Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Into the mystery

I consider myself a Christian Mystic. Now I’m willing to bet that the word “mystic” conjures up some very interesting images in your mind. I’m also willing to bet I won’t fit any of those. I don’t wear sandals – ever. I don’t say things that make me sound like Yoda after a few bong hits. I don’t use words like “chi”, “chakra” or “transcendental” unless I happen to be explaining why I don’t believe in such nonsense. I don’t fast, I don’t live in isolation in a desert cabin, I don’t have any desire whatsoever to walk on hot coals or sleep on nails, I don’t hear voices and I don’t see visions. I certainly don't go into trances. Well not unless I'm standing in a very long queue at a bank/post office/city department. Also, I can’t meditate – I've tried it and it turns out I fall asleep everytime I try. To most people to today, the term “Christian Mystic” refers to some kind of fusion between Hinduism, Buddhism and Jesus. That’s not what I’m referring to at all. I use the term in the original sense.
I first came across Christian Mysticism in an assignment I had to do on the different movements in church history. In the 14th century a movement arose among Christians that moved away from the attempts of Scholasticism to reason out, figure out, quantify and understand God. Like I mentioned before, the term “mysticism” may conjure up many different images today, but the Christian mysticism of the middle ages had nothing to do with the occult or with the mystery religions of the east. Its followers thought of it as the "scholasticism of the heart”. Where scholasticism sought to understand God, mysticism sought to experience God. It was about adoring God, not analyzing Him, spiritual feelings rather than thought and intellect. The main focus of these mystics had been an intense desire to experience God and His ways. They were on a quest to draw closer to Him, simply for the sake of drawing closer to Him, not for the sake of figuring Him out.
Now for some reason this just resonated with me. This was a little surprising since at the time, I wasn’t very pro-mystery at all. I had studied engineering and the main complaint I had about Christian books was that they were nothing like physics books. I wanted things neatly laid out by subject with concise definitions for everything. Christian books, to me, were way too airy-fairy, full of anecdotes and they never really seemed to make a clear point. While I would never have admitted it out loud, I kind of thought the Bible had that very same problem! (Clearly I wasn’t the only one, the theologians of the world seem to wholeheartedly agree and that’s why we have Systematic Theology. ) Also, I thought the whole “spiritual feelings rather than thought and intellect” idea was exactly where Pentecostal Christianity (the movement I called home at the time) went wrong. After all, how could you expect people to take you serious when you spoke about ridiculous things like feelings over reason?
Yet at the same time I could not shake the feeling that of all the different church movements I studied, I would have felt most at home with the mystics. At the time however I didn’t see any place for it in my life – I was after all happy where I was – so I didn’t really think on it much. Yet at the same time, I could never really forget about it completely either. Which was a good thing as it turns out since I might have ended up agnostic without it.
As I explained in the previous topic on skepticism I soon became more and more conflicted about my faith. I grew up in church and as a result had a very strong, rigid faith. All my life I had been taught that only the church knew the truth and the only place you could find truth was in the church. I mean they usually said “Bible” but they usually meant “church” instead. Compromise was a swear word, the absolute worst thing a Christian could do. Basically, what the church said was right (because they heard from God) and everyone else was wrong (because they didn’t). Problem was that after spending time in the real world I started to see a disconnect from what the church was telling me on the one hand and reality on the other. I don’t know why that happened to me and not to everyone around me in church. Maybe it was because I didn’t just hang out with other Christians, didn’t only listen to Christian radio and Christian music, maybe it was because I didn’t shun all things worldly like books, movies and television. (OK, I get that from all of this I must sound like I was Amish. I wasn’t. But the Christian community can be pretty insulated. You just don’t always realise it from the inside. ) To give you an idea of why I felt the church was out of touch with reality, a leader once told us that “A Beautiful Mind” (the film) was nothing short of a diabolic deception since it suggested that people can overcome adversity without God’s help. It was as if the fact that it was a true story never even entered into the equation! I ran into another prime example of this line of thinking just recently in an online discussion on Noah’s Ark. Someone asked how they could claim that the flood happened 4400 years ago when we have the pyramids and other monuments that are far older than that without a trace of flood damage. His brilliant rebuttal? The flood happened 4400 years ago therefore the pyramids cannot be older. Those who claim they are older are wrong or lying. End of discussion. It was around this time I realised that the very people telling me that faith and reason go hand in hand were very disconnected from all reason and logic indeed!
And so then it was with the whole creation debate that things finally reached breaking point for me. Now from a very early age I was taught that everything in Genesis was literally true – the Earth was 6000 years old, everything was created in its present form and about 4400 years ago a great global flood killed everything in the world save for those who were on the Ark with Noah. This was true because the Bible said so and because all real science backed it up. Everyone who disagreed with that was wrong and deceived by the devil – or actually working for him to deceive the world. Basically it came down to this: Either you believed all of that was literally true OR you don’t believe in God, Jesus or anything else in the Bible since it is all firmly rooted in the book of Genesis. This put me in a rather awkward position. I mean I really and truly believed in God and Jesus but the more I looked the more I saw that science did not in fact back up any of that. Quite the contrary, science gave solid proof that the Earth was in fact older than 6000 years (much, MUCH older), there was no global flood and that all life on earth continually adapts to its environment and is therefore in a constant state of change. So when you are burdened with a black or white, right or wrong, on or off kind of outlook on your faith, this puts you in a very bad spot when you simultaneously refuse to believe that all scientists are devil worshiping liars. According to everything I had been taught up to that point I had only two choices: reject everything I knew to be scientific fact and continue believing or give up the faith and become agnostic.
Neither was really an option. There was no way I could become agnostic, I really did believe in God. At the same time I also, in the words of Galileo, did not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use." Can you say crisis of faith? So one random day I was spending some vouchers in a bookstore and needing one more book to use up the full amount I decided on a whim to pick up a book I knew nothing about but I vaguely remembered a friend recommending I read it – Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell. Funny how you sometimes run into the exact thing you didn’t realise you were looking for exactly when you need it.
Right from the introduction page, I was blown away. Here was a pastor I had never heard of who obviously loved God and the Bible deeply and yet spoke about the Scriptures in a way I have never heard done before. He wasn’t treating it as something rigid at all, he was talking about questioning it and wrestling with it. In the very first chapter he spoke about how there are two kinds of faith. On the one hand there was brick wall faith – every doctrine solidly built upon the other, rigid and unmovable. Take one piece out and the whole thing collapses. In other words, they faith I was brought up to have. On the other hand, he spoke of trampoline faith. Here the doctrines were more like springs. They could stretch, they could move and if they didn’t work you could remove it without destroying the entire trampoline. See the difference was that unlike with brick wall faith, the doctrines weren’t the point, they were only there to support the point (the trampoline) which was God. Doctrine should be our servant, never our master. Reading these words were like coming up for air for the first time.
Well, there is no way you go back to brick wall faith after tasting trampoline faith. Calling it “trampoline faith” was actually a fantastic analogy. It was liberating, it was welcoming, it was inviting and most of all it was fun. It was at this point that I grabbed a hold of mysticism like a drowning man grabs a hold of a life raft. I realised that there was a good reason that the Bible wasn’t written like a physics textbook. I don’t know how many Christians would agree with me but I think it’s because faith is supposed to be mystic, that’s why the Bible is instead full of stories, poetry, parables and allegory. It was like I saw the Bible for the first time and I realised just how deeply mystical the Christian faith really is! Just look at the trinity for instance, how does that work? Its not a term used in the Bible but we use it because it’s the only way that works. Yet no matter how many supposedly simple and “clear” explanations I have heard for it I have never actually run into anything that can actually define it in a way that makes sense. But then, why does it need to make sense? Why does there need to be a simple, concise definition? After all the term “mystic” comes from “mystery” and things like faith and God and spirituality are deeply mysterious things (whether you like to think so or not). We glibly talk about knowing God but how on earth can we begin to grasp Him? If even a fraction of what we believe about Him is true then He must be infinitely more than we can ever truly get our minds around. And why do we have this pathological need to make God fit our minds, our ideas, our definitions, our limitations? Why is it so terrifying to see Him as free of that?
I am a mystic because mysticism actually allows God to be just that – God. Unexplainable, mysterious, wild, scary, indefinable, indescribable and without a man made cage to keep him in our image. I am a mystic because I have found that it is not the scholars that feed my soul but the mystics (though I guess they won’t refer to themselves as such) – John Eldredge, Rob Bell, Donald Miller – these are just some of the men who have introduced me to the wild unfettered beauty of the God I’ve known since childhood. I am a mystic because once free from the burden of having to understand God I am finally free to search and seek and wrestle and learn and discover and explore the mystery that is God, Life, Faith, Love and Hope. It is amazing how much you start to learn when you no longer have the need to know all the answers. I am a mystic because – surprisingly – it was mysticism that allowed me to have and fully embrace both faith and reason. As Don Miller said in his book Blue like Jazz:
"Sooner or later you just figure out that there are some guys who don't believe in God and they can prove He doesn't exist and some other guys who do believe in God and they can prove he does exist, and the argument stopped being about God a long time ago and now it's about who is smarter, and honestly I don't care. I don't believe I will ever walk away from God for intellectual reasons."
I cannot begin to explain just how freeing this is. But then, I shouldn’t have to. It’s a really good mystery though. Wouldn’t you like to explore it too?


Tania said...

Amen Bro! I couldn't have said it better... It says exactly what I feel about my faith - but I had not been able to express it this well. Great stuff - bring on the Mysticism!

TPluckyT said...

You express yourself quite well! We like some of the same books too . . .

Hey man, I appreciate your comments on my blog. I am in the process of checking out your blog, but you are quite prolific and this will take some time . . . good stuff so far, however . . .

We are part of a fellowship here in Reno, Nevada that is exploring many of the things you are writing about. We want to live kingdom life how God wants us to for where we are, not necessarily "modeled" after anything, but unique in that we believe all God's creatures are unique and designed to fulfill or live out a unique purpose in a unique way.

This of course means taking risk and making mistakes as we struggle to truly relinquish our our way to Him. Another challenge is so many Christians seem to want to continue on with "this is how we've always done it." I've been encouraged this weekend reading both your and Tania's writings and thoughts and discovering that clear across the world God is seemingly changing his church (almost like behind the scenes) and that there are others working through similar thoughts.

By the way, I had the privilege of seeing Rob Bell in person once a in 2007 and it was great!

I don't mean to highjack your blog and will attempt to keep further comments more succinct.

My name is Tim . . . Nice to meet you . . .

Eugene said...

Pleased to meet you Tim! And no, please, there is no need to be more succinct! That fellowship of yours sounds really interesting, is it really called Pixie Dust Faith ministries or is that just referring to you blog?

TPluckyT said...

We attend a renegade Foursquare church with a very accepting Pastor . . . Blessed we are!

No, I just made up Pixie Dust as an irreverent outlet from my primary blog . . .


Eugene said...

Well I must say, I love the satire on Pixie Dust Faith - I grew up charismatic and your satire is really spot on!