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How do we experience God in a complex world?

Tuesdays at the Table’ is a series of discussions hosted by the Connectional Table that will help us better understand our faith, our church, ourselves. Learn more

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In our lives as individuals and with our churches, we have experiences of God. During a powerful worship service, while serving on a mission trip, in a quiet moment alone or in a relationship with a friend, we may have a special encounter with the Divine.

We're going to talk with Dr. Peter Mageto Maiko about how our experience, language, culture and other factors are important to our faith journeys.

Discussion Guide

Guest: Dr. Peter Mageto Maiko

Dr. Peter Mageto Maiko is an author and professor at Africa University. Photo courtesy Connectional Table. Professor Maiko holds a Bachelors’ degree in Divinity from St Paul’s United Theological College in Kenya, a Masters in Theological Studies and Doctor of Philosophy degree from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary in Illinois, USA. Professor Maiko brings with him a wealth of experience spanning over 25 years which he has obtained from working in ministry and for various universities. Professor Maiko started off his career in 1991 as a Circuit Minister and has ministered in various denominations including in the Aldersgate United Methodist Church, Evansville.

He has also spent a significant part of his career working for universities in Kenya including Daystar university where at the helm of his career there, he held the position of Head of Department, Theology & Pastoral Studies and was promoted through the academic ranks from Lecturer to Senior Lecturer and then to Associate Professor. In the year 2011, Professor Maiko was named Researcher of the year at Daystar University. Professor Maiko has published three books and has many journal publications in reputable publications a in a number of thematic areas including Theology, Education, Peace, and Reconciliation. Professor Maiko also worked as Deputy Vice Chancellor, Academic and Student Affairs for Kenya Methodist University (KeMU). He is married to Irene who is a Forensic Nurse Scientist and they have two children a son based in the USA and a daughter in Nairobi. 

Host: Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj

Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj is a retired clergy member of the New York Annual Conference who has also served in Bombay and Illinois Great Rivers Conferences. Photo courtesy Connectional Table.Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj is a retired clergy member of the New York Annual Conference. He has also served in Bombay and Illinois Great Rivers Conferences.

Dharmaraj has lived in various cultural settings, has been involved in interfaith relations and is actively engaged in global mission. He has written over a dozen books and numerous articles in the areas of Christian mission and interfaith relations. He writes regularly commentary in The Vision, New York Annual Conference’s monthly news magazine. Dharmaraj has served the church-at-large in various capacities including teaching, lecturing, conducting workshops and has served as a consultant both in academic and church settings. He has traveled extensively and worked with both United Methodist Church and ecumenical partners from around the world. He is passionate about world Christianity at work through mutuality in mission engagement.

Dharmaraj holds a Ph.D. in Theology of Mission, an M.A. in Political Science and Public Administration. He has also earned an M.Div, S.T.M and Th.M. degrees in Biblical Languages and Mission Theology.


Rev. Dr. Dharmaraj: Welcome to Tuesdays at the Table conversation. My name is Jacob Dharmaraj. I'm a member of the Connectional Table. The topic for today's discussion is, "How do we experience God in a complex world?" We are delighted to have Dr. Peter Mageto, acting vice chancellor at Africa University as our guest. He's a theologian, and he's also an ethicist. As we begin this conversation, I'm going to ask Dr. Mageto to say a few words about himself. Dr. Mageto, would you please tell us a little bit about yourself, where you have studied, the context in which you do ministry and what brings you to this conversation?

Rev. Dr. Mageto: Thank you, Jacob. Thank you to each one and everyone who is listening and participating in these Tuesday meetings.

Peter Mageto is my name. I was born in one of the Western villages in Kenya, raised in the village, came to the city for studies and got into ministry. I've had opportunity to be a minister of the gospel now, in the church, serving both the rural and the urban congregations before joining the academy. I am married to Irene Mageto and between two of us, God has blessed us with two children, Teddy and Crystal. I love ministry. I studied at St. Paul's United Theological College in Kenya. That's where I did my Bachelor of Divinity. The St. Paul's Theological College a United Theological College is not United Methodist. It is United, that it is Presbyterian, Methodist and Anglican.

I then pursued my masters and my PhD at the Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois and the ministerial context of my work currently, I serve at Africa University, as you have had heard as acting vice chancellor. I've been in this university lasted three and a half years now, almost four years. I came in the university as a provost or as a deputy vice chancellor, responsible for academic affairs. I do ministry in the sense that I care to in sections. That's how I see them. My ministry area of context, it's not just academics. It is also ministerial. As an elder, I get to participate in all activities of an elder that does here in the university, since we run a university chapel. But what brings me to this conversation more interestingly, is the topic, how I saw it. How do we experience God in a complex world?

Rev. Dr. Dharmaraj: We are so glad you were able to join us and share your thoughts on the topic here at this table. And so my question for you is, "Can you explain what you mean to say that, experience is a source and criterion of theology for United Methodists?

Rev. Dr. Mageto: This is how I could give a clear example. I didn't grow up in a Christian family as an individual. My parents were not Christians. I was in fact, the first one to be a Christian in my family. And I became a Christian interestingly through the Campus Crusade ministries in high school. I experienced something different from where I had grown up and the tradition and the region that I had been brought up. When I look at our church, United Methodist, experience becomes even more meaningful as a source and a criterion of theology. By going back again to John Wesley himself, the found of Methodism. If we can remember, born into a very religious home, John Wesley could only come to realize his own experience of God by having experienced it himself.

But we as United Methodists, we stand clear knowing that we believe in the four sources also of understanding and knowing God - tradition, reason, and experience is part of this in faith. When you think about it, if only we look around us, we cannot speak of the theology of any kind. If we can't speak of experience as a source. And I wanted to say this, that it is biblical from Genesis to Revelation, experience is regarded as a source of understanding God, and it cannot be moved away from Saint Paul himself. It cannot be moved away from the prophets. It cannot be moved away from the ministry and life of Jesus Christ. It comes out clearly that the experience is a source and a criterion of theology.

I am reminded of the words of John Wesley. At one point, he said, "I continue to dream and pray about a revival of holiness in our day." I just like that aspect of a revival of holiness in our day, "that moves forth in mission and creates authentic community in which each person can be unleashed through the empowerment of the Spirit to fulfill God's creational intentions." I give this quote just to emphasize the need for us to see experience as a source and a criterion of theology. When the Spirit is upon you, you’ll not remain the same. You become indeed a source through your experience, a source and the criterion of having that relationship with God and sharing it with others.

Rev. Dr. Dharmaraj: You're absolutely right. We need a lot of updating and revival in our churches. John Wesley cared for the life giving, the affirming personal relationship with God. And in one of his often quoted remarks, he said, "I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist, either in Europe America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.” We know Christianity is not a mere doctrine. What worked yesterday will not work today. T. S. Elliot wrote, "Last year’s words belong to last language, and the next year's words await another voice. They change constantly. The current context, multi-contextual situations matter.” My question is, How do our experiences influence our understanding and our interpretation of the Bible in today's context, in today's multi-context?

Rev. Dr. Mageto: We are indeed in a multi-context of all kinds. That makes it even more complex for us. But again, that's what we makes God, God. It is my understanding that we cannot remove our experiences away from the Bible, neither can we take the Bible away from our experiences. Otherwise then, today's context, multi-context basis will not work. But we need to be clear again, when we say, "Our experiences." When I look at the context where we are indeed, and you check through the Bible - the social, the economic, the political - that it reaches. The technological advancements that continue to evolve, it literally gives us an opportunity then, to even be more alert as to what it means for us to provide that experience and understand the Bible clearly.

I was at that point of indicating to you that coming from Africa, most people, they do not realize that Africa is a multi-contextual continent.

Often we treat the continent as if it is one tribe, it is one… But when you go in, then you discover, the experiences of God's people in the continent, is just marvelous. But in order for us to get to use our experiences in understanding of the Bible, there will be times that we look back and we see, and we appreciate those times.

I look at the periods, what I call the historical periods of all the peoples of the earth. We cannot run away from that, whether it is the colonial times, whether it is the independence citizen, whether it is the democratization periods, our understanding of the Bible cannot be removed from the original cultural, and the socioeconomic context. The Bible, as it is written as the word, we truly cherish, as the word of God. Then we, our experiences, we are invited to be able to ask, "What do these words mean to us, in this experience?" How then do we offer an interpretation, that makes it more meaningful in the context of where we are. But how then, do we endorse it, and concretize it in action. Because Jacob, experience is not just about conversion. It is also action.

This experience is not just about reading and memorizing it and saying, "The Bible has spoken to this experience." But it is literally living it out. And that's one of the key concerns that you find with our experiences in our time, how it influences our understanding of the Bible is that, we also need help, not just by doing excuses, you know, reading into the text. But allowing the text to speak to us, doing proper excuses, that allows us to meditate, reflect, concretize and share it out with others.

Rev. Dr. Dharmaraj: Yes, spot on, Dr. Mageto. The Bible speaks to matters of great moments. The fate of nations, wealth and poverty, guilt and forgiveness, the birth of institutions, the afterlife, and much more. The Bible is not a hodge-podge of random religious opinions. When we talk about an experience of God, are we talking about an individual experience of God, or a collective experience of God?

Rev. Dr. Mageto: Thank you - an experience of God is in both ways. It is both individual and collective, and this is important. This is what marks especially the Christian faith and even more so, what I've experienced as an elder in the United Methodist. Think about it. From Genesis to Revelation again, the same Bible. I can just give quick examples to say, “think!” Moses had an individual experience of God. But then, Moses moved this experience of God and allowed the children of Israel to have a collective experience of God. The apostles of Jesus Christ during the transfiguration of Jesus Christ, each individually, they had an experience of God. But can you imagine during Pentecost that the disciples in the upper room, they had a collective experience of God. I believe, Jacob, and all our participants, this might be the best time ever for us to re-imagine again, getting back to that experience of God at the individual and the collective level.

I cherish this a lot, because when I have this relationship, or this experience, and I share it with Jacob and others who are around, then collectively, we may experience. Interestingly, some of the experiences we face are so collective, Jacob. Many of our experiences in this life are collective, at the family level, at the workplace level, at the organizational levels, community levels. They are collective. And, when we spend time to reflect together, whether we are in lecture theater, whether we are in a sanctuary, whether we are in a fellowship in a house of a member, we are experiencing this individually and collectively. And I believe that's why God so decided to say, "Emmanuel, God with us." It doesn't say, "God with me." Experience it, share it. Together, we collectively share this.

Rev. Dr. Dharmaraj: I agree, for it is people Jesus came to save. Not statements or critical doctrines or even denomination. All these exist to serve Christ's mission, not the other way around. And our theological task states, "Some facets of human experience tax our theological understanding. Many of God's people today live in terror, hunger, loneliness, and degradation. Every experience of birth and death, of growth and life in the created world and an awareness of our wider social relations also belong to serious theological reflections." But my question is, "How do we make sense of experiences that challenge our understanding God?"

Rev. Dr. Mageto: Let me give an example of myself. After theological training and I started ministry in the field, one of the greatest experiences I ever faced, and I tried to make sense of it as a young elder, starting in the ministry in the year 1990. I was in a region that was malaria hit. I saw and I experienced where I conducted funerals, at least three funerals a week, of little children dying because of malaria. And I wondered, I can tell you, I experienced as a young elder beginning in the ministry, I asked myself, "Did God call me just to bury the dead young ones?" It was a terrible experience for me in the beginning of my ministry. It was one region in Kenya where malaria is so dominant. It is not one of the experiences you would like to have.

The second example I want to give you again, how to make sense of experiences that challenge our understanding of God. In this region where I was, it was Islam dominated. The congregations are few. Christianity is not with numbers, as other regions in the country. I will tell you, it is one of the worst hit regions of my country in the sense of drought. So famine, hunger, poverty. It is a story that is told every day. Jacob, I would like to share briefly to all the listeners. I remember my parents who were not Christians who lived 12 hours’ drive away. They would send food to me every two weeks, because there was no food in this region where I served.

But what shocked me, it is how the Muslim community called people to worship every Friday and they provided food every Friday. I was shocked. I had not seen it and I was not practicing it as an elder in the congregations I served. So, I discovered that some of my Christians would dress like Muslims, go to the mosque on Friday to collect the food and on Sunday they come to church. And I kept asking myself, did I experience God differently? Are they experiencing God differently? I just give these two examples, just to show you how we make sense of experiences. When the young ones are dying and I'm in the burial and I am conducting their funerals. When I see my members literally going into a mosque to collect the food and yet come to worship because we are not. Then we ask, "Are we serving the same God, are we talking about the same God?"

But, I found encouragement in scripture. And I kept going in this ministry. I remembered prophet Elijah, almost at the point of giving up, and he is being reminded that he can't. A different, a very difficult experience. I remember the experience of Job. But more importantly, I found encouragement where you discover that Paul, as the persecutor of the faithful ones, the Christians. He is turned around and becomes one who becomes a very strong advocate of God.

So, how do we make sense of experiences that challenge our understanding of God? I keep looking around Jacob, and I ask everyone around me, "Is there an experience that changes God?" No. But, there is experience that changes our understanding. And we must continue to encourage each other, that our experiences should not turn us away from God, but our experiences should move us closer to God. Our experiences should even make us desire to want to understand God more and more.

I asked God numerous questions during those periods. But the only way I discovered the secret of understanding God is to see God in the midst of the experience, to allow yourself to start appreciating God in the midst of that experience. Whether it is of torture, whether is of death, whether it is of persecution, whether it is of hunger, whether it is of poverty, whether is of wealth. Allowing yourself to experience God. God is above our experiences. Our experiences are not above God. So, we must learn to also subject our experiences to God.

Rev. Dr. Dharmaraj: Thank you. At the early part of our conversation you said, "Experience alone sometimes can be misleading. And hence, it must be tested by scripture, tradition and reading within the context of Christian community." My individual feelings and experiences are not the final authority when it comes to valid doctrine or faithful theological reflection. My feelings and experiences must be held against the blueprint of scripture, catered within the experience of the church at large.

Again, my question is, "How do we make sense of individual experiences of life and God that are widely different from our own?"

Rev. Dr. Mageto: Oh Jacob, that's one of the great struggles that Christians sometimes, we face. Individual experiences of life and sometimes we use individual experiences to be the gauge, to be the master, to be the standard. I believe that this is one of the things that Jesus Christ himself spoke to his disciples very well. Do not trust, do not seek to be the first, do not sit at the front. I think one of the challenges for me, I became a Christian. I embraced the faith as the Lord spoke to me. I gave my life to the Lord before anyone in my family, my parents. I've watched my parents become bearers of the faith while I am an elder. And one of the things I never did, I kept praying for them.

Both of them were alcoholics and we watched them embrace a gospel without us pushing them. We never casted them out. We never booked our parents. We look at it and we like what we have witnessed and what we have seen. How do we make sense of individual experiences of life? As long as I don't use my experience for judgment, as long as I do not use my individual experience of life and God as a standard for the other. And how do we do that? We must continuously remind ourselves not to be led to temptation. There is the temptation for us to be able to measure ourselves with each other, and in the faith, that's not true. When there's a difference, how we can be able to testify even to the other, is by us living our faith horizontally and vertically.

We can't talk about having experienced God and not being in a relationship with the other. Even the one we use, the one that, this one is different. He is created in the image of God. He is created in the image of God. In other words, the other that you think is different, look at him or her, and remember that you are dealing with the image of God. And let then, your experience of life and of God be of meaning to such images of God. And that has been my desire and my prayer that our life experience and our experience of God does not become a standard of measuring the other. But it becomes an avenue for our seeking more relationship with each other, because God has created both of us in his own image.

Rev. Dr. Dharmaraj: Again, you're absolutely right. Africa is a big continent and there are many nations and numerous languages are spoken and you talked about poverty, hunger, and malaria, and a lot of other challenges, the communities and the churches face and how you address them. And then, we also talked about that we are all made in the image of God. But the question is again, "How do we see the image of God, ones who are not made in our image?" And each generation must take up the struggles and attainments of past generations while setting its own sights even higher. Goodness together with love and justice and solidarity are not achieved once and for all; they have to be realized each day, and it is not possible to settle for what was achieved in the past and complacently enjoy it. My question again, you are a global person. You are a vice chancellor. You studied in the United States. You have students from many parts of Africa. And how would you understand that experience from a global perspective, particularly in today's United Methodist context.

Rev. Dr. Mageto: Thank you, Jacob. How do I understand this from a global perspective? There's nothing like the privileges as I have as acting vice chancellor of the Africa University. We pride ourselves, indeed Jacob, as you said. For those of you not know, over 55 countries in the continent of Africa, you will find that one country is at the Africa University. So, Africa happens at the Africa University every day. Now, then when I take our board of directors of Africa University, they are global leaders. They are from the US, from Canada, from Africa. The beauty of being in the family of United Methodism, in United Methodist Church, in the 21st century, is this global perspective. The United Methodist Church gives us a privilege to see the family, how even God intended it. The family of faith from different, not just geographical, political, social, cultural, but brings them together in the faith we confess.

I see ourselves in the 21st century, as a body called United Methodist as well placed together to continue to champion not just the issues of solidarity, justice, equality, but also to continue with the mission of reaching many others. We talked at a certain point of saving souls. For me, when I see the lives of African students being changed of the one country. A number of these students are on scholarships. They are on support from people who have given around the globe, for the purpose of education, transforming their individual lives, family lives, country lives. So, when I think about the global perspective, we stand in awe of what God is doing through the family called United Methodist Church.

And together, we can continue to interactively look at the transformation that can happen for generations to come, not generations that are past, but generations to come. And that is possible. From my end Jacob, and all those who are participating, I will assure you one thing. That some of our institutions and I take Africa University as an example, under the United Methodist Church it’s just a glimpse of what God can do globally, in bringing us together and in calling us then to that mission of solidarity, of justice, of equity and of transforming lives, as we transform the world.

Rev. Dr. Dharmaraj: Well, thank you Dr. Mageto, for your time and your enriching contribution to this topic. I wish we had more time. In closing, our denomination is going through a crisis. And so, I have this simple question. Do you like to add any of your thoughts on whatever is going on in our denomination and his future? Your perspective as an academic scholar and a teacher and a leader of Africa University.

Rev. Dr. Mageto: I have always said Jacob, very simple, straight response. Whenever I hear this question, I say, "The future church is stronger, in the Lord. The future church is stronger, in the church."

Rev. Dr. Dharmaraj: Amen.

Rev. Dr. Mageto: And the United Methodist Church is not exempt. The future church is stronger.

Rev. Dr. Dharmaraj: Amen.

Rev. Dr. Mageto: Amen.

Rev. Dr. Dharmaraj: Thank very much, Dr. Mageto. I really appreciate your time. We look forward to more conversation in future. God be with you.

Rev. Dr. Mageto: Thank you, Jacob. I truly appreciate the opportunity and the time.

Rev. Dr. Dharmaraj: Thank you.

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