Friday, March 23, 2007

Defining Ecstasy

In order to continue my ramblings about the Holy Spirit, I think it's necessary for me to articulate again my position on the nature of ecstatic experience. I'll freely admit that my own faith has been significantly formed by such moments...theophanies, visions, and dreams have a somewhat larger place in my spiritual walk than most of my fellow Presbyterians. I don't tend to put them front and center...they seem...well...indecent. Disorderly. And you know what a fetish we Calvinists have for decency and order.

So what, then, is the role and definition of ecstasy?

First, one of the primary roles of ecstasy in faith is the shattering of preconceptions, a punch-in-the-gut reminder that our ability to frame our faith with carefully crafted systematics and apologetics is little more than, as Aquinas put it, "straw." Despite neo-orthodox theologican Karl Barth's effort to claim that Aquinas was talking about the "straw in which you lay the Christ child," that's not at all what Aquinas meant. He meant that on some level theology was worthless, the stuff you put in the barn so the crap is easier to clean up. Here we have the most OCD-thorough theologian in the history of Christianity, whose Summa Theologica takes up an entire wall...and after a moment of awareness of God, he sees that all his work just doesn't cut it. When the rubber meets the soul, His ways just aren't Our ways.

Second, we have to understand what ecstasy means. It's etymology is from the Greek, and means essentially, "to stand outside of oneself." When we think about ecstasy, we tend to visualize mystical trance states and the larger and more showy experiences. We see that pastor speaking in tongues on the tee vee. Or that that santeria babalou, fingers stained with chicken blood, wild-eyed and ridden by her god. We see the tweener twitching on the floor when the three hours of revival singing finally flips some switch inside her. But without inherently rejecting those primal moments, I think we're missing something vital if we see that as the most significant form of Christian ecstatic experience.

The most fundamental ecstasy we experience as Christians is our experience of agape love. It's the primary and foundational gift of the Spirit, the thing that draws us out of ourselves more profoundly. It's that love that shatters the boundary of existential separation that divides us, and connects us most deeply to both one another and to God.

That ecstasy, given by the Spirit, is the essential heart of Christian faith.