This article was made possible by Science for Youth Ministry in association with Luther Seminary and the John Templeton Foundation. Learn more at www.scienceym.org or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/scienceforYM. This is the third of a three part series. Read the first part here and the second part here.
When I was witnessing to my friend on the track team, it never occurred to me to ask my own questions instead of answering every question. And not just facetious or rhetorical questions, but actual questions, my own deeper questions that I didn’t have answers for. I wasn’t trained in my youth group to ask questions in these conversations. I was taught to “defend the faith.” To ask questions would be to give up the high ground. Implicitly, I was taught to remain in the immanent frame when defending the faith, only bringing up what was empirically verifiable. Yet in the immanent frame we are haunted by transcendence―by what can’t be verified―we cannot escape the vulnerability of not knowing everything, we are always in the shadow of our own uncertainty. We are haunted by the sense that what’s true is not just objects but subjects, not just things but people and relationships.1 Truth is not contained simply in measurable data and verifiable results, and by restricting what I knew of truth to facts and figures, I neglected to tend to the truth of my teammate’s personhood. And in missing the opportunity to encounter my teammate as a person I also missed the opportunity to invite God into the conversation.
The truth is, the mystery is much more compelling than the explanation. If we want to open people to an encounter with God, we need to invite them into the mystery of uncertainty, not just offer them an explanation. I had a friend in college who was also a kind of mentor to me. He was in the Master’s program at Azusa Pacific University while I was working on my Bachelor’s. He had years of ministry experience and a ton of theological insight. I brought many of my theological questions to him (of which I had many in my first year of college), always hoping he had an explanation for me. But even though I am sure he could have offered explanations, he always chose to ask his own questions too. I always left our conversations with more questions than answers. He had a disarming way of saying, “I don’t know” that made me feel at ease. It made me feel that, finally, it was okay not to know, it was okay to accept some mystery even while using my brain. Most of all, his “I don’t know” and his willingness to share his own questions somehow reminded me that what was important was not just the questions and answers we shared, but the relationship itself. It was no failure if we couldn’t come up with an answer because the real “win” was that we were willing to share in the mystery.
If youth ministry wants young people to know God, then instead of proving God’s existence and offering immanent answers to immanent questions, and instead of training young people to win arguments with their peers (and their teachers too, sometimes), perhaps it should engage in the practice of friendship and teach young people to be good friends.
What I have learned from my friend is that relationship is the bridge between immanence and transcendence. And not just a superficial or instrumental relationship, but a real friendship. Friendship, as a theological category, is not bound by immanent laws of necessity or obligation. It is reciprocal and voluntary. In this sense, it is never strictly a bridge from here to there but must always be a bridge from there to here too. What I’m talking about here is not a superficial kind of friendship. I’m not just talking about being buddies. I’m talking about a relationship that challenges our preconceptions of self and our predispositions toward only befriending those who are like us. John Swinton, the Chair of Divinity and Religious Studies at the University of Aberdeen, writes,
…Christian friendship, as modeled and lived out in the life and death of Jesus, offers a radically different interpretive framework, within which human relationships are to be understood and worked out… When Christians enter into Christ-like friendships they become ‘new persons,’ who view the world in new ways…2
For friendship to be real, someone has to invade our buffered self and break into the immanent frame. Friendship, then, is a transcendent experience, an encounter with other human beings as persons and subjects, not as objects or instruments. Friendship opens us to mystery and encounter and in so doing, it opens us to reality. Swinton writes, “…friendship forms an integral part of God’s coming shalom.”3 It is in friendship that we find meaning in the world. The world of law, explanation, and reason provides, at best, only a context (or a description of a context) where actual encounter happens. Friendship, as a sort of foretaste of God’s friendship with the world, is the truest meaning of human encounter. While we may know plenty about humans through scientific experimentation, the person can only truly be known in friendship. Friendship exposes the reality of transcendence that can never be contained in the immanent frame—“…friends know each other’s ‘real selves’…”4 In friendship, the stuff of immanence meets the mystery of transcendence, there is a real experience of transcendence in immanence.
This is not pure transcendence. When we encounter someone as a person in friendship, we still encounter them in immanence, the very immanence that cannot contain them. When we encounter God, we encounter God in our experience. This is what led Jürgen Moltmann to claim that, “anyone who stylizes revelation and experience into alternatives, ends up with revelations that cannot be experienced and experiences without revelation.”5 Immanence and transcendence are not to be neatly separated (as they are in the immanent frame), but experienced alongside one another. They are two sides of the same coin. A person is an individual—even a buffered self—in a world of objects, but their meaning (and the meaning of objects too) cannot be contained in rational explanations. An encounter with a person is always a transcendent experience, even in its particularity and immanence. How often do we miss out on the transcendence of encounter (the transcendence of ministry!) when we find ourselves engaged in rational arguments for the existence of God, arguments like the one I was “winning” and was trained to win in high school! How often do our attempts to win an argument for God obscure our ability to encounter others in friendship and thus to encounter God?
What I am talking about is friendship as ministry, friendship that unites our human relationships to God’s relationship with us in Christ through participation. In friendship, my neighbor becomes an “unexpected place to meet God” as, according to Martin Luther, “my neighbor is Christ to me.”6 In a real way, when we encounter one another as friends, we encounter Christ.
Emil Brunner wrote, “…philosophical knowledge of God… does not create communion with God, because it is not knowledge of the God who—since He makes Himself known—creates communion with Himself… God is Person: He is not an ‘It.’”7 The immanent frame cannot contain God. God is not an object,8 but an acting subject who encounters us.9
In teaching young people to “defend the faith,” and to answer every question, we may in fact be teaching them to exclude God from their conversations. If youth ministry wants young people to know God, then instead of proving God’s existence and offering immanent answers to immanent questions, and instead of training young people to win arguments with their peers (and their teachers too, sometimes), perhaps it should engage in the practice of friendship and teach young people to be good friends.10 I was not trained to think this way when it came to “witnessing” and “defending the faith.” Had I, it is doubtful that I would’ve found myself “winning.” Instead, I may have found myself encountering the living God.
1. Moltmann writes, “According to mechanistic theory, things are primary, and their relations to one another are determined secondarily, through ‘natural laws.’ But in reality relationships are just as primal as the things themselves…” Moltmann, God in Creation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985), 11.
2. John Swinton, From Bedlam to Shalom (New York: Peter Lang, 2000), 84.
3. Ibid, 78.
4. Steve Duck, cited in Ibid, 79.
5. Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 7.
6. Sharon G. Thornton, Broken Yet Beloved: a Pastoral Theology of the Cross (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2002), 84.
7. Emil Brunner, Dogmatics, Vol 1: The Christian Doctrine of God (London: Lutterworth Press, 1949), 121.
8. see Ibid, 117.
9. “…God is Subject: addressing us, making Himself known to us.” Ibid, 139.
10. Again, we are not talking about superficial friendship. Instead, we’re after a deep practice of friendship not unlike the practice of “place sharing.” See Andrew Root, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2007).
Wes Ellis is a Member in Discernment in the United Church of Christ and an M.Div. student at Princeton Theological Seminary. He has served in youth ministry and adult Christian education in UCC, UMC, and PCUSA settings, as well as evangelical ministry settings. He is passionate about theology and youth ministry and is convinced that the two belong to each other.