Monday, June 12, 2023

Of Mysticism and Deconstruction

On the surface of it, there are similarities between mysticism and deconstruction.

Mysticism is, within every one of the great religious traditions of humankind, our universal yearning for union with the Divine Fire.  It is the desire to stand so fully in relation with God that you can no longer tell the difference, to lose yourself wholly in the Numinous.

Mysticism affirms the presence of God in every moment, and yet at the same time embraces the fundamental, ineffable mystery of the Holy of Holies.  It giggles at efforts to use frameworks and categories and language itself to define God, because human language is utterly inadequate as a means to approach the Mysterium Tremendum.  The anonymous medieval mystic text The Cloud of Unknowing put it like this:

For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. 

Mystic experience shatters those structures created by the human mind, those labels we apply to the world around us to bind and control it, and those labels we apply to ourselves and others.  Perhaps the greatest systematizer of the two thousand years of Christian faith was St. Thomas Aquinas, whose vast Summa Theologica takes up an entire bookshelf in a library.  After completing what may still be the most exhaustive and disciplined structuring of orthodox Christian faith ever undertaken, Aquinas had a deep personal experience of the Holy, after which he declared, famously, that the whole Summa was "straw."  Worthless.  Burnable.

I have a strong mystic leaning myself.  My faith has been shaped by moments of inexpressible presence, by dreams and visions that rose unbidden.  This isn't really the Presbyterian way, with our decent and orderly lawyerliness and love of procedures, processes, and protocols, but I've always been a weird sort of Presbyterian.

Mysticism, where it manifests within any institutional religion, is almost always viewed as weird at best, and dangerous at worst.  Mystics are a little nuts.  A little twitchy.  They pose a threat to the shared assumptions and orthodoxies that establish boundaries around and within community.  

Because of this, there's a tendency among many earnest souls to conceptually conflate the act of deconstruction and the mystic life.  I mean, I won't deny some of the parallels.   They both take things apart.  They both are "reimaginings."  They both challenge orthodoxies, shatter literalisms, upend institutions, and subvert human power structures.  They both acknowledge the essential limitations of language itself.

So, they're the same, right?

I gently contend that they are not, and for a rather basic reason.

Deconstruction is a work of the human intellect.  Mysticism is a work of God.  

One is analytical and critical, the other is experiential and prayerful.  One rises from academic discourse, the other, from the work of the Spirit.  One leads to lament and ashes, the other to peace and joy.  One rises from the ego, the other rises from an unmediated ego-death-inducing encounter with the Holy.  One dis-integrates, the other integrates.

While deconstruction has its place in the work of critical secular thought, it rises from an essentially different source than mysticism.  It bears very different fruit.