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Holy Disruptions: Holding Both Our Convictions and Our Uncertainties

My first understandings of faith emerged in a tradition that emphasized the certainties of what it meant to be a Christian. I learned about the absolute authority of Scripture as a constant guidepost in my life and about how to identify and avoid pitfalls that the Bible highlighted would not be for my good—including right ways to keep my body, mind, and spirit pure. As an ardent and sincere young believer, I found safety in this scaffolding—a trellis to protect and nurture my growing identity as a follower of Jesus. However, as I continued to unfurl and grow in faith, several disruptions in my life caused me to ask questions and seek out answers that had not been structured by this early formation.

I recall the first jarring memory that complicated my faith journey. It was Dr. Brackenridge’s freshman year Introduction to Bible class, which was my initial exposure to an analytical, rather than devotional, reading and interpretation of Scripture. I can still remember the moment everyone in the class but me joined in mocking laughter about the ridiculousness of Jonah 3, where the entire city of Nineveh—even the animals—repented from the prophetic words of Jonah. Goats and donkeys donning sackcloth and ashes? Certainly not! The professor wondered aloud if this entire story had even taken place. For the first time, I also saw the ridiculous humor in this story, and I grappled to understand what it meant to look at Scripture through a different vantage point than the literal, dichotomous lenses I had previously used. In this disruptive moment, I was invited to suspend what I thought I knew and consider new dimensions of my faith.  

James Fowler makes the case that our faith journey parallels the social and emotional stages that are a part of growing up. In his early “mythic-literal” stage, a child’s (although it sometimes extends to adolescence or adulthood) belief system is guided by one-dimensional, literal interpretations of stories, rules, symbols, and attitudes that function to construct coherent and linear meaning in one’s belief system. For someone in the mythic-literal stage of faith, faith is binary. There is little or no room for complexity and mystery. As I think back on these formative years of my faith, I am grateful for this formation that helped me gain a love and reverence for Scripture and the very tangible sense that the God of the universe was alive and active in my life. However, as seen in my experience in Dr. Brackenridge’s class, I also emerged with an incomplete story of God and a complexity I needed to develop as I journeyed through a life of following Jesus.

On that journey I discovered that I needed a different set of lenses to rightly “read” the complex dimensions of a messier world—rather than maintain the rigid and certain frames that shaped early moments of my faith development. Questions that shaped this exploration included, “What would it look like to embrace a way that allows me to both hold fast to what I know of God and open myself up to what I don’t?” and “What else might be lost in my Christian formation when I hold tightly to either/or mindsets?” As a disciple desiring to grow more into the likeness of Jesus, engaging with these questions was a significant step in my formation.

The invitation, then, as we mature in our faith, is to approach these types of holy disruptions—that is, moments to open ourselves to the movement of the Spirit and opportunities to be more conformed to the likeness of Jesus—with the capacity to both hold our convictions or deeply held beliefs and be willing to be less certain about what we may not know—or may not know in full.

Entertaining Holy Disruptions

Although Dr. Brackenridge rattled me, I was scaffolded by mentors in my college InterVarsity Christian Fellowship group who encouraged me to hold on to both the trustworthiness of Scripture and the truth of Jesus’ embodiment as the Word of God and question ways I might need to deconstruct previously learned ways of reading Scripture that were shaped by my sociocultural/denominational contexts.

As I continued following Jesus, a series of deconstructive moments followed. For instance, in my twenties, I worked as a college pastor with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in a majority White and conservative area of the US. As our regional leaders increased their invitations and partnerships to students and staff of color, I noticed that White students began to leave our chapters, preferring other campus ministries that felt “more familiar.” Weren’t we supposed to be developing student leaders for the next generation? And yet, these invitations were directly decreasing the numbers of students under our discipleship and care!

This holy disruption set off a series of teachings, experiential learning, modeling, and friendships that helped me (and other White college pastors in our region) begin to see the incompleteness of our theology that had formed and supported our participation in White privilege and power and deformed our ability to see the person of Jesus, who cared and advocated on behalf of all students, and who sees and serves those who have been marginalized and oppressed by unjust systems. For many of us college pastors, the way of entering into conversations of race and culture and leading multiethnic chapters was often messy and confusing. In a recent conversation I had with my regional director at the time, he pointed out that this was because many of us had only developed leadership muscles to lead chapters with monocultural norms. Rather than hold to my certainties of chapter growth, ministry philosophies, or personal comfort, I was encouraged by mentors and authors to stay open to holy disruptions of others’ theologies, norms, and experiences different from my own, while holding onto the centrality and certainty of Jesus. My reformation in this season involved confessing my complicity and embracing the not-knowing of unity in diversity so that I could ultimately participate in a richer, more diverse, more complex, more complete community. In my engagement of both Scripture and culture, I was slowly learning to lean not unto my own understanding, certainty, and knowledge (Prov 3:5–6, Rom 12:2) but lean into the mystery and uncertainty of the God who would direct my path. My willingness to admit that I had an incomplete and misshapen formation around issues of race was a necessary moment of my deconstruction that allowed me to stay aligned with the way of Jesus.

Certainty and Mystery

Holy disruption also comes in another form. While there are areas like those above, which require my willingness to admit my misshapen understanding and reshape it, other aspects of my Christian faith require my willingness to live in mystery rather than certainty. There are some things that are truly mysterious and do not have fully known answers. In these matters, the invitation to live in the both/and does not require us to abandon our deeply held convictions but rather to tolerate holding unity in the essentials of Christian faith and mystery in the non-essentials.

How might we hold to the center of our shared convictions—allowing for a space for dialogue, curiosity, and creativity—without collapsing into nonproductive binaries? Anthropologist Paul Hiebert’s theory of bounded, centered, and fuzzy sets can frame this pursuit of holding both truth and mystery. Hiebert describes “bounded set” thinking as static and dichotomous, with the focus on defining one’s location within designated boundaries. The alternative “fuzzy set” thinking is the opposite. It lacks boundaries and definition; reality exists on a continuum of fields that flow into one another. I am drawn to Hiebert’s third frame, “centered set” thinking, which emphasizes directionality rather than boundaries. This type of thinking approaches truth as an acknowledged center, and assumes that, while there is variation in nearness to the center, one’s movement and directionality toward the truth is the critical element. Thus, in “centered set” thinking, one’s knowledge of truth is a trajectory towards a center, rather than the alternatives, which emphasize the clarification of boundaries or, in an opposing manner, an unqualified incorporation of any truth. Perhaps “centered set” thinking offers us a means of holding the center without succumbing to the rigidity of binaries or the collapse of no central convictions.  

Practically, “centered set” thinking helps us embrace the mystery of faith and of one another. For example, through the sacrament of the Eucharist, Christians gather around elements of food and drink to remember Jesus’ last supper with his beloved disciples before his eventual death and resurrection. That said, there has been much tension and disagreement between different faith traditions around a number of elements related to this practice. Wine or grape juice? Leavened or unleavened bread? Is this the actual body and blood of Jesus? Who can administer these elements? Beyond knowing that the Spirit of God is among us and that there is a collective obedience to gather for eating and drinking together, we are invited to both center on the essential meaning of the practice and allow for the variations that are also moving in the same direction of engaging with the mystery of the Eucharist. Other complexities of our faith, such as the Holy Trinity, the meaning of suffering, baptism, or eschatology involve this tension of directionality without sharp boundaries or muddied middles. These elements of mystery have often become problematic due to arguments of certainty rather than “centered set” thinking.

Ironically, and tragically, evangelical churches in the West often confess the great mystery of Jesus Christ as fully God and fully human yet primarily teach their congregants answers with certainty—depriving them of the complexity that can accompany mystery. In my recent conversation with Fuller Chaplain Kevin Doi, he loosely quoted theologian Paul Tillich, saying, “In error, the church has taught that the opposite of faith is doubt, when actually the opposite of faith is certainty.” He suggests that a mature faith involves conviction—rather than certainty—which allows space for mystery and the necessity for the risky task of believing with certain assurances but not all of the answers. Dr. Doi suggests that when churches in the West gravitate toward the illusion of certainty—of either/or thinking—this movement shields its congregants from wrestling with unsettling questions and leaves many clutching for spiritual cliches and anemic theology. 

Practices and Resources for Leaning into
the Both/And

Building Community Around Us. Various spiritual practices aim us toward this faithful way of living in the both/and. As depicted in my story, spiritual companionship with others was an essential means of holding various disruptions and mysteries that have patterned my life. Spiritual companions notice the fears against which we defend, fears that distance us from uncertainty and lack of control. Mentors, spiritual directors, therapists, friends, and professors fill a critical role in both helping us identify blind spots and recognizing our gifts and the work of the Spirit in our lives. Some instrumental resources for my journey include Benner’s Sacred Companions, Dougherty’s Group Spiritual Direction, Tan’s Counseling and Psychotherapy: A Christian Perspective, and Blanton’s Contemplation and Counseling.

Mindfulness and Embodied Practices.
Fuller professors Brad Strawn and Miyoung Yoon Hammer write that people are formed in their character and desires through embodied practices and images that, over time, create formational habits. Given the demanding task lists and anxieties of our lives, it can be difficult to slow down and quiet ourselves—our thoughts, feelings, and what we are doing with our bodies. However, internal reflection and a grounded sense of self create generative spaces to be more present to others’ stories and viewpoints. If we are unable to develop practices of presence, we may inadvertently foreclose on a “holy disruption” before we can fully integrate the new learning or mystery. Adopting ongoing habits such as contemplative prayer, mindful meditation, and practices that consider the whole body (e.g., diet, exercise, Sabbath rest, and play) help recenter and ground us to discern and accept God’s unfolding work in us.

Numerous apps and podcasts give guidance to engage in various forms of prayer, spiritual disciplines, mindfulness, and body relaxation techniques. And some books on this area include Holmes’s Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, Heuertz’s Mindful Silence: The Heart of Christian Contemplation, McBride’s The Wisdom of Your Body: Finding Healing, Wholeness, and Connection through Embodied Living, Strawn and Brown’s Enhancing Christian Life: How Extended Cognition Augments Religious Community, and the anonymously written 14th century classic, The Cloud of Unknowing.

Living in the both/and of conviction and uncertainty is unsettling and devoid of templates or formulas. In fact, the path that frames this type of living is often non-linear, disorienting, and convoluted. However, remaining in an either/or space distances us from the very disruptions that God can use for our good. As we seek to live more faithfully and deeply into the both/and of our faith journeys, we choose to walk the path offered to grow as disciples of Jesus. 

Written By

Amy Drennan is executive director of vocation formation. She holds dual master’s degrees in intercultural studies and marriage and family therapy from Fuller Seminary, as well as a PhD in higher education from Azusa Pacific University, where her dissertation was entitled Attitudes and Behaviors that Enable Leaders in Evangelical Protestant Seminaries to Engage in Adaptive Work. Prior to joining Fuller’s staff, she worked as a licensed clinical therapist and spiritual director. In her current role, she oversees a team of directors who work with Fuller’s apprenticeships, vocation formation leaders, chaplains, and chapel programs.

My first understandings of faith emerged in a tradition that emphasized the certainties of what it meant to be a Christian. I learned about the absolute authority of Scripture as a constant guidepost in my life and about how to identify and avoid pitfalls that the Bible highlighted would not be for my good—including right ways to keep my body, mind, and spirit pure. As an ardent and sincere young believer, I found safety in this scaffolding—a trellis to protect and nurture my growing identity as a follower of Jesus. However, as I continued to unfurl and grow in faith, several disruptions in my life caused me to ask questions and seek out answers that had not been structured by this early formation.

I recall the first jarring memory that complicated my faith journey. It was Dr. Brackenridge’s freshman year Introduction to Bible class, which was my initial exposure to an analytical, rather than devotional, reading and interpretation of Scripture. I can still remember the moment everyone in the class but me joined in mocking laughter about the ridiculousness of Jonah 3, where the entire city of Nineveh—even the animals—repented from the prophetic words of Jonah. Goats and donkeys donning sackcloth and ashes? Certainly not! The professor wondered aloud if this entire story had even taken place. For the first time, I also saw the ridiculous humor in this story, and I grappled to understand what it meant to look at Scripture through a different vantage point than the literal, dichotomous lenses I had previously used. In this disruptive moment, I was invited to suspend what I thought I knew and consider new dimensions of my faith.  

James Fowler makes the case that our faith journey parallels the social and emotional stages that are a part of growing up. In his early “mythic-literal” stage, a child’s (although it sometimes extends to adolescence or adulthood) belief system is guided by one-dimensional, literal interpretations of stories, rules, symbols, and attitudes that function to construct coherent and linear meaning in one’s belief system. For someone in the mythic-literal stage of faith, faith is binary. There is little or no room for complexity and mystery. As I think back on these formative years of my faith, I am grateful for this formation that helped me gain a love and reverence for Scripture and the very tangible sense that the God of the universe was alive and active in my life. However, as seen in my experience in Dr. Brackenridge’s class, I also emerged with an incomplete story of God and a complexity I needed to develop as I journeyed through a life of following Jesus.

On that journey I discovered that I needed a different set of lenses to rightly “read” the complex dimensions of a messier world—rather than maintain the rigid and certain frames that shaped early moments of my faith development. Questions that shaped this exploration included, “What would it look like to embrace a way that allows me to both hold fast to what I know of God and open myself up to what I don’t?” and “What else might be lost in my Christian formation when I hold tightly to either/or mindsets?” As a disciple desiring to grow more into the likeness of Jesus, engaging with these questions was a significant step in my formation.

The invitation, then, as we mature in our faith, is to approach these types of holy disruptions—that is, moments to open ourselves to the movement of the Spirit and opportunities to be more conformed to the likeness of Jesus—with the capacity to both hold our convictions or deeply held beliefs and be willing to be less certain about what we may not know—or may not know in full.

Entertaining Holy Disruptions

Although Dr. Brackenridge rattled me, I was scaffolded by mentors in my college InterVarsity Christian Fellowship group who encouraged me to hold on to both the trustworthiness of Scripture and the truth of Jesus’ embodiment as the Word of God and question ways I might need to deconstruct previously learned ways of reading Scripture that were shaped by my sociocultural/denominational contexts.

As I continued following Jesus, a series of deconstructive moments followed. For instance, in my twenties, I worked as a college pastor with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in a majority White and conservative area of the US. As our regional leaders increased their invitations and partnerships to students and staff of color, I noticed that White students began to leave our chapters, preferring other campus ministries that felt “more familiar.” Weren’t we supposed to be developing student leaders for the next generation? And yet, these invitations were directly decreasing the numbers of students under our discipleship and care!

This holy disruption set off a series of teachings, experiential learning, modeling, and friendships that helped me (and other White college pastors in our region) begin to see the incompleteness of our theology that had formed and supported our participation in White privilege and power and deformed our ability to see the person of Jesus, who cared and advocated on behalf of all students, and who sees and serves those who have been marginalized and oppressed by unjust systems. For many of us college pastors, the way of entering into conversations of race and culture and leading multiethnic chapters was often messy and confusing. In a recent conversation I had with my regional director at the time, he pointed out that this was because many of us had only developed leadership muscles to lead chapters with monocultural norms. Rather than hold to my certainties of chapter growth, ministry philosophies, or personal comfort, I was encouraged by mentors and authors to stay open to holy disruptions of others’ theologies, norms, and experiences different from my own, while holding onto the centrality and certainty of Jesus. My reformation in this season involved confessing my complicity and embracing the not-knowing of unity in diversity so that I could ultimately participate in a richer, more diverse, more complex, more complete community. In my engagement of both Scripture and culture, I was slowly learning to lean not unto my own understanding, certainty, and knowledge (Prov 3:5–6, Rom 12:2) but lean into the mystery and uncertainty of the God who would direct my path. My willingness to admit that I had an incomplete and misshapen formation around issues of race was a necessary moment of my deconstruction that allowed me to stay aligned with the way of Jesus.

Certainty and Mystery

Holy disruption also comes in another form. While there are areas like those above, which require my willingness to admit my misshapen understanding and reshape it, other aspects of my Christian faith require my willingness to live in mystery rather than certainty. There are some things that are truly mysterious and do not have fully known answers. In these matters, the invitation to live in the both/and does not require us to abandon our deeply held convictions but rather to tolerate holding unity in the essentials of Christian faith and mystery in the non-essentials.

How might we hold to the center of our shared convictions—allowing for a space for dialogue, curiosity, and creativity—without collapsing into nonproductive binaries? Anthropologist Paul Hiebert’s theory of bounded, centered, and fuzzy sets can frame this pursuit of holding both truth and mystery. Hiebert describes “bounded set” thinking as static and dichotomous, with the focus on defining one’s location within designated boundaries. The alternative “fuzzy set” thinking is the opposite. It lacks boundaries and definition; reality exists on a continuum of fields that flow into one another. I am drawn to Hiebert’s third frame, “centered set” thinking, which emphasizes directionality rather than boundaries. This type of thinking approaches truth as an acknowledged center, and assumes that, while there is variation in nearness to the center, one’s movement and directionality toward the truth is the critical element. Thus, in “centered set” thinking, one’s knowledge of truth is a trajectory towards a center, rather than the alternatives, which emphasize the clarification of boundaries or, in an opposing manner, an unqualified incorporation of any truth. Perhaps “centered set” thinking offers us a means of holding the center without succumbing to the rigidity of binaries or the collapse of no central convictions.  

Practically, “centered set” thinking helps us embrace the mystery of faith and of one another. For example, through the sacrament of the Eucharist, Christians gather around elements of food and drink to remember Jesus’ last supper with his beloved disciples before his eventual death and resurrection. That said, there has been much tension and disagreement between different faith traditions around a number of elements related to this practice. Wine or grape juice? Leavened or unleavened bread? Is this the actual body and blood of Jesus? Who can administer these elements? Beyond knowing that the Spirit of God is among us and that there is a collective obedience to gather for eating and drinking together, we are invited to both center on the essential meaning of the practice and allow for the variations that are also moving in the same direction of engaging with the mystery of the Eucharist. Other complexities of our faith, such as the Holy Trinity, the meaning of suffering, baptism, or eschatology involve this tension of directionality without sharp boundaries or muddied middles. These elements of mystery have often become problematic due to arguments of certainty rather than “centered set” thinking.

Ironically, and tragically, evangelical churches in the West often confess the great mystery of Jesus Christ as fully God and fully human yet primarily teach their congregants answers with certainty—depriving them of the complexity that can accompany mystery. In my recent conversation with Fuller Chaplain Kevin Doi, he loosely quoted theologian Paul Tillich, saying, “In error, the church has taught that the opposite of faith is doubt, when actually the opposite of faith is certainty.” He suggests that a mature faith involves conviction—rather than certainty—which allows space for mystery and the necessity for the risky task of believing with certain assurances but not all of the answers. Dr. Doi suggests that when churches in the West gravitate toward the illusion of certainty—of either/or thinking—this movement shields its congregants from wrestling with unsettling questions and leaves many clutching for spiritual cliches and anemic theology. 

Practices and Resources for Leaning into
the Both/And

Building Community Around Us. Various spiritual practices aim us toward this faithful way of living in the both/and. As depicted in my story, spiritual companionship with others was an essential means of holding various disruptions and mysteries that have patterned my life. Spiritual companions notice the fears against which we defend, fears that distance us from uncertainty and lack of control. Mentors, spiritual directors, therapists, friends, and professors fill a critical role in both helping us identify blind spots and recognizing our gifts and the work of the Spirit in our lives. Some instrumental resources for my journey include Benner’s Sacred Companions, Dougherty’s Group Spiritual Direction, Tan’s Counseling and Psychotherapy: A Christian Perspective, and Blanton’s Contemplation and Counseling.

Mindfulness and Embodied Practices.
Fuller professors Brad Strawn and Miyoung Yoon Hammer write that people are formed in their character and desires through embodied practices and images that, over time, create formational habits. Given the demanding task lists and anxieties of our lives, it can be difficult to slow down and quiet ourselves—our thoughts, feelings, and what we are doing with our bodies. However, internal reflection and a grounded sense of self create generative spaces to be more present to others’ stories and viewpoints. If we are unable to develop practices of presence, we may inadvertently foreclose on a “holy disruption” before we can fully integrate the new learning or mystery. Adopting ongoing habits such as contemplative prayer, mindful meditation, and practices that consider the whole body (e.g., diet, exercise, Sabbath rest, and play) help recenter and ground us to discern and accept God’s unfolding work in us.

Numerous apps and podcasts give guidance to engage in various forms of prayer, spiritual disciplines, mindfulness, and body relaxation techniques. And some books on this area include Holmes’s Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, Heuertz’s Mindful Silence: The Heart of Christian Contemplation, McBride’s The Wisdom of Your Body: Finding Healing, Wholeness, and Connection through Embodied Living, Strawn and Brown’s Enhancing Christian Life: How Extended Cognition Augments Religious Community, and the anonymously written 14th century classic, The Cloud of Unknowing.

Living in the both/and of conviction and uncertainty is unsettling and devoid of templates or formulas. In fact, the path that frames this type of living is often non-linear, disorienting, and convoluted. However, remaining in an either/or space distances us from the very disruptions that God can use for our good. As we seek to live more faithfully and deeply into the both/and of our faith journeys, we choose to walk the path offered to grow as disciples of Jesus. 

Amy Drennan

Amy Drennan is executive director of vocation formation. She holds dual master’s degrees in intercultural studies and marriage and family therapy from Fuller Seminary, as well as a PhD in higher education from Azusa Pacific University, where her dissertation was entitled Attitudes and Behaviors that Enable Leaders in Evangelical Protestant Seminaries to Engage in Adaptive Work. Prior to joining Fuller’s staff, she worked as a licensed clinical therapist and spiritual director. In her current role, she oversees a team of directors who work with Fuller’s apprenticeships, vocation formation leaders, chaplains, and chapel programs.

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