All Theology is Mystical

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Eastern Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky in his The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church writes that

"The eastern tradition has never made a sharp distinction between mysticism and theology; between personal experience... and the dogma affirmed by the church... we must live the dogma expressing a revealed truth".

This lived faith, he says, involves a "profound change, an inner transformation of spirit, enabling us to experience it mystically." While there has traditionally been conflict between the theological side of the church and its mystical side, one seeking to preserve orthodoxy and the other focused on renewing a vital relationship with God leading to inner and outer transformation, Lossky insists that the two in fact are inseparable. Theology needs to be focused on fostering a transformed church, on leading us into relationship with God.

Too often this has not been the focus of theology. Instead the focus has been on systematizing the mechanics of the universe, one deciphering out exact workings of the Trinity like a math problem, or precisely defining doctrinal statements that seem distant from life. Stanley Grenz criticizes just this tendency for theology to become focused on extracting propositional truth out of the narrative of Scripture and organizing it in systematic form like detached entries in a encyclopedia, because it becomes then removed from relationship. Reading through the history of theology one can get the impression that this has been the focus of theologians for centuries. Take for example Augustine. Augustine is credited with the doctrine of original sin and predestination, but taken out of his narrative context these can seem like detached and impersonal doctrines and one misses the vital relational faith that they spring from. Predestination becomes a question of determination, as if it were a kind of natural force rather than a relational concept of God's desire and intent to be in relationship with us, having purposed (pre-destined) us to be loved by him, chosing us the way a lover chooses their beloved. Original sin likewise is relationally motivated because it speaks of our deep need to be in relationship with God and how outside of that connection we cannot be our true selves. One gets this relational context reading Augustine directly because his writings ooze with the beautiful aching prose of the lover seeking God. Augustine's theology is written in the form of a prayer, a love letter to God.

"You called, and shouted, and burst my deafness. You flashed, shined, and scattered my blindness. You breathed odors, and I drew in breath, and panted for You. I tasted, and I hunger and thirst for You. You touched me and I burned for your peace."

In “Silent Fire,” Walter Capps and Wendy Wright describe Augustine as “the father of the mystical tradition” They illustrate that Augustine's understanding of salvation was deeply relational, rooted in his idea of humilitas which expressed the soul's deep need and yearning for God. Humilitas is “the disposition of the human heart, bestowed and formed by the divine presence. Through it the image of God is reconstituted, and the presence of God is brought to interior consciousness.” (p 17) This experience of a relationship with God indwelling and transforming us, Augustine says, must be “born within the soul” in the same way Christ was born in humility in the manger. In other words: ye must be born again. We have here at the heart of Augustine's understanding of salvation, rooted in his own conversion experience, an expression of the new birth that could not be more clear – inner transformation by the indwelling Spirit experienced in a loving intimate relationship with God found in surrendering oneself to Christ as Lord and savior.

Here we have in Augustine, the father of the mystical tradition (meaning an experienced relational born again faith), who is at the same time, the father of western orthodoxy. Yet reading many surveys of theology focusing on the later, you would never guess that Augustine (and so many others) have this intimate relational faith. Instead one is left with the impression that their faith was focused on cold doctrinal formulations. But to miss this intimate experiential focus is to miss the very heart of theology, sucking out its life. In reaction to this, many people see Paul as opposed to Jesus – Paul being the poster boy for cold doctrinal formulations, and Jesus being loving and relational. But to read Paul this way, as with Augustine, is to completely misunderstand him. Paul is the “father” of the churches in Corthinth, Ephasus, Galatia, and so on, precisely because of his focus on mystical faith, because he encountered them with a transforming relationship with God. With the “power of God” rather than with intellectual arguments or doctrine. All the doctrines that are derived from Paul spring from this relational, experiential, mystical root of a vital lived encounter with God in Christ transforming his life from the inside out. As with Augustine, Paul who writes the bulk of biblical doctrine is at the same time profoundly mystical. One could say the same of John whose Gospel is the most theological and the again most mystical. There is no conflict between theology and mysticism, between religion and spirituality, between experience and revelation, between Biblical and experiential faith.

The root of this is not in experience but in God's self-disclosing personal revelation in Christ as witnessed in Scripture. We need theology to help us connect to that root. But the connection is one of experiencing that reality in our own lives, in entering into a relationship with God. Theology's job is in lead us to that loving transforming relationship. A history of theology that is not a history of vital relationship with God is a dead history that paints a false picture of the church. Theology is not primarily an academic intellectual exercise, but one that needs to be done on our knees.

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The Bells, Smells, and Narrative of the Gospel

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Many Emergents seem to be drawn to the "bells and smells" of traditional mainline churches. They have come to appreciate ritual and symbol. So they pray the Divine Hours, and go to Taize services. Coming from an Evangelical background of white washed walls and folding metal chairs they revel in the beauty of stained glass cathedrals and the echoing beauty of hymns like a Midwesterner raised on pork chops and mashed potatoes might eating their first Haute Cuisine meal in Paris.

My friend Suzanne once told me of how growing up in the Episcopal church she never really paid much attention to the service. Years later after having become a born again Christian, she had returned to an Episcopalian mass and suddenly the hymns were filled with meaning for her, and she could hardly believe that she had missed it all before. It had all just rolled off her back - stand up, sit down, sing a song, repeat some words - it had all just been a meaningless ritual to her. Pretty, but with no real connection to her life Monday through Saturday. Now she saw it exploding with meaning.

That's because art - all art - needs to be connected to a narrative in order to move, in order to be anything beyond aesthetics, beyond mere decoration. Suzanne connected to the bells and smells of the Episcopalian mass because she had a connection to the story that it pointed to - she had a first hand encounter with the living and risen Jesus and her story was now shaped by His story. The "art" in church was meaningful because of her narrative connection to it in the same way a certain song might capture all your feelings about something, or how a symbol like a Christmas tree might bring back all sorts of memories and feelings. In each case you are connecting that song and that symbol with your own narrative and therefore experiencing it as full of meaning.

But here's the rub: many Emergents who connect the aesthetics of traditional services to their own narratives of a relationship with God also suffer from an "allergy to evangelism". They have had so many bad experiences with hit-and-run evangelism that they have simply jettisoned the entire idea of sharing the Gospel. Instead they focus on the kingdom of God - on being involved in social justice, caring for the poor, fighting slavery and poverty and AIDS. These are all certainly vital things that we need to care deeply about and be involved in, but they do not change the fact that people also need God personally, that they need to be loved and touched and transformed by Jesus. My concern is that Emergents who have "deconstructed" evangelism and jettisoned it will go to "smells and bells" mainline churches that do not ever preach that one can have a first-hand life transforming intimate relationship with God, and that the next generation will grow up in that vacuum like my friend Suzanne and like so many others like her have - people who do not have a narrative and personal connection to the symbols and aesthetics and for whom it is therefore meaningless and empty rituals- mere Sunday decoration.

So what I am calling for with all the bells and smells surrounding you this Christmas, with all the symbols and songs, is for us Emergents to remember our narrative connection to the Gospel, to recall the story of our own encounter with Jesus, and to look for ways to invite others into that story, ways to encounter people with the living Jesus that are beautiful and creative and real. In short, the Emergent church needs to rediscover evangelism. Not an evangelism disconnected from the kingdom of God, but one that is about loving people and caring for all of who they are, one that ties personal faith together with social action.

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