be prepared to dwell in darkness, to accompany people in darkness, and to do all things with wisdom. A true guru will not lead people from darkness to light. A true guru will sit in the darkness with people and help them to find wisdom from the deep, and stillness within the stirring of life and the whirlpool of the mind. A true guru does not say there is a silver lining to every cloud, and does not speak of light at the end of the tunnel.

A true guru is tuned in to the attendance and echo of God in the storm, points to God in the shadows, and helps people to see darkness as a place of sacredness. So, a true guru will not hurry people out of darkness, or speak negatively of emptiness, and will be healing not hurting, hospitable not hostile, holding out hope not despair, modelling holiness.

This is a model of ministry I have found helpful.

Questions:

  1. What does the concept of ‘darkness’ mean for you?
  2. What do you envisage, positively, will emerge from the pandemic experience?
  3. What is your ‘model of ministry’ as a Christian disciple today? 

As much a guest as a host

by Tom Wilson.

When I take a group of Christians to visit a Gurdwara, a Sikh place of worship, the topic of hospitality invariably comes up. Gurdwaras always offer langar, a “community kitchen,” which makes a vegetarian meal available free of charge to anyone who comes in. There are certain expectations; that you’ll remove your shoes, cover your hair, and won’t be under the influence of any intoxicants. But beyond that, questions aren’t asked, so whether you’re in desperate need of a hot meal or coming for your lunchbreak to save buying a sandwich, that’s perfectly fine. It is all part of the tradition of sewa, of service that is part of any Sikh’s expression of faith.

In my experience, some Christians find free langar slightly uncomfortable, perhaps because they’d much rather be the host than the guest. There is a trend in Christian circles to talk about the importance of hospitality, and don’t get me wrong, I think we need to be hospitable. But rather than just being hosts, don’t we also need to learn to be guests?

The Gospels show us that Jesus himself was as often a guest as a host. Whether that was because he invited himself, as with Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) or he was invited, as with Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36), Jesus was very happy to cross boundaries and go to where the other was comfortable. Sometimes, of course, his presence at what was expected to be a safe space was itself disturbing; the Samaritan woman in John 4 arguably goes to collect water in the heat of the day to avoid talking to anyone.

I am by no means as skilled, as prophetic, or as courageous as Jesus at saying and doing the right thing to bring a glimpse of God’s kingdom wherever I find myself a guest. But I have learnt a lot through taking the risk of being a guest. In my own line of work as Director of the St Philip’s Centre, a Christian foundation interfaith training and resourcing organisation, that invariably means spending time with people from different faith communities.  Here are five things I have learnt from being a guest in these circumstances:

First, you don’t necessarily have to wait to be invited; in the pre-pandemic world, I would sometimes ring someone up and say, “I haven’t been to anything at your mandir / gurdwara / mosque / church / synagogue for ages. What’s coming up that I can come to?” Invariably people are delighted you’re interested and want to welcome you.

Second, don’t presume you’re important. As Jesus reminds us (Luke 14:7-11), don’t take the place of honour, take a humble place and be content there. I once inadvertently spent an hour sitting on the floor with a group of local Muslims about to break their fast. I’d completely failed to notice that the VIP iftar, which I’d been invited to, was taking place in the community hall next door.

Third, be prepared to share your faith appropriately. In interfaith encounters in particular, some Christians are reluctant to say anything that is distinctively Christian. But people of faith are expecting to hear what is personal to your faith. So long as you share with gentleness and respect, from your own personal perspective (1 Peter 3:15-16), this is unlikely to be offensive in any way.

Fourth, have boundaries, but be flexible. I am a vegetarian, which is normally no issue at all in interfaith visits, and indeed can sometimes be an advantage. But if I’ve forgotten to tell someone, and they’ve cooked meat for me, do I have the right to refuse what they have made for me with love? I personally would eat the food but would not take part in the worship organised by another faith community. Know what your boundaries are, and where there is flexibility.

Fifth, don’t take yourself too seriously. As a guest its perfectly possible that you’ll get something wrong somewhere, most probably because you misunderstood what was happening. Take mistakes as an opportunity to learn and grow. Whether that’s a reminder you need to tell people what your dietary requirements are, or discovering that Orthodox Jewish women generally don’t want to shake hands with a man, getting something wrong tends to be a valuable lesson that helps me understand someone else better.

When I look at the ministry of Jesus, I see him taking the risks that come with being a guest, and through doing so, gaining opportunities to share the good news with people who would not otherwise have had a chance to hear it. If we stay in our safe spaces waiting for others to come to us, we will miss out on opportunities to bring the love of God in Jesus to those who would not otherwise have had the chance to encounter it. Will you join me in being as much a guest as a host?

Metal Methodists

by James Morley.

Last time I wrote for Theology Everywhere I reflected on my sabbatical trip to Whitby during the summer of 2020 and learning about the Abbess Hild (c. 614-680 CE).  What I didn’t write about was Hild’s encouragement of the goatherd Caedmon. 

The community at Whitby Abbey would gather round the fire in the evening to share stories and song.  Caedmon was asked to contribute but left because he didn’t have anything to contribute.  That night a song came to him in a dream.  Hild discerned that maybe this was a gift from God and encouraged Caedmon to continue composing.  Caedmon went on to become the first English poet whose name was known and is regarded as the father of English sacred song.[i] 

I also didn’t write about Whitby as a place of pilgrimage for Goths[ii] as well as Christians (and Christian Goths).  Engaging with the story of Hild, Caedmon and Whitby helped me remember what makes me a key part of who I am and the confidence to also see this as a key part of who I am in God.  I am a metalhead.  I love heavy metal music.  It makes my soul sing.  I love many of the aspects of the associated subculture – people looking how they want to and not how the latest trends say they should look.  One can never wear too much black in my opinion.  But my experience on occasions (as well as the experiences of other Christian metalheads I’ve listened to) has been that, for some Christians, all this metal and darkness is all something that is either ‘of the devil’ or certainly should not be let anywhere near an act of worship.  Yet, if we believe that darkness and light are as one with God (Psalm 139:12) then maybe there is a place where metal and Methodism meet – even if, like Caedmon some may feel who we are in our music; identity; and way of life, has nothing to bring to the party.   

Out of these reflections emerged Metal Methodist and Metal Compline.[iii]  A place where people who like heavy music; people interested in spirituality; people looking for mutual support (or maybe all three) could gather regularly as part of seeking to live out The Methodist Way of Life[iv].  It’s been really encouraging to join with people in the UK, Europe, the USA and South America; to construct heavy metal liturgy; to share testimony; and to know we’re praying with and for each other in the reality of the ups and downs of life.  It’s also been a journey of discovering other metal ministries such as the Metal Bible[v] (a copy of the New Testament in various languages with testimony from secular and Christian musicians) and Nordic Mission[vi] (a record label, festival and online store in Norway which began as a response to the church burnings linked to the Norwegian Black Metal scene in the 1990’s[vii]).

Over the last year I have learnt that this isn’t about Christian alternatives to heavy music and subcultures or constructing Christianised versions of these things.  Rather, for me, it’s been about a deeper discovery of the Divine who is within us and ahead of us; out there; in others.  It’s been about discovering the God of the margins in people who are asking serious spiritual questions and offering critiques of mainstream faith; church history; and what was Christendom.

At a conference I attended recently, Reverend Dr Pete Philips[viii] helped me see all this is linked.  Whitby as a place of Goth and Christian pilgrimage; Caedmon as the ancestor of sacred song; Charles Wesley and the importance of music within Methodist spirituality.  Maybe all of this is also a challenge to me and to the Church about how our language and culture reinforces the notion of light as good and dark as of bad.   

[with apologies for late post today, George Bailey]


[i] Who Was Caedmon? What Are His Connections To Whitby? (thewhitbyguide.co.uk)

[ii] GOTH | meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary

[iii] www.facebook.com/metalmethodist

[iv] A Methodist Way of Life

[v] Metal Bible International – Distributing the Bible for us who love Metal

[vi] NORDIC MISSION

[vii] The Story of Norwegian Black Metal – Life in Norway

[viii] Centre for Digital Theology : Rev Dr Pete Phillips, Director, CODEC Research Centre for Digital Theology – Durham University

A Poetic God

by Tim Baker.

‘Words create new worlds’ is a fabulous four-word mantra often attributed to Abraham Joshua Heschel. You can see that truth in Genesis 1: God speaks and worlds are created. This story is echoed at the beginning Tolkien’s Silmarillion – as the music gives birth to a cosmos – and in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia as creation is sung into being, and in many mythologies around the world. As words are spoken and sung, as poetry is recited and performed, new creations happen, and the heart of the divine is revealed.

I’ve been a lover of the dance and the mystery of poetry for as long as I can remember, and this love has fuelled and inspired my relationship with the divine. The history of poetry is littered with attempts to grasp at something of God’s nature, to seek to describe the Spirit of God. I’m thinking of the ‘dim and undetermined sense of unknown modes of being’ in Wordsworth’s The Prelude; of Shelley’s ‘everlasting universe of things’ that ‘flows through the mind’; of Christina Rossetti’s imagery, of reams of T. S. Eliot, snatches of Maya Angelou… All seeking to use the tools of their craft to describe something ethereal, perhaps even the very nature of God.

The apophatic tradition (sometimes called the ‘via negativa’) has suggested that we cannot say anything about God (i.e. it is not possible to say what or who God is, only describe what God is not). I wonder if the poetic tradition can help us build on the apophatics and argue that whilst you can’t say anything definitive about God, you absolutely can write poems about the divine. Because, in poems, meaning is slippery. Poetry allows words to collide, to clash, to contradict and the definitive eludes us. Poems are littered with oxymorons and ambiguity – and it’s this hermeneutical uncertainty that takes writer and reader alike closer to the mysterious heart of God. If you haven’t any idea what I’m talking about, read almost anything by Padraig O’ Tuama and you’ll see what I’m trying to say.[1]

I love poems because they grapple with the spiritual, because they have ambiguity at their heart and – finally – because of the sense of ‘play’. Poems are essentially a game we can play with words. When we dip into the canon, or we stumble across a hidden gem (as I did with the wonderful Grenadian poet, Merle Collins, 10 years ago and now her collections are scattered all over my shelves), we get to listen in and watch along with those who have attained mastery of language as they play with their toys.

You don’t have to be a poet to seek after the nature of God, but I believe that the world of poetry is trying to teach us to appreciate:

              Dancing over dogmatics,

              Metaphor over meetings,

              Essence over ecclesiology,

              Ambiguity over absolute certainty, and

              Poems over power.

Perhaps our worship, our discipleship, our evangelism – and certainly our church meetings – would be richer, and more in tune with the divine, if we could learn to dance like the poets.


[1] https://www.padraigotuama.com

All for One and One for All

by Yvonne Williams.

‘All for one and one for all; united we stand, divided we fall.’

These famous words, from the well-known book The Three Musketeers, by the French author Alexandre Dumas, are the motto of the three heroes, Athos, Porthos and Aramis, in a swashbuckling tale of chivalrous swordsmen who fight for justice.

It has occurred to me in recent weeks, while reading and contributing to the very diverse comments in this online discussion, that all who believe in any kind of deity would do well to adopt this motto for themselves. The one thing that unites us, with each other and with most of the secular world, is a social conscience and the desire for all human beings to be treated with dignity and respect.

When I was studying to be a local preacher, we were trained in theological reflection, using the Word of God to inform our thinking on our life experiences. Being of a somewhat contrary nature (some would say argumentative, but I like to put a positive slant on it!) I have a tendency to look at things from the opposite angle, so I have often reflected in reverse and used my life experiences to inform my thinking about God.

Here is an example:

My father had five children. When he died, many years ago now, my siblings and I each wanted to write our own individual tribute for the obituaries, rather than do a joint one.

The eldest daughter wrote of his unconditional love. If we were in any kind of bother, and however badly we messed up, we could always go home, and Dad would welcome us back with open arms and a shoulder to cry on.

The second daughter mentioned Dad’s passion for gardening. He loved growing vegetables, which appeared fresh on our dinner plates most evenings, even if we didn’t appreciate them much at the time!

I was the third daughter, and I recalled his spirituality. Though he rejected his Catholic faith, his spirituality shone through in his love of nature and the way he greeted everyone he met with sincere cordiality.

My younger brother, the only son, remembered their close friendship and the daft sense of humour they both shared, usually over a few beers in the local Labour Club.

My younger sister, the baby of the family and the one most like Dad in looks and in nature, simply said she had ‘treasured memories of a wonderful father’ which she chose to keep private.

My Dad was no saint. He was a product of the patriarchal and patriotic culture he grew up in. As a result, he was quite chauvinistic and even a bit racist, but the humanitarian in him over-rode his own prejudice and made him the much-loved husband and father whose spirit lives on in us all today. While protecting and providing for us as a family unit, he took time to nurture and develop a unique bond with each one of us.

So, which of his offspring could claim to have the only authentic relationship? Wouldn’t it be both ludicrous and arrogant for any of us to say “my Dad is the true Dad, and yours is a flawed version”?

I fully appreciate that not everyone has been blessed with such a loving father/child relationship, and so cannot relate to God as a father figure; all the more reason for us to allow others the freedom to seek and discover their own special connection with the Divine. We should hold loosely to our beliefs, because Almighty God is bigger than any religion and bigger than all religions combined. He is bigger than all our acts of worship and acts of mercy. There are as many facets to the nature of God as there are species of insects, flowers, birds or butterflies. Every expression of life on earth is a manifestation of God.

Chivalrous heroes we may not be, but our humanity is our God-given opportunity to know and love him in our own unique way, and to make our own small contribution to the well-being of the world and its inhabitants. One God for all people, and all people for one God. I feel a song coming on!

‘One love, one heart, let’s get together and feel alright.’ 😊
(Bob Marley)