Sunday, May 25, 2014

Mysticism and Salvation

I am about as far from a mystic as anyone I’ve ever met.

I lack the sort of conversion story other believers often point to; the type of testimony that includes phrases like “I asked God …” and “I felt a strange sense of peace come over me”; the type of experience that leads you to write a date in the front of your Bible and remember it the rest of your life. All I have is a vague recollection of an emotional moment as a child on a front porch somewhere and the dawning realization that Jesus died for me, but memory is malleable and inaccurate more often than not.

So, like I do with everything else, I check boxes: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord” [check], and “believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead” [check], “you will be saved” [check and double-check]. 

That’s the word of God, and it gives me more confidence than the recollection of any experience or feeling.

Immanuel Can sums it up perfectly in this recent post: “So how can we know? The Father loves the Son. Surprisingly, this is the essential answer we have been looking for.”

No experience can be more reassuring than that. So, mysticism, yeah … not really my thing.

In March of this year Stephen Yuille at Deus Pro Nobis ran an excellent three-parter on the subject of mysticism. He defines it as “… the belief that we can attain an immediate knowledge of God in this life through personal experience”.

In the first post he describes a series of six everyday scenarios that are scarily familiar and demonstrate how frequently Christians embrace mysticism without necessarily calling it that.

Apparently mystical thinking is a lot more common than I was aware.

John C. Wright is a successful writer of science fiction who came to the Lord in 2008 after years as an atheist. He describes the intellectual part of the process like this:
“I began to notice how shallow, either simply optimistic or simply pessimistic, other philosophies and views of life were.
     I would look at the rigorous logic of St. Thomas Aquinas, the complexity and thoroughness of his reasoning, and compare that to the scattered and mentally incoherent sentimentality of some poseur like Nietzsche or Sartre. I can tell the difference between a rigorous argument and shrill psychological flatulence. I can see the difference between a dwarf and a giant.”
Wright comes across as a thinker, a man of reason and rationality. I cannot imagine he would be a Christian today if becoming one necessitated that he bypass his intellect. He says so himself:
“A philosopher goes where the truth leads, and has no patience with mere emotion.”
But surprisingly his conversion story also has, well, a mystical side to it:
“Feeling fit, I nonetheless went to the hospital, so find out what had happened to me. The diagnosis was grave, and a quintuple bypass heart surgery was ordered. So I was in the hospital for a few days.
     Those were the happiest days of my life. A sense of peace and confidence, a peace that passes all understanding, like a field of energy entered my body. I grew aware of a spiritual dimension of reality of which I had hitherto been unaware. It was like a man born blind suddenly receiving sight.”
He has quite a bit to say in this vein and much of it seems quite fantastical to me. Because it’s just not anything I can relate to.

I’m not saying of it, or of anyone else’s experiences, that they didn’t happen or that their explanation is merely natural: dreams, visions, impressions, feelings, messages, voices from heaven, handwriting on the wall … God has used them all at various times with various people.

And if as a fellow believer I am unqualified to judge Wright’s heart, an atheist should properly have even less to say. But as a former secularist himself, Wright has encountered plenty of negative responses from atheists who think he’s lost his marbles and say so rather bluntly. Given the company I’d have to keep to do so, I’m not about to engage in conjecture about Wright’s mental processes or the source of his visions, thank you very much.

Of course, this mystical aspect of Wright’s conversion is only part of the process, not the entirety of it. And as long as one’s subjective impressions are judged by the word of God and do not become the judge of it, I wouldn’t presume to second-guess another believer’s experience, however unfamiliar it may be to me.

Again, we come back to the word of God. What should we expect if a man’s conversion is real? We should expect fruit. We should expect growth. Wright suggests his relationship with Christ has changed him: 
“On a pragmatic level, I am somewhat more useful to my fellow man than before, and certainly more charitable. If it is a daydream, why wake me up? My neighbors will not thank you.”
Others who know him personally confirm the changes in Wright’s life in the many comments that follow his testimony. An experience can only be judged by what it produces in a man’s life, and that frequently takes time to become evident.

So … mysticism? I like Stephen Yuille’s final thought, a quote from Martin Luther:
“For feelings come and feelings go, and feelings are deceiving;
My warrant is the Word of God, naught else is worth believing.”

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