For about a half hour every night, after I’ve completed an outline of what needs to be covered during studies with my daughter for the following day, I pick up Carl McColman’s The Big Book of Christian Mysticism and settle in for a very enjoyable and informative read.
I’ve kept up with Carl’s blog off and on for over 5 years and can’t say I always agree with his views, but I certainly respect and appreciate them. That’s been true of The Big Book of Mysticism, too. Carl’s writing style is easy to follow, organized, informative and gracious. I always feel like I am reading the thoughts of an extremely kind, gentle soul when I read his writing. I appreciate his spiritual perspectives, but I do not agree with his view of mysticism. It seems to me as though he is trying to define it in order to “sell” it and that makes me uncomfortable because I don’t think mysticism is something that can be bought and sold. It is certainly an experience that can be shared with others, but not in a coercive, manipulative marketing sort of way.
Robert Bly was once asked if he hoped to make poetry mainstream. He said that was not at all his goal because once something becomes mainstream, it loses its power. Professional marketers are aware of this. Once you discover that cutting edge thing that resonates “cool” and market it to the masses, it almost immediately loses its “cool” so you have to go off looking for the next cutting edge thing to market. Bringing something into the mainstream does not give it power, it takes it away because the mainstream always demands that the ineffable be made concrete.
The way I see it, mysticism is to religion what poetry is to literature. In order to sell it to the masses, you have to reduce it to labels and catch phrases that turn it into something far less significant than what it actually is.
Granted, I’m only 75 pages into the book and my intellectual understanding of Christian mysticism is admittedly somewhat limited. It’s not non-existent, but I know I don’t have Carl’s knowledge. I had a significant mystical experience in my youth that has provided my primary understanding of mysticism. Everything gets checked against that experience which is what made me interested in Christian mysticism in the first place. It resonated with my experience. Beyond that, I attended a dozen or so Franciscan and Jesuit retreats and conferences during the 8 years I was Catholic. Most of these were silent retreats and a few were specifically based upon a study of the Christian mystics. More recently, I’ve made a fairly extensive study of The Cloud of Unknowing, Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton and a few others. But my knowledge of Christian mysticism, in general, is somewhat lacking. I know very little about the Celtic influence on Christian wisdom, for example. I’ve made an in depth study of Church history, but I have not made an in depth study of many of the Christian thinkers themselves. So undoubtedly Carl has far more knowledge than me. But I’m still uncomfortable about his desire to nail mysticism down so concretely. What is the point of doing this? To gain converts?
Carl says that he can’t guarantee that he will win anyone over to his point of view. Fair enough. But doesn’t mysticism have more to do with helping people enlarge their perspective from their own point of view rather than trying to get them to adopt someone elses’ point of view? Carl very clearly says that his goal is to inspire and encourage us to make Christian mysticism a part of our lives. His selling point is that Christian mysticism “promises” to make our lives better. This is also the standard selling point of Christianity which has all but become a “brand” these days. (Well, maybe it IS a “brand”!!)
Carl says that a central “goal” of Christian mysticism is experiencing the ineffable splendors of the mutual indwelling of the soul in Christ. This doesn’t seem right to me. I think it would be more accurate to say that mysticism is the experience of the ineffable splendors of the mutual indwelling of the soul in Christ. To claim mysticism has “goals” makes me cringe. Perhaps it was Paul’s goal, but that doesn’t mean Christian mysticism has goals.
Paul promises that the mystery of Christ leads to a glorious end that so many mystics since have described – union with God, beatific vision, communion with the Holy Trinity, deification, to be filled with the utter fullness of God.
I have a problem with the word choice here, specifically the word “end”. Is union with God, etc. an end result? If so, an end result of what? Doing what Christian mysticism says we should do? Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems highly problematic to assign “end results” to mysticism. Goals that create end results have a lot to do with the modern striving for achievement and marketing tactics (as in growing a church), but very little to do with mysticism as I understand it.
Carl writes, “For example, many forms of non-Christian mysticism are anchored in the idea that human beings are (or can become) identical with God. Christianity denies this and Christian mysticism concurs.” Mysticism concurs? With what exactly? I wish Carl had provided specific examples here, because these sorts of blanket statements made by Christians are what I find to be the most detrimental of all.
God is a metaphor and means very different things within different religions. Mystical Jainism is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of a non-Christian religion that believes human beings can become “identical” to God. But to compare the God of the Jains with the God of the Christians is completely inappropriate. The Jains do not believe that there is a beginning or end as far as the universe goes so they do not believe in a creator God. For the Jains, God is perfect Being. When Jains say that human beings have the ability to become identical with God, they do not mean that they have the ability to become identical with a creator God. What they mean is that human beings have the the potential to achieve perfect Being. Of the Christian mystics I’m familiar with, I’m fairly certain that this idea would not pose a problem. Some may not agree with it, but at worst, it would be a non-issue. (Note: We’ve warped Augustine’s “Original Sin” beyond all recognition since Descartes!!) Buddhists don’t maintain a belief in God at all. There are something like 330 million gods in Hinduism. All of these gods represent the one Supreme absolute called Brahman. Each god is an aspect of Brahman who is formless and beyond human conception – human beings do not become “identical” to Brahman.
Carl says that the Christian idea of God as a Trinity is a unique idea. That’s not necessarily true. Hinduism is far older than Christianity and maintains a triumverage -Brahman, Vishnu, and Shiva. Brahman (Creator) is “Being”; Vishnu (Preserver) is “Thatness”; and Shiva (Destroyer) is the holy word or holy spirit. The Christian trinity is Father (God), Son and Holy Spirit. I don’t see a huge difference here. God is “the Ground of Being”, Son is “Thatness” (God on earth; the Word made Flesh); and the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit. Each aspect of the Christian trinity, like the Hindu trinity, contains and includes the others.
In Wicca, the Goddess is understood as a trinity: Mother (preserver), Maiden (creator), Crone (destroyer). Look at it this way…
- Maiden (Creator) – innocence, continual new beginnings, the youthful enthusiasm of infinite potential. In Hinduism, Brahman is the Creator and is also known as “Being”. Paul Tillich called God (the Father) the “Ground of Being”. Dostoevsky said God was “a field of infinite potential”.
- Mother (Nurturer and Sustainer) – fertility, sexuality, fulfillment, stability, life. In Hinduism, Vishnu is the Preserver and also “Thatness”. Thatness is the ineffable thingness of stuff. Human sensual experience. Thisness/Isness is Brahman/God. Thatness is based on human experience. This is the individual experience of infinite potential. God made flesh. The Son. God’s way of experiencing Himself. (In Christianity in the form of Jesus who represents all of humanity.)
- Crone (Destroyer) – wisdom, repose, death, endings. In Hinduism, Shiva is the Destroyer. Shiva is also considered to be the holy word/spirit. In Christianity, it is the Holy Spirit that leads us to new perspectives which means the death of old ones. It is the Holy Spirit that undoes the ego so that we can hear God. It is the communication mechanism between Isness and Thatness.
I think Carl was a Celtic Pagan before becoming Christian. There is a trinity within Celtic paganism, too. The Trinity exists everywhere. It is NOT unique to Christianity. Why would it be?
Also, Christian pantheism is not unknown. Paul said, “For in him we live, move and have our being”. What is that if not pantheistic?? Carl writes:
A corollary of this principle is the Christian insistence that mysticism does not lead to a pantheistic merging of you and God, but rather culminates in a loving communion, where mystical unity with God occurs as a loving embrace.
Mystical unity? To me, there is ultimately very little difference between pantheism and panentheism. Personally, I think panentheism is a pantheism because the definition of pantheism is broad enough to embrace it. Perhaps some pantheists insist upon a merging of “you and God”. But come on!! God is a metaphor. We don’t understand metaphor anymore! If we did, the idea of merging “you and God” wouldn’t make any sense at all! It’s total nonsense, not pantheism.
I don’t mean to imply that I dislike everything about Carl’s book. My discomfort with his view of mysticism is nothing new, I have voiced it several times on his blog and he is always very gracious. I always enjoy reading his blog despite my discomfort and look forward to having time to read his book. Who knows? Maybe I’ll change my mind as I make my way deeper into it.