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?