Yesterday a reader of this blog named Simon made this response to my post in which I announced that I’m writing a book on Christian mysticism:
Just something that immediately springs to mind. Do we really need another book on Christian mysicism? I mean, when is it going to end? There are whole libraries full of them. How about everybody, start at the Gospel, take what Jesus said seriously and take it from there? So much of this search for mysticism is just plain navel gazing and distraction.
Do we really need another book on Christian mysticism? I don’t know. Do we really need anything new? Simon suggests that we just “start at the Gospel.” It’s pretty hard to argue with a statement like this, until you stop to think about it. There’s a lot more going on here than just a dismissal of new books on mysticism. After all, mysticism itself is rejected as a “distraction.” So anything that distracts us from Jesus or the Gospel is bad. Hmmm. Think about it: just about anything that isn’t Jesus or the Gospels could be accused of being a distraction.
I can’t help but wonder if Simon really understands what mysticism is. Christian mysticism is precisely about entering into a deep, intimate, communion with Christ. My book may be about “mysticism” but that’s just to say it will be an invitation to do precisely what Simon recommends, in terms of being centered on Christ and the Gospel.
Meanwhile, consider this: the hostility to mysticism that Simon suggests under the rubric of “Why study mysticism, why not just get to know Jesus?” can easily be applied to anything. Yes, anything.
Here are a few examples.
- Why learn about Buddhism or Taoism or Islam? Why not just take what Jesus said seriously and take it from there.
- Why create new novels or songs or works of art? So much of this focus on artistry is just plain distraction.
- Why worry about mental health and psychotherapy? So much of it is just navel gazing.
- Why do we have medicine and doctors? How about everybody just take what Jesus said seriously.
And on and on it goes. And yes, there are Christians right now who organize their lives around ideas just like these (anyone remember Mary Baker Eddy?). It’s deliriously beautiful and joyful to fall in love with Jesus Christ, and most Christians I know will say that this falling-in-love has been one of the truly singular blessings of their lives. But guess what? Even this has a dark side. Yes, call me a heretic, but I’ll say it again: even falling in love with Jesus can have a dark side.
That dark side is this: loving Jesus often seems to results in a tendency to judge, reject and hate pretty much everything else.
I’m not suggesting that Christians set out to hate the world, even though that’s where many of us seem to end up. This is kind of like drug addiction. Teenagers don’t just wake up one morning and think, “Gee, I want to get strung out on heroin.” It’s a long road to becoming a junkie, and yes, I know in our sad world some folks can move down that road pretty quickly. But it’s still a process. You smoke your first joint, and then another, and then another… then you’re dropping acid, or snorting cocaine…. you learn how to polish off an entire six-pack or two in a single sitting… and then finally, some day somebody says, “If you really want to get high…” and all those promises you made to yourself never to use needles go out the window.
I’m sorry, my friends, but the lover of Jesus who hates the world isn’t free in Christ, but is a junkie in Christ. And like the heroin addict, it starts out slow. First you fall in love with Jesus, and then you have to figure out how to relate to everything else in the world. It’s the same world that Jesus loves and died for, but there’s also a lot of “anti-world” rhetoric in the Gospel, and you start trying to figure out what that means. So at first you have an attitude like St. Benedict, who said, “Prefer nothing to Christ.” No Christian would argue with that, and I’m not either, in so far as it goes. But the problem is that for many folks, this is the beginning of the slippery slope. Next comes “be in the world, but not of the world.” The next step after that is when judgment begins to set in — something like “In Christ is life, and in the world is only death.” And then comes the idea that the world belongs to Satan, and that wordly things will harm us, will keep us from our precious Jesus fix. So we start to feel suspicion toward the world. And before much longer, that suspicion turns to revulsion. And then finally, revulsion turns to pure hate.
Granted, many Christians are very sophisticated in their rejection of the world. They’re not dramatic about it, like a five-year-old who expresses all his emotions in over-the-top ways. No, the Christian hatred of the world is much more subtle than that. It shows up in myriad of little ways: in refusing to recycle or compost, in a reverse snobbery that finds art and poetry “boring,” or in a xenophobic judgment toward non-Christian religions and wisdom traditions. And yes, it shows up in statements like “so much of (fill in the blank) is just plain navel gazing and distraction.”
Only in Jesus do we find life. Only in Jesus do we find love. Only in Jesus do we get our fix. Forget the world: let it burn in hell. We are all about Jesus. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. We listen to Jesus music, we wear Jesus t-shirts, we read books about Jesus. We talk about Jesus all the time. No wonder so many non-Christians get really turned off by us.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I find great joy in being a Christian and in walking in his path of discipleship and love. But in saying this, I’m also saying that I count it as my amazing and undeserved privilege that I can serve Christ in the many humble ways that I am called to love and care for the very same world that he loves and died for. And I do so out of a profound realization that I can only serve the world if I love it. Otherwise, my service will be tainted by my resentment and my worship of the very Christ I claim to love so desperately will be poisoned by my aversion to his creation.
I mentioned how there’s a lot of “anti-world” rhetoric in the Gospels, and many Christians will dismiss my entire argument for that reason alone. But as far as I can tell, Jesus never commands us to hate or judge everything that isn’t him. He’s only saying don’t settle for a lower level of consciousness that is so prevalent in our world: this very consciousness of hatred, of judgment, of condemnation. That’s the “world” we are called to bring light to!
This long post began with by reflecting on how my reader criticized mysticism as a “distraction” from Jesus. Ironically, in the core practice of mysticism — meditation — we learn how to deal with the most insidious distractions of all: the distractions found within our own minds. Any meditator worth his or her salt knows that mental distractions cannot be fought, or hated, or suppressed out of existence. The way to deal with distractions during meditation is to simply accept them, and let them go. No judgment, no hatred. So if we as Christians really do want to be Jesus-centered, let’s do it. But let’s go easy on the distractions in the meantime. Just let them go.
Back to Simon. I’m sure he means well by trying to discourage me from writing another book on mysticism, and I’m glad he took the time to express his opinion; it reminds me that many people think like he does. But I find it rather sad that Simon, or all the other critics of mysticism, can’t see how mysticism in itself functions as a powerful tool for encouraging the love of Jesus. Apparently he wants us all to “start at the Gospel” only in the ways he thinks are right. And that’s really the bottom line: the hatred of, revulsion toward, the rejection of the world all stems from the same place in our hearts: a place of judgment. When Christians judge the world as “wrong,” we set ourselves up to hate the world. This is very sad, for it subverts two really important messages of Christ:
Do not judge, and you will not be judged; because the judgments you give are the judgments you will get.
— Matthew 7:1-2
I have loved you just as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love.
— John 15:9