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8.13.2008

An Encounter with Mysticism


As part of my dissertation research I have been coming across numerous types of Christian mysticism popular during the Renaissance (it’s a long story, but basically I am researching the influence of magic, science, the occult, and theology on music in Prague in the late 16th century and early 17th). At first many of these beliefs seem ridiculous to me, but then I realized that in 500 years many people, including Christians, will likely look back at our system of religion, from evangelical to our own emergent, and also find it laughable. And yet, they will still be followers of Christ.

I would like to explore some of these mystical ways of thinking over the next few weeks on the blog. Many of us like to speak about the mystery of our faith, but few of us do much to encounter that mystery. Also, since we desire to be in dialogue with all of our brother and sisters in the faith, it is worthwhile to explore the different ways people have practiced it, even if those people have been gone from this earth for centuries. Now, there are certainly still people with mystical practices today, and if any of you come across this blog we would honestly love your thoughts as we strive to come to a better understanding of different religious practices. However, most of us will primarily be in contact with our mystical brethren through their writings.

The topic that has been most fascinating to me lately is the Christian Cabala. During the time I study this was extremely popular and is directly related to, though not the same as, the Jewish Kabbalah (Wikipedia article here). As a gross oversimplification, they believed that there were two laws passed down, the written and the oral, both given to Moses. Also, and this is the more famous part, they believed in gematria, which was using numerology with reading scripture (all words had a numeric value, and could be switched with other words that had the same value). The core behind this belief was twofold: first that written scripture was divinely inspired, and second that there were numerous hidden messages for the faithful to discover – which explains why so much of the Torah seems so very unsacred- the sacred part was hidden.

Anyway, there was one belief in particular that I thought I would raise as an issue for discussion. It was widely believed that in order to create this world God had to lesser himself. This is because a perfect being could not create an imperfect world. There were more justifications for this, but we need not get into it right now. Please, share your thoughts both on this issue and on mysticism in general as we begin what could prove to be a very interesting journey.

17 comments:

NancyJ said...

“The core behind this belief was twofold: first that written scripture was divinely inspired, and second that there were numerous hidden messages for the faithful to discover – which explains why so much of the Torah seems so very unsacred- the sacred part was hidden.”

What a fascinating discussion piece. I think it is especially interesting that a writing was considered so sacred it had to be kept hidden.

In considering divine inspiration, I have thought a lot about the Genesis story of creation--was this the result of God’s people telling their story of how they thought the world began as opposed to God telling someone (Moses) how the world began? To be honest, the former seems more likely to me.

And yet we ask--how does divine inspiration happen? I think it is reasonable to believe God wants to convey truth to us and truth is embedded in the all of the writings of the Bible. I think it is also likely that God connected with the writers of Scripture through a mystic experience. But I no longer believe that a mystic experience guarantees Biblical inerrancy because each author’s writings reflect their own personalities, perceptions and experiences. This does not diminish Scripture for me. I still hold Scripture sacred.

+ simonas said...

This could prove to be an interesting discussion, but in the end, the discussion about "hidden things" has been resolved in the first few centuries of Church history, where she dealt with Gnosticism (Christian and other kinds). Gnostics believed they possessed hidden knowledge which lead their path to salvation. Divine Revelation handed down to us in the form of the Bible tells us that things that were hidden from past generations have all been revealed to us in Christ. Therefore, holding on to the Gnostic practice of searching for the hidden meaning, hidden knowledge is diametrically different from the faith that has been handed down to the saints (i.e. us who are in Christ Jesus).

Nick Johnson said...

Simonas,

I think that is a good point about hidden knowledge and thanks for chiming in. I am not claiming that I believe there is hidden knowledge (nor that I'm sure there isn't), but what is interesting is how many different Christians throughout time have believed there is - meaning that the issue was not really "resolved" as it kept coming up again and again in the history of our faith.

How do we relate to our mystical brethern? Is it by attempting mysticism ourselves? This would of course go far beyond the issue of discovering hidden knowledge...

Jane Johnson said...

Simonas, what verse are you referring to? Is it Romans 16:25-26? If so, I don't understand how it can be interpreted as precluding absolutely all mystery in the Christian faith. Could you explain what you mean by "Divine Revelation handed down to us in the form of the Bible tells us that things that were hidden from past generations have all been revealed to us in Christ"?

What mysticism means to me is that our human intellects are not perfect, nor are our languages. Therefore, there might sometimes be better ways for us to learn information. I know that for me I often have what I guess could be called mystical experiences while listening to music. Sometimes it seems that God will speak to me through music, teaching me something very helpful but that I can't put into words. To me the fundamental idea of mysticism is when knowledge overcomes words. Thus we can't express what we have learned, which makes it feel very mysterious, since this is our primary way of communicating. To me the concept goes beyond just searching for hidden messages in the Bible.

+ simonas said...

What I'm reacting (simply speaking) against is not mysticism altogether, but about the type of mysticism that tries to hand down the secret, the code, the key (such as kabalah) that helps to discover the special knowledge that saves. The Greeks laughed at Christians for the simplicity of the message.

Again, there has been plenty of good mysticism – apparitions, dreams, visions. Think of the OT and NT prophets, about Paul, Peter talking to Jesus in dreams and visions. Of course, mystical experiences have kept company to many Christians.

Again, there is good mysticism, usually initiated by God, and there is bad mysticism – looking for stuff to complicate the Divine revelation for it's simply too simple.

Test the spirits, I guess.

Greg Lyons said...

I'm reading N.T. Wright's Surprised By Hope (HarperOne 2008), which has quite a lot to say about God's role in creation past, future and present. Here are some lines from p. 99:

"Turning back to I Corinthians 15, we find Paul declaring that as the goal of all history, God will be 'everything in everything,' or if you like, 'all in all' (15:28). This is one of the clearest statements of the very center of the future-oriented New Testament worldview...
How then can we think wisely about God's present relation to the created order? If God is indeed the creator of the world, it matters that creation is other than God. This is not a moral problem, as has sometimes been thought (if a good God makes something that is not himself, it must be less than good, and therefore he is not a good God for making it). Nor is it a logical one (if in the beginning God is all that there is, how can there be ontological room for anything or anyone else?). As we said earlier, if creation was a work of love, it must have involved the creation of something other than God. That same love then allows creation to be itself, sustaining it in providence and wisdom but not overpowering it. Logic cannot comprehend love; so much the worse for logic."

According to your research so far, how widespread was this belief, Nick? Did it find permanence in places beyond academic circles? What larger cultural factors may have led Christians to hold this belief about God?

Mike said...

We must not forget the fall of man and the enmity that exists between him and nature (Genesis 3). I'm just reading what it says.

Jesse said...

Thanks for bringing up this great topic Nick. Lots to think about, and it is a topic that I have recently been very interested in, through authors like Thomas Merton and other contemplatives. I really like Jane's description of mysticism, and unless Nick, you are referring to something else, that is what I'm going by.

When people try to employ "techniques" like gematria or otherwise, I think it is because they have found a way to access a mystical experience, and so they want to replicate it. I would guess this is how mystical practices begin and then eventually become tradition, common and unquestioned. We have mystical practices with the Lord's Supper/Communion/Eucharist and Baptism. Perhaps also speaking in tongues and praise and worship could be called mystical? Maybe I'm off here....

Simonas - your comments about a secret message and Gnosticism are interesting. Some emergent writers/thinkers criticize modern Christianity for a sort of Gnosticism, in that Christians believe we have all the theology figured out, and unless other people go through our intellectual processes and find "the Truth," then they are left in the dark. Christians emphasize the right interpretation of the Bible - you can't be a Christian without it. Some emergents say this goes against what the Bible itself is even saying, as you pointed Simonas, that Jesus is the full embodiment of truth, and beyond that, he fills all of creation, so this truth is accessible to everyone! They don't have to be able to explain the inner-workings of the atonement to be saved.

Other gematria, what mystical practices have you read about Nick? Also, I'm sure we've all heard of things like "The Omega Code" which is a sort of modern day gematria that is especially concerned with end-times prophecy.

Jesse said...

Oh, last question:

Mike - why did you bring up the fall? I'm not sure the connection you are making....

Mike said...

I should have been more specific. I was responding to quote from N.T. Wright. It shouldn't surprise anyone that Wright would say that about the creation. After all, he is a favorite amongst the emergent crowd.

Have you considered the argument I made from Genesis 3? Yes, God made the Earth and he said it was good (Genesis 1), but that doesn't necessarily make him imperfect. Why should he be responsible for the decisions that his creation has made?

I wish to get back to the mystical experiences. As an evangelical, I don't disregard the possibility of mystical experiences. However, the Bible says they should be tested (1 John 4:1).

Greg Lyons said...

Zing.

What words in the quoted passage particularly stuck out the most to you Mike? It could hardly be said that N.T. Wright dismisses the implications of the fall based on my readings so far. Which of his writings have you encountered?

Here's some more from p. 94-95: "Creation was from the beginning an act of love, of affirming the goodness of the other. God saw all that he had made, and it was very good; but it was not itself divine. At its height, which according to Genesis 1 is the creation of humans, it was designed to reflect God, both to reflect God back to God in worship and to reflect God into the rest of creation in stewardship...Evil is real and powerful, within biblical theology, but it consists neither in the fact of being created nor in the fact of being other than God (since being loved into life by the one God is quite good enough!) nor yet in the fact that it's made of physical matter and belongs within space and time instead of being pure spirit in an eternal heaven. Nor--and this is crucial--does evil consist in being transient, made to decay. There is nothing wrong with the tree dropping its leaves in the autumn. There is nothing wrong with the sunset fading away into darkness. Evil consists in none of those things; indeed, it is precisely the transience of the good creation that serves as a pointer to its larger purpose. Creation was good, but it always had a forward look...Evil then consists not in being created but in the rebellious idolatry by which humans worship and honor elements of the natural world rather than the God who made them. The result is that the cosmos is out of joint. Instead of humans being God's wise vice-regents over creation, they ignore the creator and try to worship something less demanding, something that will give them a short-term fix of power or pleasure. The result is that death, which was always part of the natural transience of the good creation, gains a second dimension, which the Bible sometimes calls "spiritual death." In Genesis, and indeed for much of the Old Testament, the controlling image for death is exile. Adam and Eve were told that they would die on the day they ate the fruit; what actually happened was that they were expelled from the garden. Turning away from the worship of the living God is turning toward that which has not life in itself. Worship that which is transient, and it can only give you death. But when you do commit that idolatry, evil is unleashed into the world, setting off chain reactions with incalculable consequences. Mysteriously, this out-of-jointedness seems to become entangled with the transience and decay necessary within the good-but-incomplete creation so that what we perhaps misleadingly call natural evil can be seen as, among other things, the advance signs of that final "shaking" of heaven and earth that the prophets understood to be necessary if God's eventual new world was to be born."

For me these words bring hope, especially when faced with the massive destruction of natural events like earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes. Instead of believing that God lowered himself to create an imperfect world, I instead choose to affirm that the redemptive work of Christ has set things back on track by inaugurating his not-yet/already-come Kingdom.

+ simonas said...

I'm reading a book by Father Joseph-Marie Verlinde When Vail Is Torn: The Challenge of the Esoteric to Christianity (I'm translating from Lithuanian which is the language I'm reading in – the original reads QUAND LE VOILE SE DECHIRE... Le defi de l'esoterisme au christianisme. Here is a quote from the book comparing mystical experiences of the Christian and the one who seeks after esoteric mysteries. The words are attributed to A. Faivre. Here goes:

Perhaps the term of the medium makes the difference between that which is mystical from esoteric. One could say that the mystic tries to more or less get rid of images and mediums – they only get in the way of being in union with God. In contrast, the esoteric seems to be more enamored by mediums that by the power of his creative imagination reveal themselves to his inner sight then seeking to unite to that which is divine. The latter prefers to linger on Jacob's ladder, where angels and, of course, other beings descend and ascend rather then going beyond (A. Faivre, L'esoterisme, PUF, coll. "Que sais-je?", Paris, 1993.

Jesse said...

Greg - the last quote for Wright is helpful as well when considering this discussion of mysticism. What I take from Wright is that there is nothing wrong with finding God in the natural world around us - the world is not lesser or evil simply because it is the world. But rather, it can very strongly point to the presence of the spiritual world and the One who inhabits that world fully. The natural creation speaks of God's glory (Ps. 19:1) and we can experience incredible spiritual/mystical happenings by connecting with creation.

However, the problem with mysticism may be when it becomes the end goal, instead of God himself. We may be more concerned with getting a spiritual "high", a secret message, or a vision of the unseen, rather than connecting in loving relationship with the God of creation. I think this could be the "rebellion" that Wright speaks of.

Other thoughts?

BTW - Mike - I think you may have misread the first quote from Wright - he says it is NOT a moral or logical problem that God created a world that eventually fell into sin. He is pulling from the biblical account.

Although your question, "Why should God be responsible for the decisions that his creation made?" brings up an entirely different set of issues....primarily the problem of evil. I think that many who don't have as high a view of God's sovereignty would be frustrated, angry and rebel against the concept of a God whose creation went wrong, but his response is, "It's your fault, not mine! I'm perfect!"

Obviously, I'm pulling more out of your short statement, and being a bit unfair. But I'm just trying to show how the presence of evil in the fallen world is one of the biggest problems for Christians and non-Christians to wrestle with.

Jane Johnson said...

Jesse,

I agree with you that this can be a real stumbling block for anyone wrestling with the idea of the existence of a perfect, loving God in the face of our reality. I remember once telling one of my friends about a story that was circulating among Christians about a little girl who was protected by a rapist because two angels appeared around her in the guise of two muscley men. The rapist got scared and passed her by. I forget what kind of point I was trying to make, but I felt really good when I finished the story. Then my friend asked, "But then what if the rapist just walks a few houses down the street and rapes another little girl who isn't lucky enough to be a Christian and receive the angels' protection." In the words of Greg, "Zing!" There is a lot of imperfection even in this supposedly uplifting story.

I think the whole problem of a good God and evil and the problem with the story above is that our idea of perfection does not comprehend God's perfection. Think about what a "perfect employee" is: someone who works against a standard and fulfills it completely. But God hasn't given us a standard by which we can measure his works. He is the highest being in the universe; no one writes the book that measures his worth or goodness. We humans need that kind of a system, though, so we try to look at God very anthropomorphically, and suddenly he seems to come up very short, as in my story.

I think what you shared, Greg, really fits with this idea. So often for us death and the bad things of this life are what define our perception of God. We forget that everything in the creation points to the fullness of God.

Simonas, I really like the quote you posted about mysticism. It reminds me of some reading I was doing yesterday about Claude Debussy: the most important thing for Debussy in anything religious or even artistic was that it had to be mysterious. It was the mysterious that he cared about the most, the very presence of mystery, and not the real thing behind the mystery. I think this would qualify him as an esoteric, which many have indeed called him.

NancyJ said...

I have read and have myself considered the concept of God being a combination of both shadow and light. I have not come to any conclusion regarding this idea.

Genesis 3:22 says, “And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us to know good and evil.” (KJV)

Isaiah 45: 7 says, “I form the light and create darkness; I make peace and create evil: I the Lord do these things.” (KJV) (Of course it’s never wise to pull a single verse out of context.)

As much as I love the idea of God and the beginning of creation being all goodness, perfection and light, I have allowed myself to think about what it would be like to have light without darkness. The following demonstrates yet another of my very real struggles.

What of Heaven?
Will artists stop painting?
Carpenters put down their hammers?
Writers put down their pens?

Will cool shadows and quiet nights
be replaced with brilliant light?
Will daily tasks be replaced with
daily worship of our God?

What’s behind Heaven’s gates?
No more tears; no more sorrow.
No more birth; no more death.
No more children’s laughter.

No more desperate need, no
reason to enter in and change
the wrongs to right.

Is this really paradise?
A little darkness brings rest.
Tasks to do gratify.
Tears connect empathy to need.

Together in chorus these teach us of our God.
Creation became paradise.

God knew.

Nancy Jarosi(2/08)

Mike said...

I'm sorry I haven't posted in a couple days. My computer was down and I needed to order a new laptop.

Greg, I did not say Wright dismisses the fall narrative. All I said, was that it did not surprise me that he would make those comments. Yes, I have read some of Wright's work. There are a lot of things that I agree with him about. Here is a paper he wrote concerning the role of women in leadership: http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Women_Service_Church.htm

For me these words bring hope, especially when faced with the massive destruction of natural events like earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes. Instead of believing that God lowered himself to create an imperfect world, I instead choose to affirm that the redemptive work of Christ has set things back on track by inaugurating his not-yet/already-come Kingdom.

Good point. I was trying to make the same argument, but it was derailed by the whole Gnosticism/NT Wright discussion. With the fall in Genesis 3, man now not only is alienated from God, but he is in conflict with the natural world. The sovereignty man once held over nature has been removed.

cj said...

This is something so timely to discuss as I just found this blog today but I wrote about this very subject on my own blog just four days after your post date. I've been finding the topic popping up on many emergent sites since my own writing.