The Open Secret

The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission—Lesslie Newbigin, 1995 (250pp)

There is no participation in Christ without participation in his mission to the world.

In The Open Secret, Newbigin, missionary statesman and much loved former Bishop of South India, set outs his theology of mission, in two complementary phases. In the first phase, he discusses mission in three perspectives:

  1. Kingdom — Father — faith in action;
  2. Life — Son — love in action;
  3. Witness — Spirit — hope in action.

This lays a foundational hermeneutic (perspective or mode of interpretation) for the second phase, wherein Newbigin places the gospel and Christian mission in the context of world history, insisting the biblical story is not a……special history…apart from human history as a whole (:87). This leads to a reappraisal of the concept of election (the calling of a set-apart people) in terms of the few for the sake of the many (Latin: pars pro toto) (:68)—a community that is chosen to be the bearers of God’s saving purpose, not for their own sakes, but for the sake of all peoples and all creation.

On this basis, Newbigin explicitly contrasts the religious idealism of individualistically-attained redemption (“salvation”) from ordinary human existence, with an insistence that the really human life (is) the life of mutual responsibility for the created world (:70). Salvation, in this schema, is effectively co-option into shared responsibility within God’s mission: reconciliation with God, leading to action for real-world reconciliation, justice and relationship; ultimately, the completing of his purpose of creation in Christ (:77).

Newbigin utilises this hermeneutic to specifically refute a number of theologies and philosophies, including the modern scientific myth of modernism and its promise of perpetual progress, as well as one of its effective off-shoots, Latin American liberation theology, with its Marxist assumptions. He does this by identifying the biblical claim of Christ’s universal lordship as an expression of supreme ‘ultimate authority,’ declaring that the Christian message is simply that in the story of Christ lies the clue to the purpose behind all human history. The gospel is thus, inevitably, a public truth, with a bearing upon all aspects of public life.

Secondarily, Newbigin builds a missiological apologetic by insisting upon the need to hold three complementary elements in appropriate tension (note parallel with ‘trialogues’ of mission, church, world or theology, missiology, anthropology):

  1. faithful Biblical witness;
  2. ecumenical fellowship with the whole Christian tradition;
  3. dialogue with other cultures.

He advances from this, into a thoughtful and provocative critique of the Church Growth movement, contrasting it with emphases advanced by Roland Allen. I particularly appreciated his inclusion of an extract from Kane’s Theology in an Industrial Society, contrasting two crucially different ways of understanding the church’s mission (:132), and the relation of this to issue of cultural contextuality.

Newbigin uses this critique to illustrate how the long history of Western European Christianity and its theological articulation have taken place only within the strict and limited boundaries of language, thought, study and artistic interpretation that are rooted in Western European cultural history. This has led to the utter dominance of a singular set of cultural patterns being employed even in Majority World contexts and church movements. Newbigin condemns this, calling for the ecumenical movement to embrace a radical re-appraisal of and liberation from this dominating pattern (:159).

Finally, Newbigin brings home his wide-ranging apologetic to posit several important missiological implications for mission within the West, wherein Newbigin identifies the most aggressive paganism…(as) the ideology that now controls the ‘developed world.’ He highlights the irony of how the modern scientific worldview remains utterly closed to radical challenge from the standpoint of another faith—i.e. to true, open dialogue with ‘the Other’. He notes the irony of this, at just the time when that worldview is itself crumbling, with the culture of the Western white man…sinking into nihilism (:167-8).

Newbigin’s summary challenge is based upon the cross of Christ. Newbigin suggests the cross is (metaphorically) located at the bottom of a set of stairs. People of every ethnicity, religion, faith and philosophy, including, Christianity, are all called to descend towards it. He describes this downwards descent as the process of kenosis: a form of vulnerable, self-emptying stewardship, for the sake of serving God’s eternal purpose, the open secret of the Ages: the uniting of all things in Christ. The role of Christ’s followers is to lead the way in taking this downwards journey.

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16 thoughts on “The Open Secret

  1. Hi John, I think this is an extremely valuable perspective and sorely needed.
    You mentioned liberation theology in your review. Could you outline the substance of his critique? Would you also put the ‘social gospel’ movement in the same category?
    When people talk about mission and justice they either seem to be talking about “divine recruitment” i.e. gathering as many people as possible into our church context or practical projects that will meet the perceived needs of the disadvantaged in society. Could you encapsulate an alternative in a few sentences??


    1. Hi, Tim.

      I had another look at Newbigin’s section on liberation theology. I remember now why I rather breezed over it when I wrote the review: it’s a complex set of arguments, that felt to some degree as though it was written with a particular context (Latin America) in mind, one with which many Westerner’s would not be familiar.

      The substance of Newbigin’s critique is that liberation theology rests upon two critical axes. Firstly, the idea that truth is only discernible in action (“praxis”). In this perspective, there is no reality in what is considered academic truth. Newbigin has considerable sympathy with this axis. I agree; it is an aspect worthy of serious consideration, with much in common with some significant aspects of missiology that I’ve integrated into my understanding, particularly in relation to “a critical reflection upon praxis, in the light of the word of God.” More of that another time, perhaps.

      The second axis, which Newbigin critically rejects is the resting of liberation theology upon a Marxist analysis of reality, which essentially sets up the bourgeoises against the proletariat. His concern is the way this squeezes out important aspects of biblical revelation and vocation, not least relating to judgement and eucharistic unity.

      Is this similar to critiques relating to the “social gospel”? I would suggest not entirely. That category is, I perceive, more of a Western one, being essentially something over against evangelicalism. If one wanted to understand more of the roots of this distinction and the potential for bridging the divide, I would recommend Wilbert Shenk’s Frontiers of Mission, particularly chapter 2, Recovering the Fulness of the Gospel.

      Finally, in an attempt to encapsulate an alternative to the reductions of the gospel movement, which you describe, I would point towards the perspective that I outlined in the subsequent post to this one, wherein I state:

      “The People of God are called not for their own sakes, but for the sake of others. The few for the sake of the many. Salvation…is deliverance from evil and the corruption of the existing order of things … given to … (the) people (of God), not to save them from this world (per se), but (in order) to _fit_ them for it: to deliver them from the idolatr(ies) that beguile the world and to form them into a representative community of practical, effectual agents of change… (Thus,) Christianity is not a religious option. It is a call to serve the eternal purpose of God: To be a great people, blessed to be a blessing to all the nations of the world and a harbinger of creational renewal.”

      Unless we have this overarching appreciation of the grand vocation of God’s mission to renew creation and our being called up into it, as a servant community, then our notions of what we are called to be and do together—whether in congregating or in action (i.e. the two regular expression of “mission and justice” identified by you)—will always be too rigid, narrow and self-serving for the Spirit of God to “fill them out.” Thus, we find ourselves incarnating something that represents our traditions and corporate vision, but which sadly fails to truly (i.e. faithfully) incarnate the reality of the Great God, who embodied himself in Jesus and calls us to allow him, by the Spirit, to do likewise in his People.



  2. Yes. Would it be fair to say then that the Marxist assumptions of Liberation Theology demonise those in power and inevitably lead to violence while ignoring the ‘beguiling influence of idolatry’ on both rich and poor alike?

    I was musing on this article by Russell Brand which is why I was wondering at the connection with the social gospel:

    I was noting that he was stringing together the ‘practical niceness’ of Christians running the food banks with his vision of a grassroots civil revolution (surely Marxist?) I suppose you could say that the wild optimism here is that:

    1) If we were all ‘nice’ to each other the world would be a better place (altruism + humanism?)
    2) Putting power into the hands of ordinary people will eradicate corruption and oppression (!)

    He was positive about ‘Christianity’ but I wasn’t sure that what he was attracted to was really ‘Christ-centred’ in any meaningful sense, hence why it could be ‘any other tradition like it based on altruism’.

    I think what you are talking about is a collection of people who are wholehearted in their availability to God who as a result are not taken in by the influences that shape the thinking and behaviour of others. These people are then in the position to challenge that thinking and behaviour from a different standpoint, and possibly to model an alternative through some kind of practical action. Is that a reasonable representation? Can you give any examples of ‘good practice’ in a Western context?


    1. Both your summaries are fair representations of my observations, yes.

      Examples of good practice, in Western contexts…that’s a good question. My familiarity with good practice is, sadly, more based upon reflection than personal experience.

      I’d look to define good practice by the presence of these two elements: (a) evidence of a gospel-orientated community in “living dialogue” with Christian tradition, leading to (b) an “effectual encounter” of the gospel-orientated community with their cultural context. A couple come most readily to mind.

      1. The “Worker-Priest” movement

      From the French Catholic tradition, in the mid-twentieth century, grappled with Christian witness in the midst of industrial factories, interacting with Marxist ideas, labour unions and the Vatican. Although pioneered in in France, at least three of the last four or five Popes, I believe, directly influenced the movements progress (more for than against; albeit in some cases prior to their election). Further information:,

      2. Bournville and model villages

      The Bournville Village, built by George Cadbury, provided a completely counter-cultural response to the pressure of industrialisation as experienced by the factory working classes. I believe it is rooted in the Quaker tradition, but I don’t know much about the dialogue that preceded its establishment.

      Going further back into modern, industrial British history, one could point towards other pioneers of change: Guinness, Barnado, Boot and so on, each of whom was motivated by their Christian faith. Again, it would be interesting to know more about the ‘dialogue’ with Christian tradition, but there is little doubt that their practical intercession led to an effectual encounter with their context.

      Faith motivated and faith was communicated, but in each case the purpose being pursued was, to coin a phrase, (a microcosm of) creational renewal—yet nothing, per se, to do with congregational multiplication. If their actions can be deemed to have established elements of “justice for the poor” it was certainly not in terms of the sort of trickle-down, handout-system that we currently witness in the form of food banks, soup kitchens etc.

      Through their actions, they offset the implicit threat of Socialism, implementing contextual change based upon a capitalist model of industry, tempered by Christian leadership and care (“compassionate actions responsibly executed”) for employees and social context. History, I think, judges them fairly well, so we have something still learn from them, I think. (NewForms Enterprises—who have a base in St Anne’s, incidentally—are exploring the impact and significance of Model Towns, e.g. in the hope of—somehow or other—inspiring related change today.)

      3. One could point further backwards towards the monastic traditions, but looking around for current examples of good practice…I’m struggling to think of any. Can you?


  3. The worker-priests seem to be entirely different to the other examples in that they went into a new cultural context to live and work, rather than attempting to establish an alternative model. I find them more compelling for this reason. From reading about the tensions they had with the Vatican it sounds as though they were always at risk of being changed by the culture they went into rather than impacting it – perhaps that is a necessary part of the process?

    The movement from dialogue to encounter made me think of the development of the life of the Spirit from the inward burden and groaning to the outward manifestation, even stigmata. It would seem that the most life-giving dialogue would begin as the expression of such a burden – perhaps the hope of something better. The stigmata, perhaps the painful tension of living in the reality of culture while avoiding the temptation to escape that tension in various ways by searching for easy, superficial answers, compromise of various kinds or dispensing with the hope itself. I could see the struggle of the worker-priests in that light – does that resonate with you in any way?

    The problem I could see with that kind of witness is that I would have difficulty imagining it result in any kind of transformation of the wider context, perhaps more akin to what you were describing with the model villages, yet I still find it more compelling. Perhaps this is where the ‘prophetic-apostolic’ partnering comes in; the element of the prophetic like a candle in a dark place, the apostolic is somehow able to pick up this candle and use it to light the way ahead. Was their engagement with the trade unions the beginnings of this maybe?

    I thought also about the story of Daniel. I’ve pondered this story quite often in relation to higher education, which as my place of work is the context I am most engaged with at present. It seems as though he was brought several times, not exactly of his own making, to confrontations with the ‘idols’ of Babylon resulting in his life being endangered. Each confrontation seemed to make room for the intervention of God in a way that shifted the power balance and opened up a new dimension of liberty not just for him but for everyone around him as well.

    Perhaps this could relate back to the worker-priest model of being immersed in, even at the mercy of, a cultural context so that the unfolding of trinitarian life in ‘the few’ also opens up an aspect of that life to ‘the many’? But this is mostly theorising on my part. Apart from cultivating the inner life of the Spirit and slowly squaring up to the vulnerability this requires of me, I otherwise haven’t the faintest idea how to go about effectually engaging with the culture I find myself in.


    1. I agree with you that there is a distinct, qualitative difference (from our perspective) in flavour to the witness and action of the worker-priests, compared to the other examples. As I considered this, I wondered whether this was, to some degree, a reflection of our position as post-moderns. It struck me that it was a significant coincidence that the worker-priest movement was initiated in a similar historical time-frame (post-WW2, esp. 60’s) and cultural context (France) as the original postmodern philosophers. By contrast, the aforementioned benign capitalists are firmly of the Enlightenment era, with its zeitgeist of unfailing confidence in “progress.”

      Your articulation of the parallel between worker-priests and your own struggle, in these terms: “the painful tension of living in the reality of culture while avoiding the temptation to escape that tension in various ways by searching for easy, superficial answers, compromise of various kinds or dispensing with the hope itself” does indeed resonate with me.

      This is the experience, I think, of what missiologists refer to as liminality (a term that can be applied to other disciplines too, of course): the state of being in-between two phases of stasis or inertia. It is a phase that cannot be rushed, without any certain end in sight, nor with any possibility of returning from whence we came. The image I have is of crossing a wilderness (perhaps like the Sons of Israel, following the Exodus). Rushing ahead in our own strength only adds to the dangers. Only by learning to live—and not merely survive—in the wildernesses, can the journey become something redemptive and energising in itself.

      If we can become ‘comfortable’ (comforted / counselled by the Spirit who is sent to lead us into all the truth), with the reality of liminality, then the possibility of transformation becomes real—but it is less about changing the context and more about being changed by it, in order to be fitted for a season and a context that lies beyond. This phase of liminality evokes its power precisely because it is on the way somewhere, never a destination, goal, or end in itself, yet we do not know when, or how we will get beyond it.

      On apostolic / prophetic. As implied above, I think the distinction between the two (types of) examples in view is more related to era and context than messianic gifting. I consider apostles as ‘master builders’ or ‘architects’ (governing and guiding, but only during construction stage, before moving aside for others to utilise the building) and, or ‘ambassadors’ (acting in a cross-cultural context). Withal, I like your image of the prophetic as lighting a candle (or keeping an altar flame alive?) and the apostolic taking up the candle and utilising it (to guide and govern building work?).

      Your final metaphorical imagery, relating to Daniel and the confrontation of idols, I find very apt. I draw a very similar teaching out of the experience of Moses in his confrontation with Pharaoh, which scripture reveals to be a “judgement upon the gods of Egypt.” In a liminal context, the idolatry that is being dealt with is now not so much upon the gods-in-context, rather inasmuch as it remains present and at work within the people of God. This is why the phase of liminality is so crucial: God uses it to deliver the people of God from their dependence upon and beguiling by the idols of the cultures in which they has previously been ensconced. (Scripture, of course, deals at great length, particularly in Hebrews, as well as parallel OT passages, with the spiritual significance of the rebellion of the Sons of Israel in the Wilderness).

      I would see the application of this to the concept of Christendom (defined as the idolatrous and syncretistic union of church and state, which has been the de facto reality within Europe since Constantine etc.) and post-Christendom—which is where we are now. We do not know what will come afterwards. Post-Christendom is what it is because it relates to what we have come from. We do not yet know what we will be in the phase to come. What the Church-at-large will look and (be called to) act like. But our vision grows with each new liberty that we experiencer, as each of the old idols to which we bowed down are broken away from us—as a result of God’s discipline and our repentance (re-turning).

      That you would describe yourself, in essence, “at a loss” to know how you can possible engage the culture and to be instead “merely” learning to walk in step with the Spirit, would seem to accord with the vulnerability and apparent inadequacy that is the inevitable mark (telos?) of liminality.

      If this discernment of the phase of liminality (including the wilderness metaphor), as applied to Western, post-Christendom contexts, is accurate and appropriate, then there is a sense in which we cannot, in this phase, even begin to engage the culture. All we can do is to keep on keeping on with the difficult work of persevering in our journey away from the idolatry of the world’s system and towards the slow dawning of a deep engagement with the Wild Spirit who calls and leads us onwards, alternately in cloud and fire and stillness. In this way, we are potentially equipped by the wilderness of liminality for an era that authentically lies beyond—whenever it comes: recognising that it may even be our spiritual children and not us who actually inherit and enter into that reality.


      1. Hi John. Yes, that all makes perfect sense and is really helpful.

        The imagery of the wilderness has been with me for a long time. Hebrews has been the most important epistle for me in that sense and I have dwelt often on the call not to fall short of the promised rest, and the call to enter into the Most Holy place. More recently, the challenge came alive to me of ‘going out to him beyond the camp, bearing his reproach’ (ch13v3). This I think has implications for me of my form of engagement with ‘church’ although I’m yet to fully understand this.

        Wrt liminality, a concept I’m also familiar with (I think it probably came from your direction) and have thought about from time to time. This reminds me of a series of images that came to mind a couple of years ago about crossing the Atlantic (remember those?) This begins with the prayer of Brendan answering the call of the Wild Spirit; “Shall I abandon O King of mysteries the soft comforts of home”. The Atlantic ocean is then, I suppose, a picture of the ‘limin’ and those on the boat are experiencing liminality together. It makes sense that the key components of this stage, where process is all important, would be:

        1) the deep connection formed between those sharing this journey
        2) the relationships made with others encountered on the way (‘islanders’)
        3) the understanding developed along the way (‘mapmaking’)

        I’m connecting Canada, the place eventually arrived at after many two way journeys of increasing length, as the second ‘stasis’ on the other side of the paradigm shift. It was there I saw influence spreading out from the ‘little community in the mountains’ to the great plains of the USA – a form of cultural engagement/transformation maybe?

        With the apostolic/prophetic; interesting what you were saying about the post-modern loss of confidence in perpetual progress. Apostles as master-builders; that is what I was trying to get at in a round-about way – the apostolic could take the prophetic inspiration and use it to construct something based around it. Almost as if the prophetic indicated a gap between where we are and where we need to be, and the apostolic could then work to try and bridge that gap. Agree?

        Re: idolatry, OT prophets and repentance – when I worked my way through Jeremiah a year or so ago, one verse really stood out to me. It comes after Jeremiah’s ‘wounded spirit’ declaration in Jer 15:18 “why is my pain perpetual and my wound incurable, which refuses to be healed”. I’ve thought a lot about the response in Jer 15:19 if you could bear with me while I try and unpack it:
        – If you return (shuwb) to me I will restore (shuwb) you, you will stand before my face
        – If you bring forth the precious (yaqar) from the vile (zalal) you will be as my mouth
        – Let them return (shuwb) to you, do not return (shuwb) to them

        The initial thought about divine discipline and repentance I also relate to the contemplative disciplines tracing back through the desert fathers, the philokalia of the East and medieval Catholic monasticism. The idea of the continual ‘turning towards’, also described variously as ‘watchfulness’, ‘sobriety’, ‘simplicity’, ‘unknowing’, ‘abandonment’ and ‘detachment’. The spirit is healed as it is freed from its ‘clingings’. The reward is establishment in the divine presence (with an implication of permanence).

        The second thought relates to the relinquishment of bitterness – more than common on this journey I think and possibly also related back to the clingings of the spirit. I understood the meaning of discerning rightly to bring forth the ‘precious’ utterances of the spirit from the morasse of confusion, self-love and merely human ‘discernment’. This is perhaps then, one of the crucial tasks that must be accomplished during this phase of liminality.

        The final thought I understood as crucial to prophetic witness. The turning, establishment in the presence of God and freedom of spirit allows one (or a community) not to ‘turn back’ to the old order, but rather to remain resolute until such a time as representatives of the old, or perhaps the culture more broadly, ‘turns back’ to the divine representatives, thereby turning back to God Himself.

        Does any of that make sense?


  4. Tim

    All of that makes a very great deal of sense. I particularly appreciated the linking of your Atlantic metaphor with liminality. As I re-read my own description of liminality, your metaphor helpfully confirmed and deepened the articulation, particularly regarding the futility of trying to change the context (as if ocean conditions could be changed by its sojourners!) and indeed the vitality of allowing the experience of ‘crossing’ to be more than a matter of survival, rather a matter of being prepared spiritually, practically and character-fully for the season ahead, which merely begins when landfall is finally made.

    1. “Beyond the camp.” I recollect this idea feeding my own sense of developing the willingness to fully obey God’s call. You hint that, for you, it bears implications that you have not yet been able to fully explore in relation to congregational life. That is an aspect of liminality that I explored in the metaphorical article, A Narrow Path Leading to Life and which I have been exploring practically, one way or another, since our sojourn in South Wales. My heart is typically way ahead of my mind in assimilating and articulating the journey and its implications. Challenged recently by a relative stranger, to consider the relevance of the Scripture in Hebrews that says, “Do not give up meeting together.” I came to the simple conclusion: we have not given up meeting together. We simply do so on the basis of relating, rather than congregating.

    2. Liminality, post-Modernity and new ways in the wilderness. Two resources come to mind: Missionary Congregation, Leadership, and Liminality (Christian Mission and Modern Culture) and Through the River. I have written a review of at least the latter and possibly the former; I’ll have a dig and post what I find.

    3. Apostolic / prophetic. Broadly agree. However, I think it’s important to recognise a distinction between the pioneering role of apostles—most obvious and visible in inter-cultural contexts—who lay a Messianic foundation (and perhaps ‘oversee construction’), yet then leave the government of ‘the building’ to others, such as bishops, or overseers—roles that I think are sometimes mis-labelled as “apostolic.”

    5. Idolatry, Jeremiah 15. Fascinating that this Scripture should speak to you in this way. This has been fundamental to my own personal spirituality for many years, since I became convicted by its piercing insights. I appreciate the rich word study that you’ve presented here and look forward to meditating more deeply upon the passage accordingly. I believe your summary, bring forth the ‘precious’ utterances of the spirit from the morasse of confusion, self-love and merely human ‘discernment’ is apt and relevant indeed to the experience of liminality.


    1. Interesting!

      I’m going to attempt to relate some more aspects of the Atlantic metaphor to the issues you’ve raised to help me anchor my thoughts.

      A) Travelling light
      When the Celts set out on their voyages, I gather they travelled in coracles which would only have had sufficient space for crew and necessary provisions. I understand a critical element of conveying a message from one culture to another is the need to refine and concentrate it down to the simplest, purest version possible, free from any unnecessary ‘baggage’ which would hinder transmission and subsequent growth. I assume this is something you are well familiar with and presumably have been exploring with your maize plant discipleship resource? If I have to leave the West Coast of Ireland behind permanently in order to embark on a longer journey, rather than short island trips, the question I’m asking myself is what this looks like for me. I realise I have no interest in scaling up what is already here, but rather investing a large amount of energy in scaling down to something refined, for scaling up at a later time – rather like building a colony in a new land. Other images which have been helpful over the past few years include making whiskey, not beer, and digging a deep well which reaches an underground water source, rather than relying on ‘broken cisterns which cannot hold water’.

      B) Triangulation
      The experience of liminality is clearly important for dispensing with unnecessary baggage. Is critical realism also a skill that can be learned through ‘stripping away’ unnecessary and unhelpful preconceived ideas which obscure our view of the ‘true’ nature of the world? My wife Em, who studied historical geography at University, and an antiquarian Major Hayman Rooke for her PhD, pointed out to me that historically map making has relied heavily on ‘triangulation’. The mapmaker would take observations from several positions to build up several measurements of a fixed landmark, in order to accurately pinpoint its location. In reading about critical realism, I also saw triangulation mentioned and wondered at the importance of drawing from several sources, perspectives, insights or experiences in order to get a lock on one particular aspect of truth which is being uncovered.

      C) Crew
      I understood that a pioneering journey like this would require a small but highly skilled crew who between them had the necessary skills to traverse the ocean, and also perhaps to establish the beginnings of a colony after making landfall. I’m familiar with ‘A Narrow Path leading to Life’ having read it in the past. One aspect that stood out to me this time was the necessity of fellow travellers on the path working together to overcome certain obstacles. Putting those together brings to mind the need to establish and maintain key relationships. It then takes intentionality to do this but also that the stakes are higher – more is required of each person and more weight is placed on each relationship. In this sense, by scaling down, individuals and relationships become paradoxically more valuable and powerful.

      D) Dense fog
      In my own imagining of the journey, the point of highest drama was not landfall but the period immediately before this. Travelling westward, the mundane expanse of ocean gave way to the mythical – images of mermaids, sea monsters and strange islands. This spoke to me that the places encountered began to defy categorisation and description in terms of what was already known thereby forcing a reinvention and re-imagination of concepts in order to adapt to this strange new landscape. Further still and the fog became dense until all vision was obscured. It was at this point that a phrase came to mind, which has stood out ever since: “only those who know the direction of the four winds and the bright morning star can pass through here”. I imagine looking up and seeing that star piercing through the fog, and realising that the four winds blowing allow one to get a fresh sense of direction. I wonder if, in relation to liminality and critical realism, an entire disorientation and loss of bearings is necessary to force one to rely completely on these two navigational elements which in turn symbolise to me the movements of the Spirit and the eternal Word of God. Is this, in a sense, the final preparation necessary to hold forth to the culture an unencumbered and penetrating witness to that objective reality which cannot be ignored?


  5. Tim

    Finally, as Christmas and New Year activities subside, I’ve carved out time to respond to your comments.

    1. On Travelling light

    This is certainly something I’ve explored, not simply with respect to Maize Plant Discipleship; if anything that is my attempt to articulate significant aspects of a lifetime’s learning. Travelling light began for me with my calling to missionary discipleship, “back in the day” when I trained on the DCI Course for World Christians. With Sarah being similarly prepared at YWAM, it’s something we’ve sought to incorporate into each of the different seasons of life we’ve passed through—with the application differing according to each season.

    At it’s core, it’s certainly a spiritual reality, with practical decisions tending to follow easily and readily once strongholds and idols have been identified and ‘de-throned’ (“metanoia”?).

    Yes: distillation is a metaphor that I use often, to describe the spiritual process of refinement, whether applied to articulation or praxis.

    Colonisation: an interesting choice of analogy. Does “settlement in a foreign land” work equally well, I wonder? Withal, I like to highlight the critical distinctions between Colonisation and Imperialism—the latter being what I suspect most people actually mean when they readily ‘critique’ the former.

    What it looks like…. That is the question. I like to begin / arrive at the question asked by Peter, in his epistle: If all these things are (so), then what kind of people ought we to be (as we await their fulfilment)? Depending upon our eschatology, the fulfilment of which he wrote has perhaps arrived, yet, as we face a new century in which so many of the former certainties are shaking or already removed, I think it’s a great question to continually ask ourselves.

    2. On Triangulation

    As an engineer, this is a familiar concept, it being the foundational principle of surveying. We also referred to it, quite differently, as part of my doctoral research: the need to triangulate important conclusions by reference to three different modes of data collection and analysis. The one forms an excellent metaphor for the latter and the significance of critical realism, in particular.

    All of this continues to put me in mind of the resource I mentioned above, Through the River: Understanding Your Assumptions About Truth and which I review here. It deals directly with the tension between the assumptions underpinning Modernity, post-Modernity and Critical Realism, which it posits as the most appropriate methodology / route for charting a different way forward. I think I would say that critical realism is the underlying missiological perspective that I seek to draw upon in this blog / my writing in general. (From whence has your own appreciation of Critical Realism arose, Tim?)

    3. On Crew.

    In the post-Modern perspective, team-building is an art (often referred to as a “dance”), rather than a science (as in the Modernist paradigm of Management: as applied to systems, in which people are considered as simply one kind of “resource,” hence: Human Resources).

    I would consider myself to mainly be in this mode of learning to “dance”—tentatively—with people who have been significantly wounded by their experience of the authorities of Modernity (i.e. Organisations, including Church), but have not moved sufficiently beyond the deconstruction phase to be ready to participate in anything other than the most organic (informal, sporadic, unstructured) of activities. Yet intentionality requires becoming organised—even if only in an unstructured way!

    Thus we have the continuum of organic, organised and organisation. We need neither the stasis of either extreme, nor the pendulum of continual swing between them; we need a place of joyful organism, based upon Real Love, Submissive Relationship, Intentional Activity and Transparent Accountability. This is, perhaps, where Critical Realism can, again, offer a “third way” between the old and the new: a way of dealing with the reality of liminality, without despair (nihilism). Another resource springs to mind: Alan Jamieson’s excellent thesis on Churchless Faith, in which he describes the four principal phases he observed in his doctoral research into the faith of people who have moved beyond congregational life.

    4. On Dense fog.

    For sure, the enemy of the seafaring pilgrim in particular. For this reason navigation by the Star(s) became the foundation of modern sea travel—at least, until this digital age of GPS!

    Speaking personally, Tim, I can relate the past season—which I would categorise as being just over a decade (…there’s an interesting informal thesis I encountered which suggests we each endure several ‘lifetimes’ or seasons of about 11 years each—which is just about how long it is reckoned to take become ‘expert’ in something to which one is applying oneself fully…)—as being one that, at one time, brought me to the edge of an abyss, which I would name Despair. This was part of a larger process of deconstruction, which preceded reconstruction. Both aspects have needed to progress beyond theological foundations, into personal spirituality and psychology, as well as praxis.

    There are days when I am sure I sense the fog lifting and that new horizons are apparent. Yet until now, the reality of “landfall” remains elusive. Yet my Hope is considerably stronger than before. (I suspect the same could be said for both Faith and Love, but Others measure that, not we ourselves.)

    Happy New Year:

    May you be inspired; may you be an inspiration.


    1. Hi John,

      After your last post I got hold of a copy of ‘Through the River’ which I have now finished reading. We’ve also had our old kitchen completely removed and are waiting for a new one so in a slightly more disorganised state than usual! Again, I’ve tried to order my thoughts as clearly as I can along a few themes.

      A) Through the River and Critical Realism

      On the whole, the book was valuable, leaving me with an easy to understand and explain account of critical realism. I understood why they had felt the need to define a critical realist approach in a Christian context as the ‘truth we understand and the truth we are learning’ with the Bible as the ultimate authority, but wondered whether this was really very different to the positivist view of the world. The examples they gave were disappointing in this regard and their conclusions felt stale and predictable. I could see little scope for having any real impact in our current Western culture with the approach they were suggesting, but I did appreciate the direction they were aiming at.

      Perhaps taking critical realism as a tool but developing the thinking a little further, I wonder whether it might be more productive to talk about the need to hold several sources of ‘knowledge’ in tension which includes scripture, dialogue with cultures and lived experience without automatically giving ‘right of veto’ to one of these. We discussed triangulation above which is something I read about elsewhere on the internet, but which they didn’t seem to address. I wonder whether you have any examples from your own experiences of contexts where applying a critical realist approach has borne fruit?

      B) Organic versus organised

      Thank you for taking the time to reply carefully to the points I had raised above. In talking about crew, you discussed the happy medium of being organised. I’ve read your booklet on Open Source Community and the associated appendices a couple of times so I am familiar with your thinking there. I have observed a few attempts to do this at different times of life, and as we’ve discussed in the past, have noticed that because people carry the same expectations of each other that they would have from previous experiences of church, all kinds of unexpected difficulties can arise. The dynamic of leadership seems to be central and divisive, as in groups of people, it is generally assumed that certain attributes such as experience, age, specialist knowledge and charisma equip certain individuals best for ‘taking the lead’ and that in time, this simply recreates similar mini-organisations akin to those just left behind! The alternative could also be a disorganised paralysis with no means to reconcile differences (sometimes considerable!) of opinion or approach. As Chip Brogden puts it – the people escape from Babylon but Babylon still lives in their hearts! I reflected that there are a few parables and accounts in the gospels that suggest a very different model of leadership and community where the initiative rests not with those ‘in the know’ but rather with those who are searching, lost and have pressing questions (the lost sheep, the coin, the little child, Zacchaeus, the woman at the well, the sinner and pharisee at prayer to name a few).

      I’ve thought a little about group dynamics and relationships between groups and noticed how quickly the number of possible relationships grows between group members as the size of a group increases. My maths is no doubt much rustier than yours with your engineering background but I think it’s a factorial !(n-1) for group size n. For example, if there are 2 people there is only 1 relationship, while in a group of 5 people, there are 10 possible relationships. A group of 12 has 66! A triplet however, is the only group where the number of members is equal to the number of relationships. This set me thinking about the simplicity and stablity of groups of 3. A 3rd person offsets the potentially unbalanced nature of one to one relationships where the balance of power could shift unstably from one person to the other or perhaps stay unhealthily with one person. In a group of 3, because there is only 1 relationship per person, the dynamics are still much simpler to understand and work with than with a larger group while being more balanced than a duo. As such I pondered that triplets would be a better ‘unit’ for organised forms of meeting rather than simple one on one interactions or even small gatherings.

      C) Fog and the dark night

      I was interested in your description of 11 year periods of life having recently turned 33! I thought back over the past season and wondered what had defined it for me. Practically there were many elements of the ‘first half of life’ as Richard Rohr would describe them of becoming established in marriage, family, home and career. In that sense the journey has been relatively smooth. The undercurrent throughout that period, which I would probably pinpoint as beginning midway through medical school in my early 20s, was a subtle and outwardly not very dramatic form of internal deconstruction. The puzzling aspect to this is that it has always seemed out of proportion to anything unpleasant I had experienced both objectively in the circumstances of life or even in my experience of the presence of God with me, which I remained conscious of throughout. The classical juanist description of the dark night of the soul (the night of the spirit more than that of sense) is of a withdrawal of conscious experience of God coupled with an intense awareness of the soul having ‘brought this on itself’. Instead I experienced a kind of intense inner grief which was always present but would only surface from time to time. In many ways, this surfacing is a merciful release as it otherwise recedes into a dull heaviness which contributes or perhaps even forms the ‘fog’ itself. The grief is often accompanied by a distinct sense of having been abandoned by God, which is all the stranger given He has remained clearly present throughout. As such I cannot relate my experiences directly to the well recognised descriptions given in various mystical writings, but feel sure they have been instrumental in shaping me over the last season. As with your own descriptions, I could not feel sure of having cleared this particular form of ‘fog’, and as I alluded to earlier, in other ways consider myself to be at the threshold of again ‘putting out to sea’ rather than on the cusp of making landfall.


      1. 1. On Through the River and Critical Realism

        Your comments, particularly those relating to your analysis of ‘On Through the River,’ seem entirely astute and in line with my own perception of the book, together with the significance of critical realism. Though I cannot place the source, I recollect gaining an understanding of how “the ancients” (by which, I think, is meant Aristotle etc) understood wisdom in terms of a capacity to hold two (or more) ideas in (appropriate) tension.

        The Jewish idea of Bet Hamidrash (=a “house of research.” The name comes from the words bet, meaning “house” and doresh which means “to seek, ask, question or research”) (perhaps) takes this further by invoking the importance of each and every individuals’s perspective of each and every one of the fine details of Torah (see here)

        2. On triangulation

        I think it’s accurate to say that this concept is a, if not the, cornerstone of missiology. It’s one of the critical aspects that separates it from Theology (and why a missiological perspective posits there are multiple “theologies,” according to context and perspective). That is one of the aspects of missiology that attracted me so firmly to it. It thus provides a disciplined framework through which can take place a deconstruction of non-rational (i.e. untested; not to be confused with irrational) perspectives (which is, of course, where all knowledge begins, as we are exposed to that which is passed on to us as “truth” by those who teach us).

        Accordingly, I can say, with some veracity, that this is the method that has driven my doctoral research, but more critically myself as I’ve grappled with the underlying reality of the Maize Plant Discipleship project. Thus, it effectively combines personal insight and “faith”, with academic, archival research, with qualitative data collection and analysis of the perspectives of Burkinabé leaders and learners, with a study of leadership and change dynamics, with a habits of perseverance and overcoming trials. Time will tell whether it has truly been worthwhile (“worth the while” that it has taken). This marvellous graphic has frequently helped me to stay / get back on track.

        Beyond this, I can’t immediately think of other examples. In some ways this perhaps reflects the reality that my life has become, both intentionally and unintentionally, narrowed in many ways, as I’ve accepted the yoke of this work and my place in a post-industrial, marginal, liminal geo-spiritual location, where cosmopolitanism and outside-the-box thinking is essentially a rare commodity. This is really rather what I was referring to when I wrote, earlier, of enduring “fog” and in hope, against hope of one day, sometime off experiencing “landfall” — the hope of meeting others ready to journey onwards towards a new, fresh expression of liminal Christian community. Others who are aware of the reality that Babylon / Egypt is truly behind and that a “new land” must be sought. Perhaps this is where thoughts on ‘Beyond Christendom’ come in—which is where, as I mentioned in our correspondence, I intend to take up your consideration of the potentially profound implications of “leadership-as-vulnerable-seeking” or something similar.

        3. On another form of “triangulation”

        I found a stream of (missiological) musing based on the graphical tri-alogue of three overlapping circles (i.e. the classic Venn diagram… which carries another interesting aspect with it, inasmuch as Venn was an early missiological pioneer!). I’m hoping may one day to develop the stream of diagrams into a more useful blog, by expanding a little on the implication that I see within each one. In the meantime, you may get something from having a look at some of the forms my musing took (if you spend any time at all looking through it, do consider starting at the beginning: with diagram no 1!)

        4. On yet another form of “triangulation”

        Incidentally, “triangulation,” so I understand, can also be used to refer to the efforts of one person in a tri-alogue (three way dialogue) to draw another party into a two-person corner, against the third voice. “Beware of being triangulated” is the warning here. I thought this worth mentioning interesting in the context of your own comments about the relative “perfection” (not your word) of the tri-alogue, i.e. in terms of the equal number of potential relationships. My own experience would suggest that three can still be a little too intense in some contexts, though I suspect could be ideal in others.

        I wondered about the potential, in light of your mathematical musings, where the number five stood? Thirteen relationships, if my maths is correct. However, it struck me as particularly interesting in terms of the wheel: 5 being—at least until the developments of modern material science—the minimum number of requisite spokes for a strong, sturdy wheel, based around a “hub” (the Messiah?), and encompassed by a circular unity (Holy Spirit?). Quite separately to this recent though, but worth mentioning perhaps: my own experience with “church planting” (late ’90s, Notts) led me to conclude that I would, in future, only consider pioneering a “fresh expression” with a minimum of 5 families. (Of course, this would mean a far greater number of individual relationships—perhaps, five “pioneers” or “committed seekers” would be a better way of approaching it?)

        4. On “dark nights”

        I have concluded that such 11-year “lives”, or seasons, as we are considering, can overlap. I’m conscious that with one aspect of my work in connection with Burkina, I have possibly concluded a “life” or a season (the pioneering, travelling, contextually interacting season, or lifetime). It was one that, in some ways, left me quite wounded, though in other ways, can be considered to have succeeded in its endeavours: relationships have been established, tested and endured, even as that season led to the next. Immediately prior to this next season, the Lord encouraged me, very clearly, to “Get out of the boat of commerce and walk towards me, on the “water”; you will not sink.” This led to my walking, firmly and intentionally, away from my commercial, bi-vocational lifestyle and directly to my participation in the Fuller doctoral program, which effectively, I have felt encouraged to believe, marked the onset of my next “lifetime.”

        I’ve been encouraged by this thought, since I feel very much that I am still “finding my way” within this particular one. Six years in, another five or so to master the challenges and completely overcome the (limitations of the) wounds of the former lifetime feels possible, even achievable, by God’s grace. The last couple of years have been part of a “long, dark night” for me, with roots in the prior season and to an extent that of the earliest “lifetime” of all: the teenage / youth / young adult years, which, as you know, I found traumatic and psychologically stunting.

        Incidentally, you wrote “Juanist” — I am assuming you meant “Jungist” i.e. “Jungian”? Dr Aron (Highly Sensitive Persons) writes glowingly about Carl Jung, as does a mutual acquaintance of ours, Andrew Taplin. Or perhaps not! In which case: who is Juan?!


  6. Hi John,

    Quite a few thoughts to pick up on there! I have looked at all of the links you shared, including all of the Venn diagrams. I think I might have to come back to some of it in subsequent posts.

    Juanist refers to the mystical theology of St. John of the Cross. The jargon was a bit obscure, sorry about that, although you may know him as the author of The Dark Night of the Soul. His books tend to begin with a poem, originally written in Spanish, with the exposition forming the content of the book. The poem for the Dark Night so the Soul conveys so much with so few words and I have returned to different portions of it time and time again.

    One of the most interesting aspects of the book is that the dark night is referred to throughout the poem in positive, even glad, terms because of the extraordinary benefits worked in the soul as a consequence. For example the first two stanzas of the poem are:

    Into the darkness of the night,
    With heartache kindled into love,
    O blessed chance!
    I went out unobserved,
    My house being wrapped in sleep.

    In the darkness, and yet safe
    By secret ladder and in disguise,
    O blessed chance!
    In darkness, and in secret, I crept out,
    My house being wrapped in sleep.

    He describes the stilling of the ‘senses and faculties’ which allow the soul to escape from it’s enemies the world, the flesh and the devil through being clothed with faith, hope and love. What begins as heartache, develops into a steady burning fire that guides:

    Into the happy night,
    In secret, seen of none,
    Nor saw I aught,
    Without other light or guide,
    Save that which in my heart did burn.

    This fire it was that guided me,
    More certainly than midday sun,
    Where he did wait,
    He that I knew imprinted on my heart,
    In place, where none appeared.

    That the journey takes place in secret and in solitude is again seen as a great advantage as the soul is freed from distractions, interference and ‘willed clinging to created things’. The working of God in the soul is experienced through this burning fire, at times causing longing, at times consolation and at times great pain.

    O night, that led me, guiding night,
    O night far sweeter than the dawn;
    O night, that did so then unite,
    The lover with his Beloved,
    Transforming lover in Beloved.

    After a short discussion of the dark night of sense (the first night) at the start of the book when the soul is brought to recollection and contemplation, he goes on to describe the dark night of the spirit (the second night) which he speaks of as both a deeply awful experience and also as bringing the soul into an abiding union with God, as alluded to above.

    The book is unfinished – he only expounds the first three stanzas and the final five go unexplained, but appear to refer to the state of a soul which is living in union with God. I won’t reproduce the final three verses here but some of the key phrases are “I lay quite still, all memory lost… In my abandonment, I threw away my care”.

    I have always been moved of the descriptions of this love working in the soul, sometimes hidden, sometimes clearly, at times very intensely, gradually producing the effects described above. The sense is very much of the Holy love of God coming close as both a wonderful and terrifying thing – the intense light of Holiness is often too much to bear and produces the pain described above. When the soul is fully and deeply aflame, it is fit to be united with the fire itself, rather like a log burning superficially at first, until the centre is also ablaze and being consumed by the fire. I was initially and have remained captivated by the initial descriptions of the union of the soul with God – something which more than made up for the pain that went before!

    I will continue to reflect on some of the other things you’ve written and respond in due course.



    1. Aha. I am familiar with the title, but not the text itself, nor its content. Thank you for such a fascinating and energised introduction to it. I’ve always been rather off-put by other’s description of The Dark Night of the Soul, but you’ve rather brought it to life with your passion for its message. Food for thought. 

      You ended by writing, “I will continue to reflect on some of the other things you’ve written and respond in due course.”

      Thank you; please do. I’m much enjoying and appreciating our exchange. 



  7. Hi John, have a few more things to add now I’ve had time to reflect. I’m glad you appreciated the last post about The Dark Night of the Soul. There is of course a wealth of writing about contemplative prayer but that book has always stood out to me as uniquely valuable.

    As I went through the images you’d sketched I formed an impression that:
    – the top circle often represented the divine – God, Christ, scripture
    – the left circle the human reality – the context, the world, the culture
    – the right circle then often represented the ‘representatives’ – the church

    I’m aware not all of the images fit this model but that was the one I stayed with. I then thought through the process of engagement between the three spheres and came up with a few thoughts, some of which you’ve outlined already in previous discussions.

    A) Seeing the inner life

    I concluded this was the crucial starting point and the real need for triangulation – that the ‘people of God’ would perceive the true state of the inner life of the culture. I think this is where positivism can be obstructive or unhelpful – like scientific empiricism it can deal with the black and whites of rules, principles, logic and facts, but the inner life is not like this, it has a hidden mystery all of it’s own. I often think this is why our reductionist attempts to explain biological life come up short – living things have an inner life which is not reducible to sense data, at least not that we can measure conventionally. Instrumentalism on the other hand, may be able to recognise the true mystery of the ‘other’ but perhaps concludes that this ‘other’ can never be truly known or understood.

    Perhaps then, the highest application of critical realism could be to truly discern and come to understand the inner life of the other, a genuine appreciation of an inner life which cannot be reduced to ideas. I believe the Hebrew word for this is ‘yada’ i.e. to know – in a sense of knowing the whole person, it implies intimacy. Hosea 6:6 talks about God’s desire for mercy ‘chesed’ and the knowledge of God ‘daath Elohim’; the root of daath being yada. Perhaps developing a true discerning appreciation of the inner life of both the people, and of God in relation to the people, is the beginning of the priestly call (right hand circle).

    B) Kenosis

    This brings me to another thought about the pathway to this true discernment – a theme you raised before in relation to Leslie Newbiggin’s work. Perhaps it is the self-life which is the biggest obstruction to true ‘knowing’. I think of the parable of the speck in the eye and the plank. In this case, the plank is preventing true seeing, that would enable a response based on genuine discerning ‘chesed’ i.e. compassion. This brings me again to the theme of the ‘suffering servant’. The one who voluntary relinquishes rights, supports, defenses, in order to identify fully with the life of the ‘other’ and with the life of God Himself. Of course this process is painful and distressing. Who would volunteer for it? Only those who have been chosen – “I come to do your will oh God, just as it is written of me in the book of the law”.

    Undergoing this process would be the movement from discernment to intercession – in fully identifying with the life of another, one can truly appreciate what is at stake. The importance of triangulation here is to bring a grounded perspective to bear based on the Divine reality, which recognises that in the inner life of the ‘other’ are broken places and crooked places which could be restored and made straight. The importance of being free from distortions of vision becomes more apparent when speaking of such delicate, maybe even dangerous, work – at least emotionally/psychologically.

    C) Vulnerable seeking

    The final thought relates to our recent discussion about leadership. I thought that having identified with the ‘other’ and come to a true place of ‘seeing’, in agreement with God, the process of healing does not begin with finding but rather seeking. The ‘sent ones’ should therefore not be modelling an approach to God where they are primarily finding Him, but rather in need of Him, seeking Him, and perhaps at certain times and in certain ways finding Him, but not completely. The task then, is to convey the need to ‘seek’ while recognising that such seeking takes places from a different starting point, with a different set of challenges. The process of engagement is about conveying the nature of this seeking, the need for it, and the hope that such seeking will indeed result in finding, although perhaps only after significant trials and perseverance. Unless sufficient desire for seeking can be birthed through the process above, the strength to persevere and overcome the trials and tribulations will simply not be there. I believe that the ‘anointing’ given to the priesthood (right circle) is to awaken and strengthen this desire for seeking and to bring encouragement and direction in staying the course while the earthly reality (left circle) and heavenly reality (top circle) are brought closer together – restoration or ‘shuwb’.

    Does any of this line up with your own thinking? I should add that although it seems quite theoretical I am making these reflections in relation to specific people/places I’m currently engaged with.

    Thank you for your encouragement above.


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