How to Catch God in a Butterfly Net: Lesson #1, Elevate Doctrine Over Inner Experience

“What I believe, and have dedicated my life to reversing, is that we have not moved doctrine and dogma to the level of inner experience.” -Richard Rohr, author of 'The Divine Dance' The first thing to do if you want to kill the butterfly that you have caught in your net is to elevate doctrine over inner experience. It’s much easier to trust an idea than it is to trust the soul or spirit in someone else. An idea can be contained and pinned down through logic, explanations, and formulas; but there is no containing the Christ in the other, the hope of glory in the other. And there’s nothing more frightening than being confronted with something that cannot be contained, which is Christ— and especially Christ in the other. For Christ in the other is really the most Christlike of all—not belonging in this world, always siding with the outcasts, doing all of his work on the margins—and is therefore most disruptive and therefore easiest to crucify, which is an understandable response and deserving of a fair amount of grace for the persecutors, because it is painful to be disrupted, and Christ understood better than anyone that ignorance deserves no shame or condemnation when on that towering cross he said, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We killed him anyway. It’s easier to retreat back into your own head, into your own ideas (which are deeply personal things because our own ideas are intertwined with our own stories and our own egos), than it is to enter into the messy areas of someone else’s heart. That’s because there is no other drug, no other high, quite like being right, nothing as addicting as moral outrage, and it’s much easier to trust in your own right-ness than to trust in the inner experience of someone else—especially when that “someone” has ideas that collide with your own ideas or perhaps that someone was transformed by ideas that differ from the ideas that spurred your own transformation. But if an inner experience, whether birthed out of rigid fundamentalism or raging progressivism, leads to loving more fully—both of others and of oneself—then is anyone to scoff at love?

And so, each must evolve and plunge deeper into the ultimate reality of love at his or her own pace, pulled along by whatever ideas find them and meet them in their brokenness, as long as those ideas do not fuel ignorance, arrogance, or exclusion: the unholy trinity. At the same time, often evolution entails recklessly living out of one’s own ego, feeding off of this unholy trinity, building his or her own Tower of Babel, even if it is destined to fall, even if we and all the angels see how the construction ends, because some of the greatest spiritual awakenings involve choking on the dust of our labor when all has collapsed; because it’s only then that we can see the world for what it really is: when everything we thought was important drastically fails and we come into contact with something otherworldly—heaven—instead. The person on this path might need the most grace of all, the most patience, for any judgment only fuels their stubbornness. Often times those towers destined to fall are built by the religious with the bricks of doctrine. In the early stages of construction, the structure might appear strong, as brick structures are; but then, the narrowness and smallness of the building is revealed, and those in the city realize only a few will be let in; and, decades later, as its walls climb higher, many are kept out, since that’s what walls do; and generations later, the tower hovers high above the city. But, rather than standing as a beacon of hope, as a church should be, it is a representation of exclusivity, and, oh, it is as if everybody in the city can see right through its holy, self-righteous facade except those inside, and perhaps that’s because they have not dared go outside, for why would they enter into a space of introspection or see through the eyes of someone else who is most different from them if they have already attained the Absolute? And yet, they’ll ring that bell every day at twelve, that great evangelism call, just to feel good about themselves, convinced they’re sharing the truth with lost souls destined to burn. And here we all stand, five hundred years after the Reformation, suffocating in a cloud of dust. That is not to say doctrine should be abandoned. But, the second that doctrine leads to dehumanizing someone else or refusing to hear the voice of the other, that is when doctrine should be abandoned. When I—having gained significant knowledge about the Bible for the first time in my life—used this knowledge to “lead” someone else, falsely thinking I knew all the answers and attained all the formulas, instead of genuinely listening to how that person's life experiences and beautiful thoughts might have been evangelizing to me and leading me into a deeper, messier awakening, then that is when doctrine should be abandoned. When I—a white, privileged male, blind and ignorant—was invited to attend a black church one Sunday, but only critiqued the theology that was being preached from the pulpit in the back of my head—fueled by the arrogance I adopted by getting a Bible degree—instead of daring to see the generations of racial and systemic injustice, and the abundance of Christlike hope, being echoed back to me in that heaven-like chapel, then that is when doctrine should be abandoned. When I am engaging in the tension of a conversation with differing views but am formulating responses in my head rather than truly listening and attempting to understand the legitimate experience of the person sitting across from me, then that is when doctrine should be abandoned. If there is a place for politics, there is a place for doctrine. If there is a place for debate, there is a place for doctrine. However, the dance of politics and debate is for each side to polish the other, for each side to evangelize to the other, and for each side to be heard unequivocally; and, at its finest, for those ideas to be left in the courtroom or on the stage, and for two people who couldn’t be more different in their cerebral worlds to go grab beers together afterwards and discuss their deep struggles with life and with love and unite around their brokenness. That is because they realize they are not their minds; they are their hearts. They realize their lives are not about their ideas; their lives are about how they love.

But if you want to kill the butterfly that you have caught in your net, then build your tower with ideas. Most people these days just seem to be about being right, which leaves little room for politics, debate, or doctrine—only outrage.

By Stephen Copeland

This essay was first published on