Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Mysticism and the Word

One of the ways mystics tend to get themselves into trouble is in their tendency to be... well... oblivious to the siren song of doctrinal purity and textual inerrancy. If your faith is grounded in the experiential and in deep contemplation, texts seem rather less satisfying.

It's a bit like having someone describe to you what it's like to spend a long evening eating steak fondue at the end of a beautiful summer day overlooking Lake Geneva. Hearing it is wonderful. But the hearing is not the thing itself. Neither are those symbols anything other than an imperfect vessel for conveying the heat of the oil, or the tenderness of the meat, or the cool breezes that played across the restaurant patio, or the way Mont Blanc stayed bright before the dimming sky.

It was really, really good, recalls now-vegetarian I, as the memory evokes a Pavlovian response.

That's one of the reasons that mystics are utterly unphased by the application of historical-critical method to the texts of our faith. As I continue my encounter with Scots mystic George MacDonald, I find he carries that same approach to texts. On the one hand, he respects them and is caught up in the story they tell. On the other, he acknowledges their limitations. They are limited in terms of technical accuracy in conveying an event. They also have within themselves the potential for spiritual danger, as he articulates here:
God has not cared that we should anywhere have assurance of His very words; and that not merely perhaps, because of the tendency of His children to word-worship, false logic, and corruption of the truth, but because He would not have them oppressed by words, seeing that words, being human, therefore but partially capable, could not absolutely contain or express what the Lord meant, and that even He must depend on being understood upon the spirit of His disciple. Seeing that it could not give life, the letter should not be throned with power to kill.
Human language is a marvelous thing. But the patterns of vibration produced by our vocal cords, the marks of ink on a page, and the patterns of pixels on your screen are intended to point beyond themselves. They are words, not Word. When we worship them and the patterns they form, and not the thing to which they attest, then we have wandered off the Way.