Posts Tagged ‘Mysticism’

The maddening thing about Mysticism

April 9th, 2017

… is, firstly, that it is possible that it might literally drive you mad. Karen Armstrong records in her autobiography the discovery that her own powerful mystical experiences emanated from her suffering from Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, Peter Rollins identifies the collapsing of the boundary between self and other as being characteristic of psychosis and Robert Sapolsky talks in his Stanford lecture on the neurobiology of religion about shamans clearly suffering from schizotypal personality disorder.

Granted, those instances serve to show that people with certain conditions commonly considered as “mental illness” also sometimes have what appear to be mystical experiences, not that having mystical experiences can lead to mental disorders. My own peak mystical experiences did not stem from any of the “usual suspects” among mental illnesses, and I don’t seem to have developed any of those conditions in the nearly 50 years since my first such experience.  In fairness, however,  I have since developed diagnosed depression and anxiety, neither of which is linked with mysticism as such, though the “dark night of the soul” talked of by some mystics looks a bit like depression. So, perhaps, you can chalk up “might lead to profound depression” as a “maddening thing”.

But that is to take the title far too literally, and in religion, a literal leaning is a dangerous thing (to quote Dennis Norden, who was not talking about religion…).

The thing which tends to madden other people about mysticism is the apparent inability of mystics to talk in nice, simple to understand, concrete terms about their experiences. As Peter Rollins also says, mystics tend to be “slippery”; there’s a tendency to say something and then say “but it wasn’t like that”. Eastern traditions perhaps do it better, with “The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao” and “What is the Buddha nature? The sound of one hand clapping”.  I can cheerfully talk about experiencing being nothing and everything at the same time (and no synthesis seems available) and say that that was being “one with God”, so God is all and nothing simultaneously as well (side note – most mystics could cheerfully say “I and my father are one” were it not for an anticipation of straightjackets these days or impromptu bonfires in times past, without claiming to be a person of the trinity…).

Believe me, mystics find it maddening as well, or at least this one does, and not a few others have written about the difficulty of putting into words what is an ineffable experience.

I should clarify here that I am really talking of the full blown, falling off your horse version of the experience. Lesser versions, which I tend to refer to as having “an edge” of the full experience can be described much more easily; Peter Rollins refers to mystical experience as “oceanic”, which would be a good description of the edge – but not of the full spectrum experience. I do not remotely decry the “edge” experience – it is very good in and of itself, and has served well to assuage my feeling of needing the full version for long periods of time.

The full experience has only come to me on a very limited number of occasions, and while I’ve written of it that it is “better than sex, drugs and rock & roll”, that is pretty faint praise of something which, when it originally happened to me, changed me utterly and dictated a course of living which I’ve adhered to ever since, as best I could. It’s sufficiently good that many people have given over their lives to its pursuit, sometimes walling themselves up in small cells, sometimes taking themselves off into the desert, sometimes squatting on pillars. The edge is something which you can actually experience while, for instance, walking down the road or doing the dishes, while the full spectrum would result in you walking into lamp posts or needing a new set of crockery.

So another problem, which could madden at least an outsider, is that mysticism pursued vigorously can leave you pretty useless to humanity generally.

The full spectrum version can also be intensely scary – another “maddening thing”. If the overpowering impression of having your “self” extinguished, ground into nothingness in relation to the immensity of all that is were not sufficient, it also not infrequently includes a taking stock of what has gone before – a little like the suggestion that when you die, your whole life flashes past your eyes. My best imagery for it from Christian sources would be that you are judged on the spot, with as much of the attendant hellfire and brimstone as your subconscious has internalised (to me, the Last Judgment is today, yesterday and every other day in history, though most of us aren’t summoned on a regular basis). Relatively few people of my acquaintance are anxious to sit before the Judgment Seat of the Lord today (rather than at some point in the future) – though I can also attest that it comes with a side-order of complete acceptance and forgiveness, at least in my case. Even then, however,  there is an imperative to restore anything damaged by your actions – and I am not fond of making grovelling apologies or striving to repair things which may actually be irreparable. Having your faults and wrongs “burned out of you by fire” is not comfortable.

So there’s also a concealed price. It’s a little as if the best experience I could wish for someone was ringed with electrified barbed wire – you can, perhaps, reach in and grasp it, but you’re likely to end up shocked and torn up a fair amount as well.

Lastly, despite my best endeavours over many years, I can’t turn to you and say “do this and you will definitely have a peak mystical experience”; I can point to many contemplative traditions and say “these give you a very fair chance of having an oceanic experience (a lesser mystical experience) if you stick with them long enough”, but the full spectrum experience? No, that seems obstinately to be an “out of the blue” occurrence with little or no rhyme or reason about why it happens when it does.

And that maddens me, and has maddened quite a few people to whom I’ve waxed lyrical about mysticism as well.

Believe me, if I knew how it happened, I’d be encouraging everyone to give it a try, even with caveats about electrified barbed wire!

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Nevertheless, God…

November 8th, 2016

Some while ago I wrote a post with the provocative title “God – WTF?”. Having reread it, my thinking has not changed all that much. However, another slight spin on the topic came to mind earlier this week, when I was engaged in my other part time occupation of research assistant in a chemical process lab.

We were looking at a process which we had gleaned from a scientific paper, and (inter alia) speculating about how this particular reaction actually worked. If we can work out how it functions, we have a hope, at least, of making it work better – and the commonly used process for this chemical is only about 27% efficient; we want something as close to 100% as we can get.

Now, you can’t see a reaction happening, as such. Sure, you can detect that the stuff in the flask has changed colour, or become more or less viscous, or has started (or stopped) giving off bubbles. You can (as we did) take samples out at regular intervals and look at them with various instruments (in our case, chiefly a UV-Visible spectrum spectrometer, though we have also resorted to high pressure laser chromatography and, by sending samples away, mass spectroscopy and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy). These techniques let us at least guess at what the actual chemicals present in the reaction at that point are (the pinpoint identifications common in forensics based TV programmes are rather beyond what can actually be achieved in many labs, and rely on someone having identified a chemical previously so you have a characteristic trace for it).

None of this, however, is actually seeing the reaction, particularly as current theory holds that temporary intermediate chemicals are formed and quickly reformed in the type of reaction we are looking at, and will not be seen if you take out a sample and look at it at leisure – it will by then have reacted on or gone back to it’s original constituents. We are inferring what is actually happening from what we see, which is definitely second-order (and, of course, as with the equipment I have listed we are not looking directly at a chemical, we are looking at a trace on a screen produced by some physical process plus a set of fairly complex electronics, usually dissolved in something which itself affects the result).

One of the things we have decided during the last week is that the intermediate chemical in this process is not what the original scientific paper said it was. We have a number of possibilities, but it is pretty definitely not what the original authors (who were writing quite a while ago and probably didn’t have instant UV-Vis and HPLC results available to them) said it was.

This all reminded me of the position I was talking of in that post. I’m a mystic – I have experienced (and hope to experience again) something which I find past mystics have labelled “God”. I do not know (at least not with confidence, given a rather sceptical and enquiring nature) what that something is. It may be something which could reasonably be talked of as a person; certainly most theology in the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and their offshoots talks of God that way. It may be something more akin to a process – as John Caputo puts it “what is going on in the name of God”. It may be an emergent property, possibly an emergent property of mind, as I’ve speculated previously. It might even be just a meme (and even Richard Dawkins would agree that it is at least one meme…).

What I see from atheists, however, appears to me to be along the lines of “well, it isn’t A, and it isn’t B, and it isn’t C, so it doesn’t exist”. This, to me, is like saying that if in the experiment I mention we have ruled out the possibility of the reaction involving compound A, compound B or coumpound C, then the reaction isn’t happening. I can see it happening in the reaction vessel, even if I don’t know exactly how it is happening. Likewise, I can experience God (to a greater or lesser degree) without needing to know what it is that I am experiencing with any clarity – and, for me, that is a difficult thing to write, because I want to know with clarity how everything works!

It isn’t just atheists who are culpable here. A facebook friend involved in a webinar recently talked of people in his past (at a seminary) who held that if you had the wrong “doctrine of God”, you were damned. That, to my mind, is saying that the compound absolutely has to be compound A, whatever anyone else says – and, in a sense, that if it isn’t, for you, most likely to be compound A then, again, the reaction won’t happen.

Galileo is reputed to have said, in response to Church statements that the earth could not move (in order to orbit the sun) “eppur si muove” (nevertheless, it moves). God exists (or insists) and does what God does irrespective of your doctrine of God and irrespective of those who say that if we don’t understand it, it can’t happen.

For some value of “exists”…

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Musing…

October 26th, 2016

Peter Enns mentions, in a post which is mostly about incarnation, the fact that some scholars don’t take inspiration and revelation seriously.

Probably, the more “liberal” your theology (or “progressive” if you like) the less you’re likely to regard these as important terms. However, by almost any standards other than out and out atheist, I’m pretty much firmly in the liberal/progressive camp, theologically speaking – but I do take both of these concepts very seriously indeed.

That’s because I’m at root a mystic. I wouldn’t be writing this kind of post or reading a stack of theology, biblical study and spirituality material if it weren’t for that fact; the me aged between about 8 and about 15 was a complete atheist, and was frankly happy with that state – and there’s probably no room in an atheist, materialist worldview for inspiration or revelation. A mystical experience, however, whatever framework of interpretation you apply to it, comes with a large dose of self-verification – in other words, it tells you that it’s true, and more true than anything experienced through more mundane channels.

That said, it’s also incredibly difficult to communicate (at least to anyone who isn’t themselves a mystic) – mere words just don’t quite seem to hack it. They might for a poet, I suppose, but I don’t think I’d ever qualify as a poet (an occasional versifier at best…). I don’t think my “muse” is poetic.

I keep that very centrally in mind when talking either of my own experience or of the words of others which have been widely identified as “inspired”; the experience in and of itself may well be completely true, but by the time it’s filtered through the concept structures and language I have available, in my case at least it’s only somewhat true – and I expect that to be the case with any other person’s inspired statements. That means that I need to do some digging within the words used to try to discern what the original inspiration may have been – and that is particularly true where the original writer was using a set of concept structures and language which are foreign to me. On the most simple level, I need it translated into English. However, I also need it translated from, variously, a first-century Hebrew set of concepts or a first century Greek set of concepts when dealing with scripture, and translating into a modern-to-post-modern set of concepts.

The “post-modern” bit of that is a bit of a saving grace. The viewpoints Dr. Enns is talking of are, by and large, modern – and a modern view of inspiration is that it needs to be entirely rationally sustainable and reducible to material elements; this is what produces an insistence on an historical Adam and Eve, an historical recent creation and an historical flood. Those events have to have actually happened exactly as the literal words describe, otherwise they’re of no use whatsoever – a view agreed on by atheists and fundamentalists alike.

I can try to look behind the literal meaning and seek the inspiration which gave rise to to that kind of expression, given (in those cases) a several-thousand-year old Hebrew viewpoint on the way things were. A lot of what I post here involves that kind of process; I am working through scripture, reinterpreting it along the way as I am forced to do by not having an Iron Age Hebrew worldview and concept structures, and I am working through doctrines with the same compulsion caused by not having a first century Greek worldview and concept structures (particularly their philosophical ideas).

I haven’t got round to all scripture yet. There are some passages of scripture in which I find it so far impossible to discern an inspiration which I can regard as “true” – particularly those passages in which God is seen, ostensibly, as counselling genocide (the Amalekites in the Hebrew Scriptures, for instance) or as effecting it himself (the flood, or some interpretations of Revelation, for instance). Maybe those will never make sense to me as being inspired by or a revelation from God. Maybe they weren’t, and were inserted in what is definitely in part an inspired set of works by some thoroughly uninspired individual. I prefer, however, for the moment, to assume that at some point in the future I may work out how it is that they are divinely inspired, and in the meantime just not act on any of them which does not seem to me to display injunctions to love, not hate, and to peace, not strife.

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The impassible and impossible God, Eris and Dada.

September 28th, 2016

Brian Neice says something in a recent blogpost which has been part of my thinking for ages, namely that the idea of a perfect God is a theological blind alley. As he points out, a perfect God cannot act and cannot change his mind – both things which our scriptures claim God does, in the first place frequently, in the second occasionally.

There is another spin-off of the “perfect, unchanging God” concept (which is the God-concept of Greek philosophy, not that of the Bible, except insofar as some Greek concepts have penetrated the New Testament, which was written in Greek). That is the idea of Divine Impassibility (no, not “impossibility”, though I might argue that the perfect, unchanging, impassible God is also impossible – as, indeed, Mr. Neice may be saying). This argues that as God is perfect, God cannot be moved to emotion by anything which happens in the world. We cannot, says this view, do anything which can change God – even emotionally, as either before the change or after the change God would not be perfect.

Again, this is not the God of scripture, who is frequently called “loving” and sometimes “wrathful”; both of these are emotions. You just cannot love if you can not be stirred by emotion, changed by what happens with another person. Theologians have been wont to use weasel words to get round this – God does not love, but IS love, they may say, for instance. Alternatively “God’s love is of a different kind to human love” (to which my response is “So different a kind as not to be love at all”).

I therefore agree with the writer – God is nothing if He is not relational, and to be relational involves change.

That said, there is a fundamental dichotomy at the root of existence, that between order and chaos. In the Bible, God is represented in Genesis 1 as bringing order out of chaos, and is frequently seen after that as the embodiment of order – set against chaos. However, in the New Testament we see Jesus (who, according to deutero-Paul, is the image of the invisible God) saying “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword”.

You can have order which is bad, as well as chaos which is bad (few of us want very much chaos to enter our lives), and in that case, chaos needs to be brought to bear. This is, I suggest, always the case in order that there be – well – anything (as indicated in the video I linked to a few days ago in my post “The experience and consciousness of a neutrino”).

Cameron Freeman writes recently (and I can’t link to it, as it is in the “Friendly Fire” closed group studying the work of Peter Rollins): “In the beginning, there is an irresolvable paradox of antagonistic tensions forever trembling in the sacred depths of the universe. This perpetual wrestling between contradictory forces is not, however, a curse but a blessing. For as the immanent driving force of all temporal becoming, this primordial antagonism at the heart of reality itself is what keeps the future open by making the transformation of the world as we know it possible.”

He goes on to say “As the cataclysmic non-ground that is radically otherwise to any temporally constituted unity – and therefore destabilizing to the rational grounding of any presumed totality and every world-system, the anarchic abyss of this primordial dissonance (i.e. the Crucifixion) precedes and sets the stage for all new birth, and thereby constitutes the “condition of possibility” for the emergence of new forms of serendipitous creativity – from out of the disruptive darkness and into the light of new life…”

Indeed, order and chaos appear to be diametrically opposed principles, so attempting to suggest that either one of them is fundamental (and the other secondary) is going to cause problems. Taoism has, perhaps, some element of this in its well known “yin-yang” symbol, interlocking comma shapes of black and white, each with an “eye” of the other colour. However, suggesting that they are both fundamental is, as Cameron points out, paradoxical.

Then again, absolute chaos involves the dissolution of everything into irreducibly small particles (if, indeed, such things exist…) and thus death, while absolute order involves everything being completely static and unchanging, which is another kind of death. Only between the two can we find life.

The theological attitude which Mr. Neice and myself criticise is one which demands absolute order, and thus the death of God, i.e. atheism. However, the inverse of that is possibly Discordianism – and I would strongly argue that Discordianism is a religion of the absurd, and a reaction against too much love of order in established religions. I can certainly sympathise with that – Hail Eris! (at least in moderation).

Is it however true that if there is a fundamental contradiction or paradox at the root of reality, that that-which-is, or God, is both order AND chaos, is this also absurd? Or is it merely a function of the fact that our comprehension and our reason are inadequate to understand any further than that?

Certainly my mystical experience gives me the overwhelming conviction that all is one, and that one is God – so is there therefore a fundamental paradox in God? In those moments of unitive ecstasy, there is no discord, but there is also no sterile immovability.

Perhaps ultimately I need to recall that Jesus told us to address God as “Abba”. This is often suggested as being potentially baby language, and preachers suggest “Daddy” – which is a fine counterpoint to our tendency to think of God as unapproachable (the God of impassibility and perfection). Should I suggest that a better word would be “Dada”?

Dada is, of course, also the name of an absurdist movement in art last century… and Origen wrote “credo quia absurdum” (I believe because it is absurd)…

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Timings – questioning the panel

August 15th, 2016

After day 1, I was mulling over some of the things said by the speakers, and put together things which Pete Rollins and Rob Bell had said to form a question – which, as it was solidly in Roger Bretherton’s area of expertise, seemed to me like a good question for the last session to put to the whole panel of speakers. As it ended up multi-part and a little long, I took a few moments in breaks to write it down and gave it to Pete on the morning of day 2, thinking that it was only fair not to ambush everyone with it.

As it turned out, Pete talked about it with his fellow speakers (he said it was a pretty decent question), but suspected the organiser wouldn’t want to use it, and he was indeed right. I gather the organiser’s reason given was that he thought he’d mess it up reading it out, but actually the questions he put were just right to wrap up the event, and my question would have opened up new avenues which wouldn’t necessarily have been helpful.

As nearly as I can reconstruct it, but with a little more detail, here’s the question:-

Peter talked about the existential lack at the root of being, which (as a gift) gave us our individuality, and in the process said that people who didn’t feel this separation from “the other” were commonly labelled psychotic.

Rob, on the other hand, talked with conviction about God being present in all places. Now, I’m not sure whether he did this as a result of having a mystical experience of oneness with everything, but it is the kind of thing someone who has had such an experience is guaranteed to say.

Now, I’m a panentheist mystic; I wouldn’t have followed the spiritual path leading to me being at Timings had it not been for an out of the blue peak unitive mystical experience which hit me when I was 14. One powerful feature of unitive mystical experiences, no matter which religious tradition they occur in, is that the boundary between the self and the other weakens or vanishes. (At the time, I was intellectually an evangelical atheist, so it was extremely unexpected and very life-changing.) It was a sufficiently good experience to set me on a path of trying to repeat it. (I’ve tended to say it was “better than sex, drugs and rock & roll”, though that was in hindsight as I hadn’t experienced any of those aged 14).

However, if I take Pete at his word, this means that my initial experience may have been psychotic.

I have in mind here Robert Sapolsky’s Stanford lecture on the evolutionary neurophysiology behind religion. Sapolsky identifies, for instance, Luther as having created his theology out of an obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, several other religious giants as probably having temporal lobe epilepsy and shamans (he thinks shamanism is at the root of many other religious leaders) as having schizotypal personality disorder.

Part 1 of the question, therefore, particularly directed at Pete, is “Are we to believe that all powerful religious experiences are the result of mental disorder?”.

Part 2 is “Does it matter?”

Part 3 is particularly addressed to Rob, and is “I’ve been preaching for years that an unitive mystical experience is something everyone might wish to aspire to – have I been suggesting to them that they should become psychotic or otherwise mentally ill?”

and Part 4 is “Does that matter?”

As it turned out, I was able to have a chat with Roger Bretherton after the last session and ask him his thoughts. He suggested that this kind of “surge” or “flow” experience didn’t completely fit the definition of psychosis. He also mentioned to me an incident where the hypnotist and illusionist Derren Brown had induced an experience in an atheist who afterwards didn’t want to accept that it was not a “true” experience, which I found interesting (I think I’ve found a video of that incident on You Tube, but it’s blocked by Channel 4 in the UK; most of his “atheist conversions” seem to have reverted to atheism later). I’d have liked to do the same with Rob Bell, but I had stretched my elastic to breaking point by that point, and for that reason and because Pete looked as if he was in the same condition (and admitted to me he was) I left discussion with Pete to a promised email exchange later.

My thoughts? Well, as I mentioned, when my first peak experience arrived, I was an evangelical atheist, and it was a severe shock to my system. My first thought was, in fact, that there was something wrong with my brain, and I went to my GP. Apparently at the time there wasn’t (though in a spirit of complete openness, there is now – I have diagnosed PTSD, chronic depression and chronic anxiety, though only the anxiety is really a significant ongoing problem and I manage that fairly reasonably). It didn’t involve any of the other factors which might provoke similar experience, such as drugs, sleeplessness, starvation, oxygen deprivation or electromagnetic stimulation of the brain either. I do not know why it happened when it did.

As I mentioned before, it was a VERY good experience. Clearly dopamine, seratonin or both were involved, because those are how the brain gets to feel really good. I therefore put aside worries about why it happened, and went looking for a repetition by any means which I could find written about as tending to produce mystical experience. If anyone’s faith tradition talked about mystical experience, I tried any techniques they said produced it.

For what it’s worth, the conclusion I eventually came to was that none of these would (at least in me) guarantee a repeat, but some of them looked as if they increased the likelihood of a peak experience and definitely were conducive to lower level experience (which I’ve tended to describe as an “edge” of full mystical experience) but which was sufficient for maintenance purposes. Sometimes there would be something a lot stronger, and that was good, but you couldn’t go round in a peak experience all the time, as you’d be non-functional for almost any other purpose. Being a fundamentally lazy individual, I hit on a set of low level practices which did this job without taking up too much time or energy, and didn’t involve anything illegal or dangerous.

Courtesy of The Religion Forum, I’ve been able to go through the various physiological symptoms and the circumstances with a friend, George Ashley (another psychology professor, now sadly deceased) in detail; George was an out and out atheist and was pretty certain there must be some mental abnormality there, but he couldn’t put his finger on it – he finally put it down to “a brain fart”, bless him. Another friend from there, Mel Bain, remarked to me that it sounded as if it was addictive – it sounded, he wrote, as if I was “Jonesing” for another “fix” of it – and I took that on board; it is definitely that.

Does it matter what caused it, then? I don’t think so. I have in mind Karen Armstrong, who found that her own peak experiences were the result of temporal lobe epilepsy and went through a period of atheism as a result; she however eventually seems to have concluded that the origin of the experience didn’t matter, and is now what she describes as a “freelance monotheist”; she has a fairly serious mystical streak to some of her writing. I have in mind several people with bipolar disorder, some of them famous (like Stephen Fry and Robin Williams), some of them people I’ve come to know well (which category doesn’t include famous people). Many of them value their manic phases so highly (despite knowing they’re part of a mental illness) that they won’t take drugs which would prevent them, and in some of those cases (Fry and Williams) the world would be a poorer place without their manic genius. But, of course, it eventually killed Robin Williams… I had my own taste of mania for 12 days three years ago when my depression lifted, and I can understand their attitude – it was an incredibly creative and productive time for me. But I wouldn’t have wanted it to go on much longer, I’d have burned out. I think of Van Gogh, as well, who probably painted his amazing works out of schizophrenia. Clearly, some mental conditions labelled as illnesses can produce remarkable things – and, indeed, as Sapolsky says, the people of a village he mentions are very glad that they have one schizotypal shaman – though they wouldn’t want a second one.

The second “does it matter?” is maybe more of a worry. I’ve rhapsodised about peak mystical experience for nearly 50 years now, and the thought that this may only be available through what is viewed as mental abnormality does concern me. Certainly all the experimentation and discussion with other mystics I’ve done over the years inclines me to think that at least the most intense forms of unitive experience are only felt by relatively few people, though many more describe experiences which I think might be taken as a base, worked on through various practices and perhaps might become more intense as a result.

But do I want to encourage others to go down that road? Initially I most definitely did – it was a supremely good experience, and I wanted others to have that. It had a lot of pluses from my point of view. It made me, for instance, a much nicer human being (it’s hard not to think of others when the border between what is you and what is them is blurred or nonexistent, and massively increased empathy is a typical result). It makes it pretty near impossible to feel an existential lack of “the other”; it strongly tends to stop one being at all worried by the thought of death. It also gave me a peculiar certainty- not intellectual certainty (I am still baffled by that-which-is-God) but emotional/spiritual certainty. I used to write sometimes that I didn’t need to believe in God, I experienced God.

A concern was that it might be that not everyone could have such a peak experience, even with a lot of work, and I started early on warning that nothing seemed to guarantee a peak experience – certainly, I never found a way of guaranteeing one in myself, merely guaranteeing an “edge” experience. Some of the well attested routes are illegal where I live (many drugs, for instance); some are physically dangerous.

Mel Bain’s comment also concerned me – yes, I found these experiences addictive, and that led me to warn against that aspect as well.

However, there is another potential downside which has concerned me more since my long period of depressive illness (which happily seems at the least to be in remission, albeit medicated, since 2013), and that is that this is something which messes with your psychology, and any amateur messing with psychology is potentially dangerous. I’ve interpreted that depressive illness as at least partly my “dark night of the soul”, which several mystics have identified as a normal part of a mystic’s journey. However, it was also most definitely mental illness, and it nearly killed me, several times; I also spent some years (10 or so) frankly despairing of it ever being over, and I’m not sure there was ever any guarantee it would be.

That is not an experience I feel I can in conscience encourage others to go through. It also leads me to warn that going seriously down the contemplative mystical path can lead to mental illness and possibly death. Pete’s warning about psychosis only feeds a little into that – depression is quite bad enough!

It might have been easier to deal with, less dangerous and more certain of coming to an end had I identified it as a “dark night” and had I had a spiritual director (rather than or in addition to psychiatrists and psychologists) at the time; that is perhaps the only saving aspect – but from my own experience it is only a possibility.

So I have to say that the mystical path comes with a pretty severe health warning.

However, so does any other technique which tends to produce radical psychological changes in people, including (unfortunately) the standard Evangelical “pray the sinners’ prayer and give your heart to Jesus” model, particularly if you also experience the “slain in the spirit” phenomenon. There are a lot of cases of people scarred by past experience of the Evangelical mould of conversion and its follow-on (which I tend to criticise all the more because, to my mind, it seriously fails to deal adequately with spiritual growth after the initial conversion). There are some theologies, as well, which are particularly conducive to producing or worsening anxiety disorders or which at the least exacerbate obsessive-compulsive tendencies.

Radical psychological change, it seems, comes with radical dangers.

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I would mention that one result of the “beneficial” aspects of the unitive experience is that I find it difficult to engage with some of Pete’s work other than on a purely intellectual level, because he regards the existential lack as fundamental, and the fear of death as not much less so – and I don’t really feel those.

 

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3D, 4D and Theology

June 21st, 2016

Peter Enns blogged recently about the task of Biblical Scholars, which he identifies as trying to find the best narrative which explains all of the evidence (in this case the narratives of the Bible), and I warmed to that – after all, this is what I do as a scientist (originally a Physics degree, now doing some occasional part time research in Chemistry) and is part of what I did as a lawyer when doing court work, particularly in criminal defence. He particularly likened his work to putting together a jigsaw, where perhaps 200 or so pieces are there out of a 1000 piece jigsaw, with some pieces which do not obviously seem to go together.

The thought which immediately sprang to mind was “But what if there are pieces from more than one jigsaw there?” That is something which has in fact happened to me a number of times, usually when there are just a few pieces which have strayed from another puzzle into this one, but occasionally when two or more puzzles have become completely mixed.

What, say, if the pieces were of a three-dimensional jigsaw, but we were interpreting them as only pieces of a two dimensional puzzle? What if they were indeed two dimensional representations of the same thing, but from a number of completely different directions?

Again, what if they were an attempt to combine several images into one, which would not make much sense as a two dimensional graphic unless you realised what was being attempted, as in Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude descending a staircase”, which looks to combine several viewpoints in space and in time.

Has this, I wondered, happened with the Bible? Of course, the standard conservative hermaneutic demands that the whole text, Old and New testaments, is all divinely inspired and is telling a single consistent story. Though most will say that they don’t hold to a theory of divine dictation, that is effectively what they end up with. This looks to me very much like deciding from the beginning that there is only one picture here. John Wesley, for instance, said that we must not “fragmentise” our study of scripture. “When a verse seems contrary to the overarching biblical message, we must look at the verse in question macrocosmically rather than microcosmically”. Was he right?

Slightly less conservative scholars will readily concede that the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) are composed of a mosaic of texts composed at different times by different people with different agendas and which therefore reveal significantly different viewpoints. The documentary hypothesis, for instance, sees four major strains of thinking, and indeed several different conceptions of God. However, most scholars take the view that, underlying this, there is actually only one God at work throughout this collection of texts. Where there are different concepts of God (the Jahvist and Elohist traditions, for instance) they are just different views of one YHVH/Elohim deity.

There are, of course, a lot of themes in the Hebrew Scriptures. The dominant one is probably the redemption of Israel from slavery and return to the promised land, but there is also a strong narrative of prophetic challenge to kingly authority, God -v- mundane rulers, an increasing insistence on monotheism to the exclusion of “other gods” (OK, conservatives will try to tell me that the scriptures are monotheistic from the start, but that is not borne out by the text), and there’s a narrative of sin (usually collective sin) and how to make ones self right with God again. There are others, but these are probably the principal ones.

On to the New Testament, and the vast majority of scholars (and particularly those who are primarily theologians rather than biblical historians) are looking for a single narrative of the purpose of Jesus; many if not most will then refer this back to the Hebrew Scriptures and principally use them as a foundation for their NT work, seeing the themes of the NT prefigured in them. Most will acknowledge that the Fourth Gospel has a viewpoint radically different from the three synoptic gospels and that Paul and the author of James have significantly different stresses, but there is still a strong theological urge to find the same message in each strand, an underlying theory of what it was (or is) that Jesus did for us.

But what if there is more than one thing which Jesus did, more than one way in which he was significant which is of importance, and those things are not obviously connected except in the person of Jesus?

Some while ago I wrote a post titled “God: WTF?”, in which I suggested that the only appropriate response to peak mystical experience was something like “WTF?”; it is just too overwhelming and multi-faceted to make it susceptible to description (and the best attempts are wildly poetic rather than coldly analytic). The more I read of the New Testament writers, the more I think that they were struggling with the question “Jesus: WTF?”. At the most basic level, they knew he had lived, taught, healed, gathered a following, died and had then become alive again to some of his followers in some sense, and they knew that he was important. That is to say “IMPORTANT!”. Some of them experienced him as being present to them in, so far as I can understand it, much the same way as that in which I think of God as being present to me in peak mystical events – Paul and John, at least, are identified by F.C. Happold as “Christ-mystics”, and I agree; quite some number started to include him as a figure of worship.

It was not, however, sufficient to say “come and follow Jesus; this is what he said we should do”; they had to make sense of what they experienced about him. Starting with Paul, all the NT writers wrote using the vocabulary of talking about God which they had available, which was mostly the Hebrew Scriptures – and they mined every area of those in which they thought they could find an analogy to Jesus or a new way of considering his importance.

He needed to be like Moses, so he was saving his followers from some form of slavery, variously the Devil, or Sin, or the Romans. He needed to be like Elijah, so he was prophetic and worked miracles (a very similar set of miracles). He had died voluntarily at the hands of the occupying power, faithful to the last, like the Maccabean martyrs, so his death was an atonement, and was a substitution (the Maccabean martyrs arguably saved many others from death by their actions, and in dying they could be thought to suffer the death or failure to remain faithful – which in Judaism is often regarded as much the same thing – which may otherwise have come upon many Israelites).

He needed to be kingly, as being the Messiah, so naturally acquired titles similar to those of Caesar (for instance, Son of God), and he needed to be more universal than even Caesar, so gentiles and Jews both had to be included. He also needed to be priestly, so the author of Hebrews reinterpreted him as ascending to make an ultimate sacrifice (of himself) in the imagined heavenly Temple. As a sacrifice, he needed to recall the passover, so he was the passover lamb, but he also needed to recall the Feast of Atonement, so he was the Yom Kippur goat – or, actually, he was both of the Yom Kippur goats, the one which was ritually sacrificed and the one which bears all the sins of the people and is driven out of the assembly.

Out of all these different perspectives, theologians starting with Paul have tried to construct a coherent single message. As one might have predicted of an attempt (inter alia) to make Jesus simultaneously into one lamb and two goats, sacrificed for two different reasons on two different occasions (and surviving in the case of one goat), the result either forces pieces of the picture into a scheme they don’t fit into, or ends up as initially confusing as Duchamp’s nude, or both.

And yet, and yet… look at the statement I highlighted in yellow above. I am clearly there putting forward a theory of Jesus, even though it’s a severely stripped down one (there are a lot of pieces I have left out…). We are, I think, inevitably going to do this, and the most I can ultimately ask is that we exercise a little humility and accept that there may be other ways of fitting the pieces together, other pictures which can be reached.

Back to the Hebrew Scriptures and the concept of God. The Hebrew Scriptures conceived of God in a lot of ways, and strict monotheism wasn’t the start point. There’s strong evidence that YHVH started off as a purely national god of the Israelites (consider all the references to “other gods”) and became a conflation of YHVH and Elohim, YHVH being a god of wrath and war, Elohim being much more of a creator and sustainer. The writers moved on to thinking of God as supreme among other gods (henotheism), and finally to God as the only deity – “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one”.

They didn’t, however, conceive of God in the same way as the Greek philosophers, for whom God was much more like an abstract principle. Some of this way of thinking crept in to the NT writers, particularly John, whose first chapter (so far as I can see) lifts a huge amount of thinking from Philo of Alexandria’s attempt to synthesise Greek philosophy with the Hebrew Scriptures (look in particular at Philo’s conception of “Logos”, otherwise “Word”). For the Hebrews, God was very much a personal God (and a national one, as Israel were the “chosen people”), for the Greeks the ultimate God was far beyond personality (the philosophers had largely dispensed with the very personal pantheon of Greece a long time previously to Aristotle, to whom I link – note that this kind of thinking looks a lot like the later thinking of Christian theologians).

Are these different concepts actually just different views of the same [   ] (to avoid any label at all)? Well, this is not a dead issue, as witness the suggestions recently that the God of Islam is not the same God as the God of the Bible. Judaism, of course, moved steadily in the direction of categorising other gods as false, and eventually demonic. So, largely, did Christianity, save that in Western Christianity a very large number of saints seem to resemble remarkably local and tribal gods.

In this area, I have taken the view that yes, there is One God (my peak mystical experience does not admit of its source being other than all-encompassing) and that this is the foundation of all mystical experiences in multiple religious traditions, for which insight and argument I am indebted to F.C. Happold. I am therefore committed to there being a single underlying reality, and thus in some way, the different ways in which mystics of varying religious traditions have talked of God must in some way be different images of the same God, however difficult this is to understand.

I gave up the concept of syncretism (trying to meld together a set of different viewpoints) many years ago – the result tended to look too much like Duchamp’s painting, confusing and inadequate at best unless and until you got the trick of looking at it, and not really representing any single viewpoint adequately. I am, however, increasingly coming to the view that Christianity in and of itself is already trying to meld viewpoints which are not so much inconsistent as just looking at things from totally different standpoints (and that Judaism before it was also trying to do that, with slightly fewer viewpoints).

So, to theologians, I suggest that for any problem, no matter how complex, there is a simple, understandable solution.

And it’s wrong.

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Breaking with perfection

May 7th, 2016

Some while ago, Tripp Fuller hosted a clash between Jack Caputo and Peter Rollins; I’ve just read a response to that from Mark Karris. Briefly, the issue is that Rollins makes much of there being an “original lack” in the human psyche (which he says is a pervading sense of lack without actually ever having lost anything), working from the ideas of Jacques Lacan.

Caputo, on the other hand, favours a theology of possibility, and considers talk of a “lack” to be crypto-Calvinism and BS. I think that’s the first time I’ve heard a philosophical theologian use language like that!

I too tend to balk at Rollins’ language of lack, and also “brokenness”, which is common to Rollins and a lot of other Christian voices. I had not encountered the concept of OSEP (the Ontology of Spatial and Energetic Potentiality) before reading Karris’ article, which I find much more satisfactory. Granted, I’m not entirely confident I want to construct a theology around it, but that was obviously not his intent; Karris is a therapist and speaks mainly from that position.

I do wonder whether Rollins has fallen into the trap of assuming that his own pathologies are universal; a comparable example is found in Robert Sapolsky’s lecture on Religion, where he identifies Luther as obsessive-compulsive, which makes Reformed theology (to which I do not subscribe) make sense – as a theology for Luther, if not for me. I don’t identify any sense of ontological lack in myself, though that might be the product of a peak unitive experience in my teens (I don’t really remember prior to that well enough to comment further). That unitive experience gave me an absolute belief in my essential oneness with a panentheistic God, a God who is radically omnipresent, permeating everything which is at every level and “in whom we live and move and have our being” with an accent on “in”. Strenuous practice of what I settled on after much experimentation as a way in which to encourage repeated mystical experience gave me a near-continuous consciousness of that oneness, so that it was not merely a belief but an ever-present reality, but over time and with the mundane world placing increasing requirements on me, that practice declined and eventually fell by the wayside. Having once experienced that oneness, I cannot thereafter assent to there being a lack which is constitutive of who I am – merely of a reduction in my ability to sense that. My eyesight isn’t as good as it once was either, but that doesn’t mean that reality beyond about three metres becomes fuzzy and then is absent!

These days, although by some standards I might count as “broken”, due to PTSD and associated depression and anxiety now dating back some 20 years, I merely regard myself as working within a new set of restrictions; I’ve always had restrictions on what I could do, due to nature and nurture, but that’s just part of the human condition and readily correctable (in the short term) by a spot of meditation. (I grant that that remedy was not so until about three years ago; it turns out that something in the pathology of depression -or at least my own depression – makes mystical experience impossible. That, however.  could merely be a side effect of the fact that I couldn’t feel any positive emotions during that period, and there is a definite and very positive emotional effect of unitive experience. Indeed, I found it almost impossible to recall occasions which had been emotionally positive during that time.)

Three years ago I woke up to the fact that another 17 years of time and a not particularly healthy lifestyle had resulted in physical illnesses which are not curable and which make some activities I would previously have found easy impossible; likewise the residue of the PTSD leaves restrictions on what I can do mentally and emotionally. But I don’t consider myself broken; I have just had to adjust to a new realism about what it is practicable for me to do. “Broken” implies that I should be resenting the position, kicking against the pricks, but I don’t. “Lack” has the same connotation. I’ve always lacked the ability to levitate myself, for instance, but I never really considered it a lack (though I would hugely like to be able to do that!), it’s just something which humans can’t do, except in fiction. Well, this human, at any rate. I have a sneaking vision of meeting a real superhero sometime!

I feel a real sense of identity with, for instance, the deaf who regard sign language as an entirely adequate language to use, and do not think of themselves as “lacking” because of their use of that instead of a sonic language, or those who have been partially paralysed and resent suggestions that they are somehow less than wholly human. I hate the term “differently able” which often replaces the old “disabled”, but it is probably a far better concept.

What I don’t accept is that this inevitably means that by, as the Serenity Prayer says “accepting the things I cannot change” I am therefore automatically lacking the “courage to change the things I can”. The fact that with my current restrictions, I can say that life is good, and in one way of thinking is “exactly as God intends it to be”, does not mean that I am going to stop pushing the boundaries of what I can do. Indeed, in a sense, life is perfect as it is; tomorrow I may be able to do more or less than I can today, depending on whether practice or age wins, but it will still be perfect. Aquinas would have us believe that the perfect is an absolute, and that it has to be unchanging, immutable, impassible; I reject that. The perfect is what is, and what is is God in the unitive consciousness. What is inevitably moves and changes; that which is static, immutable, incapable of feeling or responding to others, is not perfect. The impassible, immutable, “perfect” God of the philosophers is a pale reflection of the living, feeling, changing (and perfect) God of mystical experience.

It is the God of the Philosophers who is lacking and broken, not me.

 

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Try not to try

April 30th, 2016

Being, at the most fundamental level, a mystic who bases everything else spiritual on peak unitive experience is a very frustrating position for a compulsive over-analyser (and that would fairly describe me). It is, in the first place, horrendously difficult to describe the experience to someone who hasn’t had it, and even my best efforts look like very bad descriptions to me. A poet would no doubt find it at least somewhat easier, but I’m not a poet; to someone with my basic mindset and upbringing, it’s a bit like trying to convey the experience of seeing (say) Turner’s “Rain, steam and speed” by enumerating the objects portrayed and describing the brush strokes. It doesn’t do the job at all well…

(For what it’s worth, Turner wonderfully captured a sense of an occasion using not words but paint there – it isn’t only poets who have a better way of conveying experience).

It’s also frustrating not being able to point to a set course of action which will reliably result in someone else having a similar experience – and I would dearly like to be able to. It frustrates people who listen to me or read me as well – “OK, Chris, you say this experience is better than sex, drugs and rock & roll – how do I experience that?”. Well over 40 years later, I still can’t point to anything which can be guaranteed. Yes, I can say that meditation and prayer and some forms of visualisatory practice can probably help (and once you’ve actually had a peak experience, these definitely seem to encourage more frequent and more easily reached unitive experiences), but nothing is guaranteed.

I think it might be well summed up by Ken Wilber in this clip, quoting (I think) Roshi; “enlightenment is an accident; meditation makes you accident prone”. He’s also, I think, on the money when he says meditating is not going to mean that God will grant you satori, instead “it’s going to wear your ass out so that God can slip in”. I am not, on the whole, a fan of Wilber, who does the kind of Westernised syncretism of multiple Eastern paths which I gave up as a bad idea within  a handful of years after starting to pursue any avenue possible which might perhaps result in a repeat of the initial experience (yes, it was that good), but here, he is eminently quotable.

For this compulsive over-analyser, the one thing which can completely end a nascent unitive experience, nipping it in the bud before it has had a chance to flower, is trying to analyse it while it’s still happening. It’s much like a problem I had when I was small, learning to catch; eventually my mother worked out that I was trying to calculate the trajectory of the ball using my conscious mind, and it was never fast enough. Only when I stopped thinking did I actually start catching things.

This prompted me to write, in a circle, “Try not to try” for someone who was asking very much this question. Well, he seemed to think it was also “on the money”, so I share it again…

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Judaism, salvation history

April 20th, 2016

I’ve recently listened to one of the Homebrewed Christianity podcasts in which Tripp Fuller interviews Brad Artson, who is a Conservative Rabbi and a Process Theologian. There are a lot of really good takeaways in this podcast to think of, but perhaps the most important one is this: it is horribly easy for a Christian theologian to step on Jewish toes. We really need to work on dinning into our subconscious the fact that, from the point of view of Jewish history, the Pharisees (who get a very bad treatment in all of the gospels) are the lineal predecessors of the rabbis, and modern Judaism is rabbinic Judaism.

[As an aside, I do not mean that all the interpretations of modern-day Judaism are those which would have held sway in the first century when the earliest Christian scriptures were being written, despite the widespread Jewish view that all their subsequent interpreters have done is noticed what was already there from the beginning (the concept of an oral Torah being given by Moses alongside the Pentateuch is widespread, but in fact the oral Torah is the product of some thousands of years of theological development). However, where I refer approvingly to Rabbi Artson’s views on salvation and supersessionism later in this post, I have the backing of the New Perspective on Paul, and in particular E.P. Sanders’ book “Paul and Palestinian Judaism”.]

I witnessed an awful example of stepping on Jewish toes (happily there were no Jews present)  on a recent Sunday, when a preacher worked from the text of Luke 6:1-11, a challenge parable about Jesus involving gleaning grain on the Sabbath. In his account, the Pharisees were spiritless literalists who added to scripture extra provisions regarding the Sabbath which were just a millstone round people’s necks. Yes, the Pharisees  had added clarification of the actual commandment that you do no work on the Sabbath, but not out of any intent to make things more difficult, rather out of the impulse to do more fully that which God has commanded. Here’s a link to illustrate this process. There is, of course, the principle of “building a fence around the Torah”, i.e. making sure that you do not disobey commands by extending the scope of what you don’t do so that you don’t inadvertently stray over the line, but even there it must be remembered that the impulse is “God has commanded this, I wish to do what is pleasing to God, so I do it – and indeed do more if possible”.

Rabbi Artson also usefully mentions Jewish exegesis, and in particular the principle that while you can interpret fairly freely, the basic meaning of a text (the Peshat) should not in principle be contradicted by what you produce by Remez (a hidden or symbolic meaning), Derash (an extended meaning often drawn from comparisons with other texts) or Sod (a mystical or deeply symbolic explanation). Readers who have read all of my blog posts will perhaps remember that I tend to take the view that an earlier text cannot be completely thrown out of the window (unless this is done completely explicitly) by a later one, i.e. when interpreting the New Testament I need to consider what the Old Testament, and particularly the Torah (the first five books) says on the subject; I assume, of course, that the New Testament writers were familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, regarded them as authoritative and would only supersede them by  clear direct statement (such as Mark 7:19) and not, as it were, by stealthy suggestion.

Of course, Rabbi Artson has a problem with at least some expressions of the Christian concept of salvation through Jesus (which is often labelled “salvation history” or “redemption history”). That is a problem which I share (and I’m not alone there), and I cast a lot of the blame for that on Paul’s interpreters (and a little on Paul himself). As the Rabbi says, in terms of Judaism there is no such thing as “original sin”, and redemption or salvation is through the simple process of repenting sin and turning to God. The whole of chapter 18 of Ezekiel deals very explicitly with this; the only additional point I make is that to repent, in Judaism, means not only to be sorry and to resolve to change your future behaviour, but to strive to make good any damage you have caused. As he points out, any sacrificial offering made thereafter in compliance with Levitical law, is evidence of that repentance and of the decision to turn back to God and to God’s commandments, it is not payment for the sin.

Of course, a very common message of Christianity has for much of its history been something like the Evangelical Christian’s standard formula (which I generally see presented as “the gospel”):-

God created a perfect world (and saw that it was good), but by disobedience, Adam messed things up and, as Paul says “sin entered the world through one man”, making us all subject to “original sin” and destined for eternal punishment. God then gave the Mosaic Law, but (again as Paul says) this was ineffective to save mankind from sin (Gal 3, Rom. 10), so there is a need for salvation by Christ, effected by means of his sacrificial death interpreted as “atoning”; we can then accept that salvation by praying the sinners’ prayer; at that point we are “saved”.

Here’s a clip of a rather longer account from the evanglical preacher R.C. Sproull. His talk is entitled “City of God” and, indeed, it is Augustine’s work of the same title which introduced the concept of “original sin”.

Anything beyond that is really somewhat disconnected from the basic fact of being saved, and I not infrequently hear “once saved, always saved”. Unless, I hear it said, every part of this very short story (compared with, for instance, any of the actual gospels) is correct, Christianity is a nullity. Here’s an example from an Evangelical source arguing on that basis that Adam must be historical, effectively because his historicity is necessary for the “salvation history” account. I see this creeping into other theological arguments – salvation history must be maintained, so (for instance) Catherine LaCugna criticises the standard philosophical Catholic background for the Trinity as not allowing adequately for Jesus’ saving activity.

There are many problems with this abbreviated account, not least that it doesn’t these days provide a good basis for evangelising. As has been pointed out, “I have good news: you’re a hopeless sinner and are destined for Hell” doesn’t tend to retain an audience. Unless people are already convicted of sin with respect to God, they are unlikely to respond to this. I say “with respect to God” as a sizeable group will respond that they have sinned against other human beings, but that is a matter between them and those they have sinned against and, even if they believe in God, do not think that God has the first (or sometimes any) interest in that. In fact, Paul adverts to this: “On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law”. Many people these days, who have not been brought up with a concept of needing to comply with “God’s Law”, will think that this rendering of “the gospel” is giving a solution to a problem which they don’t have. Again, this account frankly renders both Jesus’ lifetime ministry and the resurrection irrelevant. All his life needs to provide us with, in this account, is a demonstration that he was sinless, and it is his death, not his resurrection, which effects the release from sin.

It is commonly at this point in an argument that someone raises the issue of Hebrews 9:22, and suggests that there cannot be any forgiveness without the shedding of blood. This is not, of course, the case: the passage reads that one might almost say that, or that there is nearly no counter-instance, though Leviticus 5:11 clearly allows the substitution of an ephah of flour for the impecunious, and the argument of Hebrews is that we are effectively embarrassed in presenting an adequate sacrifice due to the lack of blood of sufficient worth. I pass over the possible suggestion in Hebrews that the covering (atonement) is equivalent to forgiveness, because this would in this combination be equivalent to denying the processes of forgiveness set out in the Hebrew Scriptures (such as Ezekiel 18). I suggest as a start point for interpretation that the thrust of Hebrews is linking Jesus’ death to the actions in a Heavenly parallel of the now destroyed Temple of Jerusalem, and thus appropriating the sacrificial language – and not seeking to argue that God could not forgive sin without the spilling of blood, which would be contrary to previous scripture.

I think it is necessary, therefore, to interpret Paul’s language in Romans not as having overturned God’s previous system of forgiveness of sins, but to be a midrash (derash) looking to extend understanding. Indeed, as Paul points out in Rom. 3:25-26, God had left sins unpunished. What he is complaining of is his (and by extension our) inability to stop sinning. This is, of course, what was picked up by Martin Luther and extended to the principle that we are naturally incapable of acting without sin. Now, I note with interest that Robert Sapolsky identifies Luther as suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. It is not difficult to see how this condition could generate a theology of inability to do the right thing; it is a feature of the disease. Forgive me if I find myself incapable of accepting a theology which grows out of a mental disorder from which I do not suffer (the state of my desk is ample witness to that!).

I could wonder whether the same aliment afflicted Paul, and was his “thorn in the flesh”, or at least a part of it, but see no other evidence in his writings. However, there may be a sufficient explanation in the “fence around the Torah” concept, which can spur the very devout to constant addition to the burden of things they must adhere to without an actual mental disorder. In fact, every Orthodox or Conservative Jew I’ve ever exhanged views with has confirmed to me that in fact, it is not particularly difficult to adhere to all of the Law (against what Paul seems to be saying in Romans), including not only those extended provisions which had been deduced in the first century, but all those which have since been deduced. This does not mean, however, that Judaism teaches that we can be perfect and avoid sin completely; it assumes that we will sin in some way, as Judaism has it’s own teaching that with Adam, i.e. in our original formation, we acquired a will towards evil (yetzer ha’ ra) as well as a will towards good (yetzer ha’tov) – but that the process of repentance and making amends is sufficient to restore our relationship with God (and man).

Paul’s position has been a vexed question for a very long time. Kurt Willems has recently started an excellent podcast series, the early parts of which briefly describe the problems of interpretation and some of the attempts at a solution. 20 years ago, it would not have been a problem for me, as I was then of the opinion that Paul had pretty much wrecked the message of Jesus and could safely be ignored. Now, however, I have to acknowledge both that Paul’s writings are the earliest Christian writings, that they form the majority of the Christian Scriptures (at least in the West) and that they are accepted as authoritative. So where do I go with this?

Firstly, while I accept that Paul was at least on occasion inspired (F.C. Happold identifies him as a Christian mystic), I ask myself whether the whole of what he wrote was inspired, and find that in at least one case he explicitly states that something he writes is his own opinion. Generally theologians have taken that to mean that wherever he doesn’t say that, he IS inspired, but I consider it to cast doubt on the inspiration of other parts of his writings.

Secondly, it is clear that in the relevant parts of Romans and to a lesser extent Galatians which found the “salvation history” narrative, he is doing theology rather than recounting a vision or, more explicitly, a revelation from God.

I therefore approach these bits of Paul as early theology, which I can criticise if I find his method lacking – and clearly it was lacking if only in that it failed to advert to a quite clear mechanism in the Hebrew Scriptures (Ezekiel 18 etc). However, I also find it lacking in that the portrait it paints of God is one where God delivers to Israel a huge set of rules and regulations (the Law) which is completely useless  as an adjunct to the covenant he makes with Israel – and that would be a God I would find it very difficult to follow. God then compounds the situation by waiting through at least a millenium before putting forward a solution (and yes, I know that Christian theologians have attempted to make Jesus’ sacrifice retroactive, but that does not form consolation during their lifetimes for those who have observed the Law). I’m with Peter Enns in considering that Paul does not do anything like a good enough job of substantiating his claims that the Law is nevertheless good and useful and yes, I might even agree that Paul is “winging it”. But I do not think that Paul intended to give this impression, particularly in the light of his comments, Rom. 3:1: “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much, in every way” and Rom. 7:7, “What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means!” .

So what is Paul actually attempting to say in his midrash here (because I am convinced that it is a midrash, i.e. an extension of scripture done according to at least loosely rabbinic principles)? It cannot be that, in truth, we are unable to avoid contravening the Mosaic Law (as this is demonstrably not the case), nor can it be that there is no mechanism for restoring ourselves to a right relationship with God absent faith in Jesus in any simple sense (as there was a perfectly adequate mechanism in the Hebrew Scriptures already).

I think the issue is this. Judaism is concerned, as per Rabbinic tradition and the New Perspective, with maintaining faithful inclusion in the Mosaic covenant which, by birth and (in the case of men) circumcision they are already part of (and, as a mark of devotion, doing it better and better); Paul is not talking about that. He is talking about freedom from the Yetzer ha-Ra, the evil impulse, which is what causes people to sin. Judaism accepts that humanity is subject to that, and that the resulting sin can be dealt with through teshuvah (repentance and restoration) even if the further “atoning” sacrifice is no longer available in the absence of the Temple (and, incidentally, the writer of Hebrews is putting Jesus’ death in the position of a once-for-all atoning sacrifice which deals with that absence, just in case the rabbinic arguments were insufficient; it should not in my view be read as indicating that it was absolutely necessary, as clearly under the Hebrew Scriptures it was not).

Paul, as I have said, was a mystic. Furthermore, he was a Christ-mystic, reading the base mystical experience as an experience specifically of Christ. He talks at length of “being in Christ” “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8: 1) and, again, Gal 3. He talks equally about “Christ in us” (Gal. 2:20). This is, for Paul, an unitive experience; he perceives himself as united with Christ, and inasmuch as this is the case, he is immune from the yetzer ha’ra; a more modern Jew might say that he is identifying Christ with the yetzer ha’tov, the impulse towards good. As a God-mystic myself (my own experiences have not had any particular favour of being “of Christ”), this makes perfect sense; inasmuch as I can hold on to union with God, I do not have any impulse to sin. Of course, Paul also complains that on occasion he wishes to do good but in fact sins; I would identify this as being when he has lost his unitive connection for a time.

Paul is therefore aiming at an entirely different target from that which has commonly been thought; he is aiming at the perfection of the individual will such that it is in complete conformity with the Will of God (interpreted in his case as the Will of Christ). This, I am reasonably confident, his mystical experience delivered to him – and it was marvelous to him, just as a similar experience was marvelous to me, and it changed him radically, just as a similar experience did me.

However, I think he makes a mistake common to quite a lot of mystics, and one which I made myself for quite some time; he assumes that because his own experience is this, anyone else can have the same experience. Sadly, I have found with many years of trying that very few people appear to be able to have an absolute peak mystical experience; at least, not without a lifetime of effort.

I think at some point Paul also realised this, as he elsewhere gives instructions as to what the “fruits of the spirit” should be, and  suggests that people should cultivate these. Those gripped by a peak mystical experience, the effects of which do not wear off quickly, would not need instruction. However, the other thing experience has taught me (and, drawing from this, it may also have taught Paul) is that the “act as if” principle does have some validity; if you act as if you’re spirit-filled, or in union with Christ, or in union with God, or (as I think Jesus was using a different term to describe the same condition) as a member of the Kingdom of God, eventually the outward actions form the inward reality.

And who knows, maybe the impulse to do the outward actions more and better will also grip you. Sounds almost Jewish, doesn’t it? But it isn’t “works righteousness”…

 

 

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On forgetting you’ve already read the last chapter…

March 26th, 2016

I have a complaint about much that is posted on Good Fridays. Almost every comment I see is anticipating Sunday, and indeed the whole later history of Christianity, warts (by which I might well mean PSA) and all.

But if you’re reading a story and really entering into it, you need to suspend disbelief – and if you’ve read it before, you need to try to forget that you know what’s coming next. Only that way can you really feel this part of the story. I was therefore happy to see Pete Enns blog about this point. Good Friday is a time when we should, if we are doing it right, be feeling apparently irretrievable loss, and empathising with the irretrievable losses of others.

And, of course, today is the day when, if at no other time, we can think “God is dead” and explore the ramifications of an interesting theology, if not the concept that maybe, just maybe, Elie Wiesel was right when he wrote “Behind me, I heard the same man asking: Where is God now? And I heard a voice within me answer him:  … Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows”.

Today, if we are truly with Jesus on his journey, we are in Hell

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