Desire needs mystery. – Esther Perel
In the previous article, we saw that mission in emerging secular contexts requires the church to shift from the centralization of rational discourse toward a more holistic rhythm that balances gnosis (knowledge), koinonia (relationships), and doulos (service). In fact, it is the element of service that, in the present age, gives meaning to the church. Without this optic of meaning, emerging secular minds will see your church community and proclamation as an irrelevant, pointless use of their time. Perhaps this is why, despite meta-modernity’s move back toward meta-narratives and spirituality, most seekers today never even consider the church as a possible place of discovery and redemption.
In his book, “Game of Gods: The Temple of Man in the Age of Re-Enchantment” researcher Carl Teichrib captures the missional difficulty of the age with stunning clarity. Introducing a cultural caricature referred to as “perennial man” (as in a person whose spiritual views are undergirded by relativism and pluralism) Techirib writes:
After morning yoga, Perennial Man immerses himself in the teachings of Ken Wilber and Christian mystic Richard Rohr, self-owning Wilber’s Integral Theory and the flow of Rohr’s Cosmic Christ. Globetrotting, he ventures as a holy nomad and loses himself in ecstatic dance on the beaches of Goa, and in Auroville he discovers intentional community before traveling to Australia for the Rainbow Serpent Festival. Tripping into the jungles of Brazil, he encounters the Plant Spirit during an ayahuasca journey. Going to the Theosophical Society headquarters in Wheaton, IL, he attends lectures on Sacred Art and discussions on Advaita philosophy, and in the quiet of the evening he contemplates inner divinity during a prayer walk in the labyrinth tucked along the west side of the grounds. In Toronto he spins-awake his mystic heart with Sufi masters, then disappears for a two-week encounter with shamans in Oregon before going to Burning Man in Nevada. Returning home, he joins a Unitarian Universalist church and celebrates the sacred harvest with its Wiccan members. He cleanses his house of negative energy with crystals purchased at the Wellness Expo, and handles workplace stress with Transcendental Mediation [sic]. Back pain is managed through Reiki, and the future is guided by Tarot cards and astrology. And traditional Christianity? This was rejected as a teenager in Sunday school and mocked in university.
Perennial Man is spiritual but not religious.
Teichrib’s caricature may indeed be exaggerated, but the essence of his point is nevertheless accurate—that emerging seculars today treat spirituality like a buffet where they pick and choose the items that appeal to their spiritual palate and ignore or bypass the ones that do not. In doing so, they script a vision of God and faith that is entirely self-authored via the lens of non-absolutes. This well-regulated man—dancing to the fragile symphony of equilibrium—contends with absurdity through a transcendent view that does not confront his immanence because it is self-authored. So his immanent choices and patterns can remain undisturbed by the self-scripted deity he worships, a deity that provides him with enough numinous flavors to temporarily appease his cosmic hunger.
And what impact does the local Adventist church have on this experience? Is it the one obsessed with irrelevant doctrinal discourse, revolving around programs and events disconnected from reality, and expressing itself in outdated cultural norms? In such a context, the impact is zero.
In order to reach this emerging secular mind then, the church needs to step away from its modernist frameworks (rational, individual, age-segregated) which postmodernism has already repudiated, and aim to recapture a primitive framework (experiential, communal, family-integrated) that interacts meaningfully with their spiritual search. But this shift, clear as its pillars might be, cannot be properly done without complete and total dependence on the Holy Spirit. And it is this need of the Holy Spirit that places our functionally binitarian culture in a state of severe missional handicap.
However, there is good news. The Holy Spirit can be experienced and discovered in a meaningful way. And this experience and discovery can in turn lead us toward nurturing a new structure and approach to local church mission that empowers and fuels Spirit-led mission. This discovery is what I refer to as Scriptures Volitional Spirit-Mystery and The Ecosystem of the Spirit. I will explore the mystery in this article and conclude with the ecosystem in the next.
Scriptures Volitional Spirit-Mystery
Scripture is a story of God’s heart that unveils spiritual mysteries in multicolor. However, there are some mysteries that remain—mysteries which God himself has not seen fit to reveal. Among those mysteries lies an aspect of himself—the Spirit—which eludes our finest and brightest theologians, scholars, and philosophers.
Think about it—what book is there that you can get right now that will answer all your Holy Spirit questions? I have read many of them from Adventist, Evangelical, and Charismatic traditions. None of them have satisfied. In the end, I have always walked away disappointed at how much mystery remained—as if the many words only served to reinforce the fact that the Spirit is beyond us, and will remain that way despite our impressive academic credentials.
This experience is what has led me to conclude that the mystery of the Spirit is volitional. God intends for the Spirit to be enigmatic and to remain that way. The Bible then merely gives us glimpses of him. He emerges and evaporates in a non-rhythmic sense, always surprising us and always eluding us. We can see his presence, we can affirm his power, but we cannot contain him. Unlike the Father who reveals himself in metaphors and the Son who revealed himself in the incarnation, the Spirit evades us at every turn. I cannot go back through the Old Testament and slowly construct a history or narrative arc of the Spirit like I can with Jesus. I cannot compile verses on the Spirit that fit together like a puzzle to reveal a picture as with the Father. The Spirit—like a cheeky prankster—dodges all such attempts, bypassing and circumventing our theological systems. It is almost comedic when you think about it—as if the Spirit is an eternal “Jack Sparrow” who reminds us in those moments we have nearly apprehended him, “you will always remember this as the day that you almost caught…” …you get the point.
So what do we do with this? If the Spirit is so elusory, how can we truly experience him? If we cannot contain him, restrain him, or place him within a well-defined formula—then how can we ever expect to manifest him in our lives? The answer to this question is perhaps best understood when we consider psychotherapist Esther Perel’s view of relational safety versus mystery. According to Perel, relationships only thrive when there is a rhythm between safety and mystery. If a relationship is purely safe, it becomes predictable and boring. The beautiful side of this is that you are both safe and secure in each other’s presence—fully known with no meaningful surprises left. And this is a good thing because you cannot build a stable family or future without this level of security. But without mystery, both parties are liable to drift apart from sheer disinterest. But if a relationship is purely mysterious, then you can never engineer a future together. It might be fun, exhilarating, and adventurous but there is no stability. Such a scenario may be exciting at first, but eventually, it becomes exhausting. At some point, if the relationship is to go to the next stage, a stable foundation that provides security and safety must be laid. Without it, the relationship can collapse.
In short, safe relationships are boring and mysterious relationships are exhausting. Therefore, Perel suggests that the best way forward is to develop an oscillation between safety and mystery. Partners must lay a foundation of safety, but continue to intentionally pursue new horizons through self and collective discovery that fuel and maintain a sense of mystery and excitement. In doing so, both parties will feel the stability of safety and the excitement of mystery coalescing into a well-regulated marriage.
Now of course, marriage was created by God so we can expect the intricacies of marriage to give us insight into his own way of being. And in this sense, I would say that God is inherently safe and mysterious at the same time. He is the perfect manifestation of this dance, and when we encounter him, he invites us into a relationship in which a rational understanding of his heart and promises can provide us with safety and spiritual stability. However, just when we think we have it all figured out, his Spirit emerges to remind us that he is still a mystery. That there is an aspect of him that remains ever hidden, infinitely profound and undiscoverable, and which he nevertheless invites us to discover. The Holy Spirit is that aspect of God, that dimension of his being that is and will forever be pure mystery. We may know him and understand him, but we can never contain him. Thus, we see the Spirit involved in creation but we are not told fully how. And we see him doing things that are awfully uncomfortable and bizarre. Some he turned into superheroes (Joshua, Gideon, Samson), others he moved to prophesy, dance, and act downright weird (Saul, David, Zechariah), and others he inspired to speak against social and civil injustices and reveal future events (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel). Accounts of Ellen White’s prophetic manifestations are equally bizarre—shallow breathing, holding heavy objects for extended periods of time, trancelike knowledge of Bible passages and so much more. My simple point is this, the Spirit appears to reserve a trans-rational role to himself. He is weird, and he does weird things, and our cleverly defined systematic theologies cannot box him into a comfortable template. Thus Paul could say,
People who aren’t spiritual can’t receive these truths from God’s Spirit. It all sounds like foolishness to them and they can’t understand it, for only those who are spiritual can understand what the Spirit means. (1 Corinthians 2:14 NLT)
In other words, a true understanding of God cannot be reduced to mere rationalism. There is a part of him that cannot be contained in logic and reason. There is a part of him that reserves the right to be completely and utterly beyond explanation, blueprint, or formula. And for us intellectual and academic Adventists, with our Deist roots (anti-emotive), and reserved, classy Eurocentrism—the bizarreness of the Spirit frightens us. We fear the fanaticism of Pentecostalism so we reject the mystery of God and choose to focus exclusively on the part of him that is safe and stable.
But look around and you’ll see the obvious. We have deleted the mysterious and become quite skilled at the safe. And we are bored. Awfully, dreadfully bored. As Perel so eloquently expressed it, “Desire needs mystery.”
So then, what are we to do? What is the way forward? I want to recommend three things.
- Stop worshipping the church manual. I fully believe in church organization and I believe that God is a God of order. But organization should never prescribe the way we do things because if it does, we become dependent on man-made structures and lose our dependence on God. We become people focused on the safe and shunning the mysterious—a bored people. And sadly, many local Adventist churches today can get by just fine without the Holy Spirit. The manual is all they need and use. But you have to stop and ask yourself—is this all God intended for us? Did he merely intend that we do the same thing week after week, year after year? Read the book of Acts and ask yourself, do you see this church manifested today? And if not, why? Is it merely the fault of spiritually dead people? Or is it likely that people are spiritually dead because we have become enamored with a predictable system that does not depend on the Spirit and which—in truth—douses the fire of his presence in the lives of the people who do pursue him? Church manuals may have their place in a red-tape society, and we should certainly use them, but they are not the 10 Commandments. The Spirit wants to inspire new and untried methods, expand our vision to broader and wider horizons, and we must open ourselves up to those possibilities. If we don’t, we will always be shutting the Spirit down in the name of order, worshiping control rather than God.
- Stop looking for blueprints and models. When it comes to church impact and church growth, everyone is always looking for a model or blueprint. Now it’s OK to look into what others have done to try and get an understanding of what new horizons can look like. But true missional effectiveness will never happen via models. Instead, we need to immerse ourselves in our communities, in service, in relationships, and trust the Spirit will show us the way. We need to stop waiting until all the ducks are in a row and just go, trusting that the Spirit will guide and reveal. To quote the founder of “Free Burma Rangers” David Eubank, “I have no other plan. Just go. Go to the sound of guns. Go to the sound of need. And trust God to show you how you can be useful.” Can this be done in a reckless and immature way? Yes. But it can also be done in a faithful and wise way.
- Start living missionally. We will never see the manifestation of the Spirit if we remain tucked away in the comforts of our religiosity. If we wish to see the Spirit’s mystery manifest in our lives, we must immerse ourselves in mystery. Mystery is where the Spirit resides, and he will only be found there. He will not be found in academia, in comfy Bible studies, in well-structured programs or events. He will only be found in mystery. And what is mystery? Mystery is found in tossing aside the Spiritual Gifts Inventory, the PowerPoint, and the white board marker and immersing ourselves in the chaos of our community. Who is suffering? Serve them. Who is in need? Meet them. Who is searching? Find them. Get out there and start rubbing shoulders with the culture, with the lost and dying world suffocating in absurdity and confusion. Jump into the black hole of the unknown. Partner with the one that can’t be compartmentalized into a calendar, and see what God does. It is in mystery that we will encounter mystery. Not in comfort.
In the next article, I will bring these themes together and conclude my thoughts on how the Spirit is the key to missional success in the age of absurdity.
 Maria Popova. “The Central Paradox of Love: Esther Perel on Reconciling the Closeness Needed for Intimacy with the Psychological Distance That Fuels Desire,” [Web: https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/10/13/mating-in-captivity-esther-perel]