Practical Theology: On Others’ Mystical Experiences

We got the authors of three recent books of practical theology together and asked them to bang their ideas around to see what interesting overlaps and contrasts emerged. Andrew Root of Luther Seminary recently wrote Christopraxis: A Practical Theology of the Cross. Mark Van Steenwyk, founder of the Mennonite Worke Community, wrote The UNkingdom of God: Embracing the Subversive Power of Repentance. The guys from Two Friars and a Fool, Aric Clark, Doug Hagler, and Nick Larson wrote Never Pray Again: Lift Your Head, Unfold Your Hands, and Get to Work and are jumpstarting the conversation.

by Two Friars And A Fool

Andrew Root has been inspiring our theological turn in youth ministry for a while, and Mark Van Steenwyk has been stoking our revolutionary zeal since the dawn of blogging, so we’re thrilled to get to tear apart their recent books on the internet. None of us thinks or writes in a vacuum. We all crib ideas from each other and develop our own thinking based on what we’re reading. Often this is done in private, but we always enjoy it when authors go public with their influences and how their thoughts are changing. That’s what we’re going to do with this series.

Let’s begin with a potentially fruitful area of difference: other people’s mystical experiences.

The book we wrote, Never Pray Again, reflects our skepticism about supernatural intervention. We’d rather encourage you to take concrete actions to help your neighbor than to wait for heavenly assistance. We offer no examples in the book of mystical experiences. It’s a very earthy, one might say disenchanted, portrait of faith, and it comes from our own experience, which has not been shaped by many mystical experiences.

By contrast both Andrew and Mark share stories of formative mystical experiences in their books. We want to reflect on a couple of their stories.

Andrew makes it one of the main purposes of his book to craft a practical theology which attends to real experiences of divine action. In his introduction he shares a powerful memory from his childhood of getting stuck in a construction pit which he couldn’t run out of on his own. After praying he heard God instructing him to run and, lightened by the ministry of Jesus, succeeded in escaping the pit.

Andrew does some very sensitive narrative theology with his experience, relating the pit to the death by cancer of his first childhood friend, to nothingness itself wherein he encounters Christ, and with Christ’s help conquers death. Moreover he’s aware “that all experience is contested,” meaning his interpretation of what this experience means isn’t the only possible one. He knows, for example, that we might attribute his escape from the pit to adrenaline just as easily as Jesus (and those things aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive).

Andrew is a critical realist and points out that there are at least three layers to reality, the first of which, the dependent subjective layer, is experience that has causal effect on the subject whether it’s shared or not. We can certainly grant that Andrew’s pit experience causally shaped him whatever we think about the objective nature of the event. Given the idea that all experience is contested, however, some experiences are easier to contest than others. A mystical experience, by nature subjective, is easy to contest. This is a reason that we focus on concrete, everyday examples. If we focus on experiences that anyone can have, rather than subjective experiences that some people seem to have while others do not, it is easier to understand each other and collaborate – at least in our view.

We are all telling stories – in a certain sense all we have are stories. This is not an attempt to place epistemology over ontology against Andrew’s critical realist position. It is simply to say that experience is different from event. The event Andrew remembers happened in the past. The moment he burst through the door of his house and began retelling his experience it was already in the past and his act of retelling was an act of interpretation. Some people interpret experiences as involving divine action. Other’s don’t. Neither is necessarily a statement of objective independent reality. On the other hand, it is harder to participate in a story that is necessarily subjective only. Or, to put it another way, it is difficult for Andrew’s story to become part of ours, unless we have shared an experience similar to Andrew’s – and no one has discovered a reliable way to do so.

Therefore, more interesting than what is or isn’t “real”, in our opinion, is the purpose that a particular interpretation of experience serves. We choose to collapse the vertical/transcendent dimension of spiritual experience into the horizontal/immanent dimension in our book because our goal is to get people to focus on their relationship with their neighbors as a spiritual practice (or series of spiritual practices). It’s our observation that vertical or “mystical” experiences often serve to distract from love of neighbor, but this isn’t necessarily the case.

For example, Mark tells the story toward the end of his book about meeting a man named Michael who was experiencing homelessness. The first time they met, before Michael had said a word, Mark heard God instruct him to “give him whatever he asks for”. Michael asked for $5 and Mark obliged, telling Michael what he’d been instructed to do and beginning a complicated relationship between the two men.

Mark interpreted his experience as a case of divine action, but it was divine action that immediately propelled him into an act of mercy toward a neighbor, not once, but in an ongoing relationship. Like Andrew’s pit experience the voice of God Mark heard may only have been “real” in the dependent subjective sense, but the action of God became real in a more objective sense when Mark acted with compassion toward another human being. Somewhat in contrast, we would argue that every Jesus-follower is already living under the instruction to give to all who ask of them. What for Mark was an instance of mystical guidance, we see as an ethical imperative – perhaps in part because we don’t experience mystical promptings.

Maybe this is just us doing an end-run around other people’s mystical experiences to fit them into our schema, but it seems to us that the metric for evaluating any interpretation of experience, mystical or otherwise, ought to be the same: does it make you more loving toward your neighbor? If you hear God talking or not… If you believe God performed miracles for you or your loved-ones or not… If you had a Damascus road conversion or not, the question we will ultimately want to ask you is, how has this directly impacted the way you treat your neighbor? This way, the subjective can remain subjective, but the measure of a mystical experience is something that is apparent to everyone.

Two Friars and a Fool is the result of a heady mix of alcohol, sleep deprivation and the kind of hubris that makes blogging seem like a good way to contribute to society. Aric Clark is religious but not spiritual, and inflicts that religion on a congregation in Fort Morgan, Colorado. He is an over-functioning Enneagram 8 shouting at the universe from his pulpit. Doug Hagler is a deep-water Facebook argument-trawler who wants to open up the canon and add the collected works of J.R.R. Tolkien.  As a fatbeard-at-large in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, he lives out his calling to design role-playing games and write things on the Internet while pretending to actually work. Nick Larson is a post-doctrinal, post-modern hipster who messes it all up by wearing Star Wars shirts non-ironically. He is always reading every book he can find with the word “Toward” in the title, and is currently teaching rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock to disciples in Columbia, MO. These three published a book entitled Never Pray Again: Lift Your Head, Unfold Your Hands, and Get to Work, which aims to turn individualistic internalized spiritual practices into concrete neighbor-focused habits. They tell themselves that only one of them is the Fool, but they are wrong.

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