Still Small Voice

Last night I had dinner with my friend Cliff who is coordinating an adult education program at his church. Currently they’re studying theophanies (encounters with God) in the Bible. Cliff wants to follow this up with a series on the mystics; hence his picking my brain over chips and salsa at a noisy Mexican restaurant.

We talked about the mystics who have had their own particular theophanies: Augustine in the garden; Julian of Norwich during her life-threatening illness; Thomas Merton on the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Lousiville, KY; Teresa of Avila and her vision of the cherub with the arrow. Cliff wants to give his students a brief introduction to each mystic, and then an opportunity to read one or two selections from the mystic’s writings in the style of lectio divina, followed by time for prayer and reflection.

“So why do you want to do this?” I asked him. “What’s the point of this class?”

“I want to challenge the modernist assumption that God has fallen silent,” he replied. “I believe the mystics witness to the fact that God is still speaking.”

From there we went on to discuss how so many liberal Christians are trapped in the box of deistic modernity: the idea that God is “out there” — if God exists at all — alienated from us, removed from us, entirely transcendent and wholly “other”… while we human beings are ensnared in a Newtonian, mechanistic universe, devoid of miracle or theophany and left to make our own way without any kind of relational connection with God. Faith becomes little more than an assent to a series of propositional doctrines (the incarnation, the Holy Trinity, the passion and resurrection, etc.) — something to believe in, the way you might believe in quarks or quasars, but not a matter of experience.

Which raises an interesting question to me. What if the Christian community were to add “the doctrine of deification” to all the other great doctrines (from what little I know of the Orthodox Churches it seems that deification is taken more seriously in the east, but even there it is hardly a central doctrine of church teaching). So that when we teach the faith to newcomers or to our children, we wouldn’t just talk about God, creation, incarnation, the passion, the resurrection, the Holy Trinity, salvation, and the last things, but we would also emphasize sanctification and deification, and incorporate the witness of the great mystics as the “raw material” from which those teachings are discerned. In this way, the rationalist, propositional dimension of faith is not rejected, but the normal Christian life would take us far beyond mere intellectual assent. In other words, mystical Christianity means that discipleship is not just a matter of correct doctrine (which is what “ortho-doxy” means) but also involves appropriate behavior intended to foster spiritual unfolding. This challenges the popular notion of what being “a good Christian” is all about — getting born again and then settling for a “moral life” that is not particularly spiritual (nor is it very sexy, but that’s another story!). A true theophany, a true encounter with God, a true entry into the mystical experience of sanctification and deification, means that God is interested in far more than just the kind of “good” behavior epitomized by purity rings. When God speaks, our entire lives are shattered and reborn, in such a pervasive and total way that the narrow notion of Christian morality seems to be merely a sliver of what the life of faith is all about.

Maybe this is why people are so trapped in the modernist box. Not because we don’t want to believe in a God who still speaks — but because we’re afraid of such a God. Not in the “fear is the beginning of wisdom” sense of being afraid, but in the sense of “that’s just so scary I’m going to pretend it doesn’t exist” sense. The Bible tells us that God speaks in a still small voice, and centering prayer is the perfect tool for turning down the volume of our lives enough so that we can hear that voice when it comes. And yes — it is out there (or in here, really the same thing). But are we ready to really listen, and to allow our lives to be shattered and rebuilt beyond recognition by the dynamite contained within that whisper?

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Rob

    This brings to mind a great book that a group of us recently read and discussed: The Shattered Lantern by Ronald Rolheiser. It delves into this whole notion that God is not dead, we simply aren’t hearing or seeing Him. And interestingly enough, the title is an allusion to the Nietzche line “God is dead,” which is almost always taken out of context.

  • steellore

    You mention deification as an additional need in modern Christianity. What do you mean by that exactly? Sounds a little gnostic to me. Also, Theophanies were never normative or prescriptive for the old testaments saints, and certainly since Christ’s appearing and subsequent glorification no other word or appearance is needed from heaven. Christ was the promise and as far as a mystical life is concerned it seems to me that when Christ promised the Holy Spirit and then delivered on that promise surely that is enough. God the Holy Spirit dwells in every believer and accomplishes God’s foreordained purposes for each believer in this temporal sphere. Forget mysticism, I’ll take the scriptural view of the Holy Spirit in sanctifying the true believers, those called according to the purposes of God.

  • Carl McColman

    It is clear that you and I have radically different theologies of the Holy Spirit.

    You say “Since Christ’s appearing and subsequent glorification no other word or appearance is needed from heaven” and then you go on to say “Forget mysticism, I’ll take the scriptural view of the Holy Spirit.” I don’t understand how scripture justifies your position. After all, what is the Holy Spirit, if not the continued presence of God in our lives, speaking and appearing to provide guidance and love?

    Your comment “God the Holy Spirit dwells in every believer and accomplishes God’s foreordained purposes for each believer in this temporal sphere” strikes me as triumphalist. I’m sorry, but I think the plain truth is evidence of just how little of God’s foreordained purposes are accomplished in the lives of individual Christians and of the church as a whole. Look at the collective body of Christ in the USA: ours is a church that has blessed an unjust war, uncritically participates in the rape of the environment, tolerates rampant consumerism while scapegoating gays and lesbians, and for the most part leaves the homeless, the hiv+ and the chronically poor out to dry. Not to mention our continued arrogance toward non-Christians (see the Ann Coulter video I posted) and the shameful denominational infighting that mars the body of Christ (read any good anti-Catholic websites lately?). Far from crowing over how we are embodying God’s purposes, I think we Christians should be gasping for mercy when we consider how deeply we have betrayed the Holy Spirit in our lives. And when I speak of mysticism (which is rooted in the Bible, for starters read Ephesians and Colossians with a good Catholic commentator like George Maloney as your guide) and deification (see II Peter 1:4), part of what I’m praying for and hoping for is to see the church wake up and start truly repenting of her gross and mindless sin.

    I seriously doubt if theologians like Cyril of Alexandria, Maximus Confessor, Gregory Palamas, and Thomas Aquinas (to name just a few voices in the Christian tradition who taught deification) would appreciate being compared to the gnostics.

    Sorry if this post seems overly harsh, but I really have very little use for Protestant hostility toward mysticism. Protestantism is shot through with mysticism of its own, particularly in terms of how it turns the Bible into a fetish. As an employee of a Catholic bookstore, I am both honored and touched by the steady stream of Protestants (including Protestant clergy) who come in to our shop, hungry and thirsty for authentic spirituality because they’re getting none in their own congregations. And then when I encounter this kind of “forget mysticism, I’ll take the Bible” rhetoric, I’m reminded why this is so.

  • Peter


    steellore is merely repeating a teaching that is pervasive in many Protestant churches, a teaching known as cessationism, that God stopped moving in miraculous ways as soon as the canon of Scripture was complete. This is a heartbreaking, mind-numbing error that hinders millions of believers from any real, life-giving, actual experience of the sanctification and transformation of the Holy Spirit that they preach so firmly but are so dreadfully terrified to ‘feel.’ Theophanies, visions, direct experiences of the presence of God by the Spirit of Jesus are in fact normative for New Testament believers, and are clearly among the gifts that Apostle Paul exhorted us not to abandon. It is sad that this is so; it is tragic that this teaching shuts out true spiritual experience from so many of its followers; it is terribly counterproductive (even against the evangelistic strategies of these churches) that this turns away many seekers who would come to these churches seeking truth only to be told that their spiritual experiences are not real, and the only way to truth is to deny their actual experiences and profess faith in a distant Jesus whom they cannot see or hear or feel. This kind of ‘faith’ is actually a denial of what we know, and drives people away from Jesus as he is in the center of the spiritual universe, in a way that makes me angry–not with the precious victims of this fraud but with the lie that keeps them from the freedom and reality Jesus came to give them.
    I have addressed this to Carl because I know he knows this already. To steellore I will say, may God send His Holy Spirit into your heart (as on the day of Pentecost) so that you may enjoy true spiritual experience [including, yes, the reality of deification] and “live by every word that (present tense) proceeds from the mouth of God.”
    Yours in humble love for a present spiritual Jesus,

  • Carl McColman

    Thanks Peter; I kept trying to think of the right fancy theological term. Being a bear of little brain, I kept going back to “dispensationalism” but I knew that wasn’t right!

    I grew up in a Lutheran church which espoused a very deistic, modernistic, propoositional, cessationist worldview. To break through that I had to go hang out with the Neopentecostals, and unfortunately the group I fell in with had a particularly paranoid, Satan-is-behind-every-rock kind of theology. It’s been a long journey getting over both of those disadvantageous starts. But thanks to the grace of God, I’ve been led to embrace the joyful wonder of orthodox Christian mysticism. If I could do it, that means — with God’s help — anyone stuck in the rationalistic box can.