Another Look: Jeff Dunn – Circle or Cross?


Note from JD: This essay owes much to the thoughts of G. K. Chesterton from his classic work, Orthodoxy.

This is an interactive essay, one that requires your participation. You will need a piece of paper, a pencil or pen or crayon or some sort of marker, and a compass or something you can trace around to make a circle, such as a soup can. Go gather your materials. I’ll wait.

No, really. Go get your things. You need will need them in order to “get” what I will be talking about.

Got them? Good. Mmmm…Campbell’s Chunky Chicken and Noodle. Good choice.

Now, on your nice white piece of paper, I want you to draw a circle. If you have a compass (the kind you used in geometry, not the type you use in the woods when you want to find your way), you can spread it out to make it as big as the paper will allow. If you are tracing, well, your circle will only be as large as the can. Any size circle will do, actually. Are you done? Do you have a perfectly round circle? Good.

The circle is the basis for most all mathematics. It led to what we now know as geometry and calculus. From the circle we get the wheel which, along with gears (also circles), puts the world around us in motion. The circle, if drawn properly, is a perfect shape. There are 360 points, or degrees, in your circle, each one equidistant from the center point. If you draw a straight line from the center point to the any point on the circle, you have the radius. A line that goes from one point on the circle to another while passing through the center point is the diameter.  The distance around the circle is called the circumference. The ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter is measured as pi, an irrational number, meaning its digits never repeat and never end. It short form, pi is equal to 3.14159. Modern computers have been able to measure pi in digits exceeding a trillion without the sequence repeating.

Have I lost you yet? Hang in there—our lesson in math is just about over.

The circle is about as perfect of a shape as you will find. But it is a finite shape. It cannot grow larger or smaller. Look again at the circle you drew on your paper. In order to make it even one degree larger, you will have to recreate the entire circle. You can’t just stick another dot in there and make it bigger. A circle is 360 degrees period. If you want a circle with a larger diameter, you have to start over. Circles may be a perfect shape, but they cannot change. They are stuck being what they are.

Many of us want our Christian lives to be like the circle. We have Jesus as our center, and everything revolves around him. What is wrong with that? We use the Bible as the radius, checking and rechecking verses in the Bible to be sure we are staying in proper orbit around the center, Jesus. Each point in our lives, all 360 of them, must stay in the proper place, otherwise we might become warped in our thinking. Then we will not be able to turn like a circle should. We will be “out of round.” If that happens, get the Bible and find out where we have gone wrong. Our goal is to stay a perfect circle. There is no growth, of course. We can’t make our circle any larger–we would have to deconstruct it first, and that would involve great pain, great stress, incredible turmoil. No, that is not what we want at all. Peace–that’s what a circle is. Perfect and peaceful. Why mess with that?

Let’s make another drawing on your paper. You can do it on the same side at as the circle if you like, or you can turn your paper over. Ready? Draw one vertical line–a line up and and down. It doesn’t have to be perfectly straight. As a matter of fact, it will be more real if it isn’t straight. Now, starting about a third of the way from the top of this line, draw a horizontal line through the vertical line. Make it as large or small as you like. You have just drawn a cross. A cross is not a perfect shape. Euclid did not use a cross when he developed our modern theories of geometry. A cross is a coarse object, not perfect in any sense. Just two lines that intersect somewhere.


Yet for the Christian, the cross is where our lives end, and where they begin. You cannot be a Christian without the cross. Let me say that again: You cannot be a Christian without the cross. And the place where the two lines intersect? That we can call the paradox of Christianity. An intersection of two ideas that don’t go together.

God becoming man. Now really–how can the God who created the entire universe shrink himself to become a newborn baby?

God the man suffering and dying. Again, how can that be? How can God, who is the creator of life, succumb to death?

There are many other paradoxes that form the teaching Christians are to follow. To be rich, you must become poor. To live, you must die. The weak person is the strongest. You want to get even with an enemy? Love him. These are the paradoxes we find at the intersection of the cross.
Then there is the whole thing about faith. We are to believe something before we see it. We are to have faith in something we don’t understand. This faith makes up the biggest paradox of all. Parker Palmer puts it well in his book, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. He says:

The deeper our faith, the more doubt we must endure;
the deeper our hope, the more prone we are to despair;
the deeper our love, the more pain its loss will bring:
these are a few of the paradoxes we must hold as human beings.
If we refuse to hold them
in hopes of living without doubt, despair, and pain,
we also find ourselves living without faith, hope, and love.

Great. So in order to have the Christian virtues we all want to display—faith, hope, and love—we have to endure doubt, despair and pain. Let me get back to my circle. It is peaceful. I just keep myself at the same distance from Jesus, using verses in the Bible to check and be sure I am “in round.” The cross causes too much confusion. I don’t understand these contradictions. Lose my life in order to find it? Believe before I understand? That is much too hard.

I cannot grow in my circle. It is finite. It cannot be other than what it is. But look at the cross you drew. Use your pencil and extend one of the lines, any one you like. Draw it to the edge of the paper. Then onto your table, across the floor, out the window, across your lawn to your neighbor’s house. The lines of the cross are infinite. They can go on forever.

And they do.

So this day you must choose. Do you live in your safe, perfect circle? Or do you embrace the cross of paradox and contradiction? There is safety and predictability in the circle. You get to be in control. And when people look at you, they see symmetry. A circle is nice and neat and tidy. People will look at you and see a good person. The circle is a place where you can have a nice, safe life.

Or do you choose the cross? Two lines, unevenly drawn, that intersect in inconsistencies. There are challenges to what you think is right. Things are turned upside down from what you think they should be. You are called to believe when you can’t see. You are told to trust when it doesn’t make sense. And here is the kicker. The cross means your death. It is the death of you being in charge. Death of you controlling what is right and what is wrong. It means you are dead—and the life you now live is Christ Jesus living through you.

He is not a tame lion, you know. He won’t do as you please. He will lead you to places you didn’t think you should go. He will not stay nice and round. If you go the way of the cross, you will be a misshaped misfit in this world. People, especially people of the circle, will tell you just how wrong you are to be doing what you do.

The only consolation you have is that you will walking the way of the cross with Jesus. And really, what else is there to consider?

33 thoughts on “Another Look: Jeff Dunn – Circle or Cross?

  1. Hi Jeff

    I like the general dift of what you are getting at. However, this: ” We use the Bible as the radius, checking and rechecking verses in the Bible to be sure we are staying in proper orbit around the center, Jesus”, extrapolated into the “elliptical” orbit along with other “checks & balances”, should come to the same conclusion you end with.

    The cross – life is part of that proper orbit, where else can we learn of that besides Scripture ?

    If you take the Holy Spirit out & His historical leading of the church & make it only ” we use the bible…”, then all sorts of biblical things negating the cross-life, come into play. So I would say the leading of the Spirit takes us into the transcendence of paradox you mentio and we can see His path through God’s community past & present.


  2. robin, I appreciate your responses, insights and critique of my comment(s). You make good points, ones that I’m not unaware of. It seems to me that whatever course we plot in this regard we run a risk of missing the boat.

    My own theological tendency, recognizing how likely missing the boat is no matter what course I take, is to opt for an understanding and orientation which depends on maximal grace, grace plentiful enough to absorb and transform my mistakes, and those of others. Perhaps this is wishful thinking; but I don’t see that I, or anyone else for that matter, has any other option, except an approach that is stingy in its understanding of grace, and places much faith on our ability to “get it right”, which includes getting right the understanding of many of the things reported about Jesus in the Gospels, with regard to what he did and said.

    This does lead me into extra-Biblical terrain; for instance, I believe in universal reconciliation. It’s a risk, but then every approach is a risk.


  3. I guess I misunderstood, I often encounter Christians who ignore Christ’s teachings because they may find these to be works based or liberal etc. But still, how can you keep this entity from evolving into something completely different than what it is supposed to be?


  4. Hi Robert, well let’s use Abraham Lincoln as an example, everything I hear about the man makes me admire him (and desperately wish we had a candidate like him in the present time!). His ideas and actions inspire countless people up to this day. In the case of Jesus, we believe He is the divine Son, we believe that His Spirit indwells us and gives us a lasting bond with Him. So the stories that his early followers passed on and eventually preserved in writing give us a glimpse on how he talked, his teaching, the life he lived and the things he valued. This forms a basis or groundwork upon which the Holy Spirit builds that indwelling relationship, we start to see things like He did, to fight for the things he fought for, see things through His eyes and know what pleases Him and His Father. This is how I know Him. I think His words are as powerful now as they ever were, I think I will never reach a time where I will say I have it all and I can move past the Gospels.. The church you describe can end up pretty much like the religious establishment in His day, practically at odds with Him because they have so miscalculated what God really wanted.


  5. robin, How are you supposed to know a person from the reports of few words he said and actions he performed 2000 years ago? Would you say that you intimately knew any other person on that basis?


  6. Hi JEFF DUNN,

    glad you are back . . .
    I read your post and thought “Jeff’s words about Christian paradox carry Franciscan overtones” . . .

    I think St. Francis would have felt at home with some of your examples, having written himself “in dying, we are born to eternal life”

    Great post for Holy Week!


  7. It is not the cross or my cross, but Jesus’ cross that “saves”; and it is only in his resurrection that we know that. The way of the cross for us is in living the life of a forgiving, forgiven, reconciled and reconciling community and person; the carrying of our cross is when we make Jesus’ cross our own by living a reconciled and reconciling life. The shape of the life that comes from living in such a way is a circle, or ellipse, always extending to include more and more people in the reach of loving community.


  8. The personal cross is in living the life of forgiveness and reconciliation that the cross and resurrection of Jesus make possible, not in being bound to words and actions uttered 2000 years ago. When we bind ourselves to those words and actions, we delimit that freedom with which we may engage in reconciliation and forgiveness as persons and as a community, which requires great freedom, and we tether ourselves to dead words on a page rather than to the living person in our midst, the person of Jesus. This actually leads to avoidance of the cross.


  9. I believe in the practice of forgiveness and reconciliation made possible through the the risen, living and reconciling Jesus present in the church and in the world. If you think what I’m saying means believing in a doctrine about Jesus, and not practicing a way of life grounded in the living Jesus, you’ve misunderstood my comment. The church’s function in this world is as the community of reconciliation and forgiveness that finds its power for reconciliation in the presence of Jesus.

    The words and actions of Jesus during his mortal life, as remembered and witnessed by the early church in the light of their resurrection experience of his ongoing and living presence-beyond-death, are not binding absolutes on the life of the community. When these sayings and actions are treated as some sort of new requirement imposed on the community, they smother the living, evolving (if I may be so bold as to use this word, given my ambivalence about it in other contexts and discussions) relationship and new life that Jesus in his resurrection bequeaths to and undertakes with us. They do not provide enough room for the kinds of dynamic life that a community of reconciliation needs to thrive, because they are imperfect memories that, when treated as binding absolutes, hamper the new life and community the founding experience gave birth to.

    The idea that we are bound by these words and acts, instead of freed by the experience and reality that gave birth to them, is actually part and parcel with believing that we are “saved” by doctrine rather than a person. I’m saying just the opposite.


  10. I guess I could add to the voices here saying, “Good analogy, Jeff! And good to hear from you again!”


  11. “…this is why the rich young ruler completely missed his chance to enter God’s kingdom.”

    I don’t know…I have this cool feeling that the rich young ruler was given another chance and “got it” later down the line. No evidence of this, of course, just this sense that God’s mercy and forgiveness is amazingly patient and repetitive.


  12. I don’t see how one’s belief in atonement can be used to nullify the things Jesus said and His demands on us. So the doctrine of justification by faith means the sermon on the mount, and everything else Jesus said and did does not matter because we are forgiven anyway? How can you believe in a person when you classify everything he said as irrelevant or possibly erroneous? How can you believe in someone you don’t know? Are we supposed to believe in a message or a person? Does the doctrine save us or the Son?


  13. I agree, being a Christian means so much more than being a good boy scout, this is why the rich young ruler completely missed his chance to enter God’s kingdom.


  14. Yes, but last year’s world series came oh so close……..
    Great to hear from you: let all God’s broken children PLAY BALL….


  15. Amazing Insight, even more amazing is the fact that was shared wasn’t human thought. Inspired by the Holy Spirit and shared through humans. Like a parable.


  16. Thank you, ChrisS. You said succinctly what I fumbled around to say.

    By the way, there is no “perfect circle” life. All life involves suffering and pain as well as times of immense joy and pleasure. And God is there in it all.


  17. The way of the cross is not a self inflicted, morose, life style. It is an acceptance of God’s sufficiency in whatever form it arrives. It is Christ being all in all. How that looks in individual lives is as varied as those lives. I just wanted to add that point as I think sometimes people think it means there’s a real down and dour look to it. Taking up our cross means living the resurrected life of surrender, expanse and freedom. Resurrection is an empty word without the cross. They are dependent on each other. There is no such thing as living one without the other. We must each take up our cross and go where that leads. Through many tribulations we shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven.


  18. I should have modified the last part to read: “…(it’s gravitational pull / His loving arms).”


  19. Good insights, I always appreciate reading what you have to write. And ditto to the particle-wave duality, it has been realizations about the physical world such as that have helped give me perspective and shaped my understanding when it comes to theology, recognizing how complex and unintuitive reality can actually be. Some realities are completely contradictory to the ways our brains are hardwired to think.

    The first thing I thought of after reading the perfect circle image was an imperfect circle, otherwise known as an *ellipse.* An ellipse is not perfectly round and is instead stretched out in different directions. And just as we here on Earth elliptically orbit around the Sun, there are seasons where we are farther (aphelion) and closer (perihelion) than others. Likewise, in our Christian walk, there are seasons of warmth and closeness, as well as coldness and separation. But regardless, the (Sun / Son) is great enough to keep us from careening too far away, and so we are therefore indefinitely stuck in it’s (gravitational pull / loving arms).


  20. I no longer believe, if I ever really believed, in the either/or set forth in this post: Either follow Jesus in his cross-life, or choose not to follow, and be outside his cross-life in the ; circle or cross. Oh, I know plenty of evidence can be adduced from the New Testament, a good part of it said by the Jesus of the Gospels, in support of these alternatives.

    But I’ve come to discover that my faith resides in the risen, living and forgiving Christ, the one who came back to his community and the world offering only love and reconciliation, and new life not subsumed under the old ways, any of them. Along with that, I’ve come to believe that neither Jesus in his mortal life, nor the community’s memories of his mortal life, were infallible. What gives me hope, what is new to me, is the new reconciled life offered by Jesus through his community, one in which either/or is no longer operative, and grace is freely and unconditionally extended to all, regardless of ability or performance.

    So, for me, the cross is in the center of the circle, even though it may extended in every direction beyond the circle, which may give it shape but cannot contain it. For its part, the cross expands the circle. But the Christian life as I’ve come to understand it is like elementary particles, which must be understood and observed as both particle and wave, despite the fact that these two descriptions seem contradictory according to common sense. The paradox is that the circle and the cross exist together, not as an either/or.

    It’s Jesus’ cross, not my own, which saves me; and his cross was planted firmly in the center of the world, and its suffering and alienation. That’s also where he rose again, with life-giving hands extended in forgiveness and love.


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