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256 pages
Sep 2004
WaterBrook Press

Out of the Question...Into the Mystery

by Leonard Sweet

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Is It Better to Believe, or to Follow?
Io sono la Via, la Verita, la Vita
I am the way and the truth and the life.…

Follow me.

Much of history has been determined by personal relationships, especially the “personal” in relationships. Why did USAmerica drop the atom bomb on Hiroshima and not Kyoto? Because Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson had a personal relationship with the city of Kyoto. He spent his honeymoon there in 1926 and loved the Japanese art and culture. Although Kyoto was at first designated as the target for the atomic blast, Stimson intervened with President Truman, and Kyoto was spared.2

If you give it some thought, you’ll see how your own life has been spared from destruction by personal relationships. One of the most important phrases a leader can hear is this one: “I’ve got your back covered.” Think about who your protectors are. Who are the people covering your rear? Every leader in church history who moved Christianity forward had protectors whose gift was the words “I’ve got your back.”

At the most basic level, of course, your life can be considered “life” and not simply existence because of a relationship with God. And what would become of faith if there were no relationship? The Christian faith is built on the multiplicity and complexity of relationships: God to God, God to human, human to human, human to creation, God to creation. Why would Jesus sacrifice his body and his life for a people that he knew nothing about and cared nothing for? If Jesus’s heart did not beat in rhythm with the human condition, why would he bother?

Amazingly, the segment of the church that’s rooted in the Reformation has lost touch with the key doctrine of that movement: justification by grace through faith. Evangelists still preach faith, and pastors continue to urge parishioners struggling with life’s setbacks to “have faith.” But in the daily life of faith we have lost sight of faith. Or more accurately, we’ve developed more of a faith “perspective” than a faith “posture.” We’re there in theory but not in practice.

The Bible does not cast faith as a spiritual footpath to heaven or an inner stirring that we try to rev up when the chips are down. Neither does Scripture describe faith as a cognitive capacity that God activates to effect our justification.

Rather, faith is consistently defined in Scripture, at base, as a set of trust relationships—with God, with neighbor, with the world, with creation. One of the greatest thinkers on faith in the Hebrew tradition was the medieval philosopher Maimonides. For Maimonides, the knowledge of God was more than amor Dei intellectualis—ideas about loving God. Far from a mere idea, faith was a living encounter with the living God. And this encounter with the divine was the summit of any person’s existence, life’s highest good and goal.

But we don’t have to hearken back to a Jewish thinker from the Middle Ages. For Martin Luther, one of the greatest theologians of faith in the history of Christianity, faith is a new kind of relationship that Jesus makes possible.

This doesn’t mean there are no cognitive components to faith, of course. But for Luther, it is faith’s “relational capacity—uniting the believing sinner with Christ—that faith justifies.”3 The gospel is more than our salvation from sin.

The good news is our incorporation into the life of God. We have been raised with Christ so that we “might walk in newness of life”4 and be raised to new levels of relationship.

In the ancient world, faith did not mean subscribing to the convictions of theology; it meant living in the confidence of relationships. Whether it is Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; or Sarah, Elizabeth, and Mary; or Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the Bible defines faith in more than cognitive terms. Faith in God is a relationship involving all of who you are and all that is around you. Faith is a lived encounter, a relationship of truth with the divine.

Jesus came to make possible new kinds of relationships with God, with people, and with the world. When Jesus used the intimate Aramaic word Abba in his prayers, never before had God been addressed in such a way. Only Jesus broaches this intimacy with God. Only Jesus opens the door to this approach to God.

And this new understanding of faith goes beyond the example set by Jesus. It is seen first in the nature of God. Is not relationship the essence of the Trinity? We do not sing “God in three thesis points, blessed Trinity” but “God in three Persons, blessed Trinity.” The Trinity does not deal with time, space, matter, doctrine, or reason, but relationships. God is “Communion” and invites us into that same communion.6 At the core of who we are as humans is an inner drive for relationship with God and with one another. Our greatest need is “not communication,” Eugene Peterson has written, “but communion.”7

Christianity tells a “killing the Messenger” story because the messenger was the message. The good news of the gospel is not an announcement or a proclamation, it’s a Person: Jesus the Christ. Jesus is the gospel. God-made flesh is the gospel. God-became-one-of-us is the gospel. The good news is that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.”8 This is relationship at its best, relationship as God defines it.

Faith in the Flesh

The soil of our faith, the gospel, is the mystery of how in Jesus “the Word became flesh.”9 The conceptual became perceptual. The abstract became mystery. Statement became story. Principle became person.

Michael Rie, a Jewish surgeon at the University of Kentucky Medical Center, is active in the bioethics discussion. He tells about one session of dialogue, when a Christian theologian expounded on bioethics from a perspective of God as Reason rather than God as Person. Rie blurted out defensively: “You are blaspheming the name of Jesus Christ.” His defensiveness surprised even himself.

But the realization that many theologians were “bent on reducing substantive moral content of their religion to what they took to be the general requirements of moral rationality” alarmed him.10

Rie was concerned that these theologians had chosen to construe God as a source of philosophical rational principles, rather than experiencing God as the Person Who confronted Abraham and Moses with very particular moral obligations.11

When moral theology is demoted to the level of “what should be embraced by rational persons,” then moral theology is no different from moral philosophy. God is factored out of the equation, and theologians have no reason for being.

Why did God create us? There is only one answer: for relationships. God decided not to have a life of God’s own but to share the divine life with us.

God gets lonely when God has no one to walk with in the dew of the day. This is one of the greatest self-disclosures in all of history. Amazing, vulnerable, divine self-disclosure. God created us for companionship.

Ultimate reality can be experienced only in relationships. Hence the Hebrew concept of covenant. Hence the Jesus concept of salvation. Relationship is one of the things that distinguishes Judaism and its radical Christian revision from other religions: God calls us into a relationship. Christianity is much more than a wisdom tradition or a moral system or a path leading to higher states of existence.

The essence of the Christian faith is as simple and complex as this: God loves us and desires a relationship with us through Jesus, God’s only begotten Son. Our identity is found in Christ—in a relationship, not in an organization or a system or a philosophy. The essence of the physics of faith is reflected in the simplicity and complexity of quantum physics: The universe is not comprised of objects but of relationships between objects. Identity is found not in things themselves, but in their relationships. Superstring physics is based on the inescapable science of the interconnectedness of all things. There is no isolated or disconnected matter.

The Nonlocalism of the Local Church

Relationships and interrelatedness are as primary in the spiritual realm as they are in the physical world. In theology, what’s important is not things themselves, but relationships between things. In fact, nothing is ever one thing or another, but rather a relationship between things.  

God loves you, desires a relationship with you, and hugs all things to himself. Faith goes far beyond the articulation of general principles to live by or universal laws that govern social morality. Biblical thinking is less about principles and places than about patterns and relationships. When Christians become more intent on learning the principles than knowing God, biblical Christianity is abandoned.

What makes us human is the same thing that makes us created in the image of God. We are not isolated entities, self-contained, existing apart from God or from one another or even from God’s creation. We are made for “community” and “communion” and “ecology,” in the words of Roman Catholic theologian Joseph Sittler. Being created in the image of God, he says, “specifies a relation.”13

The robot COG at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology agrees with Sittler. COG is the name of the first robot that emerged from Embodied AI (Artificial Intelligence). Embodied AI differs from Pure AI in that the former says that giving a machine intelligence means giving it a body as well, so that it can enter into relationships. Ann Foerst, the theological advisor of the COG project and the first director of the God and Computers Project at MIT, argues that “our humanity does not come from our brains or our body but from our complex interactions with the community. We are human because we must deal with other humans and the rest of creation.”14

Faith and the Life

If science and technology are coming around to agreeing with Jesus and the prophet Micah that the basis of life and humanity is in connections and relationships, where does that leave the life of faith for ordinary Christians in the twenty-first century? For starters, it demands a new focus on “life” and “faith” and a willingness to demote “objects” and “propositions” from their current preeminence. The Jesus trimtab is more than packets of theological information filled with objective rules or objectified rituals. The Jesus trimtab is a life-or-death relationship with God through faith practices, stories, songs, beliefs, ongoing traditions, upcoming technologies, and the connectedness of a social brain. It is a life posture, not a life principle.

The difference between an object-based church and a relation-based church is the difference between a church that sells itself versus a church that brings people into a living, lifelong relationship with Christ and one another. A relation-based church is less a place where creeds are dispensed and adherents conscripted than a place where people can connect with God and with one another, and where their faith journeys can be encouraged and enabled.

Social Malnutrition

How often have you moved your place of residence? How many different careers have you had? In how many different states do your children and your siblings live? Demographic shifts and economic trends are moving us away from relationships, from the core reality that God built into each one of us.

Heightened mobility and disintegrating communities—from dissolving marriages to disappearing places of employment—join together to create our current state of social malnutrition. Yet the more the culture moves us away from relationships, the more the human heart is moved to reach for relationships.

On average, USAmericans move to a different residence once every five years. In an average year, 2.5 million of us move away from our spouses and 3.5 million experience homelessness. In 1930, only 2 percent of the USAmerican population lived alone. By 2000, 10 percent of the 105 million households were individual adults without children, roommates, or other people in the residence.15 This figure does not include the burgeoning phenomenon of commuter marriages, where spouses in dual careers maintain separate households.

Nor can figures convey the psychological consequences to a culture that is always “moving on” and leaving behind relationships with friends, neighbors, coworkers, and employers as if we were kids waving good-bye and going home at the end of summer camp.

In a culture overdosed on empty entertainment, a culture that conditions people to being treated without dignity (in airports, banks, or the DMV), people are searching for a more intimate, more spiritual world. Digital technology makes interaction easier but intimacy harder. People seem to be heavy into relationships, just not with those who are physically present. People are constantly talking with others on cell phones and the Internet, but most people are treating those around them as objects to get past, not as subjects to pass through.16 The people reached through technology are now more real than the people who are present in physical form.

The more blurred the dividing line between the real and the virtual, the more difficult and troublesome relationships with other human beings become. In the marriage market, a man who is divorced actually has a higher stature among women than someone who has never been married. Divorced means “once married,” which indicates the man at least has demonstrated he can make a commitment.

We live in a smart world where machines are talking to machines (your car is talking to your insurance company through those hidden little black boxes), some toilets are already talking to doctors and laboratories, and biofriendly interfaces are giving us learning agents that know more about us than anyone else in our lives. These technologies are changing our sense of ourselves and our relationships with ourselves and others.

Think about sending and receiving messages. It used to be that the greater burden lay with the person initiating the contact. You had to remember the date of your mother’s birthday, find an appropriate card, locate a stamp, and allow time for the card to travel through the mail. With the advent of e-mail, however, the sequence has reversed itself. The personal, emotional, and financial costs involved in receiving and responding to messages are now much greater than in sending and delivering messages.18 As anyone knows who sits down each night to a hundred e-mails, some of which are one sentence long but “require” a two-page response, it’s far better today to be at the sending end.

Or consider how potential marriage partners are finding each other. We don’t know how to choose a long-term partner, and we don’t trust our own judgment. We lack relationship readiness, and we lament the lack of psychological intimacy in the marriages of our parents. Hence, television shows like Married by America and Meet My Folks. People are open again to the idea of arranged marriages. And in a twenty-first century form of arranged relationship, online dating services function as virtual matchmakers, attracting the participation of one-fifth of all singles in USAmerica.

University of Chicago researcher Amy Kass argues that old-style courtship provided a “distanced nearness” that offered intimacy and protection at the same time. Today, she says, cyberspace provides this service: It “encourages self-revelation while maintaining personal boundaries.”19 Even “one-night stands” hearken back to the “contract” marriages arranged long ago in a world where strangers climbed into bed together without emotional protocols or entanglements.

Our offspring, these cyber-suckled generations mainlining the Internet, are changing how we create and conserve personal relationships.20 The mechanics of relationship have shifted from “what are we doing today” to “how are we doing today?” And complex, new, irregular relationships are emerging, including virtual relationships that have their own satisfactions and limitations.

Why do I turn on the Today show and not Good Morning, America? Because I’m in a “relationship” with Katie, Matt, and Al. I have never met them, but still I’m in a relationship with them. And I feel a lot closer to them than I do to Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer.

Anyone Been Propositioned?

Mother Teresa once was asked about the worst disease she had ever seen. Was it leprosy or smallpox? Was it AIDS or Alzheimer’s? “No,” she said, “the worst disease I’ve ever seen is loneliness.”

In spite of, or perhaps due to, the digital revolution, relationships have become the most valuable, most important form of cultural capital in our globalized world. That’s one reason the rediscovery of a relation-based spirituality is crucial to ministry in the twenty-first century. With Christians now largely indistinguishable from non-Christians in how they live and think, there is no longer a startling freshness to the proclamation of biblical truth when it is presented as principles and propositions. How a person lives speaks much more loudly than what he or she asserts, now as always. And with Christians nearly identical to all others in the culture, what they say loses its impact. George Barna has argued for building relationships as the only effective foundation for evangelizing teenagers.21 We can and should apply this truth more broadly: Relationship is foundational to all evangelization, not just the challenge of reaching teenagers. People find and experience biblical truth in relationship.

The worst thing you can do to Christianity is to turn it into a philosophical endeavor. Faith is more than beliefs to be learned; it is bonds to be lived.

Faith is more than holding the “right” beliefs; it is holding the “right” (that is, the “least of these”) hands. We are judged by the world not on the basis of how “right” we’ve gotten what we believe but on how well we’re living it—on how we love God and people. Elie Wiesel has said, “Christianity did not ‘come true’ during Auschwitz.”22 More than 20 percent of the German SS officers, the expert killers, were practicing Christians. This is a disturbing nightmare, a religion that is so impotent and so removed from relationship that it could not “come true” when millions of Jews were being incinerated. Jesus gave us a relationship test whereby we can know whether faith “comes true.” The test, according to Jesus, is that his disciples are known not by how well they defend orthodox propositions, but by how well they “love one another.”23

Abraham Lincoln claimed that America was founded on a proposition and that Thomas Jefferson wrote it: “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” Unlike USAmerica, Christianity wasn’t founded on a statement or even a rational argument. God didn’t send Jesus to deliver a proposition. God sent Jesus to deliver a proposal: “Will you love me? Will you let me love you?” In fact, Jesus not only got on his knees to deliver this proposal, Jesus was nailed to a cross to deliver God’s proposal.