I want to introduce a word: telos. Telos is a Greek word that means “aim” or “purpose.” However, the “aim” or “purpose” in the meaning of telos is not the goals and objectives that defines today’s business or organizational thinking. Telos refers to the purpose or aim unfolding, guiding, and innate within a thing or an event.
Telos indicates the essential aim of purpose of a thing as it comes to fulfillment in a process of growth and change. It points to the deep, even divine, purpose that is unfolding and fulfilled in the outcome of its evolution. Considering something’s telos is a way to grasp or understand how the change at work in something works itself out and is fulfilled in its life. This telos connects a thing to its true being, its fulfillment, and origins.
Even amidst tremendous, disruptive, and disorienting changes – changes in which the very nature of a thing changes and its former appearance becomes completely indiscernible – considering or identifying the telos at work amidst the change illuminates what is essential, divine, and mysteriously at work within it. Perhaps this is why the butterfly has been an important symbol in the Community of Christ in the last decade. If we consider the telos of a crawling green worm – a caterpillar – which gorges on leaves and seemingly dies in a hanging tomb of its own making, we see that worm eats, breathes, and seemingly dies in order to become a beautiful flying creature, a butterfly. In the butterfly, we can see how something completely different and unpredictable lies deep within the green worm’s life that could not be seen or known without witnessing or seeing the change. Telos is a word we can use to describe the aim or purpose of the caterpillar being worked out in its life as a green worm and its seeming death in its cocoon. Telos refers precisely to the aim or purpose being fulfilled, or coming to fruition, in the life of the caterpillar. The green worm is born to fly.
Discerning the telos of a living thing or historical event while it is being worked-out is a much more difficult than simply watching a caterpillar. Many people who grew up or were converted RLDS are experiencing this very thing in the life of Community of Christ. Discerning the telos at work in any living thing – whether a creature or historical event and movement – is a spiritual exercise and call of leadership that takes all our thinking beyond former conclusions and judging appearances. From an RLDS perspective, to join together in discerning the Spirit and divine telos at work in the history and changes of the RLDS church to Community of Christ, we should consider the telos or divine purpose at work in Restoration. Recent sections of the Doctrine and Covenants identify this telos working itself out in the movement and unfolding of Community of Christ. To join together in this discernment, here are some questions that RLDS, new and old, should ask:
What is the divine purpose unfolding in becoming Community of Christ? How is this divine purpose deeply seated in our history? Not just Palmyra, New York, but more deeply in the events of the Gospels and Acts? What is the divine purpose fulfilled in the work and person of Jesus Christ that is testified in the Restoration and current unfolding in Community of Christ? How is our testimony of this divine purpose join and diverge different from the testimonies of other Christians? How is it same and different from other Restoration movements?
These are not simple questions.
The idea of telos, of the divine aim or purpose unfolding and being fulfilled in us today, is important. The word telos does not indicate something peripheral, accidental, or unessential. The idea of telos grasps the essence or divine purpose at work in a thing and its creation, whether it is a creature, a people, a movement, or historical event. The idea of a thing’s telos, more important than just becoming familiar with telos as a $10 word, helps church members consider the Spirit or soul of the Restoration, the deeper spiritual life and movement within it, which has always been at work. The idea of telos helps us grasp and consider the divine aim and purpose working itself out in the Restoration and in all of human history, which is fulfilled in Christ’s life, death, and ministry. It is this same divine aim or purpose that, I believe, the prophetic Spirit testifies to and which we claim as a Restoration Christian church.
Discerning the telos at work in the church brings our spiritual attention beyond the hallmarks, litmus-tests, and formulas that once defined the church and its faith in the past. There is no simple fact-sheet or eternal check-list for classifying the “true” church. Scripture, both the bible and Restoration scriptures, clearly testify from Genesis to Revelation and Nephi to Section 164 that God is a living God. God sets that criterion. Our God is alive, not a distant standard or divine principle, who seeks our relationship. We live in scriptural times because God is alive.
Let’s consider the symbolism, again. Can you imagine the confusion and disorientation that would follow if we used the same criterion to define and classify the caterpillar as we did butterfly? How would be identify the green worm in its in-between stage in the cocoon? At what point is it a caterpillar or a butterfly? At what point does the caterpillar die and the butterfly become alive? Is the life of a caterpillar ever fulfilled unless the green worm flies?
The symbolism is more than a convenient metaphor or public relations ploy. I see God’s purposes at work and struggling for fruition in our history and call to become Community of Christ. I see such changes and challenges in almost every page and section of our scripture. There, we find signs that God was always present, even most intimately at work, in times of great challenge and transition. God was actually often the instigation of these irruptions. From deliverance out of Egypt to life in the wilderness, from God’s grace on Nephi to judgment upon the Nephites, from becoming descendents of Abraham to disciples of Jesus, our scriptures testify of God’s purposes at work in times of great revelation and change.
Jesus is the most central example. In Jesus, God’s commandments came to life and shattered all preconceived notions of the Law at the same moment he fulfilled them. Seeing this was not obvious. It was a matter of faith. Discerning the divine telos at work in the fulfillment of Restoration in becoming Community of Christ, we can get a glimpse of the same.