Wednesday, May 28, 2014

God the Mystic . . . or not so?

There is something about human nature that makes it very hard for us to avoid the extremes. When it comes to the issue of our approach to God being via reason or non-reason, the dance has followed the same pattern over the centuries.

You could say that the Christian journey began towards the direction of reason is the ultimate source of knowledge and truth, as advocated by the Greek society and Aristotle.  However, before that swing of the pendulum reached its zenith, it quickly moved back in the non-reason direction under the auspices of Augustine giving the voice of Plato.  This movement did continue until the zenith during the dark ages when reason was eventually despised and God was only known through the mystical (non-reason) approaches.

Then, a few hundred years later, with the Renaissance gaining full momentum, the pendulum began to swing in the opposite direction, towards the belief of an unfallen reason that we can have confidence in to lead to truth every time.  It is hard to know when this swing reached the end as the end was expressed in different times and different ways.  Surely Empiricism in Great Britain and  the Enlightenment of the European mainland represented two of the higher points of reason.  I see the zenith of this swing being in Descartes' statement Cogito ergo sum.  It was the ultimate beginning point of pure reason alone.

This movement of course didn't suddenly fizzle and start the swing in the opposite direction. But when the whole of society caught up with the Enlightenment, we had the birth of modernism.  Within it the hope that reason and science would solve all of our problems, including the problem of knowing God.  Knowing God became a technique.

But of course that became empty for both the Christian and the secularist.  The pendulum began to swing back towards non-reason two hundred years ago among the elite of society (the thinkers and writers) but didn't reach pop culture until the sixties.

Then, as the pendulum moved back to the direction of the non-reason and eventually to the anti-reason we had post-modernism among the secularists and the mysticism of the charismatic movement and the age of signs and wonders, which penetrated, in some form, all of evangelicalism and brought in a new mysticism within Catholicism.

While the height of Christian mysticism may have subsided a bit, I now find Christendom having great difficulty inserting proper reason back into the picture. Like I said in the beginning, we humans have great difficulty finding balance.

I now go to a well-educated church, and I like that. This is a thinking church.  Yet, at the same time, I'm finding that many of the people, like is true throughout this age, cannot find spirituality without defining it as an anti-rational mysticism.  Our main Sunday school class is now studying the "Great Christian Mystics."  The approach is, these people of history, who had strange experiences, have a key to being spiritual.

I'm also in a small group Bible study.  I'm enjoying it a great deal. Yet, once again, I have noticed that the conversation cannot be spiritual without being irrational.  The best example is where scripture is used as a magic book.  Rather than trying to know the history of the writer and what they intended to say, in their context, we are asked to feel the spirit take the words (like magic) and make it personal.  Those words may have nothing to do with the original intent.

This was the norm during my evangelical days.  We often threw opened the Bible, like a lucky charm, and looked at the first verse that we saw. We would take the words of that verse, like a whisper from God, totally divorced from the content, and make major life decisions on the perceived meaning.

Tonight I'm leading the group.  We are studying Psalms and I'll trying my best to do my research on the background of that particular writing and the original intent of the author.  I can draw from that story principles that apply to all of us.  I can also visit the human emotions of the author and draw major life lessons from that. But I will not venture into the magical of taking a few words, scrambling them, and allowing them to conjure up meanings for me personally that was not intended.

There has to be a balance. I do want to speak the voice of reason, but not the unfallen reason of the Empiricists, but a limited reason.  A reason that can take you most of the way to truth, but not always the whole way.

The universe is filled to brim with the mystical God of scriptures. But is should not be based on emotional feelings or psychological phenomena.  The mysteries of God include the fact we are here.  All the systems of life are a mystery. Dark matter, dark energy, the hugeness of the universe, the complexities of all that is.  This is the mystery of God.

I really think it is time to try and turn the pendulum back, but to avoid the extremes.  Can God work outside the natural laws of physics and psychology?  He could, but why would he want to?  Is this real universe not a glorious place in itself?  Why is it seen as nonspiritual to find the rational answer to the things of life?  God is the author of logic, reason and the mind. These are His gifts and not the domain of the lord of darkness.


Virginia said...

Modern and post-modern mysticism is not "non-reason". But it is close to the pure gnostic process and practice of experiencing God directly within and not a God "out there". See the writings of Andrew Harvey, Thomas merton, Bede griffiths, and Richard Rohr, O.F.M.
For my part, I was a literal and conservative Christian in my 20s and 30s, then rejected it and became a "seeker" and now in my 50s and 60s have "returned" to Christian mysticism. At this point in my life, it feels very fulfilling and right. And in some way, it gives me hope for the world, and myself.

j. Michael Jones said...

How would you separate a spiritual experience of God within your heart from an emotional experience of the physical brain? Gnostic is knowledge without reason or proof . . . claimed directly from God. But the emotions being deceitful as they are, how can you know truth in this way? Just a question to ponder.

Virginia said...

This is a very good question, and a mystic such as me would respond that we consider spiritual experiences to be a union of consciousness between the Divine and ourselves, which may or may not contain emotion. A mystical union is not entirely without reason, as the character and personality of God can still be known through the Bible OR other sources, and the mystical experience is realized upon that foundation.
Furthermore, We would also say that the Bible contains many examples of mystical experiences, such as Isaiah's vision of God and Jacob's vision of the Ladder, or Peter's vision in Acts 10. So even mystical experiences have a Biblical basis, if such a basis is required. It can also be said that when we enter mystical experience with the intention of honoring God in union with ourselves, that our emotions do not carry the possible deceit to which you refer, especially as we sit in meditation for alleviating world suffering.
But that being said, that is what I believe today....there is always tomorrow.

Dana said...


You surely understand from your study of the Psalms that "the heart" is not really where the emotions are "located" (that's "the bowels"). Rather, the heart is the deepest core "place" - the center - of the human being. Similarly, in the Orthodox Church, the emotions are not a part of the same entity as "the heart." They rather belong with the same entity as our rational faculties, "the mind."

There can be problems with understanding this because of the differences between English and Greek. (In Greek Fathers' understanding of "rational" also has a different slant than "cogitations of the brain that connect ideas.") In the O. Church the "heart" is called the "nous" and is understood as that faculty deep within us that is capable of apprehending and experiencing God.

Our nous is darkened but still functional - otherwise we could not encounter God at all. As we participate in the sacramental life of the Church, pray, keep turning to God, etc. the Holy Spirit works in us to clear up our nous. This is not Magick and does not happen without our intentional participation (insofar as anyone is able), so the outward forms are no guarantee of anything; God knows what we really want... It is simply living life "in Christ." Instead of being led by our thought processes and emotions - which are not bad in and of themselves - those come under the influence of the nous more and more, and become less likely to lead us astray. "Balance" isn't the best word for this; "proper order" is more the idea. We seek neither emotional experiences nor rationalization, but the presence of our whole being as a unity, led by our nous, as we encounter the Truth Himself, Jesus Christ. This can happen in any number of ways, and we don't get wigged out by emotion or non-emotion. If there's anything questionable, we take it to our confessor, who should be a humble, mature and wise person (but God works through them even when they happen not to be any of those at any given moment...) -continued

Dana said...

part 2

Our thoughts and emotions run rampant and do what they do because, apart from connection to the life of God, we are engaged in our own survival. This is what the first couple of chapters in "Bread, Water, Wine and Oil" are about. Best explanation of the inner workings of a human being I have ever read, and not at all opposed to the good insights of psychology. If you read this book, and Father Stephen Freeman's blog (especially the archived posts on "the heart" under "Mystical Theology") you can put your toe in the waters of the Orthodox way of looking at all this. Fr Alexis Trader's blog is very good for a more in-depth psychological focus.

The whole thing stems from the non-legal view of our predicament, which is the subject of Fr Stephen's latest post. Above everything else at Easter, we celebrate our deliverance from death. Yes, we need to be delivered from sin, but that is secondary, a result of our slavery to the fear of death. It's right there in Heb 2.14-15, but the context of 2.5-18 is also important. (And in 2.17 the English word propitiation - made up by Tyndale, I believe - or even expiation is flat-out wrong; in Greek it is "enter into the mercy-seat".)

Finally, in the New English Translation of the Septuagint, Jer 17.9-10 reads, "The heart is deep above all else, and so is a man, and who shall understand him? I, the Lord, am the one who tests hearts and examines kidneys (note: emotions), to give to each according to his ways and according to the fruit of his doings." Yes, we can be self-deceived, but scripture doesn't really teach "total depravity" and the Jews of Jesus' day were not teaching that one had to "do good works in order to get to Heaven." I know your time is limited; I hope you will consider investigating these sources.

All the best to you, and prayers for rest and peace of mind.


j. Michael Jones said...

The Hebrew word for heart in Jer 17:9 is Leb (or lebh) and roughly refers to the center of things and can be taken many ways, but most commentaries I have read suggest it as the seat of emotions, fear, love, hate and etc.

Anytime we claim that we have special knowledge "Gnostic" that is "from God" and therefore exempt from error or even critical thinking, is a huge mistake. History is filled with calamities from Christians in all walks or brands of Christianity, Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant . . . and the modern Evangelical sects . . . which started with the notion that we (that particular group) has a very special corner on truth that can't be challenged. I will talk about this more in future posts. However, we do live in an age where the subjective is held as the highest spiritual calling, when it should not be. I will explain more later. I will be that lone voice in the wilderness, if I have to, pointing the better balance of trusting the objective and rational (but not completely) as God designed us to be.

Dana said...

Not at all claiming "special knowledge from God exempt from error or even critical thinking" - simply giving you information on a resource that helped me a lot, and has stood up to all the questions I have managed to throw at it.

For myself, trying to find "balance" between "subjective" and "objective/rational" simply produced frustration without any balance. In my comment, I was pointing to something that offers a different way of looking at things than bare dichotomy, in hopes that it might help you encounter a more integrated, holistic theology - iow, "monism" - which was one of the main foci of my own search.

There is no one who explains all this better than Fr Stephen Freeman. He does not advocate anything arcane, secret or Gnostic - simply the voice of classic Christianity from its beginnings. Hope you will read him, if you won't read BWWO.

Best to you, Mike.