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.


  1. Dear Frater Dave,

    While I share your appreciation of Mr. MacDonald and agree with your assesment of the dangers of idolatirizing the word I think you are missing some important details.

    Mystics get in trouble not because of their approach to Scripture but because of their approach to God. Hallaj was stoned because he declared himself al-Haq, "the TRUTH," in all caps. Meister Eckhart preached "I pray God that he quit me of God." Gregory Palamas (or Maximos the Confessor...or Ephraim the Syrian...my brain is a seive) said that the eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.

    It's the bluring or even the downright elimination of the difference between Creator and created that gets the mystics in hot water (sometimes literally), again, not their approach to Scripture which tended to be more rigourous and nuanced than that of the larger church.

    And we don't need to single out "mystics" as perhaps the best example of the approach to Scriptural authority that you are describing. Any post-Azusa Spirit led congregation will offer abundant examples of where seemingly clear Scriptural teachings (and even more to the point, the not-so-clear teachings) have been set aside by the promptings of the Spirit.

    I think the main difference between your take on this and mine is that while I understand and appreciate the importance of the pitfalls that you outline I hold, not to Biblical inerrancy, but to an inspiration based understanding of Scriptural authority.

    In ways we will always have to be working out before Kingdom Come the word of Scripture is the Word, flawed and imperfect though it may be.

    As I read somewhere, it's not that the New Testament writers are the best witnesses to Jesus, it's that they are the earliest and the most easily authenticated.

    But still, the word we have is the best mirror of the Word that we have. I do believe that Scripture is sufficient for all teaching and preaching. Sufficient, not perfect. Best to stick to the common road map and just mark the location of the detours and pot holes rather than strike out across the wilderness on your own.

    After all, as Peter warns us, there are roaming beasts circling in the night, ready to devour the unlucky or the unwary.

    Yours in the Bond and Peace be with you,


  2. Very much on the same page here...

    I am fascinated by the play on words, that when we who are flesh utter words, what we get are these fluctuations of breath, modulations of the spirit, if you will. But when God who is spirit utters words, what happens is Flesh.

    John thought that was really cool.

  3. @ Frere Dawg: Mystics get in trouble for all sorts of reasons. The danger for mystics, as I see it, isn't in the propensity for self annihilation, but in not losing oneself, and instead conflating the self with the Divine. Things get real bad real fast when that happens.

    I actually share your perspective of the authority of scripture. It's rooted and founded on the presence of the Spirit in the text, and in the interplay of the Spirit as it moves within both the text and the believer. That's...well...pretty much what John Calvin taught, too. Such a flake, that guy.

  4. I appreciate these discussions. As you've said, I've found Scripture to be a bit flat as compared to experience. But Scripture has been sufficient for understanding. Sufficient, not in that it's all I've needed but all I've needed to begin. With Scripture as the base, the words of others have given me words to understand my experiences and those of people around me - or not. I've read the "scriptures" of other religions some and these, too, have been informative and inspiring - or not. However, I'm no more a Buddhist or Hindu or Sufi than I am a Lewisite or Swedenborgian or Buberite. When I take these words of other people and other cultures back to Scripture, the Word takes on new dynamism and depth for me. Spirit is not just moving through Scripture and me but Scripture, community, and me.

    skip j