The Bible and Mysticism

I am very much enjoying and valuing the conversation about my recent blog about the Bible and what it is and is not. I am especially interested in the comments about mystical experiences and how they (or the lack of them) affect understandings of the Bible.

Mysticism and mystical experiences can be defined in a very narrow or broader sense of the word. In the narrow sense, they are relatively few and might be dismissed, by religious and non-religious people alike, as aberrations and not very important. In the broad sense, to use a medieval Christian definition, mysticism is about “the experiential knowledge of God.”

As experiences, they have been categorized in a number of ways. Some are “eyes open” experiences in which a one sees what one would ordinarily see, but it looks different: transfigured, suffused with light, filled with radiant luminosity (which is what the word “glory” most often means in the Bible. Moses saw a bush that burned without being consumed; a text in Isaiah proclaims that the whole earth is filled with the glory of God; a psalm declares that the firmament, the sky, proclaims the glory of God.

Some are “eyes closed” experiences. These include visions (of angels, Jesus, Mary, saints – and in other traditions, Kirishna and the Buddha and more). They also include experiences of union/communion in meditative and contemplative states of consciousness.

Some are experiences of the whole of creation suffused with God, the sacred. Some are experiences of God, the sacred, “within.” Mystical theology – in Christian forms and other forms – affirms both. Such experiences change the meaning, the referent, of the word “God” and “the sacred.” Instead of these words referring to a person-like supernatural being who may or may not exist, they refer to a presence, a glory, sometimes experienced – that is, known.

For skeptics as well as for dogmatic Christians, such experiences do not prove anything. The former dismiss them as weird states of consciousness that lead to unwarranted inferences. The latter distrust them because they seem to lead to conclusions incompatible with dogmatic understandings of Christianity. For them, only the Bible (and/or the teaching authority of the church) matters. Indeed, some conservative Christians think of mystical experiences as diabolic.

For me, because of several such experiences, and because of my study of mystical experiences in multiple religions, they are the reason that I continue to be Christian. And that I continue to think that the religions of the world at their best are sacraments of the sacred and vehicles of good.

Not all mystical experiences lead to good. It seems clear that many Germans at the Nurnberg rallies in the late 1930s entered a state of mystical ecstasy as they listened to Hitler in the midst of flags and goose-steeping troops and stirring music. So also it is easy to imagine that one or more of the 9/11 attackers were in a mystical state as the planes they had hijacked approached their targets. Ecstatic absorption in something beyond oneself is no guarantee of goodness.

The test, the criterion of discernment, as William James wrote more than a century ago, quoting a saying of Jesus from Matthew, is, “By their fruits, you shall know them.” If the result, the consequence of mystical experience, is compassion and growth in compassion, then it is of God, from the sacred.

To bring this back to the Bible: for me, the power and the authority of the Bible is not grounded in an alleged divine origin, as if God inspired the Bible as God has never inspired anything else.

How bizarre that would be – that the creator of the whole universe, the sacred that is present everywhere, chose to be revealed only in the Bible, and only in the religion that venerates the Bible – which just fortunately happens to be our own tradition. That notion is the product of Christian provinciality – easy to believe if one has never encountered anything else, but impossible to believe for those who have. Does Christian faith mean absolutizing the truth of Christian provinciality?

Rather, the power and authority of the Bible for me is that is the story and testimony of people in ancient Israel and early Christianity for whom God was an experiential reality – the sacred as disclosed, revealed, in the stories of the exodus from the land of bondage; in the prophetic protest against oppression within Israel itself; in the centuries of exile filled with longing for a world of justice and peace; in the passion of Jesus for the kingdom of God on earth; in Paul’s proclamation of “Christ crucified” (by the powers that ruled his world), “Jesus is Lord” (and thus the powers are not), and life “in Christ” (challenging the conventions of “this world”).

The central figures of the Bible – from Abraham through Moses and the prophets and Jesus and Paul and more – are all portrayed as people for whom God, the sacred, was an experiential reality. Without a grounding in such experiences, Christianity and all the religions of the world are “hypotheses.” And not very persuasive hypotheses.

Why should one take seriously the religious writings and thoughts of people who lived thousands of years ago? Only if they are speaking about experiences and not simply beliefs.


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