Posts Tagged 'Mysticism'

Is the Holy Ghost the Second Coming?

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Dove of the Holy Spirit, ca. 1660. Stained glass. Throne of St Peter, St Peters Basilica Vatican.Wikicommons

Holy Spirit as a Dove (detail) Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Dove of the Holy Spirit, ca. 1660. Stained glass. Throne of St Peter, St Peters Basilica Vatican (Wikicommons)

While discussing bishop John Shelby Spong’s book, “The Fourth Gospel:  Tales of a Jewish Mystic” (which I enthusiastically recommend reading) the question arose as to whether we might understand the Holy Ghost as the Second Coming?  I think the answer depends upon how one understands the terms, and the ideas toward which the terms point.

Chapter 19 of Spong’s “The Fourth Gospel” relates the allegories of the “vine” to an understanding of God as an in-dwelling Spirit;  this is specifically in opposition to thinking of God as external to us.  Spong is speaking of the in-dwelling Spirit of God as comprising part of who we are as self-conscious human beings.

  • It is not that God is absent in animals, and even rocks.
  • But we do differ from rocks and even birds and cats and dogs, in that we have a very strong sense of self-awareness and self-consciousness.  This is why we struggle against the idea of death.  Dogs and cats and cattle may struggle against death itself, but they do not sit around worrying about the eventually.  We do;  because we are self-consciousness.  We know that we exist, and we know that we will cease to exist.  The effort to transcend this eventuality is the reason many of us search for God.

Pantheism

Pantheism basically means “God Everywhere.”  God is understood as being everywhere in the cosmos: in every rock, every tree, every stream, every bird, every dog and cat, and in every person. This is one of the ways animalism and many aboriginal religions are interpreted by persons living in the West, although typically with the arrogant caveat such a “primitive” notion must be mistaken.

Small Pantheism

The “small” way of viewing pantheism is as lots of little spirits dwelling within everything: wood sprites, water spirits, etc.  Every culture of which I am aware, from the dawn of history, developed such a view.  Greco-Roman paganism was similarly structured, ranging from the “Big Gods” on Mount Olympia to city gods, to family gods, to gods of brooks, streams, woods, etc.  There were gods everywhere, and they were vested in every part of leading one’s life.

Most forms of Christianity, I suggest, see this as a form of multiple (“false”) gods.  But there is an important point to add here, which I find adds perspective.  Christians tend to be concerned about their afterlife:  Heaven or Hell, as the saying goes.  Pagans were not especially interested in this.  Most of them assumed death brought our annihilation.  What did matter for them was this life and getting enough to eat, having enough water to drink and raise crops, remaining healthy, and related basic needs of our survival.

Also, death was ever-present in a way I feel we fail to appreciate.  Where we get an abscessed tooth, and go to the dentist, they usually died!  The world was very different 2,000-years ago, and this is a significant point we tend to forget or fully appreciate;  many of us (most?) certainly fail to feel that kind of reality in our own day-to-day lives.  So I suspect we tend to ridicule “pagans” and those who hold aboriginal beliefs largely out of our own ignorance.

Big Pantheism

The “big” way of viewing pantheism, starts by asking a very different question:

  • Where is God not found in nature?

This requires some thought regarding the nature of God.  Is God only a personality?  Or is God the vital force of life itself?  Does God have a face and lungs, or is God the very essence of life?  Stated poetically, we ask if God is the Breath of Life?  Stated more abstractly, the 20th century theologian Paul Tillich suggested that we consider God as our Ground of Being.

If God is the essence of Life, then we have to find some way of imagining God within everything:  rocks, dust, bugs, deer, sharks, cattle, dogs, cats, and ourselves.  I would suggest this way of seeing God is very close to the truth;  and would result, if taken seriously, in better treatment of all the creatures and resources of this world; as well as one another.

An alternate view, is seeing God as a Big Person Above the Sky.  Useful in terms of language and metaphor, to be sure.  But if we take this too literally, how does this significantly differ from Zeus-Jupiter?

Panentheism (note the –en-)

The late Prof. Ron Miller of blessed memory, suggested it is instructive to think of God as panentheistic.  Pan*EN*theism (adding the “en” between pan- and -theism) argues God is everywhere, both within the cosmos, and outside the cosmos.  The key point of this idea is that God is not limited to the confines of this universe (cosmos).

Of course, we cannot really wrap our minds around what this means.  Our language cannot adequately describe what this implies.  We are creatures of time and of space.  And our language reflects, and is limited by, our nature as beings of time-space.  How does one envision a Being which is not constrained by the very limits of the universe itself?  This is a really, really BIG God!

I believe this way of thinking about God has to be tied to Paul Tillich’s “Ground of Being” idea.  For me, this represents God as the very vitality of life itself.  As advanced as our medical science is today, we do not understand the *essence which creates life.  We, for example, know that brain trauma may become debilitating, but we also know the brain sometimes compensates by building new neural pathways.

And doctors have not found our spirit, or even our consciousness, inside the brain.  Some disagree, and equate behavior changes as the result of brain trauma as proof of our seat of consciousness residing within the brain.  I disagree.  I think this only demonstrates that the “radio” has been damaged, and no longer receives the “radio waves” properly.

In this analogy the brain is the radio, and the radio waves represent our spirit, our consciousness.  And I submit that our consciousness, or spirit, is our seat of being.  But from what does our spirit, or being, emanate?  Tillich suggests this flows from the Ground of Being:  God.

  • In this way of seeing God, God is the fabric, the very essence, of the universe;  God is what holds the subatomic particles together;  God is space-time, onto/into which everything else resides. God is all that, as well as that which is beyond the knowable universe.

If one believes this is likely to be true, then “God” is best understood as panentheistic.  And even though we cannot completely wrap our heads around this, we can sense this is a very, very BIG idea of what must comprise the very nature of the “Beingness” (ontology) of God.

Now, as Christians, we have to figure out what to do with Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

  • In the early days of the Jewish-Christian “Jesus Movement” there was only One God.
  • Not three Gods.
  • And not God-three-is-one, as the doctrine of the Trinity came to propose in the 4th century.

Some early Christians believed Jesus was entirely human and unable to be God.  Others thought Jesus was God and unable to really be human (he just appeared so).  Others thought Jesus was a divine being of the highest order (above angels for example) but a creature created by the Uncreated God (this view presupposes there are only two categories of existence:  the Uncreated;  and that which is created:  “creatures”).

All of these ideas were early Christian teachings.  And they all had sacred books, thus proving their point!

  • Why books are so important to the Christian traditions is an interesting question.  In part, it is because Christianity evolved from Judaism, and the earliest Christians needed to be thought of as already “ancient” and therefore just another way of understanding the very ancient Jewish religion.  In part, it is because completely unlike pagan religions, Christianity is very concerned with what a person believes; pagans, in contrast did not care what a person believed, only in what actions they took – namely, offering the proper sacrifices and prayers to the gods, so as to sustain our life in the here and now.

All of these ways of “properly” understanding what it meant to be a Christian were being debated in the first 300 years after the execution of Jesus.  In the orthodox Christian tradition, these matters came to be codified in the Council of Nicene, convened in 325 ce.  It is from this council that we inherit the Nicene Creed.  While this council did not settle the debates entirely, they did resolve the larger issues, and framed the limits of theological debate to the present day.

But they lived in a three-tiered universe:  Heaven Above;  Earth; and Land of the Dead Below.  We no longer live in that three-tiered universe/cosmos. Therefore, we have to re-think their basic arguments and assumptions, if we wish to carefully think through questions such as the nature of the Second Coming and the Holy Spirit.  And we really have to re-think these kinds of questions if we are going to try to understand the Gospel of John on its own (mystical!) merits.

I find I agree with bishop Spong’s proposition:  the Gospel of John was written by Jewish-Christian mystics.  These authors were not speaking of God as residing Above the Heavens.  They were speaking of an In-Dwelling God, an understanding of God as dwelling within each of us.  This is a very different understanding of God, even today, nearly 2,000-years later!

And to be fair, this is a mystical way of thinking about the Divine, which makes it slippery to grasp.  It is difficult, not easy, to understand.  Anyone can understand a God Above the Heavens who gets angry and destroys cities and people, or rewards individuals or nations for “obeying” whatever it is one presupposes “God wants from us.”

  • The details of “what God wants from us” change, from one tradition to the next -even within Christianity, let alone across religions- but the core idea that God wants something from us, which we supply by modifying our behavior. But this is not a mystical understanding of God. A mystical understanding of God experiences God as in-dwelling! (In-dwelling in all persons; thus, one adopts Unity Consciousness.)

But what if “God” is within each of us and “wants” us to live in such a manner as to expand life for ourselves and everyone around us?  What if God is the very expansion of the universe and the force of life that constantly seeks expression?  What if this self-expression of the essence of God is vitally present in self-conscious beings, such as human beings?

  • God is present in everything, but we are aware of this in-dwelling Presence!

This is a very different understanding of “God” and for many it doesn’t seem easy to grasp.

What about the Trinity?

I am not a strong trinitarian.  In the many hundreds of years since formulating the conceptualization of God as the Trinity of Father-Son-Spirit, no one has nailed this down!  The best theologians of the last 1,700-years or so have always said the heart of this is a “mystery.”  In other words, no one understands it!

We can formulate it pretty clearly.  But this is not at all the same thing as understanding it!  Professor Phillip Cary offers the following technical formation:

1. The Father is God.
2. The Son is God.
3. The Holy Spirit is God.
4. The Father is not the Son.
5. The Son is not the Holy Spirit.
6. The Holy Spirit is not the Father.
7. There is only one God.

We can see how strange this is if we say much the same thing from the classical Greco-Roman perspective:

1. Zeus is God.
2. Apollo is God.
3. Poseidon is God.
4. Zeus is not Apollo.
5. Apollo is not Poseidon.
6. Poseidon is not Zeus.
7. There are three Gods.

Here we have the same formulation, one from a Christian perspective, and one from the Greco-Roman perspective.  They are identical in the logic of the first six steps.  However, the final conclusions are in direct opposition to one another!  This illustrates why Christianity was so perplexing to pagans 2,000-years ago.  And it demonstrates “why the doctrine of the Trinity is so difficult, interesting and strange” (Cary: “The Logic of Trinitarian Doctrine”).

Some have said, when speaking of the Trinity, we forget how to count:  God is above/before numbers.  Others say that God is three Persons (I prefer to say, Personae) but with a single Will.  But no matter how we try to explain the idea of the Trinity, it seems strange and remains beyond our grasp.  And so it has for some 1,700-years, for even the best and brightest theologians over the centuries.  So if this does not really make perfect sense to you, you are in good company!

  • If, and when, one finds speaking of God-as-Trinity useful, I say go for it!  Where it is not useful, I suggest, speaking in different terms.

Active Agent of God

When I speak of the Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost, which is the transliteration we get from German scholarship on the Holy Spirit/Geist) I mean the active Spirit of the Divine, of which we are aware, and with which we seek to interact.  Our Christian history has offered this idea to us as the Holy Spirit, so I frequently use the same name-title.

  • “Holy Spirit” and “Holy Ghost” are two different names for the same thing:  Holy Spirit is translated from the Latin, Spiritus Sanctus;  from German as, heiligen Geist;  both of which are translated from the original Greek, άγιο πνεύμα, which is roughly “agio pneuma“.

From this perspective the “Holy Spirit” is what I sometimes call the “Active Agent” of God in the world.  I think of this as the aspect of the Divine with which we have interaction.  If one is able to go along with this interpretation, then I think we are getting close to being able to see the Holy Spirit as the Second Coming.  But we still have some more ideas to explore.

Transformational Christianity

I view both the Holy Spirit and the Second Coming as related to Transformational Christianity.  By this I mean the emphasis to first transform ourselves, and through and as a result of our personal changes -a transformation in our thinking, speech, and behaviour- to transform the community in which we live.  I believe this is how we observe the Holy Spirit as being active in our lives, and in our community.

  • As we think, speak, and act better toward one another, I propose calling this change in our personal formulation, the Holy Spirit as active in our lives. Some have also called this Putting on the Mind of Christ.

In this view, we understand the primary function of the Holy Spirit as that which transforms these elements (thinking, speech, and behaviour) in us, and through us, into our wider community.  Thus, the Holy Spirit is that aspect of the Divine which initiates significant changes in our lives;  It is the aspect of the Trinity with which we interact in this physical world.

But what of Jesus?  What about the Christ?

This is a closely related, but somewhat different question.  Here we must address the question of Christology, which is the effort to understand and make sense of the role of Jesus and the Christ, both in the early Jewish-Christian church, and in our own day and age.  This is a very deep subject, asking the very nature of Jesus the Christ!  Entire books have been written on this topic, and there is yet more to say.  This is obviously not a question which may be adequately addressed in one essay.

Christ is the Greek word for messiah, which in Hebrew is mashiach.  It means “anointed” or “the one anointed” and was a ritual anointing which identified the king of Israel as chosen of God, or as the son of God.  When the Babylonians wiped out the line of David, this began to symbolize something more than the kingship;  the idea of the messiah began to be associated with ideas of freedom and liberation from foreign powers.  God’s messiah would come in glory and overthrow the foreign rulers, and put the son of King David back on the throne.

In the Jewish understanding, the messiah was never thought to be a person executed by the state!  This is perhaps the single largest barrier to Jews coming to understand Jesus as the messiah.  He simply could not be, because far from overthrowing the Romans, he was crushed by them!  (Gentiles did not hold this presupposition, so it was easier for a gentile to see Jesus as the messiah, than for a Jew to come to the same understanding.)

  • In the synoptic gospels ―Mark, Matthew, and Luke― we find Jesus hesitant to speak of himself as the messiah.  I think this is because Jesus did not embrace the popular understanding of what this meant to his fellow Jews:  one coming in power to overthrown the Romans.  This concern is not shared in the Gospel of John, however.  But we also cannot read the Gospel of John as remotely literal.  To do so, is to miss the point entirely!

What I think I may say about Jesus and the Christ, in just a few words, is that the way in which Jesus is interpreted in the Gospel of John, expressed as a work of Jewish-Christian mysticism, is that Jesus is the embodiment of the Life of God flowing into the world.  Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life, does not mean we “believe Jesus is God.”  And it is certainly not saying that Jesus has to be killed to save us!

Instead, we are asked to believe that Jesus lived his life in such a way as to promote the in-flowing of the Divine Spirit of God in him, and through him, into the world.  But more than this ―and more importantly I believe― is the proposition that you and I may do the same thing!  (“Even greater things shall you do,” Jesus is made to say in the Gospel of John.)

This is the core meaning of Jesus as understood in the Gospel of John.  Jesus lived a life which brought the vitality of God’s Spirit into this world, and we may do the same thing.  God is not “out there” somewhere, but rather God is “in here” ― dwelling within us.

  • The way to get more God into the world, is to allow more God to flow within us, and through us, into the world:  exactly as it did in, and through, Jesus.

And that ―I believe― is what the mystical Gospel of John is trying to relate to us as the Second Coming.

So, may we think of the Holy Spirit as the Second Coming?

Yes, I think we may.  In the same way, the Kingdom (or Realm) of God is always at hand.  But we are required to participate in bringing it into existence.

God is not going to just drop the Kingdom of Heaven upon us, crushing the wicked and rewarding the good.  That was the thought behind apocalypticism, which was very popular in the time of Jesus (both roughly 100-years before and after his execution).  This was the idea that God would come in glory, displace the evil (Romans) and install the City of God in his Heavenly Realm on Earth.  And all would be ruled in peace for 1,000 years.

But that did not happen.  2,000-years have passed, and despite that some argue “soon” means aeons may pass, that is clearly not what the people of Jesus’ time meant.  They meant really soon, as in their own lifetimes soon.  If we choose to read “soon” to mean thousands and thousands of years later, we are not reading the books as they were written to be understood in their own day and age.

And the writers of the mystical Gospel of John were aware of this!  Nearly 70-years had already passed, and a lot of people had given up on the apocalyptic understanding of “soon.”  So they searched for a new interpretation, one they viewed as replacing what they now understood to have been a mistaken interpretation.

And this leads to the mystical understanding of Jesus’ life and the way God seemed to be expressed in the life of Jesus.  This is why we get the “I am” saying, which very clearly means Jesus is God the Father.  But so too, as Jesus is in God, we are in Jesus, and Jesus is in us.  We all are able to embody God the Father!  This is the very radical change that John is bringing to our understanding, not only of Jesus, but of God the Father;  meaning the Uncreated, which brought all that is, into being;  that same vital essence is available to us, and may flow within us, and through us, and through us into the world!

John is a wonderful gospel! Wonder-filled Good News!  From within the Christian New Testament, it offers the most transformative way of understanding Jesus and God.

  • Yes, we may think of the Holy Spirit as the in-dwelling transformative Breath of Life, which brings about the Second Coming, and creates the Realm of Heaven on earth.  But our participation in this transformative experience is required!

May the Lord bless and keep you!
Erik+

References:

“The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic” (HarperCollins Publishers, 2013) John Shelby Spong.

Logic of Trinitarian Doctrine  http://www.scribd.com/doc/2385278/The-Logic-of-Trinitarian-Doctrine-by-Phillip-Cary

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Salesian Method of Meditation

Francis de Sales (1567―1622)

Francis de Sales (1567―1622)

Salesian Method of Meditation

Prayer vs. Meditation vs. Contemplation

Prayer, meditation, and contemplation may be defined many ways. In part the definition chosen depends upon who is rendering it, and to what end. For the purposes of this essay, below I offer a working definition of these terms, allowing us to open a discussion concerning Salesian meditation.

There are many kinds of prayer, including: liturgic prayers one chants or says in unison with others during a period of worship; ritual or formal public prayers recited before a meal or meeting or event; sets of formal prayers one may chant or read privately or in a small group; and prayers one might say privately.

One of the shared characteristics of each of the above forms of prayer is they are linguistic in nature: these prayers are composed of words stated or read, aloud or silently. They may be composed contemporaneously (off-the-cuff; unplanned) or formally. They may be private or they may serve a ritual or liturgical function. But they are all linguistic constructs: words.

Sidebar: Words are symbolic constructs, serving as pointers to that which they describe: they are not the object being described. As obvious as this sounds, we frequently forget this in our daily dealings with one another through language. There is always some distance between our interior, subjective world and everything/everyone else. That which connects our interior world to the perceived exterior world is rendered to us both neuro-linguistically and psychologically; and I would argue energetically and spiritually as well. One reason persons may engage in prayer, meditation, and contemplation is to short-circuit this interior/exterior mode of perception, in an attempt to enter direct interior perception ―apperception [1], is more accurate― of the sacred More.

Prayer may be directed outward (a shared public event) or be directed inward (a private event). Meditation on the other hand is an inward directed event.

As an exception to this one might cite guided meditation, in which one person leads others through a meditation. But even in such cases the goal is frequently to train the individuals comprising the group how to conduct their own private meditations at a later date, or to facilitate a meditative technique from which they might continue to benefit in private. Thus, one may argue this is a primarily a means of teaching meditation, not meditation itself.

Furthermore, prayer and meditation are similar to one another in that they each behold an object of attention: that upon which one is focusing. In prayer this is typically a linguistic event. Meditation too may be a linguistic event (repeatedly chanting a verse or mantra), but it may also be a visual (watching a flame, staring into a mandala, or imagining a symbol, such as the Sacred Heart) or sensory event (awareness of one’s breath), or an emotional event (feeling peacefulness or love), or any other event one may imagine.

When meditating, we are focusing our attention upon something, be that a word, a phrase, an image, a scene, another sensory-based experience, or an emotion. The intent is to focus our attention on this object, at the exclusion of all other objects of sensory or cognitive input competing for our attention. This is a kataphatic process ―a state of fullness― an imaginal process in which we are actively engaging and populating our attention.

Contemplation on the other hand is an apophatic state in which we seek emptiness, or the cessation of cognition and awareness. Achieving emptiness is challenging, to say the least. There always seems to be some aspect of the mind which must chatter! Buddhist mediators I’ve read often refer to this as the monkey mind.

Mystics and other contemplatives indicate there is little an individual may do to intentionally bring about an apophatic ―empty― state upon command. Their best counsel is to prepare oneself for the occasion of achieving emptiness, usually through periods of prayer and/or meditation, which are frequently seen as precursors, or means of training, for encountering a contemplative event.

In describing contemplation, I use words such as “event” and “occasion” deliberately. My intention is to suggest the cultivation of a contemplative state yields a rare fruit, short in duration. Often the very onset of the event may itself be sufficient to bring about its conclusion. Such has been my own experience at any rate, and it is one frequently attested to in writings of mystics. One author said he looks for these brief moments of emptiness in the gaps between his train of thoughts; in those brief silences between the near-constant chattering of the monkey mind.

With the foregoing in mind, we will recognize that the Salesian method of meditation is part prayer and part meditation. It will also be self-evident that Salesian meditation is a kataphatic process, deliberately engaging the imagination.

Salesian Method of Meditation

First I am going to offer an outline of the Salesian method of meditation. Then I will explore certain elements of this method, with the hope of highlighting some of what I see at play in this meditative method.

Francis de Sales (1567―1622) was a Roman Catholic bishop and spiritual director who “was not overly concerned for the etiquette of piety, but in offering a way for souls to find union with God” [2] and is best known for his book, Introduction to the Devout Life which was “written for laity and teaches a simple form of meditation known as the Salesian method [which] is sometimes taught in the Episcopal Church as the way to meditate.” [3]

When broken down into five (5) steps, the Salesian method of meditation may be summarized as follows:

  1. Preparation
    • Place yourself in the presence of God.
    • Pray for assistance.
    • Compose the place (i.e. imagine a scene from the life of Jesus).
  2. Considerations: identify those images in the scene that affect you.
  3. Affections and Resolutions: convert feelings into understanding and then resolutions (acts of the will).
  4. Conclusion
    • Thanksgiving.
    • Oblation or offering of the results of the meditation.
    • Petition to fulfill in your life this day its insights.
    • The Spiritual Nosegay: that which we carry through the day from the meditation.
  5. The “spiritual nosegay,” which is a distinctive mark of Salesian meditation, is a clue to Francis de Sales’ spirituality. A nosegay is a little bunch of sweet-smelling flowers that ladies and gentlemen of the period carried with them when they went outdoors, so they could travel without being overcome by the stench of the open sewers that commonly ran along the streets of European cities. [4]

I invite you to spend a few minutes walking through each of these five steps ― imagine how you might engage this process. How do you enter the state? To what end? What might be among the (beneficial) outcomes? What might this meditative process look like? Feel like? How might we more fully engage our senses? (And ought we?) Do you imagine any benefits may derive from such a practice?

Transformative Flow of the Salesian Meditation

Before going into greater detail, I wish to direct your attention to the broad outline of the transformative flow taking place within the Salesian meditation:

  1. Preparation: Visual Imagery (Anchor/Trigger)
  2. Considerations: Emotional Upwelling (Response from our Unconscious)
  3. Affections and Resolutions: Rational-Thinking (Formulating a Plan of Action/Exertion of Will)
  4. Affections and Resolutions: Action-Behavioral Modification (Adoption of New Behavior/Overlaying Old Behavior)

A similar pattern is repeated, in condensed form, throughout the Conclusion:

  1. Thanksgiving: Emotional Upwelling
  2. Oblation: Emotional Upwelling
  3. Petition: Rational-Thinking
  4. Petition: Action-Behavioral Modification
  5. Spiritual Nosegay: Emotional Nosegay & Behavioral Modification

Thus, we are engaging a specific physical and mental state through imaginal entry into a visual scene (other modalities could be used, but most of us are highly visual, so it is a very good general approach to ushering us into the desired, impressionable state).

One inside this imaginal scene, we seek an emotional response, upwelling from our unconscious. Once we have had this experience, we seek to engage our analytical process to ascertain a moral lesson which may be derived from the emotionally charged scene. While in this emotionally charged state, we imagine applying the moral lesson in our own lives. We commit to doing so, setting our will upon doing so.

We then carry a “spiritual nosegay” with us throughout our day, in an attempt to maintain this disposition; a reminder and aromatic trigger (metaphorically speaking) of our desired behavior change.

Entering the Salesian Meditation

Preparation

Preparation begins by adopting a mental attitude or state which will be conducive to our entering into a meditative state. I specifically read this in the first two steps, of (1) placing ourselves in the presence of God; and (2) praying for assistance.

  • Place yourself in the presence of God.

I read this as occupying a physical space in which I have made it my habit to meditate. This may be a dedicated space, indoors or outdoors, although if outdoors the variation in weather and season must be taken into consideration when preparing the site.

I would also associate the specific anchoring of triggers [5] with my physical space which signal that I am about to intentionally enter a sacred space. Such items traditionally include icons, the lighting of candles, and the burning of incense. Gentle music, chimes, or sounds of nature may also be signaling triggers.

Some may find it helpful to ask the Holy Spirit to direct the prayer (Romans 8:26 NRSV “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes [for us] with sighs too deep for words.”)

  • Pray for assistance.

Praying is the trigger that signals I am now operating within the sacred space. One of my first intentional acts is to cross myself (touching one’s fingers to the forehead, drawing a downward stroke to one’s solar plexus, and then from shoulder to shoulder, touching the heart at each passing).

As one may imagine, there are a host of possible triggers when praying: physical position, posture, attitude, adoption of specific verbal cadence (chanting, singing), and the specific texts employed, just to name a few. The more frequently one uses these specific anchors/triggers in one’s prayerful meditation, the more strongly they will become linked to the resulting physical, mental, and emotional state [6], thus proving increasingly effective over time.

  • Compose the place (i.e. imagine a scene from the life of Jesus).

Now that one has adopted the state one wishes to enter, one composes the object of one’s meditation. The example given is to imagine a scene from the life of Jesus; but any biblical scene may be employed, as may any church tradition which one finds suitably moving (perhaps an event from the life of a saint, for example).

Considerations

  • Identify those images in the scene that affect you.

We now enter into the scene we have created. The point is to live this as vividly as we may, to make the experience of the imagination as real as possible by smelling, hearing, touching, seeing, and tasting it. But do not overlook additional senses such as equilibrioception (sense of balance), proprioception (the perception of one’s body in space or the body’s position), or thermoception (sense of heat).

Having entered into the scene, we monitor our response to the scene in which we are immersed. We are seeking that which provokes in us a strong emotional reaction. These strong emotions, and that which induces them, we will carry into the next step.

Affections and Resolutions

  • Convert feelings into (1) understanding, and then into (2) resolutions (acts of the will).

(1) Understanding

I read the identification of the strong feeling, as a signal that something in my unconscious is responding to that element of the scene. And because it is my belief that the unconscious is one of the best avenues for the sacred More (Divine; God; Immanent aspect of the Transcendent) to flow into my awareness and experience, I am especially interested in accessing these unconscious objects as directly as I may.

Thus, as the emotion is triggered from within me, I note that with which I associate the emotion, or that which triggered the rising of the emotion. Once I have that scene, event, symbol, or whatever it may be, before my mind’s eye, I evaluate it: what is it? what is it trying to tell me, or show me?

Where this may begin as an unknown, as I inspect it (imagining my senses all reaching out to it, grasping it, listening to it, smelling it, tasting it, watching for any changes) I am awaiting some depth of understanding or apprehension to come to mind. At some point my interaction with this imaginal object (be that “object” of the imagination a person, symbol, experience, etc), it will give rise to some form of understanding or apprehension.

(2) Resolutions (acts of the will)

Once I have come to an understanding/apprehension prompted by the meditative scene, I am to make a resolution. The point of this meditation is to identify an act that I may carry out in my normal waking life. Many scenes from the life of Jesus may call me to show greater compassion to others, for example, or to take real steps to correct an injustice taking place in my community (be that in the church or city council).

Other scenes may call me to begin an internal transformation of character (to be more forgiving, less quick to anger, more generous, etc). Transformation of both self and community are part and parcel of the authentic Christian spiritual experience. Both are important, and one supports the other.

Conclusion

Our meditation concludes by offering thanks, both generally to the Transcendent More (God) and specifically for the fruit of the meditation, and by asking for the wherewithal to carry out our resolution.

  • Thanksgiving

This is the general offering of thanksgiving to the Transcendent More (God), in whatever way we apprehend that More. Praise and blessing are preferred responses to the sacred More; holding affection and joy in your heart for creation and creatures.

Psychologically, this is akin to positive reinforcement. We wish to exit our meditation with a positive and uplifting feeling. The meditation should become a form of nourishment for us. Adopting a state of positive appreciation affects us in this manner.

  • Oblation or offering of the results of the meditation.

This too is a form of thanksgiving. We thank the sacred More that has visited us with the gift of insight for the fruit of this meditation. We are blessed by the fruit of our meditation, and we offer as blessing those fruits we have been granted.

Psychologically, this establishes within us an environment of bounty and thankfulness. We are cultivating within ourselves this creative state of plenty, a cosmos built of and upon loving-kindness.

  • Petition to fulfill in your life this day its insights.

In our final petition to the sacred Transcendent More (God), we ask for the grace to stand by our resolution. We are fully invested and affirming that we will take positive steps to bring about our resolution (we are active), but we are also asking for the generous, compassionate support of the creative loving-kindness upon which/within which we are all swimming.

Spiritual Nosegay

  • The Spiritual Nosegay: that which we carry through the day from the meditation.

As a “little bunch of sweet-smelling flowers” or a perfumed handkerchief carried with us, provides around us a pleasing aroma wherever we travel, so too the fruits of our meditation ought to provide us with a sweet-smelling disposition toward the world and all persons  (this includes ourselves).

This may play a role in the process of theosis [7] ― we seek to carry with us throughout our day, a sweet-smelling spiritual nosegay, to refresh us, to inspire us, to help us dwell in our experience of our mediation all day. Where the mind dwells the body will follow. If we wish to transform into more compassionate, loving persons, therein our thoughts must reside.

Sidebar: While Roger Ray only briefly mentions Salesian meditation, for those interested in reading a simple, down to earth introduction to the basic stages of spirituality, from a Christian perspective, I recommend Ray’s short book, “Christian Wisdom for Today: Three Classic Stages of Spirituality” (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 1999).

May God be gracious to us, and bless us, and make his face to shine upon us.
― Ps. 67:1

Erik+

Footnotes:

[1] APPERCEPTION:

  • Merriam-Webster On-line:
    1. : introspective self-consciousness
    2. : mental perception; especially : the process of understanding something perceived in terms of previous experience
  • Wikipedia On-line: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apperception
    • Apperception (from the Latin ad-, “to, toward” and percipere, “to perceive, gain, secure, learn, or feel”) is any of several aspects of perception and consciousness in such fields as psychology, philosophy and epistemology.

[2] Holmes III, Urban T.: “A History of Christian Spirituality: An Analytical Introduction” (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2002) page 105.

[3] Holmes, pg. 106.

[4] Holmes, pg. 106.

[5] anchoring of triggers, Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP): “The process of associating an internal response with some external trigger (similar to classical conditioning) so that the response may be quickly, and sometimes covertly, reaccessed” (http://purenlp.com/textonly/glossry2.htm#anchor). We all have developed a multitude of triggers, some we intentionally establish, but most are unconsciously established. One of the practical benefits of utilizing NLP is to reprogram unconscious behavior, so we behave as we consciously choose, not as we unconsciously react. To persons interested in learning more about NLP, I commend “Frogs into Princes” by Bandler and Grinder (see below).

[6] state, Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP): “The total ongoing mental and physical conditions from which a person is acting” (http://purenlp.com/textonly/glossry2.htm#State).

[7] Theosis, “(‘deification,’ ‘divinization’) is the process of a worshiper becoming free of hamartía (‘missing the mark’), being united with God…” (Orthodoxwiki, on-line: http://orthodoxwiki.org/Theosis). I see this as the intentional process of trying to live our lives as if we were channels for the Christ to flow through us, into the world. I suspect this is a goal few will achieve; yet we are the better for striving for it. This is one of the most important reasons I take part in the sacrament of the Eucharist (Holy Communion).

On-line Resources:

Francis de Sales:

“Meditation and Contemplation – What is the Difference?” (Carmelite Sisters, on-line) http://www.carmelitesistersocd.com/2013/meditation-contemplation/

“Christian Meditation” (Wikipedia, on-line) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_meditation

“Christian Contemplation” (Wikipedia, on-line) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_contemplation

“The Cloud of Unknowing” (written by an anonymous author of the 14th century; widely available from many publishers; Christian Classics Ethereal Library: on-line, text or PDF) http://www.ccel.org/ccel/anonymous2/cloud.html.

“Linguistics” (Wikipedia, on-line) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistics

“Neurolinguistics” (Wikipedia, on-line) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neurolinguistics

“Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP)”

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Mysticism (on-line) http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mysticism/

Theosis (Orthodoxwiki, on-line) http://orthodoxwiki.org/Theosis

Books:

“Christian Wisdom for Today: Three Classic Stages of Spirituality” (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 1999) Roger L. Ray.

“The Cloud of Unknowing” (written by an anonymous author of the 14th century; widely available from many publishers).

“Frogs into Princes: Neuro Linguistic Programming” (Real People Press, 1979) by Richard Bandler and John Grinder.

“A History of Christian Spirituality: An Analytical Introduction” (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2002) Urban T. Holmes, III.

Belief & Faith

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit

When speaking of belief and faith, I find our common understanding of these words has become impoverished, lacking vitality as compared to their older meanings found in the Christian New Testament. The words belief and faith carry an importance we ought to appreciate as Christians, if we are to come to a deeper understanding of our own sacred texts, so that we may taste the richness of scriptural language.

What do you imagine most people now mean when they speak of belief? Of faith?

In the vernacular of contemporary American English, belief and faith are closely related. Their primary difference is one of color, taste, or degree. In my experience belief holds wider use in secular (nonreligious) language and faith is more common to religious language. Also, so far as I am concerned, faith runs deeper than belief.

In its secular use, belief may identify a difference in degree of certainty: to say I believe the capital of Alaska is Juneau, means I am not 100% certain that is factual; if I tell someone I believe them, I am assuring them I assume they are telling me the truth (as they perceive it, of course). As Marcus Borg observes, “…knowing and believing are different. Believing is what you turn to when knowledge runs out.” [1]

In the religious context, belief carries a different connotation: affirming as true, that which one would otherwise not hold to be true, e.g. virgin birth (based upon a mistranslation and misreading of Isaiah 7:14 [2]), or that the earth was literally created in six days.

The assertion of a literal six-day creation also demonstrates a logical fallacy, in that one must willfully ignore that within the cosmogany [3] of Genesis itself, the sun and moon were created on the fourth day [4], and our measure of a day is dependent upon the earth’s rotation relative to the sun; thus, even within it’s own logical construct, Genesis cannot be understood literally. As with all mythology, it’s meaning runs far deeper than assertions concerning empirically demonstrable facts. Failing to appreciate the vitality of mythology is another impoverishment many (most?) in the modern age suffer.

Saying, “I believe you” does not carry the same conviction as saying, “I have faith in you.” Belief is directed toward an estimate of accuracy in data ―the known vs. the unknown― whereas faith is an estimation of a person’s intrinsic character or qualities.

Faith may also be understood as choosing to believe something as being true, which cannot be demonstrated to be true; or even choosing to believe a thing as being true, despite empirical evidence it is not true. One may choose to believe life has meaning beyond the physical; one may choose to believe there is a God; one may choose to believe Jesus was the son of God; one may choose to believe one is saved or redeemed. But none of these assertions may be empirically proved or disproved. This is why believing them requires a demonstration of faith.

Significant error creeps into our thinking when one confuses empirically demonstrable facts with claims of truth and perceptions of what one deems to be true. Simply put, facts and truth are not always the same things; many truths are imbued with an ineffable quality, or display a quality richer than that which may be measured.

For those interested in the topic of the meaning of Christian words, and how they have changed over the centuries, I commend to you Marcus Borg’s book “Speaking Christian.” I find Borg to be both an intelligent and caring person, able to convey refined details of theology from a scholars perspective, without losing touch with the heart of Christianity, which is love.

What the Christian New Testament attempts to convey when using faith

Faith, carries several simultaneous connotations: assensus, fidelitas, fiducia (Latin Vulgate translation of the New Testament). [5]

Assensus, we may translate as assent; however, until we appreciate the depth of meaning in the remaining terms, we miss the mark if assuming this simply means to believe things that a rational person cannot. But let us first visit fidelitas and fiducia, then return to assensus.

Fidelitas, means faith as faithfulness; fidelity. To help us better understand this kind of faith, Borg uses the example of fidelity in marriage, as one being faithful to the relationship with one’s spouse; not faithful to a set of logical statements concerning one’s spouse.

In the same way, fidelity to God is not about believing dogma or church traditions or even scripture; fidelity to God is being faithful to one’s relationship with God; intentionally and mindfully enriching our sense of relationship with that transcendent More, which Christians identify as God or Father.

One aspect of this, is deliberately, consciously living in the presence of the divine throughout our daily life, as best we are able. How do we do this? We start by being aware of each moment as it passes. We open ourselves to the possibility of feeling a Presence at any time. We look for opportunities to relate to others directly, with compassion, and to help them when we are able.

Why? Because “God” is not up in heaven somewhere, and “God” is not “out there” somewhere. Quite the opposite: it is we who are “in God” because we are immersed in the sacred More all the time, as is a fish in water. Sometimes we are aware of this; other times we forget or become distracted.

Fiducia, is faith as trust. Radical –as in fundamental, foundational– trust in one’s relationship with God; this is not trust in statements, or affirmations, or assertions about God. The root lies not in logical constructs, but in experiential relationship. Thus, the heart of faith as fiducia, is rooted in personal experience of the divine.

Sensing our personal experience of the divine, by the way, is one way to define mysticism. Fiducia is related to fidelitas (fidelity), because fidelity is expressed through our concern for others, daily moving through our life mindful of the possibility of encountering the divine, and specifically of encountering the divine in those we meet. Thus, faith as fidelity is rooted in experiencing life, as is fiducia, faith as trust in relationship.

And let us remember, our daily life is where we must “meet God” because that is where we find ourselves. It is like the old joke, everywhere you go, there you are. But so too, “God” the transcendent and immanent More in which we swim, and have our very be-ing-ness, is there with us.

Returning to assensus –“faith as believing something is true” [6]– I agree with Borg, that first and foremost, we are (as William James defined the Sacred) affirming there is a mysterious More which permeates the cosmos. And for me as a Christian, Jesus is the “decisive disclosure of the More,” [7] that in which “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Thus, as Christians we seek theosis [8] of the Christ living in, and through, us.

What the Christian New Testament attempts to convey when using belief

Belief, one may best read as beloved [9]. As used in the New Testament, the heart of its meaning is love; not assertion, nor affirmation, and certainly not as acknowledging empirically derived facts. Once one shifts one’s understanding of the word belief, to beloved, many passages in the New Testament take on a new life and vitality.

This brings to mind what for me is the most central aspect of the teaching of Jesus ― the Greatest Commandment:

Matthew 22:36-40 New International Version (NIV)

36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ [Deut. 6:5] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ [Lev. 19:18] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Speaking practically, what might one do to help encourage some experience of the divine, of “God” in one’s life?

Mindful, intentional, loving, engagement is the path many mystics cite when asked how one might draw oneself nearer an experience of the divine in one’s life. There are a number of ways one might begin one’s journey along this path. Among them are regularly praying and/or meditating, studying and/or contemplating scripture, and participating in the Eucharist.

Why pray? Why study scripture? Why attend Mass?

Each of these embeds one in the Mind of Christ, to some degree; to what depth changes with each person. Some respond more to prayer, some by immersing themselves in scripture, and others by partaking of Holy Communion. But in each case, the objective is to find a means of immersing oneself in maturing spiritual thought and maturing spiritual emotion.

I would make the point that both thought and emotion play important roles in acquiring the skill leading to one’s spiritual maturity. Each provides a measure of balance to the other. Without emotion one may become dry, empty husks merely spouting facts and figures which have been memorized. Where is the Spirit in this? Without thought, one is lost, awash in emotional turmoil, seething and reacting, but without guidance, lacking long-term goals and unable to direct one’s spiritual development. Where is the Spirit in this?

One prays, studies scripture, and partakes of Holy Communion because the more one does so, the more one embeds oneself in the process of forming in oneself the Mind of Christ. As one dwells more frequently in this mode of thought and experience, one more frequently views one’s view daily interactions and internal dialogue through this spiritual lens. One becomes more mindful of one’s presence, that of others, and ultimately of the More, to which we all aspire.

All of these are means of transforming oneself into the type of person one wishes to become. As one increasingly finds one dwells in this state of mind, one increasingly has an effect upon others. Thus transformation of self, overflows into transformation of community, which over time creates a feedback, in which one is more spiritually nourished by one’s community; and as one better nourishes other members of one’s community, the cycle of spiritual generation continues. Where the Heart and Mind leads, the body will follow.

John 3:16, For God so loved the world…

With all the above in mind, I wish to offer two translations of John 3:16 for your consideration. The first is the King Jame’s Version, and the second a translation done by Marcus Borg. I invite you to compare these versions of John 3:16 and ask yourself which version better promotes the mature psychological and spiritual thinking of Unity Consciousness; that of putting on the Mind of Christ.

For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son
that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish
but have everlasting life.
[John 3:16 KJV]

For God so loved the world that God gave the only beloved Son of God
that whosoever beloves him shall not perish
but experience the life of the age to come in the here and now.
[John 3:16 translation by Marcus Borg][10]

As you come to the end of this essay, I encourage you to read Marcus Borg’s short sermon, “What is Faith?” upon which this essay is based. I find his thoughts on this topic insightful, and I believe you will as well:

Marcus Borg’s Lenten Homily http://www.explorefaith.org/LentenHomily03.16.01.html

May the Lord bless and keep you,
Erik+

Footnotes:

[1] Marcus J. Borg, “Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power ― And How They Can Be Restored” (New York: HarperCollins, 2011) 116.

[2] Isaiah 7:14 is typically taken out of context when quoted by Christians in the defense of Jesus’ virgin birth; few who read it are aware the Hebrew word used is Almah, which carries a range of meanings: girl; maid; maiden; young woman, and virgin. Almah is indeed translated as virgin in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible (from which the author of Matthew drew their reference). However, this is obviously a mistaken interpretation when read in context; read Isaiah 7:10-17 for yourself: “Isaiah Gives Ahaz the Sign of Immanuel”… 10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11 Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. 13 Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman [Greek, the virgin] is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel [God is with us]. 15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. 17 The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.” (NRSV) Basically, this passage is a prophecy that the current siege shall be lifted after the young woman gives birth, and that king Ahaz will not be defeated by these two kings, as he fears. It has nothing to do with Jesus’ virgin birth (although in the ancient literature of many cultures, accounts of virgin births are mythic/legendary elements often employed to raise the status of those to whom they are directed: Krishna (India); Horus (Egypt); Lao-Tsze (China); even Plato (Athens); as well as, Dionysus, Buddha, Zoroaster, and of course Jesus). This is not to imply that virgin births are not important, but they are not to be understood literally either.

[3]Cosmogany: a theory or story of the origin and development of the universe, the solar system, or the earth-moon system (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/Cosmogony).

[4] Genesis 1:14-19. The fourth day.

[5] Marcus J. Borg, “What is Faith?” (Memphis, TN: Lenten Homily, 2001) http://www.explorefaith.org/LentenHomily03.16.01.html

[6] Borg, “What is Faith?”

[7] Borg, “What is Faith?”

[8] “Theosis literally means to become gods by Grace. The Biblical words that are synonymous and descriptive of Theosis are: adoption, redemption, inheritance, glorification, holiness and perfection. Theosis is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, whereby through Grace one becomes a participant in the Kingdom of God. Theosis is an act of the uncreated and infinite love of God. It begins here in time and space, but it is not static or complete, and is an open-ended progression uninterrupted through all eternity.” Archimandrite George, Abbot of the Holy Monastery of St. Gregorios, Mount Athos “Theosis: The True Purpose of Human Life” (Mount Athos, Greece: 2006) page 86.

[9] Borg, “What is Faith?”

[10] Borg, “What is Faith?”

Resources:

Books:

Borg, Marcus J.:

“The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith”

“Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power ― And How They Can Be Restored”

Ehrman, Bart D.: “Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew”

James, William : “Varieties of Religious Experience, a Study in Human Nature”

Online:

Borg, Marcus J.: Lenten Homily, “What is Faith?” (Memphis, TN: 2001) http://www.explorefaith.org/LentenHomily03.16.01.html

Archimandrite George, Abbot of the Holy Monastery of St. Gregorios, Mount Athos “Theosis: The True Purpose of Human Life” (Mount Athos, Greece: 2006) http://orthodoxinfo.com/general/theosis.aspx (http://orthodoxinfo.com/general/theosis-english.pdf)

Pauline Mysticism

"Saint Paul Writing His Epistles" by Valentin de Boulogne

“Saint Paul Writing His Epistles” by Valentin de Boulogne

Pauline Mysticism

It was on icy January day in South Carolina, that the sacrament of Holy Orders was celebrated in which I was ordained.  It was the feast day of the conversion of St. Paul.  So, as this anniversary fast approaches, my thoughts turn once more to St. Paul.

Conversion of Paul

Paul’s is the earliest Christian voice we hear.  His earliest surviving letters date to about 20 years after Jesus was crucified, to about the year 50.  Paul is thought to have continued writing until the year 67 or so, when he was martyred in Rome.  During this brief span of 15 years or so, Paul traveled throughout the eastern Roman empire, spreading his understanding of the Christ.

The surviving undisputed letters of Paul account for some 25% of the Christian New Testament.  If one includes letters written in Paul’s name ―but almost certainly not by Paul himself― we can say Paul directly or indirectly influenced nearly half of the New Testament!

But Paul initially persecuted followers of Jesus.  Indeed, Paul was engaged in a mission of persecution right up to the moment of his conversion, when he was struck by a vision so powerful, that it changed his life forever!

Thus, Paul became a Christian instantly, directly as the result of a profound mystical experience.  And if we take Paul at his word, he continued to have visions and mystical encounters throughout his life.

This is why I believe it is accurate to call St. Paul a Christian mystic.

Emotional or Sense-Based Mysticism

Many of us associate mysticism with highly emotional, or sense-based experiences.  One of the better known works of Western Christian mysticism is “The Cloud of Unknowing” written in the 14th century by an unknown author.  This author encourages feeling, especially love, when seeking an ecstatic state which they understand to be a means of drawing nearer what we may of the Divine.

But Paul did not speak well of this kind of mysticism, despite reporting that he had such experiences.  Perhaps the best example of this is found in 2 Corinthians, chapter 12, when Paul speaks in the third person of having been “caught up to the third heaven … caught up into Paradise and [having] heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.”

But he doesn’t mention this experience in order to suggest others should seek similar experiences.  Rather he uses it as a cautionary tale, as an example of what one should *not* seek.

Among Paul’s concerns with feeling- or sense-based mysticism, is that it may lead to boasting of one’s accomplishment in having had the experience.  This in turn may lead to a sense of self-centeredness, or as we might say today, our falling prey to an inflated ego.

More to the point, it draws attention inward to ourselves, and may lead one to believe that observing the Christian tradition ends with ourselves.  What Paul fears I suspect, is that we may pay too high of a price in that we may neglect our service to those in our community.

Ekklesia-Based Mysticism

Paul was very concerned with the ekklesia he was establishing.  Ekklesia is the Greek word which we often translate as church.  But it may mean many different kinds of gatherings or assemblies of persons.

  •      The sense which I mean to convey with the phrase Ekklesia-based mysticism, is a form of mysticism that is based in concern for one’s community.

For Paul, in our dealings with one another ―in community― love is always of central importance.  Paul said this most famously in the 13th chapter of 1st Corinthians, “…faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13).  But he also spoke of the critical importance of love ―and specifically of love working in our community― in one of his earliest letters, to the Galatians:

     “…through love become slaves to one another.  For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Gal. 5:13-14).

 

     “For in Christ Jesus … the only thing that counts is faith working [or: made effective] through love” (Gal. 5:6).

Living in the Mystery of the Christ

Paul’s mysticism does have a personal component.  We each are to individually seek the Christ, and anticipate encountering a very real experience of the Christ in our lives.  I believe this is certainly part of what Paul was trying to relate when writing to the Galatians:

    “…it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).

And this remained an important theme for Paul, as we read in the 2nd chapter of Philippians:

     “Let the same mind be in you that was [or: that you have] in Christ Jesus”

Seeking the Mystery of the Christ in You through Theosis

I speak of theosis with some frequency.  Theosis is what I believe Paul is encouraging us to seek when he says we should put on the mind of Christ, or live is such a way as to have the Christ live in us―through us.

One aspect of this is captured in the popular question, what would Jesus do?  Psychologically, this is a re-frame.  We prompt ourselves to step out of the human animal-driven moment, and ask what a person who lives within a higher spiritual frame of reference might do?

Jesus also spoke of this when asked what were the most important laws of the Torah.  Jesus basically answered that one must love God, and love one’s neighbors (there are more subtle points, as well, but I am simply paraphrasing).  As we read, Paul said the same thing (Gal. 5:14, “‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'”).  This is not surprising, as it is a long-held ideal in Jewish thought.

One of the main points of theosis is to strive to become a living embodiment of Christ Jesus.  Another main point of theosis is to strive to help others become a living embodiment of Christ Jesus.  And on a practical level, the point in doing so is transformation of our own consciousness, and to transform our community into a living example of God’s kingdom, right here on earth, during our own life time.

And what is the key to seeking the mystery of the Christ in you?

Love.

I believe this is the most important message Paul delivers.  If you get nothing else out of reading and studying Paul, understand that love is at the center of all that we do, when we are striving toward our highest standards.

Do you want to put on the mind of Christ?

Do you want to live in such a way as to uphold the Word (what I would argue is the Christian apprehension of the Torah)?

Do you wish to see Christ Jesus living within you more strongly each day?

If so, then take Paul’s words to heart, and live them to your utmost:

    …the greatest [virtue] is love.
…through love become slaves to one another.
For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment,
‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

 

May you be blessed
Erik+

References:

“The Cloud of Unknowing” (unknown author)

“The Mystery of Christ in You: The Mystical Vision of Saint Paul” by George Maloney

Thin Places: Opening the Heart

Modern Celtic cross at cimetière du Père-Lachaise, Paris

Modern Celtic cross at cimetière du Père-Lachaise, Paris

 

My title is taken from the eighth chapter of Marcus Borg’s book “The Heart of Christianity” which prompted my thoughts for this essay.  This is a moving, thoughtful book which I enthusiastically recommend.

 

Thin Places

The image of Thin Places occurring throughout the physical world is often attributed to the Celts.  And while the Christian tradition may attribute the term to the infusion of ancient Celtic influences, we should recognize that the concept, and more importantly the experience of Thin Places, is far older than is Celtic Christianity (dating from the third century CE).  Thin places are in fact reported in all spiritual traditions of which I am aware.

A closely related concept is that of the axis mundi:

Axis Mundi (Merriam-Webster)  turning point of the world; line through the earth’s center around which the universe revolves

Everywhere the divine realm meets the earthly realm in which we live, that intersection becomes an axis mundi.  Frequently these locations are sacred mountains (Mount Fuji, Mount Olympus, Mount Hermon, Mount Sinai) or sacred trees (Bodhi tree, Yggdrasil, The Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil).

A church, temple or an altar may also become an axis mundi.  Less obvious to many Westerners, one’s home may become an axis mundi (as in the practice of Feng shui).  Our physical body may also become an axis mundi:  the chakra system common to Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as the practice of Yoga and Tai Chi, are all rooted in the understanding that the human body forms a pillar between heaven and earth (an axis mundi).

Within the Judeo-Christian traditions we can easily recognize the shared concepts of the axis mundi and of Thin Places in the telling sacred stories such as Jacob’s Ladder, Moses’ encounter with the burning bush, and the transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor.

We may also recall that Jesus often sought out a special place to commune with God (Mark 1:35, Matt. 14:13, Matt. 14:23, Luke 4:42, Luke 5:15, to name just a few).  Among the more memorable occasions are his 40-day fast in the wilderness,  praying in the garden of Gethsemane,  and the aforementioned transfiguration upon Mount Tabor.

While we seldom refer to Jesus as seeking out Thin Places, it seems obvious to me that the gospels tell us he did so with great frequency;  only the words used to describe his experience differ.  Thus, seeking out Thin Places, or a private sacred space in which we may seek an encounter with the divine, is as authentically Christian as is Jesus himself.

By whatever name we give it, persons from all cultures have sought an experience of the divine.  Thus, we may quite properly observe seeking Thin Places in which one may encounter the divine is a shared human experiences, common to all religions.  It is as much Christian as Buddhist;  as much Muslim as Hindu;  as much Jewish as Taoist;  as much Shinto as Native American.

It is true that the highly personal and subjective nature of the encounter with a Thin Place makes it difficult to convey to others.  And for those who have not had their own experience, it is also very easy to deny that it ever happens.

For those of us who have not had our own Road to Damascus experience, we must rely upon testimony of persons trying to share something of their encounter with the divine, however limited by language their efforts may be.

In 1931, during a trip to England, Mahatma Gandhi was asked to record an address.  He chose his essay “On God” which opens with the following lines:

     “There is an indefinable mysterious power that pervades everything, I feel it though I do not see it. It is this unseen power which makes itself felt and yet defies all proof, because it is so unlike all that I perceive through my senses. It transcends the senses.”

One may note that Mahatma Gandhi was speaking of a personal encounter, somehow perceiving a presence, which he identified as God, yet transcendent to his senses.  Near the end of his address, he states, “I confess that I have no argument to convince through reason. Faith transcends reason.”

I suspect another way of saying this, is to observe that having had the experience of encountering the divine, one no longer questions the existence of the divine.  But one may never “prove” the divine exists to a person who has yet to have a similar experience or encounter.

In this we are all alone:  we perceive the world only through the lens of our own sense experience.  Anything we have not yet experienced, we may only appreciate through the testimony of those who have gone before us, those who may light the flame of our own imagination.

And we choose to accept or reject their testimony.

“Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time. That is not just fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God shows Himself everywhere, in everything ― in people and in things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that God is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without Him. It’s impossible. The only thing is, is that we don’t see it.”
― Thomas Merton, Trappist monk, in a 1965 audiotape

 

Opening Our Closed Heart

Marcus Borg observes that our heart closes as a result of the very natural process of growing up.  As we mature psychologically, we grow more deeply into a sense of “us.”  We become increasingly aware of the lens through which we observe all that lies outside of ourselves;  in fact, we perceive ourselves as that lens.

I am convinced Borg correctly identifies this process as “[t]he birth and development of self-awareness [which] involves an increasing sense of being a separated self” (page 153, “The Heart of Christianity”).

It is this self-awareness which creates the sense that we are separated from the rest of the cosmos.  And this sense of isolation and disconnection is what must be overcome, at least to some degree, if we are to begin opening our hearts.

This is part of what it means to be born again (or born from above).  I am convinced the author of the Gospel of John is alluding to a psychological-emotional-spiritual process ―although they would not have used that language 2,000 years ago― which brings about a reforming of one’s state of consciousness.

  •      (For a deeper discussion of the psychological and spiritual aspects of the Gospel of John, I recommend Bishop Spong’s book “The Fourth Gospel” and John Sanford’s book “Mystical Christianity.”)

Opening our heart is a process, and one which requires a daily effort.  We must seek out ways of opening our senses to the sacred, of feeling that presence of which Mahatma Gandhi spoke, or as Thomas Merton intimated, of forgetting ourselves enough that we may see that divine light shining everywhere into the world.

Perhaps it is useful to hear how we might recognize when we are failing to open our heart.  Borg gives us a stark example (“The Heart of Christianity” page 154):

     “When I stand in a supermarket checkout line and all the people I see look kind of ugly, I know that my heart is closed.”

 

Thin Places Facilitate the Opening of Our Heart

We truly are creatures of habit.  If we never seek out a Thin Place, we are unlikely to find one.  Yet if we make it a habit to seek Thin Places, thresholds where the divine crosses over into the physical world are increasingly likely to be revealed to us.

There is no guarantee this will happen, but I do believe it becomes increasingly likely over time.  (Especially if we are attentive to how we are being affected by our behaviors;  see Newberg in the Recommended Resources.)

Thin Places may be physical locations.  I have been in places where I felt something which may be described as a presence.  I suspect there may be some merit to the argument that we may encounter something like a “spiritual battery” if we enter a physical space which has been regularly used for spiritual and/or religious practices.

  •      ( And if this is true, we may ask whether the religious relic makes the shrine holy, or whether the heart-felt prayers of pilgrims sanctify it. )

But I am not suggesting we seek out a specific physical location.  One may, of course, but I suspect this is of secondary importance.  I am suggesting of primary importance is that we seek inwardly for our Thin Place.

A Thin Place may be encountered wherever we happen to be.  It is a matter of changing our state of consciousness.  It is a matter of training our body to trigger certain mental, emotional, and psychological states so that we become sensitive to the existence of a Thin Place being created within us.

This may happen any where.  It may happen at any time.  It may happen to us unexpectedly.

But I firmly believe we may also engage in certain behaviors which make the experience more likely, and increasingly so over time, with practice and iteration of our behaviors.  I see this as one of the practical functions of ritual.

Practical examples include:

  • Attending regular places/modes of worship
    Sermons (although words tend to be least effective)
    Liturgical ritual
    Liturgical language
    Liturgical time (Easter, Christmas)
    Study of the bible and other sacred texts
    Contemplation of the bible and other sacred texts
    Internal, silent prayer (especially wordless, feeling-based)
    Communing with/in nature
    Participation in the sacraments (especially the Eucharist)
    Music, hymns, poetry
    Speaking/chanting in tongues
    Dancing, drumming, chanting
    Praying the rosary, or other prayer beads

 

Getting Thin

Getting “Thin” is about entering a psychological-emotional state in which we are more receptive to the Divine.  Intention is also important.  I believe fostering a sense of love is key to improving our spiritual health.

And we need travel no farther than where we are to do so;  provided we travel within.  We certainly may travel to a sacred place, but this is not required.

The specifics of the process are best tailored to the individual.  My best triggers may leave you unaffected, and vice versa.  Experimentation is required, and sufficient time so as to develop a sensitivity to the technique in question is recommended.

In trying to decide what practices may be more likely to bring about results, I suspect that C.G. Jung is correct in suggesting those behaviors which diminish our strongest conscious psychological functions, while supporting our unconscious psychological functions are the better choice.

But I do not think it matters whether one takes a quiet, subtle inward-directed approach (meditation and contemplation, for example) or whether one takes a louder, active outward-directed approach (singing and dancing, for example).

One approach to developing a trigger, is to so thoroughly engage either the active or quiet portions of the mind, that the neural networks supporting these areas of the brain saturate, and create an over-flow or cascading effect which ends up triggering both the active and quiet portions of the brain-mind simultaneously.

  •      ( To gain some insight as to how this may take place, I refer you to Dr. Andrew Newberg books, “Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief” and “Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience.” )

 

The Practice of Esoteric Christianity & Christian Mysticism

All of the above is part of what I understand to be the practice of Inner (Esoteric) Christianity, as well as the practice of Christian Mysticism.

In addition to reading classics on Christian Mysticism, one may study Dr. Newberg’s material on neural-theology as well as Neural Linguistic Programming (NLP).

I believe Dr. Newberg’s material offers valuable insights as to what is happening in our brain as we seek to enter transcendental states of consciousness, providing a useful over-view of what physical-psychological states we are trying to induce in ourselves.

NLP offers a number of very practical suggestions as to how we may “speak” to our own brain, so as to be understood most effectively.  NLP communicates to us the importance of appreciating various “states” of physiology and consciousness, as well as how they are related.

Some of the elemental aspects of NLP include understanding triggers, state, and modes of perception.  I believe each of these are very useful concepts with which to be familiar as we attempt to travel into Thin Places.  (See “Frogs Into Princes” by Bandler and Grinder.)

And, as described above, I do believe travelling into Thin Places is one means of Seeking the Divine Center.

 

May the Lord bless and keep you,

Erik+

 

Recommended Resources:

Bandler, Richard; Grinder, John:  “Frogs into Princes: Neuro Linguistic Programming”
http://www.amazon.com/Frogs-into-Princes-Linguistic-Programming/dp/0911226192/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1417408101&sr=1-1&keywords=frogs+into+princes+by+bandler+and+grinder

Borg, Marcus:  “The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith”
http://www.amazon.com/The-Heart-Christianity-Rediscovering-Faith/dp/0060730684

Gandhi, Mahatma:  Spiritual Message (“On God”), 1931
http://youtu.be/EtWr04MBGYI
http://www.gandhiserve.org/information/listen_to_gandhi/lec_1_on_god/augven_spiritual_message.html

Newberg, Andrew:
http://www.andrewnewberg.com/
“Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief”
“Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience”

Sanford, John:  “Mystical Christianity: A Psychological Commentary on the Gospel of John”

Spong, John Shelby:  “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic”

Seeking Consonance with the Transcendent

William Blake's "Jacob's Ladder"

William Blake’s “Jacob’s Ladder”

Do you see an apparent contradiction in the following statement?  In my previous essay, I wrote:

  •      “I understand the inner (esoteric) religious experience to be concerned with personal transformation, so as to bring ourselves into increasing consonance with that which transcends our human experience.”

 

If the Transcendent is truly transcendent, then by definition it is beyond our ability to experience.  How then, is it possible to bring oneself into consonance with something one posits must exist outside our universe and experience?  

 

This is the point I will address in this essay.  But first, let’s refresh our memory of certain terms, and provide a frame of reference for this discussion.  The following are the best definitions of “transcendent” when I use terms like “Uncreated/Divine/God” and “Transcendent-Ineffable”:

  Transcendent

  •     Being beyond the limits of all possible experience and knowledge;  being beyond comprehension (Merriam-Webster);
  •     Beyond consciousness or direct apprehension;  beyond or before experience (a priori);  having continuous existence outside the created world (Collins English);
  •     Being above and independent of the material universe (American Heritage);
  •     Not realizable in human experience;  referred to, but beyond, direct apprehension; outside consciousness (Kernerman Webster’s College);

 

The view that “God” (the Uncreated-Divine-Transcendent-Ineffable) is to an indeterminate degree Unknowable, is one of my radical (meaning, foundational) theological tenets.  (I addressed this point in a previous essay).  I find it to be the most certain positive statement I may make concerning the Divine;  more than this, everything else one wishes to say of “God” must reside within the shadow of this observation.  (We forget this at our peril, and the peril of others, as history is replete with examples.)

 

Negative theology (also known as Via Negativa, “Negative Way”) seeks to clarify this point by stating we are unable to make *positive* assertions as to the nature of the Uncreated/Divine/God.  This is because the divine realm is completely unavailable to our human senses.

When using negative theology, we limit our statements to observing what the Uncreated/Divine/God is *not*.  The intention is to specifically limit our statements to that of which we *do* have experience, namely:  objects, events, and persons of this world.  Simultaneously, we assert the Divine always exceeds that which is limited to human experience.

Thus:

  • Our experience is limited to the world in which we live
  • We assert there is a divine world, which transcends our world
  • As human beings, we are unable to directly experience the divine world *
  • Therefore, we are insufficient to the task of describing and defining the divine world
  • But we are able to describe experiences we have as human beings
  • And we may acknowledge human experience is insufficient to fully describe & define the Divine
  • This leads some to the adoption of the Negative Way:  limiting ourselves to stating what the Uncreated/Divine/God is not **

*  This is not to say that the Divine is unable to enter our world;  I believe it may.  But it is to say, that in so doing, what the Divine reveals of itself to us is limited by our ability to perceive it.
**  I am not aware of anyone who thinks the Negative Way adequately reveals the Divine to us.  Primarily it is an exercise designed to make us mindfully aware of our limitations in attempting to describe that which is outside the meaning of time and space, or any other categories of understanding we have access to as human beings.

 

But God Can Do Anything!

I frequently hear the argument that God can do anything, including reveal the entirety of the divine to the mortal.  I disagree.  The problem is this:  we remain mortal;  human.  Anything revealed to us must *still* be filtered through our perception and then cognitively processed by us.  We have bodies, sense organs, and a brain;  and these present limitations.  And so long as we remain human, we will always face limitation.

 

  •      The limitation in receiving divine revelation is not God (the Source), but ourselves (the Receptor)

 

If we use the metaphor of radio waves, the Uncreated sends forth a vast array of radio waves -we may even posit an infinite range of frequencies- but we as the radio receiver are only able to perceive those frequencies which our antenna and filters allow us to receive.  Psychologically, we may also consider more human corollaries.  There have been cases of persons born blind, who later gain vision;  but they cannot make any sense of what they are seeing, because their brains never developed the ability to make sense of the photons hitting their retina.

 

  •      As with one born physically blind, we are all born spiritually blind, in terms of directly seeing the divine realm.

 

The Claims of Mystics

Mystics, however, report experiencing something which they interpret as an aspect of the Divine.  But they have difficulty relating their experience to someone who has not had a similar experience.  Invariably, such experiences lose a great deal when transmitted by the spoken or written word.  A great deal of mysticism struggles with exactly this problem.

Mystics tell us they are able to push their perception to some degree beyond those most persons experience.  For those wishing to explore this more deeply I believe it is helpful to distinguish between perception, comprehension, and apprehension.

Perception is both physical and psychological;  it requires the ability to receive raw input, and it requires the ability to be aware of the input.  Comprehension is a cognitive process;  this is making sense of the raw data we are receiving as input to our perceptions.  Comprehension is a conscious endeavour.

Apprehension is more subtle.  Apprehension is linked to instincts and intuition.  I suspect it is also linked to the human collective unconscious;  which may in turn be linked to the what we might call the divine collective unconscious.  (I believe there is an interesting Jungian argument here, which I will not explore in this essay.)

Thus, through apprehension, we are able to exceed our purely physical (sensory) and psychological (cognitive) limitations.  Through apprehension, the mystic seeks connection with the Divine, pushing back portions of the veil which separates the mortal and divine realms.  And I suspect many mystics would agree that the Divine may simultaneously pull back this veil.

So I do believe the Divine is both willing and able to assist us.  (Which leads to a future discussion regarding the immanent nature of the Divine.)  And I do believe that given sufficient desire, trial, and effort, we may gain greater access to what may be a “shadow” of the divine realm.  Yet there remains a radical, fundamental difference between the divine and human which cannot be fully bridged.

Not even God can fully bridge the gap between the divine and human.  Because to do so, we could no longer remain human.  And we are not capable of being fully human and fully divine.

 

  •      This also opens the door to a discussion about “Christology” -the study of Christ- and theological debate surrounding the questions of Jesus being fully human while simultaneously fully divine.  It took several hundred years for the Church to address these and related questions.  These are extensive discussions and are beyond the scope of this essay.  Christology may be the topic of future essays.

 

Healthy Humility

Developing a healthy sense of humility is very important.  In fact, I believe this to be critical for our spiritual maturity.  This is my starting point when contemplating the Divine.  It may sound strange at first, but I believe having severely limited access to the Divine may actually be beneficial to our spiritual growth.

 

  •      Knowing that the ultimate nature of the Divine is unavailable to human experience, is a very healthy and peace-affirming theological position to assume.

 

After all, if everyone were to admit the greatest depths of the Divine are totally unavailable to our comprehension (that the Divine is in fact “transcendent”), each of us would be *unable* to assume the position that *I* understand the Mind of God –and most importantly– therefore, *you* *lack* this understanding.

 

  •      To believe and accept there are depths of the Divine beyond our ken, is a significant step toward eliminating the religious persecution and victimization of others.

 

It is a sad indictment of humanity to observe this would be a giant step forward.  It would be the end of religious war, and the end of murdering in the name of God!  (The greatest of sins, in my opinion.)  If for no other reason, this makes it an extremely worthwhile theological tenet to adopt (even if only provisionally).

 

Are We Then Bereft of God?

If we can never have any experience of, and are unable to have any contact with, the transcendent elements of “God” does this mean we have no access to any part of the Divine?  Does this mean we are utterly alone and alienated from that which we believe is the Source of existence itself?

Not at all.  We do have the ability to access those parts of the Divine which are manifest in this world.  But we should be mindful that this is only a partial understanding, and affords us an incomplete view of the Divine.  But there are steps we may take to mitigate these difficulties.

Religious Education

In the outer, exoteric sense, this is the role of religion in the public sphere.  This is a beginning point.  We attend public worship, meetings, and study sessions.  Largely, I see this as an effort to educate ourselves.  In this “exoteric” category I would also include private bible study and seminary studies.  We are trying to better understand our own religious tradition, the roles persons play within that tradition, and where we fit into our religious tradition.  (We may further benefit by including the study of other religious traditions;  how they both differ and are similar to our own.)

Public Mysticism

There are also more mystical encounters which take place in the public sphere, which are not about educating ourselves, but are instead focused upon *experiencing* the Presence of the Divine.  In my opinion, facilitating our connection (with what we may experience of) the Divine is the role of the Holy Spirit  (which I equate with the Shakinah in the Jewish tradition).

Several very different examples which immediately come to mind include:  Catholic Eucharist;  Whirling Dervish;  and very active forms of worship, such as Pentecostal, Charismatic, and Appalachian Snake Handling services.  Of these, the Catholic Eucharist is the most introverted expression of public mysticism.

Private Mysticism

For me, this is the deeper experience.  But I may simply feel this way because I am strongly introverted, therefore I have a natural inclination to this path, and a natural disinclination toward being part of a “public spectacle.”  I will point out that each of us should endeavour to be aware that what *we* find natural, may or may not be what another person finds to be a “natural” means of entering an experience of the Holy Presence.

Judge not.  Whether one sits quietly, mumbles under their breath, chants, drums, dances, or whirles in dizzying circles, it is the state of entering a sense of rapport with the Divine which is important, not how one achieves this state.  And this is an internal state, which only the person entering it may judge to be effective or ineffective.  Therefore, use whatever approach works for you.  And feel free to experiment with different means of entering this state.

Inner Mysticism

Inner mysticism may also be called esoteric mysticism, because at its core it is an internal event and experience.  One may enter this state through a public event (Eucharist, Pentecost, etc) or one may enter this state through a private event (contemplation, meditation, drumming, chanting, etc).

The point is that the encounter itself is internal to the person experiencing it.  Whether this encounter takes place in a public space or within a private space is secondary.  Another way of saying this, is that our body just happens to be wherever it is occupying physical space;  however, it is our spirit, that is engaging the mystical experience.

For this reason, I believe the inner-esoteric experience is properly called “spirituality.”  Here we seek to bridge the gap between our (lower case) spirit and the (upper case) Divine Spirit.  In this essay, I will suggest we may think of this process as trying to attain “resonance” with the Divine.  This is an intermediate step (it was preceded by the educational process, and as we shall see, may eventually may lead to a state of “consonance” with the Divine).

Attaining resonance with the Divine, repeated over time, leads to an even deeper connection.  Terms which I find useful in describing this state are establishing a “rapport” with the Divine, or of attaining “consonance” with the Divine.  Both terms are useful.  Rapport is very useful when speaking of the neural-linguistic processes taking place within our body, brain, and mind.  Consonance offers a beautiful musical metaphor for the experience, which also lends itself to the concept of participation in the “Field Theory” of the Divine.  By whatever name one wishes to use as a label for the encounter, the active attempt to bring oneself into a state of rapport/consonance with the Divine is the primary objective of mysticism.

Each of these processes builds upon and refines that which precedes.  First an outer-exoteric religious experience, followed by a spiritual attempt to bring oneself into “resonance” with the Divine, followed by a deepening “consonance” with the Divine.  While the terms used to describe these processes vary, all great religions acknowledge them.

 

Achieving a State of Consonance

It is understanding the role of mysticism as a means of establishing rapport with the Divine which I wish to discuss in this essay.  I propose this may be thought of as a two-step process.  First we determine how to enter a state of resonance with the Divine.  Once we have learned to enter a state of resonance, we refine the process over time, through repetition and exploration.  Ultimately repetitive states of resonance results in achieving a state of consonance.

Resonance & Consonance

The following are the Merriam-Webster definitions of resonance and consonance:

Resonance

  • The quality or state of being resonant
  • A vibration of large amplitude in a mechanical or electrical system caused by a relatively small periodic stimulus of the same or nearly the same period as the natural vibration period of the system

Consonance

  • Harmony or agreement among components

 

Tightly stretched wires which share the same fundamental frequency will vibrate in sympathetic response with one another.  If you have access to a piano or two tuning forks of the same frequency (or a harmonic thereof) you may easily test this for yourself.

If you strike a C-note on a piano, every other wire in that piano tuned to a C will vibrate in resonance with the one you struck.  In fact, the same effect will take place with other musical instruments in the vicinity.  This is an example of sympathetic harmonic resonance.  Sound waves are transmitted by air molecules between the strings, tuning forks, or other musical instruments.

Related effects are well known in modern physics.  Gravitational waves are a form of field effect, electromagnetic field effects are integral to many mechanical and electromagnetic systems, and at the subatomic level, field effect semi-transistors control the flow of electrons in the computer you are using to read this essay.  Thus, we see examples of resonance throughout nature, at all scales.

Consonance is a particularly useful term as it is used when describing musical relationships, because it speaks to an artful impression of which we become aware when listening to a beautiful piece of music (there is also dissonance, which describes the opposite effect).  Personally, I find resonance to be a more abstract, sterile term than consonance.  Consonance conveys a sense of beauty and heart-felt appreciation.  Thus, we seek “consonance of the heart” when seeking union with the Divine.

 

  •      One may measure resonance with a frequency meter.  But one experiences consonance in one’s heart.

 

Is there a “consonant field effect” connecting us to the Uncreated/Divine/God?

I am asking whether the above examples of field effects in the physical realm -gravity, sympathetic harmonic resonance, electrical and magnetic fields- may serve as analogies for a similar “field effect” existing between the human spirit and the Divine Spirit.

 

  •      Might a “spiritual field effect” comprise a subtle connection between the physical and divine realms?

 

I suggest that such a connection does exists.  Further, I am suggesting that understanding our connection between the human and Divine realms as a form of spiritual “consonance” is instructive for a number of practical reasons.

 

First and foremost, it affirms we have access to some aspects of the Divine Spirit while we exist in the physical-human realm.

People who have not felt any indication of such a connection are often doubtful of this assertion, but those who have felt it, no longer question that it exists.  They may question a great deal more, about its nature and meaning, and what to do with/about it;  but this connection itself, has become a part of their personal experience;  thus, it is not a theory, or an article of faith, it is something they know/feel to be as true as the wind upon their face.

It is important to emphasize, this does not mean they also understand or comprehend it.  Being certain a thing exists, is not the same as knowing all there is to know about it, or even assurance one knows anything about it, beyond its existence.

 

Secondly, it suggests we may gain access to the Divine Spirit by conforming ourselves to become first “resonate” and then “consonant” with the Divine Spirit.

This point is critical.  This is what spiritual practices are all about.  Whether one is a whirling dervish, speaking in tongues, or practicing kataphatic and/or apophatic contemplation, all are means of placing oneself in greater resonance with what one perceives as the Uncreated/Divine/God.

And as one deepens one’s spiritual practices, from this preliminary state of *resonance*, one is increasingly likely to develop a resulting sense of *consonance* with the Uncreated/Divine/God.  And mystics indicate this in turn promotes a deepening sense of peace within, which is reflected upon the outer world through the experiences of richer, more peaceful relations with others.

 

  •      Divine Light is engendered in our heart, fills it and cascades, shining forth into the world as the ray of Love

 

How might we engender this sense of consonance within our experience?

We must first discover which of the many ways of experiencing a sense of the Uncreated/Divine/God in our personal lives is effective for us.  This will likely differ from one person to the next.  I suspect our individual psychology, and cultural influences are major contributing factors for such differences.

The uniqueness of our individual psychological and behaviour development influences whether we respond well to active dancing and chanting, or prefer quiet, solitary contemplation/meditation to enter an open spiritual state.  This is a case where the “how” is subjective, and completely secondary, to being able to achieve the state of connectedness with the Divine.

Once we discover one or more ways which promote -for us- this state of connectedness to the Divine, we must determine specifically under what circumstances this effect is experienced.  Equally important is learning what discourages this sense of connection.  Both are effected by our development as individuals:  culturally, socially, psychologically, and spiritually.  We should also be aware that we may discover certain methods are more appropriate given different circumstances.  We each may cultivate multiple means of connecting with the Divine.

 

Participating in the Kingdom of God

Over time, we should anticipate changes within ourselves.  These internal changes lead to behaviour modification, leading to changes in how we interact with other persons.  These mental, emotional, and behaviour changes which take root and blossom within our hearts is the “personal transformation” I speak of as one of the two major goals of leading a spiritual life.  The second major goal of leading a spiritual life takes place when our personal transformation is transferred to our interactions with others.  This is integral to the “transformation of society.”  In fact, I believe it is the only means of transforming the community in which we live.

It is my belief these transformations -personal and communal- are vital elements of what Jesus referred to as the coming Kingdom of God.  It is already present:  in potential.  But it requires our personal, individual, mindful participation to initiate the process.  And we do so by living appropriately spiritual lives;  spiritual lives which over time bring us into closer consonance with the Divine.

 

And how are we to judge whether we are living appropriately spiritual lives?

I believe we find this guidance in the ideals of selfless love, compassion, and loving-kindness.  These become our daily measures of success.  All great religions speak of these ideals.

We should also acknowledge we will trip and fall at times.  To err is human, after all.  The key is to get back up and recommit ourselves to the principals of selfless love, compassion, and loving-kindness, to whatever extent we are able.  It is a moment-by-moment, day-by-day continuing process.  It is a process of spiritual cultivation which we will practice for the rest of our lives.

I believe this is the process of “becoming more fully human” which bishop Spong speaks of in concert with his appeal for us to “love wastefully.”  And if we can remember only a single thing, if we may hold onto only a single thought throughout our daily lives, this is certainly a wonderful, transforming thought:

love wastefully!

 

Selected References:

Art of the Religious Experience

earthrise-NASA
Modern science is a predominately progressive endeavour.  Those of us living in the developed nations, not only anticipate new discoveries, we normally embrace such change as beneficial.

We have become accustomed to the idea that pretty much everything is subject to revision and refinement.  This is among the identifying features of living in a technology-based society.  Everything changes, and over the course of time, generally for the better.

In contrast, true art reaches something deep within us, something which is timeless.  In Jungian terms, one might say true art resonates with a counterpart in our deep unconscious;  this may reach even deeper, into the depths of our collective -shared- unconscious.

Art awakens within us a desire for -and facilitates a connection to- that which is timeless.  Likewise, profound religious-spiritual experiences bring us into an awareness of this timeless dimension of reality.

In thinking about the religious experience as a form of art, I am suggesting there are unchanging elements of human nature, which activate archetypal resonances.  One may even argue whatever these elements are, they reach across species.  After all, why did Neanderthals bury their dead, with apparent concern for their continuing care, even in death?

But how might we identify what in our religious experience is timeless?  And how might such experiences differ from secular (non-religious) experiences?  I would begin by suggesting we consider two broad categories of experience:

  •   External (Exoteric)
  •   Internal (Esoteric)

External / Exoteric

In this view, external experiences govern our interactions with others.  The application of morals and ethics within our society serve as examples.  These concerns may be both secular and religious.  While it is possible to live to a high moral and ethical standard without holding a religious conviction, both the secular and religious norms seek to instruct us how we are to live with one another.

The central difference between the two are found in the “whys” of doing so.

Secularly, such reasons may range from, these are the regulations handed down to us from our rulers, to these are the means of finding personal happiness;  if we are more ethically mature, to allowing others to also find their happiness;  and for those embracing very mature ethics, to actively assisting others find their happiness.

What of the religious dimension?

I believe the shift from the secular experience to the religious experience is revealed in the transformational qualities of that which we seek.  The call of the secular is of a more limited nature to my ear.  At its best, it calls for us to live in peace, and live our life so as to be happy, and helping others do likewise.  But where is the terminus, the end?  For the secular, that ending point is here, on planet earth.

If we care only about ourselves, it ends with us, here and now.  If we care about our children, it ends with them, and their children.  If we care about the children of strangers, we extend our concern greatly.  But all these concerns are limited to the continuation of life on this planet.

It is not that seeking to live a life filled with happiness is a bad goal.  It is not that seeking out ways of helping others to do the same is a bad thing.  These are objectively beneficial goals to hold throughout one’s life.  But they are goals limited to our worldly realm.  Thus, their nature is secular.

Positive transformation of society is a good thing, but by itself it falls short of being a religious experience because it limits itself to the “horizontal” axis of our lives.  Time is the horizontal axis in which we all live in this world.  We are by our physical nature creatures subject to time;  we are captured within its boundaries.

Vertical Axis of the Eternal

But there is also a “vertical axis” which the religious experience affirms:  the eternal;  that which is outside of time;  that which is unconstrained by time;  that which transcends time, and by extension, everything found in our vast universe.

This contrast and interaction between the horizontal and vertical aspects of our existence is part of what is symbolized in the cross.  The horizontal arm symbolizes our physical, material, time-constrained presence in the mortal world;  the vertical arm symbolizes our connection to the eternal.

I believe we may think of our desire for the eternal as what Joseph Campbell called “finding our bliss.”  And I believe Bishop Spong invites us to “love wastefully” because we are best in alignment with the vertical component of our nature when we live in a state of love.  And I believe this is what St. Augustine was aware of when observing that our weight is our love (in whatever we place our love, that acts like gravity, drawing us ever-nearer to it).

What have these views in common?  They are transformative experiences, because they encourage us to live for more than merely the horizontal dimension of our lives;  they point us toward the timeless, vertical-spiritual axis of our being, which transcends our mortal experience.

Internal / Esoteric

Internally -esoterically- the religious experience is about living in the vertical axis.  Here we meet what we may of that which transcends our human condition.  This experience is as limited or profound as is our state of consciousness.  The timeless-transcendent is always available to us;  *we* limit how much of this we may drink.

The objective of this encounter is to experience the numinous in our life.

  Numinous  (Merriam-Webster)

  •     Having a mysterious, holy, or spiritual quality
  •     Supernatural, mysterious
  •     Filled with a sense of the presence of divinity :  holy
  •     Appealing to the higher emotions or to the aesthetic sense :  spiritual

The numinous encounter is what I see as the primary goal of mysticism.  And I see the numinous as a unifying force across many -perhaps all- religions.  This is what draws their mystics of differing religions closer to one another, even as they are sometimes distanced from non-mystics within their own religious tradition.

  •      There is a tension between persons within each religion, of the mystic/esoteric and the non-mystic/exoteric, persuasion.  This may be symbolized by a circle with a dot in the middle of it:  persons experiencing the exoteric nature of their religion, traverse along the outer perimeter of the circle, and quite accurately, note differences among the various religious traditions;  meanwhile, mystics experience the esoteric nature of their religion, and move ever-nearer to the central dot, which represents the Transcendent, and in so doing, note their experience is becoming increasingly similar to other esoterics, regardless of their exoteric religious tradition.

I understand the inner (esoteric) religious experience to be concerned with personal transformation, so as to bring ourselves into increasing consonance with that which transcends our human experience.

In Christian and Jewish terms, these transformational experiences are conveyed in the teaching of the Greatest Commandment, which St. Augustine presented as:  loving God with all that you are, and loving others in such as manner as to best foster their ability to love God with all that they are.  This is why Augustine said our love is our weight, meaning:

  •   …as gravity draws a rock to the ground, so too, that in which we place our love, to that we are drawn.

The Art of the Religious Experience  

I believe the Art of the Religious Experience is about Transformation:  of ourselves;  of our communities.  We are to transform first ourselves and then our community in such a manner as to bring us into consonance with what we identify as our Ultimate Concern (God, Oneness, or Love, for the religious;  perhaps Happiness or Love, for the secular).

I further believe all great religions may be understood as using the ideal of selfless love (or compassion, or loving-kindness) as our daily measure of success in striving toward this understanding of Ultimate Concern.  I would further observe this is the process of becoming more fully human which bishop Spong speaks of in concert with his appeal for us to “love wastefully.”

The opposite of this is also true.  Should our Ultimate Concern become Hate, we transform our communities into machines of war and destruction.  We turn from mystical unity with all, toward isolation, rejection of all that is not “us” (tribal thinking), and we project (transform) our hatred upon others to alienate them, so as to more easily cause them harm.  This is the corruption of the religious experience, and the rejection of the numinous.

Yet we may hope to learn from the great mystics of all religions, who seek to reveal to us the light they have encountered in presence of the timeless, eternal.

  •    It is up to each of us to choose that which shall become our Weight, our Gravity.

We each carry the dichotomies of Love-and-Hate, Eternal-and-Worldly, in our hearts.  The choice between Love and Hate is present in our interactions with others;  in each thought we harbour;  in each feeling we allow to linger within us;  in each look we cast upon another;  and carried in each word we speak.

We cannot be perfect, and we would drive ourselves mad were we to set such an impossible standard.  But we each may strive toward more frequently nourishing loving thoughts, feelings, and interactions with others.  This is a critical first- and continual-step in our spiritual maturity.  And I believe this is common to all true religions, when lived in their deepest, most spiritually transformative expression.

We should give ourselves permission to be gracious to ourselves when we fall short of this ideal.  And we should be gracious with others when they too fall short of “loving wastefully.”  Forgiveness, as with all things human, begins within us.  It is OK to be human.  It is OK to fall short of our ideals.

What is important is that we get up again;  that we start anew.

  •   It is never too late to recognize the vertical axis in our lives.
  •   It is never too late to embrace this spiritually transformative process.
  •   It is never too late to promote compassion for others.
  •   It is never too late to pick ourselves up after a fall.
  •   It is never too late to recommit our lives to transforming ourselves, and our community.
  •   It is never too late to be happy.
  •   It is never too late to love.

These are all important aspects of the Art of Living the Authentic Religious Experience.

Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle 2014

La_conversion_de_Saint_Paul_Giordano_Nancy_640px
O God, who taught the whole world
through the preaching of the blessed Apostle Paul,
draw us, we pray, nearer to you
through the example of him whose conversion we celebrate today,
and so make us witnesses to your truth in the world.
    (Roman Missal)

Today is the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle.  It is also the first anniversary of my ordination as a priest.  So I thought it appropriate to say a few words about Paul.  I find Paul to be a very complex and interesting person.  His writings are sometimes confusing, sometimes polemic, sometimes mystical.  Paul can both challenge one’s mind and inspire one’s heart.

By happen stance, in recent months I have revisited my studies of Paul, and found a deeper appreciation for his writings than I had previous felt.  If one accepts that Paul wrote all of the books and letters of the bible once attributed to him, he wrote half the New Testament.  If one accepts only those letters which the vast majority of biblical scholars consider Paul to have written (the “authentic” or “uncontested” letters of Paul), then he still authored about one quarter of the New Testament!  So whether we believe Paul wrote 7, 13, or 14 books of the New Testament, we can certainly agree his influence upon the early development of what was to become the Christian Church was quite large.

A rather indirect way of reading Paul, is as a means of better understanding some of the changes that took place within the early church.  Although, calling this the early “church” is somewhat problematic, as this presumes a Christian perspective was in place at that early date.  (This is doubtful at best, and it certainly would not be anything we would recognize as today’s orthodox Christianity.)  Jesus, was of course Jewish, as was Paul.  In fact, it seems safe to say that the vast majority of persons following Jesus would have been Jewish.  In this sense, it is very correct to observe that this “Jesus Movement” took place within Judaism, and was another means of understanding and expressing Judaism.  I am reasonably convinced that Paul must have died thinking of himself as Jewish.  And more specifically as a Jewish Christ Mystic (more about that shortly).

I do not wish to become bogged down in details, but a few chronological markers may be useful.  Jesus was executed by the Romans circa 30 ce.  Paul’s earliest surviving letters were written between 50-67 ce.  Paul was martyred circa 67 ce.  The first gospel (Mark) was written circa 60-75 ce;  Matthew and Luke/Acts circa 75-85 ce;  and John circa 90-95 ce, about the same time frame as Revelation (although written by a different John).  The late letters in the New Testament are usually dated by biblical scholars to between 75-125 ce.

A closer examination of the questions of dating the texts of the New Testament, and proposing a chronological ordering of them, took place in a pair of my previous posts:

There are a few primary touch points to pull out of that string of dates:

  •   Paul is our earliest author of the New Testament.
  •   Paul’s authentic letters pre-date the four gospels.
  •   Among the last texts of the New Testament to be written are the Gospel of John and Revelation.
  •   Also among the last texts to be written are many of the letters found in the New Testament.

We may also observe there is an apparent difference of character of texts written in the 50’s vs those written in the 90’s.  This allow us to read parts of the New Testament against others, to obtain a sense of how the early church was changing, and how its understanding of itself evolved during the first 100 years following the execution of Jesus.  We may most clearly see this in the various letters of the Pauline school.  We may see some of this influence in the Johannine school as well, although they are all later understandings of the church, by which time I believe we may properly speak of a Christian Church.

Which underscores another set of touch stones for better understanding the organization of the New Testament:

  •   The “proto-church” prior to the 50’s is best understood as a Jesus Movement, taking place within Judaism.
  •   The “proto-church” of the 50’s and 60’s may be understood as developing into a schism between the Jewish and Gentile Movements.
  •   Both of the above are best understood as separate movements, stemming from a common Jewish Jesus Movement.
  •   The church of the 90’s is best understood as having by that date developed a distinctive Christian Church self-identity.
  •   It is often useful to think of the proto-church of the 50’s and Christian Church of the 90’s as distinctly different from one another.  To use round numbers, I sometimes speak of these as the proto-church of the 50’s and the early Christian Church of the 100’s.

So what has this to do with Paul?

The collection of Pauline writings are understood by the vast majority of biblical scholars and historians as ranging chronologically from the early 50’s to the 90’s, and in some cases even later.  Clearly, if this is true and Paul died in about 67 ce, he cannot be the author of all the letters written in his name.

It is fair to point out this is hotly debated in some circles.  One may find opinions ranging from Paul wrote all of Paul’s letters, to Paul only wrote the seven uncontested/authentic letters.  I number among the second group.  Therefore, I see several “Paul’s” as contributing to the collection of Pauline texts.  In fact, there are at least three or four different Paul’s.  And given Paul’s character plays such a large role in Acts, I think it is appropriate to count that as the fourth Paul.

The first is the “authentic” Paul who wrote in the 50’s and 60’s.

  •   First Thessalonians     (c. 51 ce/AD)
  •   Philippians                   (c. 52-54 ce)
  •   Philemon                      (c. 52-54 ce)
  •   First Corinthians         (c. 53-54 ce)
  •   Galatians                      (c. 55 ce)
  •   Second Corinthians     (c. 55-56 ce)
  •   Romans                        (c. 55-58 ce)

The second Paul is the author (or authors) of the “disputed” or “contested” letters of Paul.  Scholarship is roughly evenly divided on these letter, as to who wrote them.  It is possible that by this time there was a “school of Paul” which produced these texts, either with the authentic Paul as a contributor, or after his death, but still close enough to feel a close kinship with most of Paul’s central teachings.

  •   Colossians
  •   Second Thessalonians
  •   (Ephesians, which is a “circular” letter, is sometimes placed here.)

The third and last group is the Pseudepigraphic (forgeries) Paul.  Almost no one thinks Paul wrote these letters.

  •   Pastoral epistles (letters) of 1st & 2nd Timothy, and Titus
  •   Ephesians (unless one places it in the second grouping)

The fourth Paul is the character represented in Acts.  This is clearly not actually Paul, in the sense that when “Paul” is speaking in Acts, the author is writing as all ancient historians did, placing on Paul’s lips those words which the author thought Paul would have spoken in those or similar circumstances.  Acts is a secondary source, and we should bear this in mind when Acts is at odds with Paul’s own letters.

These are the various Paul’s.  I find this to be highly instructive as Paul is a complex figure, and often misunderstood and even, I feel, sometimes misrepresented.  This is one of the reasons “Paul” presents such a divisive bone of contention among some Christians.  How are we to read Paul?  Did Paul teach we are all one in Christ, or was Paul a misogynist?  Are we to seek freedom in this life, or remain slaves?  Engage in an active sexual life (within marriage) or should we remain celibate?  Do we love Paul or revile him?

Each of these competing views of Paul have an answer.

In some cases the apparent dichotomy is illuminated by understanding Paul better.  Paul was an apocalyptic Jew.  Among other things, this means he believed in a future bodily resurrection.  Not only this, he believed Jesus’ resurrection was best understood as the First Fruits of the wider general resurrection, and that the general resurrection was soon to come.  Therefore, it is best to remain celibate and concentrate upon the dawning Kingdom.  And for those unable to remain celibate, to marry.  Therefore, if a slave it is best to remain a slave.  If already married, remain married.  What these views have in common is that the end is soon to come (Paul fully expected to be alive for the general resurrection), so there is no point in changing your mundane life;  one should instead focus upon the sacred.

I believe we can be certain had Paul known that “soon” meant 2,000-years or more, in some ways his teaching would have been quite different.  This is a valid point to my mind, and one of which we should be cognisant.

But all of the above, as interesting and instructional as I personally find it, is not really the most vital and important aspects of what I feel Paul was trying to teach us.  I feel the most vibrant and deeply meaningful way of reading Paul is as a Jewish Christ Mystic.

Jewish. Christ. Mystic.

Each of these words is important, and draws us into a closer understanding of Paul.  He was Jewish.  In fact, he was a pharisee.  Pharisee’s have gotten a bad reputation over the centuries.  But most basically they were extremely concerned with keeping the laws of the Torah.  So much so, for fear of breaking these laws, they developed an even more strict interpretation!  But Paul was also an apocalyptic Jew.  This meant the end of the present era was to come to an end, and God would bring about a new world.

And what of Christ?  Paul himself states he initially prosecuted Christians!  (Although that specific term may be anachronistic.)  Why?  I think the most reasonable explanation is the claim that Jesus had been resurrected, and was therefore the Jewish messiah.  This would have been categorically unbelievable to Paul, a skilled Jewish pharisee.  Jesus was crucified, and that alone would preclude him from ever being any kind of Jewish messiah.  Jesus would have been cursed by God, not raised into glory by God!

But then Paul had his conversion experience on the road from Damascus.

Paul either saw and/or heard the raised Jesus, and this experience totally and completely changed him for the rest of his life!  This is when Paul came to understand that Jesus *had* been raised, and this understanding was framed by his apocalyptic world view.  Thus, Jesus becomes the risen Christ and is the First Fruits of the impending general resurrection.

And this is where Paul begins to develop his mystical understanding of what role the Christ plays in our lives.  I would say this is one of the central tenets of Paul’s mission, as he saw it.  This is also my favorite aspect of Paul’s teachings.  Central to Paul’s teaching is experiencing the risen Christ in our lives.  This may happen in a variety of ways, some identified by Paul and some not.

As a mystic Paul was all about the *experience* of being in the Presence of the Divine.  Paul himself had a number of such experiences.  This is what I find so appealing about Paul.  Whatever we may make of his letters, we can appreciate that he had a number of experiences of Divine Communion.  And this is something to which we may all aspire!

Within Paul’s mystical teachings there are two themes which run hand in hand.

The first is of personal transformation.  We must put on the mind of Christ, and allow the Christ to live in us, through us, for us to become one in the same with the Christ.  The second point is in having this experience of personal connection to the Divine, and experiencing the personal transformation that comes from such an experience, to effect transformation of the world!

*Both* points are very critical to Paul.  And I think it is fair to read Paul as saying that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, yet it is each of *us* who must do what we are able to bring this Kingdom into our world.  It is a participatory event, in which we are integral members, not inactive hanger-ons!

Faith, hope and love.  But the greatest of these is love”  (1 Cor. 13:13).

This is the light by which I read Paul.  When I find a passage which conflicts with these aspirations, and which conflict with his two central teachings of personal transformation and transformation of the world, then I feel confident either Paul did not write that, or we misunderstand Paul’s meaning.

Recommendations for further study of Paul.

I wish to leave this feast day message with two recommendations for the further study of Paul.  One is a lecture series about the apostle Paul given by Prof. Luke Timothy Johnson, a former Benedictine monk, and offered through The Great Courses web site.  The second is a book written by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, entitled “The First Paul.”

Prof. Johnson holds a very different view of Paul than do I, as he reads all of the Pauline material as being directly or indirectly authored by the apostle Paul.  He offers a wonderful and stimulating lecture series which I highly recommend.  One of the points I find most interesting turns on a widespread misinterpretation of the original Greek in one of Paul’s letters.  He explains this much more fully in his lecture, but the issue concerns faith *in* Jesus or the faith *of* Jesus.  As many Christians will recognize, one of these views forms a cornerstone of Christian Faith for a great many Christians!  Yet it is based in a misinterpretation of the original Greek.

This is a subtle and to my way of thinking very important distinction.  Having faith *in* Jesus really removes us from the process.  We cast our “faith” upon Jesus, and therefore we are saved.  Simple to understand.  But for many, not such an easy thing to accomplish!  I think it is fair to say Martin Luther struggled with this greatly in his life!  Marcus Borg says he did too.  And so have I.  (I’m in good company at least!)

Having faith *of* Jesus may be read a number of different ways.  In part I believe this is because it is born of a mystic interpretation, and such interpretations are always at least a little misty, if not down right foggy!  First, we recognize that Jesus had a tremendous and deep faith in God.  In this light, the path to God is not through faith *in* Jesus, but in having the same quality of faith *of* Jesus *in* God!  See the difference?  *We* are active participants in this process.  As I think we must be, if personal transformation is one of the vital keys (as I do).

I relate this to the theme of theosis which is so important to the Eastern Orthodox Church, but which has been largely lost here in the West since the Great Schism in the 11th century.  And I also relate this to putting on the mind of Christ, as Paul spoke of so often.

The book authored by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan offers a wonderful collection of insights to Paul!  I thoroughly enjoyed it and found it both refreshing and instructive.  One of the main themes they paint is that of Paul the Jewish Christ Mystic.  I really do think this grabs a hold of something vital in Paul.  And I do not think we can really understand Paul without seeing him in this light.

This book is a mixture of solid scholarly historical research, and of developing a sincere appreciation for the Mystical Paul.  And we need both.  We need to understand as well as we may the world of the 1st century, and we need to read Paul as a mystic, trying to reveal to us what he may of his experience of the Divine, and how we might take part in the spiritual transformation of the world.

“The greatest of these is love.”

If we don’t get that -until that hits us on a gut level- we are missing the whole point of the New Testament!

Offered with blessings,
On my first anniversary as priest,
Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle 2014

May the Lord Bless you and Keep you,
Father Erik

Is God an Outside Job or an Inside Job?

Whether God is an Outside Job or an Inside Job, is a fundamental question which strongly effects how -or even whether- one might seek a mystical experience with the Divine.  It requires us to question how we anticipate God acting in the world.  Answering, requires that we reflect upon our understanding of the ontology of God.

(Merriam-Webster.com defines ontology as:  1. A branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature and relations of being;  2. A particular theory about the nature of being or the kinds of things that have existence.)

  •   What is God’s nature?
  •   What is our relationship to God, in terms of relative classification or “kind” of being?

I believe Theologian Paul Tillich is correct in observing that the Western perception of God is most commonly described in one of two ways:

  1.   An outside force, divorced from humanity (this is the “invading” God of which bishop Spong speaks).
  2.   A living force, which flows up from our depths of being (an aspect of Tillich’s “ground of being”).

The Outside God is always alien to us;  a God from which we are forever separated due to our nature;  God is radically Other.  For those seeking a mystical apprehension of the Divine, perhaps the most important point to note is that -due to our very nature- we can *never* attain Unity with the Divine.  The separation between God and Humanity is devastatingly, categorically absolute.

The Inside God, in stark contrast to the Outside God, is of the same nature as are we;  we share an essence of the Divine;  we have access to the vitality of the Divine;  some even observe the Divine *is* the very life we carry.  In this view, each of us contains an “inner spark of the Divine.”  Some view this spark as innate, others as potential.  (Is it a flame or a seed?)  We may be removed from God by various degrees, but because we and God are of the same root nature, ultimately of the same Source -because ultimately there is only One- we are always potentially able to attain (or return to) Unity with the Divine.

Among the major contrasting themes are:

  •   Separation vs. Unity;
  •   Alien vs. Intimate;
  •   Exterior Force vs. Interior Force;
  •   Acting Upon Us vs. Acting From Within Us;
  •   Transcendence vs. Immanence.

And there is a direct corollary to how this effects our understanding of the bible (or any other sacred text).  These two very different perspectives from which to view God, the bible, and humankind may be illustrated by asking ourselves two questions:

  1.   Did God write the bible?
  2.   Or are the texts of the bible representative of the human effort to apprehend God?

These are very different things!  If God wrote the bible we must struggle with why God hates some people and loves others.  Why does God demand genocide?  (Bishop Spong answers this quite simply and effectively:  the god of hate represents a tribal god;  tribal gods always hate who we hate.)

Once we recognize that sacred scripture is written as a human attempt to explore our apprehension of the Divine, we are able to see instances of tribal god worship contrasted against worship of a Universal God of Love.  Which expression of the Divine is nearer our human heart largely is a question of which stage of faith we predominately occupy spiritually.  (For a discussion of stages of faith, see earlier blogs of March, June and July of 2013.)

Are we derivative of the Divine?

I suspect we are.  I suspect we flow from the Divine Source.  I certainly do not think the Divine flows from us:  through us, yes;  but not from us, as if we are the Source.

At least, in so far as we presently exist.  But I also suspect the question is more complex.  Our views are constrained by concepts such as Time.  If one is able to imagine a view which does not include Time, one might find questions such as who is derivative of whom to be without meaning.

For reasons such as this, I believe we are well served by maintaining a certain “looseness” in our thoughts and apprehensions.  I have long suspected that after our physical deaths we may very well discover that a great many of the questions with which we are so concerned, will not be found to be right or wrong, but rather so thoroughly misapprehended, as to be without meaning.

Yet we must begin where we find ourselves, and work with what tools we have.

I call this Practical Mysticism.  The subject of mysticism and of seeking union with the Divine is so broad and deep that I suspect we will never take its measure in one lifetime.  Severely complicating matters is our inability to express the experience through language.  This inability to share the subtle nature of the experience of the Divine limits our ability to learn from the experience of those who travelled before us.

Great mystics have left us clues.  Impressions, however vague, of their apprehension of the Divine.  But such works are nothing like engineering texts describing how to build a bridge or rocket.

Thus, to a large degree we each must plot our own course into the Unknown.  And it is all too easy to loose our bearings.  It is my opinion we should attempt to fix, as best we may, certain points to serve as light houses, or constellations, by which we may sail into the Cloud of Unknowing, which surrounds and obscures the Divine.  Yet we must always remain aware these are relative bearings only;  they do not, and are not meant to, literally limit the Divine to the confines of our puny intellect.

As I now apprehend the Divine, It is both Transcendent and Immanent.  And ultimately, Ineffable.   Merriam-Webster.com defines these terms as:

Transcendence

  •   The quality or state of being transcendent.

Transcendent

  •   Extending or lying beyond the limits of ordinary experience;
  •   In Kantian philosophy:  being beyond the limits of all possible experience and knowledge;
  •   Being beyond comprehension.

Immanence

  •   The quality or state of being immanent.

Immanent

  •   Indwelling, inherent;
  •   Being within the limits of possible experience or knowledge — compare transcendent.

Ineffable

  •   Incapable of being expressed in words — indescribable.

There is an aspect of the Divine which will always remain to the human mind and heart utterly Transcendent.  We forget this when we squish God into a box and define who God loves and hates, and are so arrogant as to explain why.  This aspect of the Divine is incomprehensibly alien to us.  This apprehension of the Divine informs us that we know so little of the Divine, as to know nothing.  We should be incredibly humble in face of this profound state of ignorance, which we all share.

Yet, simultaneously there is an immanent aspect of the Divine, one which bubbles forth from our own depths!  (And from all life, for that matter.)  This is the aspect of the Divine which we may come to know as a part of ourselves, intimately.  This is the inner-divinity of which all mystics speak, yet are unable to fully express.

We might consider the implications of the ineffable nature of the experience which mystics seek.  Having had an experience of “Mystical Union with the Divine” it is consistently related as being an experience which is incapable of being expressed in words.  Imagine “seeing the face of God” and being unable to relate that experience to others, except in the most impoverished terms.

Many find this frustrating.  However, I believe we should consider reframing our perspective.  While we may not be able to share in the experience others have had, we are able to draw inspiration from the event itself:

  •   we too may aspire to share a similar sense of Union with the Divine!
  •   if they can do it, so may we!

 

With blessings,

Erik+

Infallibility & Inerrancy

Infallibility & Inerrancy:  Do Words Have Meaning?  Who Decides?

This is an addendum to my evaluation of two Statements of Faith in August 2013.  As is often the case with theological discussion, one must be careful to define the terms one is using, and to be aware of the definitions others are using.  One of my bishops observed that it seems I made a mistake in assuming the dictionary definitions of two particular words were being used, when it is much more likely their theological definitions were intended.  Now I believe these represent fairly minor points in the respective documents, however I do wish address this point for two reasons.

  • First, I think it may be a useful illustration of how important it is to be aware of the meaning of the specific words.
  • Second, it underscores how easily we can fall into the trap of assuming we know what another person means to say, only later discovering we may have been mistaken.

The following are representative of the definitions I found in online dictionary listings:

Infallible (Merriam-Webster.com)
1 : incapable of error : unerring [an infallible memory]
2 : not liable to mislead, deceive, or disappoint : certain [an infallible remedy]
3 : incapable of error in defining doctrines touching faith or morals
Inerrancy (Merriam-Webster.com)
: exemption from error : infallibility [the question of biblical inerrancy]

Inerrant (Merriam-Webster.com)
: free from error

Merriam-Webster defines these words quite closely, in fact, one of the definitions of inerrancy is infallibility.  I suspect this is the root of my assumed meanings conveyed by these words, as I expressed in the previous evaluations in August of 2013.

However, upon reading the definitions more closely, one might discern that inerrant is a more limited term.  A text may be determined to be free from error, but one may think of this as a technical description of the competency of the editing, publishing, and printing processes.  A key point is that inerrancy may not speak to the truthful, or even the factual, quality of the premises which the document asserts.

Regarding inerrancy, Wikipedia offers the following….

  • (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_inerrancy)
  • Biblical inerrancy is the doctrine that the Bible, in its original manuscripts, is accurate and totally free from error of any kind; that “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact”.[1] Some equate inerrancy with infallibility; others do not. [2][3]

The obvious problem with this proposition is the “original manuscripts” no longer exists.  So logically the argument is of no use as any kind of proof.  But this is a different argument, and not the one I wish to pursue in this addendum.  A greater difficulty is this definition is already slipping into the realm of infallibility, which is a highly subjective measure.

But it appears we are in good company with regard to being confused over this question’s fine points.  In the Roman Catholic Church this question has been debated in Vatican II, and the decades since;  without resolution as near as I am able to determine.  The following is a short quote from an interview with Roman Catholic Cardinal Francis George:

  • The question, finally, is what kind of confidence can those who hear the Word of God proclaimed from scripture have that it’s the truth? Fundamentalists would say that it’s all literally true, so we have every reason to be confident. But that ignores what exegesis has done for us in the last 200 years, identifying the different forms of literature in the Bible, the contexts of the communities in which it was written, and all the rest.
  • You’ve still got the problem, however, of the affirmation in faith that inspiration and inerrancy go together, so that what is inspired is also inerrant. At the same time, you have to discover what inerrancy means when you’re not reading a newspaper, but you’re reading poetry, or a myth of some sort, or a fable or a parable. We can make that distinction more easily in the New Testament, when Jesus is speaking in parables. It’s harder sometimes for us to make those distinctions in the Old Testament.
  • http://catholicism.org/biblical-inerrancy-revisited-but-not-revised.html

Please note the Cardinal’s observation that we must distinguish the type of prose we are reading.  This is critical.  Reading a newspaper speaks to a different kind of truth than does poetry and parable.  I have tried to make this point in some of my past writings.  I have found the late Prof. Ron Miller expresses this better than anyone else I have yet heard (most likely in his “Unpacking the Parables” talk, given to the Theosophical Society).

Elsewhere in the short except of Cardinal George’s interview, he states that one view of the understanding of biblical inerrancy is that the bible speaks to our salvation:  it is our salvation which is ultimately held to be inerrant;  not the literary forms of expression;  not the authors understanding of geology nor of astrophysics.  I find this very easy to believe.  On the feet-on-the-ground perspective, it is obvious to me that our understanding of science and the nature of the universe has evolved over the centuries, and it is unreasonable to try to force a mind of the 1st century to fit the molds we have developed in the 20th century.

Much more intriguing to me is the conversation surrounding the inerrancy of salvation.  I have to assume that Cardinal George is speaking from the dominate position of the Roman Catholic Church, and not that of the early Church Fathers, such as Clement and especially Origen, who spoke of Universal Salvation.  Personally, I find the early understanding to be much more sensible;  but I must also admit, it is also a better fit to some of my formative spiritual understandings, which may bias my evaluation.  However, I still think the question of Universal Salvation withstands serious and objective investigation.  (Those interested in pursuing this line of thought should consider reading Dr. J. W. Hanson’s book “Universalism:  The Prevailing Doctrine Of The Christian Church During Its First Five Hundred Years.”)

Another view Cardinal George shares is the understanding that inerrancy means the central teachings of the biblical authors which were inspired by God are inerrant, whereas the cultural influences surrounding them (“zeitgeist, the understanding of the world at the time”) are not inerrant.  Here, while I agree with the proposition in theory, there are remaining difficulties, which I find renders this an untenable position to maintain:  it presumes we are able to discern that which God wishes to become Inspired;  it presumes God as Active Agent, periodically “invading” the world;  and I read this as merging with the definition of infallible, whereas I would prefer to define these terms separately, as I find this offers a more practical, rational use of language and cognitive tools.  (This is already a difficult conversation to pin down in detail.  Therefore, we should attempt to refine our definition, as opposed to diffuse our definition, of key terms.)

The arguments about God, God’s Inspiration, and “invasion” into the world are critical points.  These will be discussed later.  For now, I wish to set them to the side, and simply observe they are not required, and not highly useful, in defining our terms inerrant and infallible;  nor are they very useful in discerning the differences between these two terms.  So I set them aside for the time being, not because they are unimportant, but because I do not find them useful in refining the definitions of inerrancy and infallibility.

Regarding infallibility, Wikipedia offers….

  • (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_infallibility)
  • Biblical infallibility is the belief that what the Bible says regarding matters of faith and Christian practice is wholly useful and true. It is the “belief that the Bible is completely trustworthy as a guide to salvation and the life of faith and will not fail to accomplish its purpose. Some equate ‘inerrancy’ and ‘infallibility’; others do not.”[1]

I also wish to offer additional views discussing the subject of biblical infallibility.  Should readers wish to peruse these sources, I believe they will find a deeper appreciation for the lack of clarity surround the questions of biblical inerrancy and biblical infallibility.  Efforts to closely define these terms is difficult.  Agreeing upon how they are best employed in aiding our understanding of sacred scripture, has yet to occur.

  • http://catholicism.org/apologetics-infallibility.html
  • This web page covers a lot of ground, including the doctrine of papal infallibility (which I have no intention of discussing at this time), not all of which pertains to our current discussion.  But it does offer a broad view of a number of points of divisiveness surrounding the topics of inerrancy and infallibility.
  • http://catholicism.org/vatican-ii-some-clarity-please.html
  • This web page presents an interesting summary of a debate between two distinguished Roman Catholics, who none-the-less draw opposite conclusions in their close readings of a particular Vatican II document (I believe it was “Dei Verbum” (Latin for “Word of God”)).
  • http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/bets/infallibility_lewis.pdf
  • This PDF document offers an objective discussion of meaning and language.  Across pages two and three there is a table with the heading: AN ANALYSIS OF MEANING AND LANGUAGE.  I found their comparison between meaning and language informative.  It appears to me that among their points, meaning is divorced from written text.  This is a point I have heard before, and to which I agree.  Words are just comprised of symbols written by one person to later be interpreted by another person.  A thoughtful author attempts to convey their intended meaning as clearly as possible.  However, the words they use (and images, if included in the document) must be interpreted in the mind of the person reading the document.  And we all bring our own life experiences to our reading;  to our understanding of the world;  to our understanding of words.  There is an unavoidable barrier between one human mind and another.  (The gulf between the human mind and the Divine Mind is greater still!)

The above discussions, while interesting, for the most part take a different line of questioning than I intend to engage in at this time.  Let’s begin by returning to the Merriam-Webster definitions, and from there transition to a discussion about our means of discernment.

Infallible (Merriam-Webster.com)
1 : incapable of error : unerring [an infallible memory]
2 : not liable to mislead, deceive, or disappoint : certain [an infallible remedy]
3 : incapable of error in defining doctrines touching faith or morals

Inerrancy (Merriam-Webster.com)
: exemption from error : infallibility [the question of biblical inerrancy]

Inerrant (Merriam-Webster.com)
: free from error

In my opinion the differences as defined by Merriam-Webster in meaning are subtle, and of only minor significance in the scope of my evaluations of the previous Statements of Faith (see August 2013).  But as we have seen above, if we begin to parse out the relative meanings of these words as defined by various theological sources, we find greater differences emerge.

I see much of this as the result of failing to distinguish between qualitative and quantitative interpretations.  Most basically:  a qualitative measure is subjective, and a measure of quality;  a quantitative measure is objective, and a measure of quantity.

For example, how I feel about the color blue is subjective and qualitative, whereas the measurement of the frequency of its wavelength in nanometer is objective and quantitative.  The first requires I make a subjective judgement regarding “quality” of the color;  the second only requires a properly designed and calibrated machine to measure the “quantity” of light.  Each of us may find the shade of blue chosen evokes different feelings;  but each of us must come to realize the measurement of a meter is always the same, and that our feelings regarding the measure of a meter in no way effects its length.

A silly example perhaps, but I think instructive in helping us recognize two very different methods of biblical interpretation.  And should we confuse one for the other, or fail to recognize there are multiple methods of “measuring” sacred scripture, we are doomed to failure before we have begun our efforts.

My opinion is inerrancy is an objective measure, and therefore quantifiable.  It is a measure of the words employed in the text, and in the accuracy in duplicating a text.  If we wish to instead discuss the *meaning* of the words employed in the text, we have then entered into the realm of the subjective and qualitative;  such discernment falls within the definition of the word infallible, but not inerrant.

The question of “inerrant” we may dismiss immediately, because we may demonstrate there are factual and logical errors to be found in the texts of the Hebrew bible and Christian New Testament.  This has been discussed in my previous evaluations of the respective Statements of Faith, so I will not spend much time with it here.  I will however mention a few points for consideration:

  • We may observe that where there are multiple copies of manuscripts (hand-written books) no two have been found to be entirely identical (small fragments excepted).
  • This is not to say that all hand-written copies of sacred texts are wildly different from one to the other.  Most errors, or differences, are quite minor and easily detected.  Poor spelling is the most common “error” but given that the dictionary had not yet been invented, we can forgive such minor differences.
  • Larger differences include skipping lines, or omitting words, or citing quotations from scripture improperly (and in some cases, in correcting previous errors of this type), or in mistakenly incorporating an earlier margin note into the body of the text.
  • So we find that some of these differences are quite minor.  Some differences are more significant, but still readily detectable, provided one has a sufficient number of additional manuscripts for comparison.  However, in no way can one state the body of work is “inerrant.”  For this to be true, all manuscripts must be identical.

“Infallible” is a more resilient term because it may simultaneously distance itself from “inerrancy” while pairing itself to what one subjectively considers to be the proper spiritual or moral interpretation of the text.  And this is a qualitative judgement, frequently claimed by virtue of one having been granted Divine Inspiration.  “Because God told me” is clearly a less objective measure than pointing to a printed text and claiming that the reproduction of the document is without error.

My problem with this line of argument is the word “infallible” becomes increasingly slippery.  This seems to my mind to be shifting the question to an ever-receding point.  And I want to answer the question of whether and to what degree do we entertain sacred scripture is literally true?  Metaphorically true?  Allegorically true?

If one grants that the bible is not inerrant (my apologies for the double negative), but that it remains infallible, what is the scope of this claim?

Does this apply to every single verse? Every sentence?  Are all sentences describing the same event equally infallible?  My belief is this puts too fine a point on the measure of “infallibility.”  If we do so, we witness a precise, functional meaning of infallibility slipping from our grasp.

Beyond this, how do we resolve irresolvable and incompatible differences between texts?

For example, did Jesus die on the day of preparation for Passover, or on Passover day itself?  He only died once, so it must be one or the other;  Jesus cannot have died twice, on consecutive days.  How do we explain this from the perspective that each gospel is infallible?

I find the best answer to this kind of question is to recognize that each author wished to emphasize a different point.  The four gospels are each different in certain respects exactly because each author was trying to highlight a different understanding of what the life and ministry of Jesus meant to them.  This is why it is useful to better understand the context in which each book or letter was written:  written by whom?  to what audience?  for what purpose?

Seen from this perspective we realize that sacred scripture may be objectively incompatible, yet subjectively coherent.  The measure of infallibility has eluded our grasp yet again.

Might holy scripture be infallible, yet errant?

To my eye, to say that the bible is infallible, yet subject to error (not inerrant), is to say that while specific facts may be found to be in error, or that technical errors, omissions, and contradictions take place in the text, when it comes to critical matters of theology, the truth being related is infallible.

I feel this is the strongest claim one may make for sacred scripture.  But will this position survive scrutiny?

Obviously, this leaves as an ongoing question, of what specifically are these “critical” matter of theology.  Whether the bible is infallible on specific points of theology one must examine each point.  And this is a complex process, even limiting the scope of the theology to the Hebrew bible and New Testament, let alone if one extends the scope to underlying truths common to all religions.

This is also deeply steeped in subjective judgements regarding the content of the scriptures.  I have very little faith that people will be able to agree on the details of such subjective, yet to many of them highly emotionally charged beliefs.  I see no hope for consensus in determining exactly what words would be used in printing any single “infallible” edition of the bible.

And to do so in modern English is an impossible task.  There are too many choices that must be made when interpreting the oldest and best (least errant) Greek manuscripts.

So where does this leave us?  For my part, the best I believe I can honestly offer is that holy scripture offers us inspiration.  I’ll leave this important word hanging until I address the topic of mysticism, for they are closely related.

Is sacred scripture infallible or not?

I do agree that scripture may be argued to be infallible.  However  -and this is a giant however!-  in no way do I believe we are capable of arriving at a consensus as to what this actually means once we begin discussing the text in a close, critical reading.  Sacred scripture is infallible only in theory;  but not in any practical sense which we may objectively put to use.  The degree of personal interpretation required in digesting holy, sacred scripture pushes any such consensus beyond our mortal reach;  therefore, infallibility is always a subjective standard.

  • As an aside, for the purposes of this discussion I read no significant difference between the words holy and sacred.  Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines, in part, these terms as follows:

Holy
1:  exalted or worthy of complete devotion as one perfect in goodness and righteousness
2:  divine [for the Lord our God is holy — Psalms 99:9 (Authorized Version)]
3:  devoted entirely to the deity or the work of the deity [a holy temple] [holy prophets]
4a :  having a divine quality [holy love]
4b :  venerated as or as if sacred [holy scripture] [a holy relic]

Sacred
1a :  dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity [a tree sacred to the gods]
1b :  devoted exclusively to one service or use (as of a person or purpose) [a fund sacred to charity]
2a :  worthy of religious veneration :  holy
2b :  entitled to reverence and respect
3:  of or relating to religion :  not secular or profane [sacred music]

More to the heart of the matter, why should we think the bible (or any sacred scripture, for that matter) is inerrant or infallible in the first place?  I think it is important to consider this question mindfully.  The root of such questions is the critical -yet often unstated- question of exactly who wrote the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament…

  • God or human beings?

If one believes God wrote the scriptures (which requires resolving the large problem of defining exactly what that means) *then* we may be able to sensibly ask whether or not the scriptures are inerrant and/or infallible.  (But if they fail either of these tests, we must ask:  How?  Why?  Does such a failing devalue the entire body of work?  If so, to what degree?)

But if the scriptures were written by human beings, I do not think the question is even sensible.  The problem is this:  only perfect human beings (or those who have perfect knowledge, even if “limited” to the subject of the Divine, of all things), can write an inerrant or infallible book of sacred scriptures.  And no person is perfect.

And one must remember we are not speaking of one perfect person, we are speaking of a long chain of such perfected persons over thousands of years of human history.  This just seem completely implausible to me;  completely beyond credibility.  Ludicrous, to be brutally honest.  Especially given we have a perfectly reasonable and logical alternative model.

I packed a lot into the previous three paragraphs.

Perhaps a way of making my thoughts more clear is to ask what mind composed our sacred scriptures?  Is sacred scripture a product of a Divine Mind or of a human mind?  I believe this is at the core of the question with which I am struggling in this blog, and which lies at the heart of determining if sacred scripture may be inerrant or infallible.

What if God is the author of sacred scripture?

Does this offer a better solution to the questions of inerrancy and infallibility?  Clearly not in any literal sense.  What of the error?  What of the contradictions?  Once again, the question of inerrancy is a non-starter.  I believe, in and of itself, this precludes any chance that “God wrote the bible.”

What of infallibility?  If God did not literally “write” the bibles (Hebrew and New Testament) did God “inspire” them?  Did God inspire these scriptures in such a manner as to install infallibility into the writing -and copying and editing- of these scriptures?

We have returned to very slippery ground.

But I’ll add another perspective to the question.  For the sake of argument, let us grant that God *has* provided, through human devices, the perfectly inspired, infallible set of texts.  Even if this is true….

  • human beings are unable to discern it!

Why?  Because we do not possess the Mind of God.  While I do believe we may be inspired to greater degrees of clarity and understanding, and while I do believe epiphanies take place,  our comprehension is limited by the nature of our humanity.  God must speak to us in terms which we are capable of understanding.  And our human limitations leave us short of grasping perfection – and almost everyone who makes this argument also asserts God, by definition, is perfect.

What of apprehension?  If our comprehension is too limited to grasp the Mind of God, then perhaps we may perfectly intuit God’s Message?  I do suspect this is one of our best means of experiencing the Divine in the fullest degree of which we are able.  But I do not believe this offers complete or perfect connection with the Divine.  To say we may be able to maximize our human experience of the Divine, is not to say a human may experience the maximum degree of all that is Divine.

Expressed another way, to say we may be able to completely fill our senses and perception with that which is Divine, to become totally immersed in the Divine, in no way means that we have experienced the totality of that which is Divine.

This concept may be more obvious when presented as an image:  imagine a small circle and an extremely large circle;  you and I are the small circle;  that which is Divine is the extremely large circle;  even if we reside entirely within the Divine, there is much more of the Divine than we occupy.  We are simply too small.

I do believe there is an overlap between the human and Divine.  I even believe there is a Divine Spark within each of us (which we may either nurture or ignore).  But the entirety of the Divine is incapable of being contained within that which is human.  I believe this is why the Hebrew scriptures say we cannot see the Face of God – to do so would be to metaphorically burst us into flames, reducing us to ash!

And this leads us to the “perfectly reasonable and logical alternative model” which I believe provides us an answer to these, and many other, theological questions:

  • Quite simply, the bible is *not* a Top-Down document.
  • The bible is a Bottom-Up document.

The bible is not God speaking to us.  It is a bunch of human beings working out an increasingly refined understanding of the Divine, over a period of thousands of years.  Instead of revealing God to us, the bible reveals our human perception of God.  And these are two very different things!

Furthermore, this is an evolving perception.  It does include inspired insights as to the nature of the Divine, but it also includes some horrifically human-centric ideas which show how we have objectified and brutalized one another in the past.  (And, sadly, as we continue to do to this day.)

That we humans wrote the bible, and not God, I find a great relief!

We need not ponder why “God” desires to slaughter entire ethnic groups, or pours out a flood in an effort to wipe out nearly all of humanity (to say nothing of the rest life teeming on the planet).  Instead we are able to appreciate the slow advance of human compassion and our growing spiritual maturity over the course of thousands of years.  Ever-so-slowly we are learning to leave behind the tribal god, who hates everyone we hate.

We are creatures of intellect.  Our ability to reason is that which has raised us above all other animals on this planet.  But intellect has its limits.  Intellect can be cold and devoid of love or compassion.  Intellect is a tool – an important and wonderful tool, in fact.  But this tool is not the spiritual imperative which drives us to develop and use that tool.

Beyond simple survival of the fittest, we discover a drive for spiritual enlightenment.

To be made in the image of God means that we have the ability to reason logically and to behave rationally.  But we are also creatures of the heart.  To be made in the image of God also means that we possess emotional and spiritual aspects which are every bit as important as our rational abilities – perhaps more so.  It is these qualities of the heart which we desperately need to develop.

We like to believe we have very effectively put on the Mind of God.  We have libraries filled with books of theology, comprised of many religious traditions.  Yet we cannot live in peace with one another.  Love for that which is Other remains largely beyond our reach.

We need to focus on living in the Heart of God.  We need to learn that where hatred and murder reside, God does not.  Where we are to find God, we will find tolerance, acceptance, and love for self and others.  I like to think that many of us are learning to live in our heart, and beginning to discovery therein resides God.  Ever-so-slowly we are moving toward embracing God as a unifying source of empathy, compassion, and love.

Love is the measure of the Divine.

But how might we get there?  Or at least get started heading in the right direction?  For me, this is where Inspiration enters the picture.  We are all “inside jobs” and God is to be found within our hearts.  God is not the whirlwind bearing down upon Job, or the column of fire destroying our (tribal) enemies.  God is made manifest through each of us, flowing into the world through how we choose to live our lives.

This is what the great mystic spiritual traditions tell us.  And each religion offers its internal, mystical connection with the Divine.  They tell us we find God within our own hearts, and we are the vehicles through which God chooses to become manifest in the world.  

Why?  I suspect it is because we are operating under an imperative to to become More.  We are drawn to the Divine because we sense we may enter into common union with something which is greater than ourselves, and our small human existence.  What draws us toward it, is what some call the Inspiration of the Divine.

In Christian terminology this is the Holy Spirit.  This may be thought of as the “energy” or Active Agent of the Divine in the world.  But for whatever reason, it enters into the world through each of us.  Our active participation is required.  We each have been granted free will.  In many small ways each day we are invited to choose between love and hate.

I am reminded of a well known Native American story.  A youngster has had a falling out with a friend, and is feeling conflicting emotions as a result.  On one hand they want vengeance and retribution for perceived wrongs done to them.  On the other hand, they do love their friend, and want to wish them well and enjoy their company in the future.  Their grandfather explains this is an internal battle we each face our entire lives.  We each have two wolves living within us.  One seeks to harm others.  One seeks to love others.  One will only bring us pain and loss.  The other joy and love.  Considering this, the youngster earnestly looks to their grandfather and asks, “Which wolf will win this battle?”  Grandfather answers, “The one we feed.”

In what way have these 5,000-words brought us any closer to answering the questions surrounding inerrancy and infallibility?

Asking if sacred scripture is either inerrant or infallible is to miss the larger point.  The text is literally neither.  It is certainly not inerrant, because it contains errors.  Nor are we able to determine that it is infallible, because we are unable to agree upon what this means.

At best, sacred scripture offers us instruction and inspiration.  At best, we are each “inside jobs.”  We each must take a long, deep look into our own hearts, seeking Divine Inspiration, apprehending what we may, so that we might learn to express ever-greater portions of the Divine through how we choose to live our lives, and in how we choose to interact with others.

God does not “invade” the world from the sky, like Zeus hurling lightning bolts.  The Presence of the Shadow of God enters into the world subtly;  through our ability to love those who hate us;  by our loving others as if they were ourselves;  by loving ourselves as if we were living expressions of the Divine acting in this world.

“Why?”  This is a Divine Mystery.

Erik+