The Jewel and the Setting

Image from the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue Website (

In response to my post yesterday of Annemarie S. Kidder writing on the relationship between postmodernity and the rediscovery of mysticism, one commenter writes:

Her insights resonate with me, both in words and practice. What I wonder though, is what kind of church this individual movement will form. How will the creeds be written or will creeds be simply experienced in similar ways? How will be able to share with the youth from our own inward experiences? I understand where we are, but I feel our commitment to sharing this way with the younger folks around us. Ideas?

Great questions. One of the basic functions of any kind of religious organization is to pass on the wisdom of the faith community to the next generation. This is why Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, Church Camp, and ministries like Campus Crusade for Christ or the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (as well as Life Teen or Catalyst) have always been so essential to the life of the church: they’re all about shaping children and youth to be the Christians (and Christian leaders) of the future.

So how do we pass on the wisdom of our faith, if that wisdom is experiential rather than dogmatic in nature? It’s one thing to have a prescribed set of teachings in written form (the Bible, the Catechism, the “Four Spiritual Laws”) to give to the next generation to read and digest. But once we train our focus on what goes on inside of us, the waters of subjectivity and individuality rapidly get pretty deep indeed. After all, one of the reasons why many Christians have historically been uncomfortable with mysticism is because of the idea that subjective religious experience is subversive of Christian doctrine — and, therefore, subversive of good order. “Mysticism begins with mist, is centered on the ‘I’ and ends in schism” as the old saying goes, linguistically horrendous but accurate in describing the traditional evangelical pushback against interior experience.

I certainly can’t claim to have all the answers here. But I think we lose our way if we approach the mysticism vis-à-vis dogma question as an either/or matter. If we set up a dogfight where the only way for doctrine to survive is to crush mysticism — or the only way for mysticism to be accepted is to reject dogma — then I think both experience and tradition lose. I don’t want to be part of a religious community that is so invested in protecting its teachings that it attacks its adherents for experiencing the presence of God. But neither do I want to be lost in a consensual fantasy-world where spirituality is nothing more than feelings and impressions and that I am the only person who gets to comment on what happens in and to my body and mind. A spirituality where only experience matters may seem superficially attractive to our lone ranger society, but the long term ramifications of such boundless, solipsistic subjectivism could easily undermine community and ethics to the point where Christianity as a means of fostering love among people effectively ceases to exist.

Okay, I’m being a bit dramatic here. But my point is the both hyper-dogmatism and hyper-experientialism fail to work as meaningful, effective models for religion. I believe the point behind religion has always been to both foster personal relationship with the Divine and to create a communal forum where such relationships can be nurtured (and, if need be, challenged). To make a tomato plant grow you don’t just water it — you also fasten it to a stake to give it support. Likewise, religious teaching — at its best — is designed both to foster and support internal experience; but sometimes this support, like the tomato’s stake, functions as a challenge, a limitation, a boundary. Likewise, just as the ongoing collective wisdom of our faith community can both nourish us and provide us with structure as we seek our own experiential contact with God, so too the enlivening experience of each new generation of God-seekers will shape the tradition anew, hopefully in creative ways that will bring blessings to those to come. In other words, spirituality at its best means that tradition shapes experience, but experience shapes tradition. And on and on it goes.

My favorite analogy here is that of the jewel and the setting. Mysticism is the jewel; dogma, doctrine and tradition (of any religion, not just Christianity) is the setting. A setting without a jewel is meaningless. But a jewel without a setting is soon lost. We need both. And (to return to Kidder’s comments) if our postmodern age marks a period in which experience has gained ascendency over doctrine, so much the better — for the jewel really is, in itself, more valuable than the setting. But the jewel needs the setting, just as the setting is incomplete without the jewel. So we who are engaged in the conversation about mysticism’s ongoing relevance for Christians in the third millennium need to remember this, and not be too quick to dismiss what is valuable about the tradition, the stories, ancient teachings and wisdom, collected lore and discourse, of our faith community.

Happy St. Hildegard's Day!
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Entering the Year of Mercy: Are You Willing to Take the "Rahner Challenge"?
Five Approaches to InterSpirituality
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.

  • 2breathe2

    Got it… I have lots of jewels in settings… think today might be a day to address what jewels to uphold… what ones to “reset” or adorn in another piece.

    Susan W Reynolds

  • Jean wise

    I love your analogy. Makes a lot of sense. Thanks

  • simoncross

    I agree that neither hyper experientialist nor hyper dogmatic approaches work – what we face in this postmodern era (if indeed that’s what we’re in) is a need for individuals to be understood as individuals, to use your plant analogy, different species need different types of support, but all are necessary to create a healthy and life giving garden. Even different types of tomatoes will need unique amounts of support, feed and water.
    If we could all relax and accept that many different types of wineskin can exist in the same wine cellar, things would be a lot easier.

  • Brenda

    Sadly, many people will never experience the jewel. But the setting is a requisite part of attaining it. Only when you receive the jewel can you then understand the interconnectedness value of both. I think we are all aware of the previous value of jewels…( most would love to have them )

  • Bernard Desroches

    Right on Carl.
    We desperately need more churches that emphasize spirituality and mysticism. If only the Roman Catholic church would include this in parish life in the form of study groups and speakers on this important topic. I am a Roman Catholic who would love to try and stop the bleeding going on in our parishes by using these two jewels to help bring in people searching for eternal answers.
    Berny Desroches (your token Republican)

    • Carl McColman

      Berny, I hope you aren’t the only Republican who reads this blog!
      I do hope that one by one, churches (as well as dioceses, synods, general conferences, etc.) will see fit to schedule programming that explores the relevance for contemplative spirituality for those of us who by choice or vocation live outside the cloister. Granted, there’s a wee bit of self interest here, as I love to lead such programming. If your priest is open to having someone like me come and lead a weekend program or a retreat, please have him get in touch with me.

  • jodiq

    I wonder if neuroscience will uncover that a whole-brained approach to God is combining dogma (left brain) with mysticism/relationship (right brain)…

  • enamouredslave

    Agreed, my friend. You articulated well what I’ve wanted to say in my blog on religion for a while.

    Two thoughts.

    First, I would like to point out that in Anglican spirituality, ideally (and I say ideally only because this is not always met) the three pillars of the faith are Tradition, Scripture, and Reason. Thereto in addition many modern Anglicans also call for Experience, so there are essentially four pillars holding up the tradition for them. I think that it’s interesting that such a surge of direct experience has come to be a major aspect of the faith in different denominations.

    Second, in the past six months or so, my own insight came to the point of being not unlike what you’ve written above. My thoughts are to go forward and have the experiences and direct encounters with God, and then see where it lines up with the dogma as opposed to simply throwing out anything that happens that can’t be found in the teaching, which seems to be the typical attitude.

    Another way of putting it may be that we must first discover the jewel and then find where it fits in the setting.

    Just my opinions.