Circular Thinking

The first day of the Summer Residency for my Doctorate in Higher Educational Leadership program started with a “get to know each other” exercise. We were each given a sheet of paper from a flip-chart and some colored markers. We were instructed to spread out and create a sheet that described who we are with the understanding that we would share our creation with the cohort. A great and fun idea. Who doesn’t want to get to share who they are? So, I wandered out of the classroom to find a quiet place to create my sheet.

When I came back into the room I discovered how linear my thinking was, as you can see below. Next to mine is a photo of my friend Amy Bronson’s creation. As I shared my sheet with the class, I simply worked down the list, discussing each of the bullet points – quite linear. As Amy discussed her story, she took us on a journey around her sheet – almost in a circular manner.

There is a significant different between Eastern and Western thought. One of those differences is our actual thinking process. Western thinking is quite linear – steps 1,2,3, leading to a final outcome. Eastern thinking is more process-oriented and “circular.” The focus isn’t about getting to the final outcome but the pilgrimage. Its more about the journey than the outcome.

We need to remember that Hebrew thinking was Eastern, which means the Hebrew scriptures were written by Eastern thinkers. Notice how the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, is written in story and journey form. It doesn’t give us exacting formulas to land on, but principles to follow (the Proverbs are a great example of this). In our Western thinking, we tend to presume that the New Testament follows the Old Testament linearly. We must also remember that Jesus was trained and grew up in an Eastern culture, learning the Hebrew scriptures. (This would be true of the Apostle Paul and most, if not all, of the other New Testament writers who constantly circled back to the Hebrew scriptures as they developed their own understanding of Jesus and his anointing as King)

I want to circle back to a previous blog post, The Great Omission. In it we looked at what is often referred to as Jesus’ Two Great Commandments:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:36-40)

I have always suspected the two commandments were more circular in their intent (i.e., Hebrew thought). I suspect we get bogged with Western linear thought (i.e., once I learn to love God well, then I can begin to love others). Since we can never quite get that figured out (how to love God well) then we subconsciously (or consciously) allow ourselves off the hook regarding the loving our neighbors.

Looking at the two commandments in a circular manner might look like this: We love God the best we can, as best as we know him, and start loving others because he asked us to.  In the process, we see and know God better (and maybe differently), so we can love him all the more, allowing us love others better, etc., etc.  

My friend Chuck Jamison pointed me to something that New Testament scholar M. Robert Mulholland suggested regarding the two commandments. The text, he says, could be translated “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. Another way to say this is to love your neighbor as yourself.”

Chuck Jamison: “Love your neighbor” is just another way of saying “Love God.” To actually love God would be to love my neighbor… whomever is standing in front of me at the present moment. That’s a powerful thought. Imagine the transformative power in that – for me and the world around me!

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Curt Hinkle

I am a practical theologian. A theology that doesn't play out in one's everyday life is impractical, or of no real use. A simple definition of theology is the attempt to understand God and what he is up to, allowing us to join him in his work.

12 thoughts on “Circular Thinking”

  1. Could be circular. How would you deal with John 14:15 and 14:23 (among many others)? My concern with this conclusion is that the Gospel could become construed as merely a “give to the poor” theology unless the reader understands agape love.


      1. If one does not understand what it mean to love their neighbor they may conclude that all they need to do is give to the poor. We need to understand agape love.

        Secondly, if we condense the gospel down to love your neighbor, we need to address those passages that indicate that we demonstrate our love for God/Jesus by obeying His commands.


      2. It would seem that feeding the poor IS agape. If my neighbor is hungry, feeding him would be loving him, would it not?

        I don’t think loving our neighbor is a condensation of the gospel. Rather, it is the gospel enacted. Regarding Jesus’ commands, didn’t he say that all the law and prophets hinge on “Love God, love neighbor?”

        A question for you: I’ve discovered that if I ask 10 people what they mean when they use the term gospel, I get 10 significantly different responses. In a sentence or two, when you use the term gospel, what do you mean? (I’ve been asking that of people as I’m zeroing in on a working definition when I get asked that question 🙂)


      3. Reply to your reply: giving to the poor can be done out of agape love but it can also be done in a legalistic manner. Giving does not equal love. Giving is not the gospel.

        Gospel in one statement: God’s plan of salvation through faith in the Messiah.


      4. Third reply: A human illustration of agape would be a parents love for their child. No one would claim agape if all the parent did was provide food to their child. While giving can be agape in action it is not accurate to say that agape equals giving.


  2. BSF is going thru the book of Genesis this year. Many of the narratives are written in a chiastic structure; e. g. A B C B’A’ where A and A’ verses have commonalities as do the B and B’ verses with the main idea given in C.

    This sometimes confuses the western reader because there is text is almost repeating previous text.

    Working in Alaska for about 18 years we learned to appreciate the circular native story telling.

    Thanks for your blog.


    1. Rick,

      Good to hear from you. Yes, I imagine the native population would have a lot to teach us about how to listen to scripture, etc.

      I knew you were Alaska (tho longer than I realized). What precipitated the move to Anchorage? Hope you are well.



      1. We started going to Alaska in 1999 to build an apartment for the youth pastor in Unalakleet (think west coast Alaska, Norton sound area). The Covenant church had a native school there that we used as a starting point.

        Over time the apartment expanded into a youth room, a refurbished gym with guest showers. During this time we started going to Alaska Christian College in Soldotna to build up their campus. Interspersed with these trips were other trips to the Norton Sound area doing complete parsonage make overs in 3 other villages.

        We were making 3 trips a summer so we decided to move to Anchorage in 2009. I retired from CRL and became a college professor for Kenai Peninsula College in process technology. We wanted to be in Soldotna but God wanted us in Anchorage. God arranged for us to do a hospitality ministry in Anchorage for folks living in bush Alaska. We had a 3 bedroom condo and the downstairs served as guest housing.

        I’ve retired a second time and we are now in Sequim Washington. We are both doing well. Sounds like you are doing well also.


      2. Rick,

        Sounds like your retirement career has been fulfilling. Soldotna? When I was still an engineer at Meyer, I designed a powerline for Alaska Power Authority that ran across the peninsula, from the Bradley Lake area to Soldotna. Some of it was constructed totally by helicopter.

        Sequim, Washington. I think Barb and I drove thru that area on the 101 in 2004 (after we delivered Jonathan to the Seatle area for Work Crew at YL’s Malibu Club in British Columbia). Seemed like a nice area. Was your mayor in the news last fall?

        My retirement has been fairly active as well. Still doing some Young Life stuff – mostly related to leadership development of younger staff. I love the sage stage.

        Also been privileged to play a major role in developing this: Website for Zoë:

        Lots of fun memories of our Sunday School experiment at your place so long ago. I draw on those experiences all the time.



  3. Thanks Curt, I enjoyed reading this. If I understand your point, I think you are saying we can’t really love God by only focusing on the first four commandments. In order to love God, we also need to love others. And as we love others, we are showing love to God and growing in our relationship with him (I think of Jesus’ words to Peter in John 21:15-19). If we think of this in a circular way, loving God is the starting point, but in order to love him we also need to love others. I am on the right track?


    1. Donnie,

      Thanks for your comments. Yes, I think you captured the main idea. I hadn’t thought about the connection to Jesus’ discourse with Peter in John 21. That’s a pretty powerful thought. I might have to blog about that someday.

      I also think of Jesus’ statements in Matthew 25 (whatever you did to the least of these) – I suspect that could be connected as well.



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