Aslan may not be tame, but what are we to be?

A blogger named Benjamin David Steele has written a very nice review of my blog. Here are a few tidbits:

Let me recommend a rather lovely blog.  It’s well written and the author seems well informed.  The blog in question is The Website of Unknowing and the author of it is Carl McColman …[who] began as a Christian who became a Neopagan and who then later returned to Christianity via mysticism…. Beyond these interests, McColman demonstrates a fairly wide and intelligent selection of ideas and writers.  In particular, I was happy to see Ken Wilber mentioned rather prominently.  But he also blogs about a spectrum of Judeo-Christian writers and ideas from the traditional to the liberal … In some ways, his religious interests, although wide, are a bit more tame than my own.  He apparently avoids political issues (at least in this blog) and I didn’t see him write about the fiction genres of horror and sf …  But I did find quite interesting his post about the movie Where the Wild Things Are.  All in all, his blog has a Boomer sensibility about it.  It turns out he is a young Boomer at the age of 48 … To me there is something simultaneously appealing and tame (in an inclusively politically correct way) about Boomer spirituality….  However, McColman’s thinking has some meat to it.  He isn’t intellectually lazy and he is aware of the dangers of “boomeritis.”

In other words, “it’s really good, but a bit tame.”

I suppose no author wants to be called “tame,” — I certainly don’t. But this review fascinates me, for on the very same day that Steele wrote these words, my wife and I had a conversation about two books I’ve been reading: John Crowder’s Miracle Workers, Reformers and the New Mystics: How to Become Part of the Supernatural Generation, and Robert J. Wicks’ Prayerfulness: Awakening to the Fullness of Life. I was telling her about how I was enjoying both books, but for radically different reasons. Wicks, a professor of pastoral theology at a Catholic college in Maryland, has written a gentle, sensible, thoughtful, and practical guide to cultivating an ongoing spirit of prayerfulness in the ordinary rhythms of daily life. It’s a wise book, but it is also one that could easily be criticized for being tame. Crowder, an itinerant charismatic revivalist, meanwhile has written a bombastic, edgy, envelope-pushing book that argues for faith that God will raise up in our generation mystics who will make John of the Cross or Meister Eckhart or Teresa of Avila look like beginners. I love his thesis, but… but… his writing is anchored in a literalist reading of the Bible that colors not only his theology, but his understanding of politics, history, and anthropology. Not only is he a true believer in signs and wonders, but he is convinced that Christians must aggressively evangelize adherents of other faiths (particularly Muslims). Needless to say, 90% of the time I’m arguing with Crowder’s assumptions and premises. But what keeps me going back to the book is the fact that I so heartily and enthusiastically agree with him the other 10% of the time. I agree with his call for uncompromising faith, and in his celebration of the mystics throughout history as passionate ambassadors for the awe-inspiring  work of the Holy Spirit. Crowder believes in a God without limits, and his writing, outrageous though it may be, is infectious in how it communicates that heady faith. There are many ways in which I could criticize Crowder’s work, but I’ll grant it this: it’s not tame.

So, what am I to do with these two books: the one that I am largely in agreement with, but that frankly I find rather, well, safe and predictable and, dare I say it, “tame”? Or the one that makes my blood boil, that alternatively I find silly and naive and in-your-face and thought-provoking, but that I feel plenty of passion in response to it, in both affirming and critical ways? I like pretty much everything that Wicks is saying, and I agree with his humble vision, pastoral common sense, and evident desire to help his readers to grow in authenticity and healthy spirituality. Frankly, the Benedictine in me has a clear sense that Wicks’ mature, grounded spirituality is better suited for the long haul than Crowder’s colorful but miracle-hungry vision.

Prayerfulness is psychologically grounded, astute in its understanding of how both grace and the resistance to grace operate in ordinary peoples’ lives, and gentle in the ways in which it challenges (or, rather, encourages) its reader to make simple but clear choices for a life surrendered to the ongoing transformation of Christian discipleship. The New Mystics is aggressive, combative, bold, and enthusiastic in its confident belief in the power and present glory of God — but it also suffers from dualistic thinking and an oppositional, culturally imperialist, and tribal-minded approach to things. Wicks is by far the more polished writer and mature thinker; Crowder is more entertaining and more fun. If I were asked to endorse one and only one of these books, I’d have to go with Prayerfulness — even though it would just reinforce Benjamin David Steele’s criticism of my work.

“He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”

— Mr. Beaver in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

There’s a part of me that has an almost erotic yearning to give everything I’ve got to this wild, untamed God, without reserve, without compromise, without holding anything back. And Crowder’s vision taps into that nerve. The New Mystics celebrates the possibility of truly being on fire for God, truly being so immersed in God-consciousness that miracles and wonders simply dance through our lives like the toys in Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. The problem I have with Crowder’s ideas is that they simply ignore the philosophical, scientific, and even ethical challenges to his underlying theology. Granted, those challenges are the project of modernity, but blithely announcing that we have now moved into the postmodern age does not give one license to dismiss the modernist critique of pre-modern beliefs.

So, to summarize: I believe what Robert Wicks has to say, but I’m not particularly excited by it. Meanwhile, I’m inspired by at least some of the ideas that John Crowder champions, but I simply don’t believe his underlying worldview.

Here’s the million dollar question: Can the sensibility and wisdom of Prayerfulness be integrated with the fire and pluck and passion of The New Mystics? To use a more pagan metaphor, how do we combine the cool rationality of Apollo with the joyful ecstasy of Dionysius? Is it even possible? Crowder (like Steele), is considerably younger than I am, and Wicks is older still. Am I just trying fruitlessly to bring youth and maturity together? Is it possible to lose ourselves in ecstasy, only to turn around and turn around and suddenly catch our breath in a place where everything is beautiful in its stillness? When we give ourselves to the untamed lion, is it inevitable that we will become tame ourselves? Or, perhaps, as the lion surrendered to the violence of his adversary, will we find in our self-emptying a new opportunity to roar?

In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
Mysticism and the Divine Feminine: An Interview with Mirabai Starr
Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
Pentecost and Ecstasy
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.

  • Margaret Amoss

    I think that what is meant by ‘tame’ is that you manage to make your reader think without offending anyone–actually a rare trick! Who can bear to read something of a religious nature if there are violent undertones to it? (not me)

  • Benjamin Steele

    My use of the word ‘tame’ certainly wasn’t an insult by any means. It might not have been the best word to describe the writings in this blog. Words such as ‘tame’ and ‘wild’ are relative.

    My own sense of spirituality is informed by some more ‘wild’ thinkers: Carl Jung, Robert Anton Wilson, Terrence McKenna, William S. Burroughs, and Philip K. Dick. I’m also fond of many ‘tame’ thinkers, but it’s hard to say who is ‘tame’. Is Ken Wilber ‘tame’? Is Jiddu Krishnamurti ‘tame’? Certainly, Rumi isn’t ‘tame’.

    Mysticism seems to be one of the most central themes of McColman’s blog. And an interest that I share. Any mystic worth their salt probably isn’t ‘tame’. But outwardly a mystic may appear ‘tame’.

    Partly what I meant in labelling McColman as tame is more about the subject matter of this blog. This blog seems to have a very clearly defined focus and McColman doesn’t seem to stray from it. My own mind wanders far and wide. The difference maybe simply be a difference of personality.

    Some people see the purpose of religion (specifically religious practice) as a way of taming the individual (taming the senses, the desires, the will, or the mind), a way of training, of elevating, of directing human aspiration towards lofty ideals.

    I understand that perspective, but it doesn’t overly appeal to my own sensibility. I’m more of a “God in the gutter” kind of guy. I’d probably be happier if I were more tame (i.e., disciplined and focused), but as it is that isn’t the way my life is. To me, spirituality feels more like a hunger that can’t be sated.

    I have little doubt that “Wicks’ mature, grounded spirituality is better suited for the long haul than Crowder’s colorful but miracle-hungry vision.” Even so, it’s just not my way to be cautiously concerned about the long haul. Not every path is easy, but every person has to follow their own path where ever it leads.

  • Cindy

    I get the interplay between tame and wild, and I like the dialogue set up between you and Mr. Steele as well as the dialogue you set up between the two authors.

    I would have to spend more time thinking, and preparing, in order to respond in much depth to the ideas about God and mysticism. And I could really go off on a tangent about Jung – that is where most of my study has been.

    But what I know is The Chronicles of Narnia. I grew up with and on these books, rereading them every summer for a dozen years or so, reading them to my children and just this past summer listening to them on CD (beautifully read by a variety of British actors) and thus introducing them to my husband.

    Aslan is not a tame lion. And who would want a King that is tame? Not me. His mystery is not magic and his wildness is not reckless.

    And that is the divide between the human and the divine. To me. God is wild, not tame. Unlimited in possibility, scope, love and fire. Human beings are, by nature, limited. And to get the idea of such divine wildness being possible in such a vessel seems (to me) to cry out for a painful result.

    The mystics that I’ve read all have a depth of understanding of this fine line, and never do I get the feeling that any of them sees their wildness or their fire as Godlike. Rather it is God love.

    I’ve not read The New Mystics. I’m not sure I will – but I will definitely read Prayerfulness.

    For me, the world at large offers plenty of ungrounded, literalist readings of the Bible that are fraught with scary paths leading folks to believe something far different from the admonition from that untame God “be still, and know that I am God.”

    Just my off-the-cuff thoughts upon returning from four days of peace and tranquility. :)

  • Jeff

    I justed visted a church in Redding, California which is a flagship of the aspect of Christianity John Crowder espouses. The name of the church is Bethel with pastor Bill Johnson, look up their website. While I don’t agree with everything, it is a vortex of energy and creativity with over a thousand students (mostly young people)from around the nation and the world in their School of Supernatural Ministry and nearly ten thousand attending the church in a town of 90,000! Like John Wesley who stated that he preferred Holy Spirit revivial even with the attendant problematic spiritual reactions from human nature and demonic forces the leadership at Bethel accepts things getting messy and wierd around the edges unlike the careful propriety found in most christian circles. I was unexpectedly helped by a friend ( a woman in her fifties) who had graduated from their school of supernatural ministry,) she applied a method -really just a few simple questions she had learned from being trained in Sozo – a type of spiritual healing and help developed at Bethel – I was brought into the loving presence and revelation of the Father and healed from a lifelong poisonous attitude ina moatter of seconds. I was astonished!!!!,It’s been permanent. I’m usually quite skeptical about spiritual processes like this. Sozo is a Greek word from the New Testament menaing healing and salvation.

  • zoecarnate

    Great post, Carl! I’ve been thinking about this too recently, in my own writing – not to mention living: Have I gotten too tame? Crowder’s writing style matures, by the way, in The New Ecstatics…but his zeal remains unabated. :)

    Jeff is right – Bill Johnson is a major influence on John, and there do, indeed, seem to be a lot of miraculous phenomenon happening around his ministry…not just in church buildings, but on the streets. It doesn’t hurt that Johnson’s theology is a lot more gracious and life-affirming than many of his fire-breathing charismatic counterparts…a sample of his preaching can be seen here.

  • Jeff

    Perhaps George Fox and the early quakers were a blend of the two?

  • Benjamin Steele

    By the way, my mentioning “God in the gutter” (or “God in the garbage”) is a reference to the writings of Philip K. Dick. I highly recommend Gabriel Mckee’s book ‘Pink Beams of Light from the God in the Gutter’. This idea of Philip K. Dick’s is essentially the same as the theology of a hidden God. I wrote about it in a couple of blog posts.

    However, the “God in the gutter” isn’t simply the idea of a hidden God. There is also an element of the Gnostic/Kabbalah notion of the divine fallen into the world. The divine, in this sense, isn’t tame, isn’t controllable. The divine is loose in the world and it’s probably to be found where ever you’re least likely to look for it.

    This view of the divine reminds me of a vision of God Jung had as a child. It involved God sitting on a throne above a cathedral.

    There is something about the interplay between destruction and creation that intrigues me. To Philip K. Dick, God has to fall into the world in order to remake the world. It’s a fecund vision of transformation.

    There is a feeling of danger and forbidenness in this portrayal of God. This God isn’t just love and light. Maybe there is even a connection to the Hindu portrayal of Kali dancing on Shiva’s corpse. Anyways, it’s a view that doesn’t easily fit into traditional/mainstream Christian doctrine.