The Terror of History: Lectures 19-24 (Witchcraft, Part 2 & Conclusion)

The Malleus Maleficarum

The Malleus Maleficarum was one of the most influential books in early modern culture. It was written by two Dominican monks sent to investigate rural areas. They claimed that there was widespread use of witchcraft. What this most likely amounted to was a confrontation between the part of the Western world that was fully Christianized and the other part that was only partially Christianized. Also known as the Hammer of Witches, the Malleus showed the connection between women and the devil and was used to prosecute witches by both Catholicism and Protestantism. Persecution would have happened anyway, but it would not have happened on such a large-scale without the Malleus.

The Compendium Maleficarum

The Compendium Maleficarum was also very popular and describes in detail the steps to becoming a witch…

  1. Sign a pact with the Devil. Satan offers you something you want: wealth, power, knowledge, revenge… The pact is written in blood and placed in a crossroads. Crossroads were thought to be frequented by devils. Crosses were placed in the crossroads to scare away the devil.
  2. Receive the mark of the Devil. You are branded with a small mark in the form of a bat or a toad found in your genitalia, armpits, etc.  (probably a birthmark that looks similar.) The marks are insensitive to pain – they don’t hurt when they are pricked with a needle. (What a great job pricking must have been!) A third nipple could also be a mark, but this was sometimes a bit tricky because people would testify that they had seen a third nipple on someone, but when investigators would look for themselves, it would be gone! Magic, no doubt!! There was a sexual connotation to being branded with a mark. Slaves began to be branded on the forehead to indicate ownership during this time period, too.
  3. Abjure your faith.
  4. Cast away your rosaries and scapulars.
  5. Pay homage to the devil or his representatives. Witches were said to kiss the devil in his behind while the devil emitted a cold, fetid, filthy wind.
  6. Sacrilegious baptism. You are given new godparents and a new name. Naming is very important because it gives power.
  7. Cut a piece of clothing or hair and give it to the devil. This gives the devil power over you.
  8. Enter into the magic circle. (The Pentagram.)
  9. Promise to perform sacrifices for the Devil.

The Gathering of Witches

Of course, the Compendium Maleficarum is a hostile source. Not only does it describe how to become a witch, it describes the places where witches gather (known as Sabbath which comes from Sabazius Phyrigian deity and is not related to the Jewish Sabbath.). These were nocturnal gathering of witches and there are many books written about these gatherings. This can be linked with agrarian cults, too. It is well-accepted that people in Europe during this time period truly believed that at certain times of the weeks, the witches gathered to engage in orgies, do evil deeds, and worship the devil.

The Eve of May Day is the night of the witches. May Day is a very important day in ancient Europe because it marks the end of winter and the beginning of  spring. The Eve of May Day was considered "the night of terror". Other important days for witch gatherings were the Eve of St. John’s Day, June 23rd, Christmas Eve. (Basically the Eve of any big Christian celebration was considered an important day for witch gatherings.

According to the hostile sources, during these witch gatherings, people are dressed in animal skins (usually goats). They eat great amounts of foods prepared without salt and they drink monsie, a sweet wine considered to be an aphrodisiac. They engage in orgies. The devil will provide an incubus or succubus which will satisfy everything you want sexually. It takes the form of a little cat or other small animal and can turn into a human form. There is orgiastic dancing. The use of artificial phalluses is common. (Artificial phalluses were quite popular in Europe during this time period.) Children were sacrificed, their blood shed, and they were made into pies and eaten.

Murder and Cannibalism

People were often accused of cannibalism and child murder. These accusations were typically made against midwives because children died regularly during the time period. These same charges were made against the Jews, Native Americans, Gypsies… Those who are said to commit murder and cannibalism are easily identified as being utterly different from you. They have gone beyond the boundaries of humanity and therefore do not deserve to live.

Child sacrifice lies at the very roots of our civilization for Westerners. Judaism and Christianity are based on child sacrifice. (Think Abraham and Isaac/God and Jesus.) At the very roots of these accusations, is a series of charges that are as old as humanity, itself.

Witches of Loudon

Ruiz presents the case of the witches of Loudon as an example of how politics, new sexual mores, and handy accusations of witchcraft could be used to get rid of an enemy. It is also a good example of how witch trials functioned in early modern Europe when the witch craze was beginning to wane.

France, as elsewhere, was experiencing radical social, political, and cultural shifts. France, as well as other parts of Western Europe, had fully entered the post-Renaissance world of the Baroque. This was a culture of luxury and sensuousness. France had offered premier places of learning for the intellectual elite during this time period. Urbain Grandier was an intellectual elite who attended La Flèche, the same school Descartes had attended.

The Scientific Revolution and the Cartesian Method were creating new cultural fields and new cultural production that challenged the established order. The Counter-Reformation had created new standards for clergy and laity.

Loudon was a small city in France that was deeply divided between Protestants and Catholics. It was experiencing conflict with the Crown and was facing economic transition. The Protestants were literate and middle class. The Catholics were the lower illiterate classes and upper class elites.

Urbain Grandier was ordained a Jesuit in 1615. He felt that becoming a clergyman would be more promising so left the Jesuits and became a priest at Loudon. He was a personable and handsome man who was very popular with the fashionable female parishioners. He had several sexual liaisons, getting the daughter of the local persecutor pregnant. This got him into trouble. The scandal was put aside, but he made powerful enemies.

A young, rich, beautiful widow who was much sought after by powerful men, fell in love with Grandier. He performed a marriage ceremony for the woman and himself, which also angered many people. Grandier obviously openly opposed celibacy (writing papers on it), which went counter to Church views. Another mistake was snubbing a young man who later became Cardinal Richelieu. Richelieu never forgave Grandier for the snub.

In 1629, Grandier was imprisoned for sexual improprieties. He appealed to the higher court in Paris and was released back to clerical duties. Meanwhile, a new Ursulines convent opened in Loudon where middle class and impoverished aristocratic women became nuns. The head nun liked Grandier and asked him to become the nun’s confessor. He refused, which created another enemy.

Young novices at Ursuline, partly as prank, partly as constructed allegations, began to claim demonic possession. Grandier was accused of being the devil’s representative and imprisoned. Grandier was found guilty. He was tortured and condemned to death by burning. After terrible torture, he was burned in Loudon Square, pleading his innocence.

After his death, demonic possessions and lurid public exorcisms continued for 3 years, which delighted the onlookers of all denominations, and especially the Protestants who saw it as an example of Catholic misbehavior.

Essex Shire

Essex Shire in the 17th century was experiencing many of the major transformations that other areas were experiencing. Beggars were under attack. Peasants were taking to the streets to look for work and they were mistrusted. Authorities in Essex began persecuting witches in earnest. There was no torture in England, but the accused confessions were similar to those who were tortured. (The accused were not burned, although their bodies could be burned after death.)

Those accused as witches were primarily women who were past child-bearing years. Those doing the accusing were evenly divided between men and women. Many were in-laws of the accused. The accused were usually of a lower social class than their accusers, and were usually people who were lewd, begged for food, or had a propensity for cursing.

Salem Witch Trials

In 17th century Salem, a small colonial town in Massachusetts, the accusations and trials for witchcraft created an atmosphere of fear and mistrust. In Salem, unlike Essex, the accusers were of a lower socioeconomic status than the accused. Salem marks the conclusion of two centuries of the witch craze.

Pre-Christian Agricultural Cults

As mentioned previously, there is much evidence to support the survival of pre-Christian agricultural cults in Europe. In Italy, there are the "good walkers" of Friuli. They were believed to be born with the inner fetal membrane of higher vertebrates and have unusual powers. When the harvests were at stake, they would go out to the fields and march with fennel stalks to do battle against the witches who were armed with sorghum stalks. It was believed this would save the crops.

When the inquisitors encountered this behavior, it was accused of witchcraft. The "good walkers" refused to admit guilt and claimed they were good Christians, too. The proceedings lasted for decades. After many years, they began to confess. Most were punished, but not executed.

Deep and Mysterious Past

Another influential tradition in the making of Western culture is the belief in a deep and mysterious past. Celtic lure is an excellent example. Many Druidic beliefs survived, including the power of mistletoe, the fabled golden bough. It was supposed to have healing and magical power so was placed on the door to defend against the power of witches. May Day is related to mistletoe. The Maypole is a phallic symbol and celebrations are related to fertility rites and the renewal of life in spring.

Magical Places

Another influential tradition is the belief in magical places that offer portals into a different world of nature and imagination. This was a pre-Christian belief that made its way into Christianity. Other folklore that survived was the belief in fairies, trolls, dragons, wizards, etc. This is not a widespread belief, but was quite popular in Celtic homelands. Celtic lore remains a powerful cultural motif.

The Golden Bough by James Frazer is an extraordinary record of Celtic folklore. Celts are a remarkable people. They brought their Druid religion and the sense of the mysterious which entered 12th century literature through Courtly Love.

From the Golden Bough, we learn of great fire festivals. The building of fires on the top of mountains probably goes back to human sacrifice. Man was sacrificed as a way to replenish the fertility of the earth. We also learn about the use of Mistletoe. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on the oak tree. It is the most important anti-witchcraft plant, the plant of the gods. The Oak Tree is the sacred tree of the Indo-European people and other groups. On the solstice and equinox, the fire festivals take place. When you burn the oak, you return the fire. It was believed the sun resides in the heart of the oak. This guarantees that the sun will burn brightly for another year.

Today

Today, May Day is Labor day because a group of workers in Chicago were killed on May Day while demonstrating. May Day had long been a day off for Europeans. Labor Day harkens back to a day no one worked. (It was eventually moved to September in the U.S. for political reasons.)

Today, there are still places so sacred that people flock to them. Pantheon in Rome. Stone Circles in England (Stonehenge). Cathedral of Chartres built on an old Celtic sacred place (you travel a maze in the building to the very center of the world).

The making and construction of ideas are the ways in which human beings deal with the terror of history. It isn’t just a medieval and early modern tradition. It lives on with us. There has never been a more cruel and irrational century than the 20th century. We’ve had one genocide and after another, without end.

History is made by the elites. It is written by those on the top. History is constructed. It is a way in which we try to explain what is often unexplainable. It is a way to give reason to things that are not reasonable. We live at the very edge of doom. We live in danger all the time. Around us is the uncertainty and irrationality of the world. It is our own actions that terrorize us. In order to deal with this and make meaning of it, we create religion, scapegoats and sacred places.

The terror of history remains with us. And as in earlier periods, society continues to formulate responses that seek an escape from history.

The Terror of History: Lectures 16-19 (Witchcraft, Part 1)

Witchcraft is difficult to define. At first it was viewed as nonsense, but by the 16th century, it was a solid part of Europe. Both Catholics and Protestants believed in it!  While witchcraft can be found in most cultures, it looks very different in other cultures than it did in  Europe during the middle ages because the belief that Satan was at the root of it.

In the earliest forms of religion, magic, formulas and spells were very important. When people realized that magic isn’t particularly effective in ordering the world, the idea of surrendering to God’s control became all important. In a lot of ways, however, European witchcraft looked a lot like the earliest forms of religion. (Of course, even today, religion has magical elements. Even people who don’t consider themselves to be religious have superstitions: a lucky shirt for interviews, a special pen for writing something brilliant… What are these but "magical" attempts to control the world around us?)

Witchcraft relies on the belief that magic exists and that there are two opposing forces in the world. The understanding was adopted from the dualistic philosophy of Manichaeism. The sharp split between good and evil is a Western phenomenon. You don’t find it in the east.

Historians disagree on the origins of witchcraft. Some claim it was simply a political ploy or the result of the imagination, but no one knows for sure. What we know about witchcraft comes from hostile sources – those who were in opposition to it at the time.

In the 1920s, Margaret Murray argued that witchcraft was the remains of vegetation rituals from pre-Christian times. Her ideas were dismissed, but are being revisited, today. Carlo Ginzburg has shown conclusively that agrarian cults still existed in rural areas in Europe during the 16th century. Good witches would fight against the evil spirits that threatened to destroy their crops. When Inquisitors came across these people, they identified them as infidels and claimed their practice was devil worship. The peasants would deny these charges, but under intense investigation, they would eventually admit to whatever accusations the inquisitors made.

During the middle ages, magic, religion and science all merged into one another. A religious figure could use highly charged religious language to describe his scientific work, and someone with a belief in magic could describe religion in magical terms. Scientists often used magic in their experiments. It was the process of secularization that finally established firm boundaries.

The Protestant Reformation worked to get rid of magic and superstition in Catholicism. The Catholic Reformation led to the stricter monitoring of practices that were found to be unacceptable. The Scientific Revolution defined the world in numerical terms and embraced Cartesianism. All of these movements led to the demise of alchemy, astrology and hermeticism.

The Protestant Reformation made everyone uncertain. Can you imagine how it would be if for over 1000 years, generation after generation had looked to Catholicism as truth and suddenly, the truth is called into question? The Protestant movement brought it into question, and the Catholic Church responded to by becoming even more strict. Practices that had long been ignored or considered insignificant prior to the Protestant movement became targets of persecution.

There were continuous religious wars between the Protestants and Catholics and the winner of those wars got to impose his particular brand of religion. Religious tolerance was not widely practiced. If there were people you didn’t want fighting against you, accuse them of witchcraft. In Catholic countries, it was Protestants that were accused of witchcraft. In Protestant countries, it was the Catholics.

As many as 80,000 to 100,000 people (mostly elderly women) were killed as witches. Most were from rural areas where the social structure was breaking down. Almost everyone in rural Europe used to eek out a living. Now there was a sharp division between well-to-do peasants (farmers) and those that had been marginalized. Poverty, which had once been viewed as dignified, was now devalued.

In the olden days, a beggar could knock on the door of a home and expect to receive some money or food, but by the late 15th century, this was no longer true. Beggars were often turned away instead of given food. Very often, the beggar would curse at the person who turned them away. If you had been cursed at by a beggar, and shortly thereafter your baby died in childbirth (which happened all the time back then), you could blame it on the beggar and declare him or her (usually an elderly her) "witch".

War and all of the instability in the region led to a surplus of older women. (If you were 40, you were old!) Women were most likely to practice folk medicine and this practice was closely related to the witch craze. Also, with the modern era came the institutionalization for the discipline and punishment of the marginalized: prisons, insane asylums, etc. These institutions led to the repression of social misfits. According to Michel Foucault, the persecution of witchcraft is similar: it was yet another institution for the discipline and punishment of the marginalized.

That people no longer saw poverty as dignified was directly related to the rise of capitalism. The growth of new economic systems in Europe were so fraught with tension that witchcraft became an easy scapegoat. The discovery of the New World and the awareness of new peoples never known before, was also forcing Europeans to rethink their world. People began identifying themselves as separate from "the other".

New, sophisticated methods of persecution and criminal inquiry were now under control of the state. The Inquisition was the most formidable. Public executions and burnings became an essential part of the "theatricality of power": they were reminders of the power of the state and they had extraordinary popular support. One of the reasons for this support was that it allowed a condemned person to re-enter the body politic. Do something bad, profess your sin, die for it, and then you are forgiven.

Jean Delumeau argued that the end of the middle ages and the beginning of the modern period marked an intense, widespread sense of fear in Western Europe. Changes in religion, economics, politics and the social structure, as well as the birth pangs of modernity created a kind of collective pathology. This fear was most present in the lower classes as well as some of the middle class who perceived the changes as a threat to their well-being. Unsurprisingly, there was an upsurge of bandits, vagrants, scam artists and others that added to the insecurity. A social violence existed that mostly affected the bottom rungs of society.

By persecuting witches, the State created a distraction from the popular discontent. Anger about the wars, the heavy taxation, the crime, etc. was directed away from the failings of the state to Jews, lepers, Muslims, old women, etc. Don’t blame the State, blame the witches. This scapegoating strengthened the state supported institutions and the coercive mechanisms of the nation-state. And as mentioned before, these coercive mechanisms had widespread popular support.

Also mentioned previously, the Western form of witchcraft is very different from what exists in other cultures thanks to the role of Satan. The concept of the devil in Western culture comes from Manichaeism (Persian dualism), not from the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, the devil has an ambivalent role. In Job, for instance, the devil just does what God asks of him. Beliefs in the devil didn’t develop until early Christianity and the Middle Ages. By the late 15th century, the devil had come to play an enhanced role in the lives of most Europeans and was linked with a wide range of activities.

In the ancient world, when the pastoral lifestyle took over the previous hunter/gatherer lifestyle as well as the earliest agrarian movements, a dramatic change in religious worship occurred. In order to affect change, the pastoral peoples got rid of the fertility goddess cults and replaced them with a male-centered patriarchy. This change was most obvious in Judaism, but can also be seen in Greek mythology. It led to a dramatic shift in the treatment of women.

The two main traditions that Western civilization is founded upon, Judaism and Greek, are seriously misogynistic traditions where women are horribly mistreated. Most of the great classical works show women as evil, weak, and easily deceived, as well as being capable of leading man into temptation. There are some exceptions to these representations, but not many. The reality is that the place of women was inferior to that of men. Western Society was a phallocracy. This was most evident in Athens, the cradle of democracy, which most definitely was not democratic when it came to women.

Early Christianity allowed women some power, but this didn’t last long. By the Middle Ages, even upper class women had only two alternatives: marriage or the monastery. Monastic life allowed women to be at least somewhat independent of men, but the religious hierarchy placed male rule over that of female rule. Women were strictly subordinated to men.

For a brief period in the 12th century, women gained a modicum of power through courtly love. But this was only for upper class women. Lower class women worked endlessly and were often abused. They had few property rights and no political rights whatsoever. Also, the idea of courtly love was condemned by the Church.

The conditions of women worsened considerably during the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period. The number of widowed and single women rose in proportion to the number of men because of the wars. Women living alone at the edge of rural areas, engaging in healing, herbalism and folk medicine became common. Women in the lower classes who had no ties to men became easy targets for persecution. In the absence of Jews, they made ideal scapegoats.

Men got to determine the boundaries of sexual behavior because, as Ruiz puts it, men can’t fake it. If you can’t get it up, it must be a curse. An older sexually active woman is the ultimate transgression. Cursing, blasphemy, behaving lewdly gets women accused of witchcraft. Also, old women had long been associated with the "evil eye". This was a certain look that was considered to be similar to a curse – if an older woman gave you the evil eye, you were cursed. The evil eye became associated with Satan, and women were accused of witchcraft because of it.

The Terror of History: Lectures 9-13 (Heresy and the Millennium)

The first part of Prof. Teo Ruiz’s Great Courses lecture series, The Terror of History, was on mysticism. The second part is on Heretical and Millenarian Movements.

I find it so very interesting (although not surprising) that there is such a fine line between what is considered mystical and what is considered heretical. A mystic could very easily cross the line into heresy if they get too far away from what is considered orthodox, and what is orthodox varies. (What is now orthodox may have been heretical, yesterday.)

Heresy

Heresy is the denial of established dogmas or dissent from established truth. You can only be a heretic of the religion of which you are a part. Therefore, if you are Jewish, you wouldn’t be considered heretical by the Catholic Church even though your beliefs go completely counter to church dogma because you are not Catholic. You would have to be Catholic to be considered heretical by the Church. (Or more generally, Christian to be considered a Christian heretic.)

Heresy is defined by the victor. Many of the Catholic Church dogmas came out of what was once considered heretical. (An example is transubstantiation.)

Many of the heresies that swept Europe during the middle ages were a result of the Investiture Conflict (a conflict between the church and state) that occurred in the 11th and 12th centuries and later Church Reform. There was a lot of religious dissent during this period and five main heretical groups emerged:

  • The Reformers – those swept away by the spirit of reforming the church, like Martin Luther.
  • Eccentrics – usually isolated and held outdated and sometimes bizarre beliefs.
  • Dualism or Manichaeism like the Cathars.
  • Reactionaries – those who objected to Church reform and favored of an allegiance to tradition.
  • Heterodox views that came out of intellectual thought like that of Baruch Spinoza who was expelled from his synagogue.
  • Millenarian Movements

Millenarian movements are based on the idea that time has a beginning and end. This view of time comes out of the Persian/Iranian concepts of time and the constant struggle between good and evil. Cultural and social constructs created this notion and it has had a lasting impact on the making of Western culture.

There are two orthodox millennial traditions within Christianity. One can be found in the Gospel of Matthew and the other in the Book of Revelation. Revelation holds the classic example: the devil is seized and imprisoned which leads to a faithful reign for 1000 years before the final battle between good and evil when time will come to an end. (There were several other concepts floating around as well.)

The heresy and millenarian beliefs deeply affected the social, political and cultural structures of Western Europe. Millenarian and Apocalyptic beliefs were triggered by the violence after the first popular crusade, and a good argument can be made that the totalitarian regimes that emerged in Europe in the 20th century are directly related to millenarian ideas. (Norman Cohn)

Cathars

Catharism arose in southern France which was very different, culturally, than northern France. Ideas of courtly love, which originated in southern France, were widespread in the area. Therefore, female spirituality was given more importance and the observance of Catholicism was very lax.

Catharism held a Manichaean duality and while it is considered a heresy (and therefore Christian), it was technically a completely different religion that was in competition with Christianity.

Most of the Cathars were the mercantile classes and lower nobility. The role of women was much more significant in Catharism than in Catholicism, too, which was no doubt thanks to the idea of courtly love so prevalent in the area.

The Catholic Church attempted to bring the Cathars back into the fold but their attempts didn’t work so they launched a crusade against them. This was the first time the Church had launched a crusade against Christians. The church eventually defeated the heretics, but Catharism remained alive.

(As a side note, it often happens that radical movements that begin as orthodox end up heretical.)

The Birth of the Inquisition

As was mentioned earlier, the Church failed to completely wipe out the Cathars and the violence that had erupted from attempts to wipe them out set the stage for a climate of persecution. The French desire to pacify the region led to the creation of the Inquisition around 1220. It was organized in southern France by the papal order and placed in charge of the Dominicans. The Pope had the highest authority, the bishops next highest and then local inquisitors.

The inquisition persecuted anyone they considered to be a heretic, and it was largely supported by the masses. People were brought to trial and punishment included torture, burning, confiscation and penance.

The construction of “otherness” came into being during this time period. Differences were exaggerated and persecuted. Jews, lepers and other marginalized groups were excluded from communal and national projects. This was the beginning of the rise of persecuting societies. The Inquisition also provided a way to confiscate the property of those believed to be the enemy. Whole societies developed around the wealth of confiscated properties.

Before the 12th century, the church would make attempts to bring heretics back into the fold. By the late 12th century, extreme punishment was employed to bring them back, and this punishment was acceptable to the public! It provided a way of binding together community. However, the persecution in the 12th century is calm in comparison to what came in the 15th century with the persecution of witches. And the persecution of witches is much more calm than the persecution that arose in the 20th century. (Western culture gets more and more violent as time goes on…)

Free Spirits

Another heretical movement that arose was that of the Free Spirits (the beghards and beguines). Adherents were accused of letchery and sexual excesses. They were also accused of claiming to reach a state of perfection where they were equal to God and no longer bound by moral laws. These stories, however, were not true. They were spread by the enemies of the movement as a way to dispel it. (Church Propaganda.)

Groups like the Free Spirit emerged because the Church had put a moratorium on new religious orders. This caused lay orders to become popular which paved the way for new forms of spirituality. The Free Spirit (or beguines and beghards – a female lay order) were the most important in defining the new forms of lay spirituality.

Marguerite Porete, one of the leading thinkers of the Free Spirit, was executed in Paris. Others were persecuted as well. These women did not see themselves as heretics. They believed themselves to be orthodox believers who followed the teachings of Jesus Christ.

The Millennium in the 16th Century

At the end of the middle ages and beginning of the modern era, unstable conditions came into being that challenged the established order. In Germany (and throughout Western Europe), the village structure that had been in place for centuries in rural areas changed dramatically. This affected the social structure of rural societies. A few wealthy citizens began buying up the village common lands which caused large numbers of peasants to become landless proletariats. Their traditional ways of life were eroded beyond recognition.

Another change, of course, is the Protestant Reformation led by Martin Luther. He denied transubstantiation, ecclesiastical celibacy, and the supremacy of the pope. He also wanted the Bible translated into the vernacular, which he did himself. One of the reasons Luther was successful was because of the political infighting going on in Germany at the time. The German princes were threatened by the growing power of Charles V and looked to Luther as a way to legitimize their resistance to imperial power.

The German peasants began making social, economic and religious demands, asking for a more egalitarian society. There were outbreaks of widespread violence which often led to attacks on the monasteries and to the peasants appropriations of church land. Muntzer, a follower of Luther who became even more radical, led to the rise of the Anabaptists and the Great Peasant War. The rebels defeated nobel armies but the war ended with a nobel victory, and untold numbers of peasants were slaughtered, partially thanks to Luther’s condemnation of them.

Millenarian agitation continued in Germany and throughout the West. In the mid 17th century, Puritans overthrew King Charles I and established a commonwealth. (“No king but King Jesus”.) The Puritans had millenarian views, but not radical ones. However, they paved the way for more radical views, both utopian and millenarian.

The first wave of Americans was composed of Puritans and other religious radicals. The New Englanders thought of their land as the blessed recreation of Jerusalem, which ushered in American exceptionalism. The country continued to be a magnet for religious radicals and utopian thinkers who saw North America as the ideal place to create a perfect society.

Jewish Millennial Expectations

The Jews had lived on the Iberian Peninsula in Spain (Sefarad) for more than 1400 years. In 1391, persecution of the Jews, as well as a series of pogroms, led the Jews to convert in large numbers. Some did so voluntarily, others were forced to convert. Those who did so voluntarily sought the economic and political gains that were available to Christians in the area.

The once thriving Jewish community of Iberia became two antagonistic bodies: the Conversos (those who had converted to Christianity) and Jews that remained faithful to their ancestral beliefs, despite the persecution and their diminished role in Spanish society.

Those who refused to convert were marginalized. They moved to small towns where they could find protection. Some of the Conversos still practiced Judaism in secret while others became faithful Christians. Some were religiously confused and followed neither religion.

Those who remained Jewish became more faithful to Jewish law and traditional practices, giving up the once wide held fascination with Aristotelian thought. (It was the Aristotelian thought that may have made it easy for many to convert to Christianity.)

The growing Jewish interest in Judaism spurred a greater interest in apocalyptic expectations. These were messianic beliefs linked with Kabbalah mysticism and became an important part of 15th century Spanish Judaism.

The Spanish Inquisition appeared in the 1480s with a savage attack against the Conversos. Some Jews supported this attack on the Conversos, which supported the “rightness” of their decision to remain Jewish. (The Jews did not fall under the Inquisitions jurisdiction, but the Conversos, did.) The Inquisition brought with it much distrust among the Conversos and Jews, as well as great instability.

By the 1490s, life for the Jews had deteriorated so significantly that normal life on the peninsula was now impossible. In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella proclaimed the Edict of Expulsion which gave Jews 3 months to convert or get out. Half of the Jews converted, the other half went into difficult exile. This was very difficult for the Jews because they thought of Spain as their country and now they were no longer allowed to identify with it.

Many of the wealthier and politically influential Jews were convinced by their Catholic peers to convert. One who refused was Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508). He was one of the main financial advisers to the Catholic monarchs. He was also well-versed in the Torah and had written on planetary conjunctions and their effect on the age.

In choosing exile, he became one of the leading (and richest) intellectuals among the exiled Jews, and he created an elaborate doctrine on the coming of the Messiah. People were told to turn away from rational pursuits and return to a faithful observance of the Torah. He claimed the beginning of the 16th century, which was marked by the expulsion out of Sefarad, ushered in the Jews return to God. Repentance was viewed as a condition of redemption. He said the conflict between the Christians and the Turks (who were Muslim) was a sign of the coming final wars that would usher in the Messiah. This would lead to the restoration of religious life and to the political rehabilitation of Israel. This new Israel was a utopia.

Another messianic leader was Sabbatai Sevi who conducted an apocalyptic mission between 1665-1676. Nathan of Gaza (well-known theologian and Kabbalist) promoted Sabbatai as the long-awaited Messiah and with Sabbatai’s visit to Jerusalem in 1662, a period of intense religious activity began that culminated with his pronouncement that he was the Messiah in 1665. Many Jews sold their possessions and traveled to Palestine to await the end of days. The Jewish disturbances came to the attention of the Ottoman Empire and Sabbatai was imprisoned in 1666. Surprisingly, Sabbatai, converted to Islam. This did not put an end to his Messiahship, however. Many argued that it was a necessary step for the Messiah to become a Converso before redemption of the Jewish people could take place.

There remains an enduring quality of messianic belief among orthodox Jews to this day. It’s difficult to say exactly what the messiah will be – maybe a person, maybe some sort of divine intervention. All those who hold the to a messianic belief likewise believe that Israel plays a unique role in human history. Israel is redemptive.

The Terror of History: Lectures 4-8 (Mysticism)

Intro. to Mysticism

Is mysticism a superior form of grasping reality, or is it just another way to escape the terror of history? It’s not so clear because many of the mystics are very convincing that they have experienced reality.

We in the West have a very deeply ingrained sense of self (“I”). Mystics attempt to move away from the “I” and its demands and try to discover a deeper self. This is done through withdrawal and introspection, which brings about dramatic change that eventually transforms the individual into a new being.

The search involves either immanence or emanation. Emanation says God is on the outside so the mystics journey is upward and outward. Immanence means that God is within so the journey is inward. Most Western mystics practiced Emanation. (Immanence presented the problem of heresy.)

Common symbols of mystics are pilgrimage, love (often in the form of courtly love), and the attainment of perfection,

The mystic undergoes five stages:

  1. Awakening
  2. Self-knowledge/purgation – usually involves a return to the natural self but can also involve various acts of contrition.
  3. Illumination (hearing voices, seeing visions, automatic writing…)
  4. Surrender (dark night of the soul)
  5. Ecstasy (union with God). It is an involuntary act.

Mysticism in the 12th Century

Hildegard of Bingen.

Hildegard of Bingen was born around 1098 into an aristocratic family with important political and social connections with the ruling elites in Bingen. She was literate and was well versed in both science and theology. (Most women were not educated in her day.) She made contributions to the medical field and presented what could be called a “feminist interpretation” of scientific evidence. She held an important place in the scientific culture of her day. She also composed music.

She was the first mystic to discuss Eve and Mary and the role of women in the church. She claimed Eve was the true mother of mankind, and that men and women held equal roles in conception. (Remember, this was back in the day when women were considered to be nothing more than incubators of what the man had to offer her.) She had a vision of a mystical pillar which joined Mother Mary to God.

Saint Bernard of Clairveaux.

Saint Bernard of Clairveaux is one of the most important historical figures of the 12th century. He was born around 1090 and entered Citeaux, the mother house of the Cistercian Order after a spiritual conversion. Citeaux and the Cistercian Order were founded to escape the growing wealth and materialism of the Church. They mimicked the ascetic practices of the Desert Fathers.

Bernard argued that freedom was a gift from God and that it requires man to love God completely. (But because our freedom is a gift, we are not free.) There are four stages of love…

  • self-love
  • the love of God
  • the sweetness of the love of God
  • surrender to God

Mysticism in the 13th Century

This was the time of the growth of urban societies and the rise of the bourgeoisie, which created tremendous change. Mass and the liturgy were formalized. Latin, although it was no longer used by the people, became the formal language of mass, and the priest would face the altar, away from the people, deliberately creating a sort of wall between the people and the Church.

Saint Francis of Assisi.

St. Francis was born around 1182. His father was a rich merchant. After being wounded in a war, Francis made a transformation. He was commanded by God to “rebuild his Church” and he took this to mean he was to rebuild the Church of Saint Damian, which he did.

After a public confrontation with his father, Francis removed all of his clothes and gave them to his father, claiming he no longer wanted the association to money his father represented. He traveled through Central Italy, gathering disciples, and gained approval for his Order. (Pope Innocent III had a vision that it was Francis who saved the Church from falling.)

Important messages:

  • Sanctity of poverty and the renunciation of wealth.
  • An awareness of nature and the presence of God in the world.
  • An emphasis on the manger which represents the humanity and vulnerability of Christ.
  • A new type of teaching to “infidels” who need love. (Rather than raging war against them.)

He was betrayed by his order (they agreed to the owning of property and teaching in universities) and so he withdrew to Mt. Verna where he received the stigmata. Shortly afterward, he wrote "The Canticle of the Sun" while waiting to die.

Dante Alighieri.

Dante was born around 1265 to a patrician family in Florence. When he was 9, he had his first encounter with Beatrice which had a profound and lasting impact on his later life. Because of political factors, Dante was exiled from Florence which was extremely difficult for him. His exile led to the writing of La Vita Nuova and later, The Divine Comedy which provides a guide to the culture and politics of medieval Europe and the Italian city-states of the early 14th century. The Comedy is the pilgrimage of a mystic from sin and despair to a vision of God. The end of The Comedy shows a mystical union with God that is deeply influenced by an Aristotelian worldview.

Jewish Mysticism

This lecture focuses on The Zohar, considered to be one of the most important Kabbalistic texts ever written. No one is sure how to date it. Gershom Scholem claims it was written in late 13th century Castile. More religious scholars claim it was an earlier text. (You run into the same problems with the authors of the New Testament. The religious folks tend to date texts earlier than history scholars.)

Scholem says that Jewish mysticism was far less “feminine” than its Christian counterparts. (For instance, the marriage between soul and God do not take place in Judaism as they do in Christianity, no bridal bed, etc.)

The Zohar says the commandments given to Moses are a mixture of confirmation and denial. (Do this, don’t do that.) It also claims the scriptures can be interpreted in 4 ways:

  • peshat (simple interpretation)
  • remez (allusion)
  • derash (homilitic)
  • sod (mysteries behind the words of sacred texts)

The ten sefiroths are a step by step plan for revealing the divine and are arranged hierarchically from God to man.

  • kether – consciousness of God
  • hokhmah – wisdom of God
  • binah – intelligence
  • hesed – God’s love
  • din – judgement
  • tifereth – God’s beauty
  • sefirah – divine victory
  • hod – glory
  • yesod – justice
  • malkuth – the feminine principle

This is a movement from the unknowable to the knowable (the transcendental to the understandable). Man is the focal point by which emanations of God return to God. One returns to God through repentance (teshubah).

Also important is the doctrine of the seven heavens, seven earths, seven earthly paradises, and seven hells.

The Kabbalah had a significant impact on the West, especially upon the Italian Renaissance (and on Dante). The Kabbalah was an esoteric practice meant only for a few initiates, but it spread throughout the Christian world among scholars in the 14th century. Many of the most important scholars in early modern Europe were deeply influenced by the Kabbalah. The power of letters and numbers also took on significance throughout the West which caused the Kabbalah to become linked to a magical tradition.

Mysticism in Early Modern Europe

In the 16th and 17th centuries, developments in learning (especially in the sciences), the emergence of economies of scale, rapid political centralization, and religious conflict undermined the power of the ancient religious traditions. There was a growing interest in detachment from the world and an increase in mystical activity, despite the growing materialism. Many scholars, even though they were scientists, maintained a deep commitment to transcendence and the divine. People everywhere were searching for a spirituality that could counter the growing materialism.

Mysticism during this period was expressed differently by Catholics and Protestants. Protestants tended to be wary of Catholic mysticism and expressed transcendence as a direct experience of God, usually through scripture.

St. Ignatius Loyola.

St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit society, wrote The Spiritual Exercises which had a strong martial quality.

St. Teresa of Avila.

St. Teresa of Avila, born in 1515 to a family of aristocrats, joined the Carmelite Order which had become a very opulent in her day. She attempted to reform it by making it more ascetic. (The entire Roman Catholic Church was undergoing reform at this time thanks to the Protestant Reformation.) She was hugely influential on the literary world. George Eliot’s Middlemarch, for instance, was heavily patterned on Teresa’s story.

St. John of the Cross.

John of the Cross was born in 1542 and wrote Dark Night of the Soul which explains his mystical experiences and acts as a guide to help others lose their sense of self. He says God can be known in 5 ways:

  • through self-knowledge
  • by seeing the world
  • through faith
  • through the via negativa – going beyond the knowable
  • by union with God

Quick Summary

Mysticism in the West provided authority to those who would not otherwise have it, especially women. Also, mysticism was always on the brink of what was considered heretical. There was the continual threat that a mystic would be turned over to the Inquisition or other authority. What was seen as mystical during one period would have been viewed as heretical by a different period because the difference between heretics and mystics was political.

The Terror of History: Lectures 2-3 (Introductory Lectures)

Western Society is associated with science and reason, but it is also the home of widespread belief in the supernatural, those who wait for the Apocalypse, and repeated acts of barbarism.

Prof. Ruiz says that we Westerners have a deeply held belief in “the terror of history” and it is this belief that is the “underbelly” of Western Society. The belief is that the world is essentially about disorder and emptiness and that human beings are constantly on the edge of doom. Because we see history as terrifying, we try to escape it by various means, including withdrawing through transcendental means or by creating scapegoats out of non-conformists and outsiders, blaming them for the “catastrophe of existence”.

Ruiz explores the terror of history through mysticism, heresy, and apocalyptic movements. These are all forms of cultural and popular history. A conflict that has existed in the West for quite some time is that between the Apollonian and the Dionysian ideal. On the one hand, we have a need for order (Apollonian). On the other, we wish to obliterate the self and become one with the world (Dionysian).

Europe experienced an extraordinary social transformation between 1000 and 1700 which paved the way for mysticism, millenarian agitation and a belief in witchcraft.

In 1000, there was a tripartite hierarchy that was thought to be inspired by God. Society consisted of priests and monks, defenders of society (knights, etc.), and workers (peasants). The economy was primarily agrarian, however towns and cities were just beginning to emerge.

By the 12th century, cities and urban societies were on the rise. This created a shift away from the agrarian economy to commercial activity and the growth of the bourgeoisie. New notions of secular time were also introduced. (Prior to this, people believed the “end of time” was around the corner which is almost impossible for us to understand, today.)

The economic changes of the 12th century created the late medieval crisis which threatened to destroy all developments of the previous centuries. By the late 15th and 16th centuries, the economy was in full recovery. This new understanding of the economy led to capitalism. The new powers of wealth destroyed the social order, and a new social order came into being that was far more inflexible than what had existed in the past.

One of the most important changes was the new attitude toward the poor. The poor used to be considered the select children of Christ, but by 1300, the poor were increasingly persecuted and policed. Political changes also took place leading to the rise of the state which had a huge influence on the making of the “terror of history”. Kings began centralizing power which created new definitions of inclusion and exclusion as well as communal identity.

In order to control the nobility, whose power had been usurped by the kings, the kings made alliances with the bourgeoisie. A state “monopoly of legalized violence” (coined by Max Weber) developed. Taxation, conscription, standing armies and extensive bureaucracies were the instruments for centralized power and the rise of the rational state.

Religion was, of course, the alternative to reason and an escape from the terror of history. All the Abrahamic faiths in the west underwent radical change during this time, and this had a dramatic impact on the Western world.

In the 10th century, the papacy was corrupt and little more than a plaything of the aristocracy. The priests and monks were illiterate and did not observe their vows. Ecclesiastical offices were sold to the highest bidder. And Church involvement with the feudal structure caused problems.

A powerful reform movement took place in the 10th and 11th centuries which led to a rebirth of mysticism as well as heretical and millenarian movements. During this time period, the papacy gained an unchallenged position of authority. By the 14th century, the papacy was challenged by the growing power of kings. This shift in power had dramatic consequences.

The Protestant Reformation led to a permanent split in the Christian world, which led to a new way of thinking about the world. This caused the Catholic Church to restructure its boundaries. Behavior that may have been tolerated prior to the Reformation was now a target for persecution.

The changes between 1000 and 1700 transformed the awareness of God and the world. Courtly love in the 12th century played a role in the development of mystical traditions. There is also a relationship between the Renaissance of the 12th century with the emergence of new heresies. In the 13th century, the Aristotelian worldview had taken hold. Universities and the spread of literacy were also underway. This led to the Scientific Revolution which had a significant impact on European thought and helped shape the fate of magic (and religion, but not as much).

Mysticism is part of high culture. We know about it because people wrote about it, which means they were educated and literate. Heresy can be a part of either high culture or popular culture. Millenarian movements, however, are always part of popular culture.

It is important to always keep in mind that our knowledge of the historical popular culture is tainted by the mediation of high culture. (We learn about the historical popular culture by reading what the high culture has to say about it.)

Mystical Tradition: Lecture 18 – 22 – Western Christian Mysticism – Roman Catholicism

Dr. Johnson provides the most lectures for Western Christian Mysticism in his series, Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity & Islam, because he says it is by far the most diverse.  The more central a religion makes its symbol, the more divisions the religion is going to have. The symbol of Jesus Christ is absolutely central to Christianity, therefore the religion is diverse and often divisive.

Greek had always been the language of the Bible and worship for Christians, but in the west, it was eventually replaced by Latin. Greek in the west, was largely forgotten, which means the traditions associated with the language were also lost. Also, with the fall of the Roman order in the 5th & 6th centuries, the Bishops in Rome became much more centralized and powerful while the power of the Bishops in the east remained regionally based.  Not surprisingly, these changes in the west led to theological and cultural misunderstandings with the east and the result was a schism in 1054. The church was divided into Roman Catholicism in the west and Eastern Orthodoxy in the east.

Monastic Tradition

Thanks to the inspiration of the Desert Fathers, a monastic tradition began in the west.  One of the first was Benedictine Monasticism which was founded by Benedict of Nursia (480-550).  He focused on providing a stable structure for cenobites (those living in monastic communities).  He wanted to strike a balance between “ora et labora” – prayer and work.  He avoided harsh asceticism and said that contemplation was not of value in itself, but rather, common life is of value in itself.

Gregory the Great (540-604) was Pope Gregory I from 590-604.  He was both committed to the monastic life and had mystical experiences.  He wrote, “Scripture is like a river again broad and deep, shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim.”

What typically happens in monasticism is that people live together and grow.  They gain and prosper which makes them lose their radical edge.  That is why monasticism in the west is constantly splitting off into monastic units.  Cistercian monasticism was one of the great reforming traditions.

Bernard of Clairvaoux (1090-1153) is one of the key figures in the spread of Cistercian reform, he was an active sponsor of the Second Crusade, and he helped found the Order of the Knights Templar.  He was also viciously opposed to the development of scholastic theology in the universities (especially Peter Abelard who introduced dialectic into scripture and wanted to make thinking more critical) .  He wrote 86 sermons on The Song of Psalms, and these writings exemplify the emerging mysticism of Western Monasticism which resembled the the interpretation of Jewish Scholars.  Monastic spirituality was primarily about reading scripture historically, allegorically and morally.

William of St. Thierry (1085-1148) sided with Bernard against Abelard.  He provides some of the best examples of an interpretation of scripture known as Lectio Devina.  This was not a scholarly exposition, it was contemplative prayer.

Richard of St. Victor (died in 1173), on the other hand, was more open to Abelard’s approach.  As is true of much of Jewish mysticism and Sufism (Islamic mysticism), Victor represents the movement of the Western tradition toward an emphasis on the ontological union with God and the constraints of the human mind in regards to this union.

Medieval Female Mystics

I found the lecture on female mysticism in the medieval times a little disturbing.

Female mysticism is essentially lacking in almost every single institutionalized religion that exists – this includes Eastern religions.  You have the occasional female sage, but they are few and far between.  They show up in a big way in Roman Catholicism in the middle ages, possibly because women had learned to play the system.  According to Dr. Johnson, they didn’t voice their thoughts on their own.  Their thoughts had to be approved by male confessors, and these male confessors offered heavy instruction on how their thoughts should be voiced.

Dr. Johnson says the reason women were given a voice in the medieval period is because Christianity is one of the few institutionalized religions that maintains a belief in spirit possession.  This belief allowed the marginal and lowly to assert an authoritative place through the claims of spiritual possession.  Women would have had no say otherwise. Claim spiritual possession and you gain power.

Obviously, these women had to be really careful about what they said and how they said it.  Only women who were virgins or widows were allowed to have any say at all.  According to Dr. Johnson, the celibate life was highly attractive to females in the Medieval Ages because women married around the age of 13 and had lots and lots of kids and eventually died in childbirth.  Married life was short and hard.  This made virginity a desirable option.

Religious life was a female’s only hope of a “profession”.  No other options were available to her.  If you were female and wanted an education, you had to enter into the religious life.  And if you wanted any authority whatsoever, you had to have prophetic visions.  If you were female, the only way you could be heard in a patriarchal society was through prophetic visions.

The most well-known female visionaries came from extremely wealthy households.  Which makes you wonder – maybe these females were politically savvy?  Not to say they didn’t have authentic mystical experiences, but maybe the reason these particular females were heard was because they were either virgins or widows and were savvy to the political game?

In Judaism and Islam, marriage and physical erotic love is viewed as a symbol of mysticism.  The same is true in Buddhism.  So at least women are valued in this sense.  In Western Christianity, physical love is taboo.  Why the shift from the Jewish perspective to the Christian perspective? Why are women so severely marginalized?

In Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, Elizabeth Gilbert (The Eat, Love, Pray lady),  says marriage itself was viewed as unholy until around 1215, when the Roman Catholic Church realized it wasn’t going to be able to keep people from marrying.  Instead, it claimed authority over marriage and imposed all kinds of rules and regulations to try and control it.  Marriage had been a secular institution monitored by families and civil courts until the Roman Catholic Church claimed it for its own.  Erotic love, however, remains taboo – especially in Roman Catholicism.

What has always bothered me about Catholicism (both eastern and western forms) is not just the refusal to allow for female leaders in the Church, but the apparent hatred toward females in general (especially in Roman Catholicism).  Male spiritual leaders aren’t allowed to get married and the women that are presented as important to the church are forced, in a sense, to speak through men. I suppose Islam suffers from some of the same phobias as Catholicism (although female Imams do exist) but women are extremely influential in Judaism, Buddhism, Protestant Christianity and other World Religions these days. Why not Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy? 

Mendicants

A Mendicant is a beggar and this tradition arose within Christianity at the same time Sufi wandering beggars appeared.  The two largest Mendican orders are the Franciscans and the Dominicans. Both contained a second order of females and a third order of lay people and were committed to the radical ideal of evangelical poverty.  Instead of withdrawing from life, members of these orders had a working life among the poor.  These orders thrived because highly energetic, frugal people tend to get rich.  So there was a constant struggle to maintain poverty.  The more institutionalized the orders became, the more they thrived.  This was especially problematic for the Franciscan order which split early on.

St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) is the founder of the Franciscans.  He had a vision of Christ crucified and received the stigmata which he bore for the rest of his life.  He wrote very little.  Much of what we understand about St. Francis comes from Bonaventure (1221-1274) who taught at the University of Paris.  He was a Bishop, Cardinal and great mystic.  Bonaventure creates a theological and mystical compression that links St. Francis’ mysticism to that of the mysticism in the East and Islamic spirituality.  It is an emphasis of the heart (Love of God).  At some point, the mind must give up. There is a leap – a passing over.

Dominican spirituality, on the other hand, is very intellectual.  It was founded by Dominic of Calaruega (1170-1221) and is represented by Thomas Aquinas (1200-1280) and his student Albert the Great (1225-1274), and the Rhineland Mystics: Eckhart von Hocheim (Meister Eckhardt 1260-1328), Johannes Tauler (1300-1361), and Henry Suso (1300-1366).  The Rhineland Mystics were all connected with the University of Paris, they were all from the Rhineland, and they were all very intellectual.

Meister Eckhardt used negative theology like Dionysius.  He was extraordinarily bold which got him into trouble as a heretic.  From 1327-1338, he spent much of his time defending his theology in front of inquisitors that wanted to excommunicate him.   What we find in Eckhardt is a truth that the highest form of mysticism and atheism are very closely related.  God is All is very close to God is Nothing.  God is no “thing” – otherness of God is stretched to the point that God’s isness appears as much as God’s abscence.

Johannes Tauler (1300-1361) was a student of Meister Eckhardt and was Martin Luther’s favorite German theologian.  He managed to soften Meister Eckhardt’s emphasis without rejecting Eckhardt.

Henry Suso (1300-1366) claimed the highest point of the mystical life was not about the individual, it was about God.  In order to become aware of God’s presence in other people, we must allow for the passing away of self.

English Mystics of the 14th Century

The most famous of the mystics at this time was the anonymous writer of The Cloud of Unknowing.  This is a 14th century masterpiece.  It borrows from Dionysius the Aeropagite, but we know it is a 14th century work because of its prose.  This presents the Apophatic tradition of the East in Western garb.  It claims that it is not knowledge, but desire and love that penetrates into the divine

Julian of Norwich (1342-1423) is thought to be one of the outstanding mystics of the medieval period.  She was a natural metaphysician who moved easily from what “Is” to what has been brought into being.  She is known for her female language for God and for Jesus and has an outstanding way of presenting this female language which allowed her to break the paternal barriers of language.  For instance, she emphasizes the motherhood in God; the motherhood of grace; and the motherhood of work.

Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471) who wrote The Imitation of Christ is actually from the Netherlands rather than England, but Johnson threw him into this lecture.  Kempis says the meaning of life is to be found in the journey to God.  Suffering is a way to follow in the way of Jesus and involves a personal relationship with Jesus.

Johnson concludes this lecture emphasizing that these writers show us the characteristics of medieval spirituality which is concentrated on the figure/humanity of Jesus.  Jesus IS the way to God.  We don’t get to God by doing what he did, but by accepting, embracing, and living out Jesus’ suffering.

15th & 16th Spanish Mystics

Dr. Johnson claims these are a special group of Christian mystics that came about as part of the counter to the Protestant Reformation. It includes Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) who founded the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and three great mystics…

Francisco de Osuna (1492-1540) is this first of these.  He emphasized the prayer of quiet recollection.  He said the way in is through Christ’s divinity and we come out through his humanity.  His was an experiential mysticism rather than a cognitive mysticism and he had a huge affect on Teresa of Avila who is considered a Doctor of the Church and was part of the Order of Mount Carmel.

Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) suffered from chronic illness and had a vision of hell which inspired her to create a more vigorous Carmelite order than the order she belonged to.  Most of her life was spent founding communities within this order and teaching.  Teresa made a distinction between “busy prayer” and “quiet prayer” and said that the real proof of maturity in mystical life is the actual behavior of the person who is the mystic.  She said there is a mystical betrothal which is the experience of unity, but this doesn’t last.  What lasts is mystical marriage.

Teresa of Avila was friends with John of the Cross (1542-1591).  With Teresa, he helped found the Discalced Carmelites which was the reform of the Order of Mount Carmel (mentioned above).  He is also considered a Doctor of the Church.  His writing is Apophatic (Nothing, Nothing, Nothing) which is reminiscent of The Cloud of Unknowing.  There is a point in spiritual development when approaching God feels exactly the same as approaching nothing.  He calls this the dark night of the soul.  Union with God is not through knowledge.  Knowledge is “nada, nada, nada” (nothing, nothing, nothing).  It is through the embrace of the heart – the giving of self completely to God in love.

Losing My Religion by William Lobdell

Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in American and Found Unexpected Peace is an interesting read.  Bill Lobdell is so honest I almost felt like a voyeur reading his book!  Plus, he was telling my story!  All the way up until the part where he says he doesn’t believe in God.  But even that is really my story.  I don’t believe in God. There, I said it!! But that doesn’t really say anything.  I’ll explain, later.   But first, about Lobdell…

In his 20s, Lobdell, a journalist for the Los Angeles Times, was experiencing personal problems, including a failed marriage.  As often happens, Christian evangelists took him under their wing and promised him a better life through Christ. And it did help. At least it seemed to. But later, Lobdell wasn’t sure whether to attribute it to maturity or to the church. Whatever it was, life got better for him – until he started reporting on religion in America. While hoping to find people who were genuinely living out their faith, what he discovered was that religious institutions, and those who run them, are often far less ethical than corporate firms on Wall Street.  Anyone who has sincerely latched on to Christianity in the hope of creating a better world, and better way of life for all, can tell you how difficult is to let go – especially when most of your friends encourage you to “keep the faith”.  It’s not really the faith you don’t want to let go, it’s the hope of a better future that you think faith brings you.  But once you let it go, as Lobdell discovered, it is extremely freeing.

Lobdell’s account of losing his faith is refreshing!  What I especially love is the response it has evoked from both theists and atheists!  Lobdell discounts the “religious” fanaticism of such folks as Christopher Hitchens (even refers to Hitchens by name), yet Christopher Hitchens has a blurb on the back of the book applauding Lobdell for his “evolution”!  That cracks me up!!! Not that Lobdell hasn’t evolved, but rather that Hitchens might do well to take the same introspective account of his own beliefs. Other reviews are by leaders in various church organizations who encourage church leaders to take Lobdell’s account to heart. Amen to that!!  The back of his book kind of makes it seem like Lobdell’s soul is up for grabs and both the atheists and theists want it!

The reason I started blogging back in 2005, was to explore my issues with Christianity.  (My first post was entitled “Belief Systems.")  The vast majority of this blog is about my gradual deconversion. I think saying “I don’t believe in God”, while freeing, doesn’t actually mean anything. (And also why saying, “I believe in God”, doesn’t mean anything, either.)

I grew up in the Methodist Church, but many of my friends, especially by the time I got to high school, were fundamentalist Christians.  When I was about 10, I had one of those transcendental experiences that is difficult to describe.  So I won’t even try.  Supposedly 30% of us have had similar experiences so you either know what I’m talking about or you don’t. Suffice it to say, it had a huge influence on the way I viewed life.  What the experience essentially communicated was that everything was OK, even if it was all a mess; and that people were all OK, they just needed to be understood.  From the very beginning, that experience conflicted with what I was being taught in church, and especially with what my fundamentalist friends tried to get me to believe.

During my sophomore year of high school, a dear friend committed suicide. Most everyone claimed that this poor boy had been sent to Hell because of it.  If everyone just needed to be understood, then why would God send a mis-understood, beautiful teenage boy to Hell?   No way!   I became conflicted by what the Bible said and my inner understanding. This conflict, combined with my friends’ death, sent me into a deep depression for years.   A few years later, I started dating a very popular, charismatic and religiously influential young man who helped me become “Saved!”.    (I wrote about this in 2006, “Suicide, Hell and a Faith Journey”.)

I was a little younger than Lobdell when I was “saved”.  I was 17,  Lobdell was in his 20s.  Like Lobdell, I can’t say for certain that I was actually “saved”, because it occurred under social coercion. My boyfriend encouraged me to go with him to his Baptist youth group where we had several mutual friends. The youth minister gave an inspiring story which was about an anonymous person, but I knew it was about me.  I had had a very deep discussion with my boyfriend about the doubts my friend’s suicide had created the weekend prior to the youth group gathering.  I was both extremely angry with my boyfriend for having betrayed my trust, but also touched by the compassion of the minister.  After the sermon, my boyfriend took me to the minister who backed me into a corner by asking me if I wanted to be saved.  What was I going to say?  No?  I was 17 and starving for meaning.  If salvation would give me meaning, of course I wanted to be saved!  So he told me to repeat after him, which I did, and that was that!  Not particularly convincing, but he assured me, with much enthusiasm,  that I was “Saved!”.   At a separate service, I was presented as “Saved!” to the entire, extremely large, church community.  I did refuse to join the church, however.

It’s wonderful being the center of attention and the reason for so much happiness! And it’s great to feel like you truly “belong”.   But that elation eventually became a huge crash!   Like Lobdell, I had way too many questions.

By college, I was experiencing a heavy agnostic period.   I had several friends die in drunken car accidents and another one from a cancerous brain tumor. That’s when I started asking why God let all of the things happen that he let happen.  I’d wander off to the lake, by myself, to have chats with God, who never answered my questions.  One night I got so angry that i threw my beer can at Him. I got married to an atheist and that was the end of my church going days for several years until the marriage ended.

I remained deeply bothered by the absence of God in my life.  When I met my current husband, who was a very religious Catholic at the time, I was opening up to religion again, but of a different sort.  He and I started attending a wonderful Methodist class called Spiritual Paths.  It was kind of like a book group.  We’d all read spiritual books from various spiritual traditions and then discuss them.  When our relationship started getting more serious, I began attending Religious Education classes with him at his Catholic Church.  Every Sunday, we’d go to the Methodist Church group then head over to the Catholic Church for worship service and RCIA.

Neither group suggested I worship the God that I’d thrown that beer can at.  Both presented God as an internal knowing, which I now realize is technically an atheism.  Theism is about a God “out there” that is separate from His creation, while atheism is “against” belief in an external God  (a-theism).   Anyway, Catholicism seemed like the next logical step.   This was Lobdell’s path,too.   He didn’t take the agnostic route but felt he had outgrown the evangelical church and began RCIA classes at the Catholic Church.  (His wife was Catholic.)

My husband and I got married.  I became Catholic.  And shortly thereafter, the Dallas priest sex scandal broke out on the front of Big D magazine and later in the Dallas Morning News.   Several of the accused priests had been priests at our church!  I don’t remember, now, but this sex scandal may have been related to the one that broke in California that Lobdell talks about.  Anyway,  Lobdell said he was shocked that nothing was mentioned about the scandal at his church when it became known, That was my experience, too. (I’ve written about this previously, as well.) This stuff was front page news and not a word was said during services the Sunday after the article appeared.  Not one word!!  I was totally outraged, and my husband was shocked at my outrage.  He said it didn’t occur to him that something should have been said during the service!  That’s a Catholic for you!!   I really thought people would be upset and and would demand to know how the church was going to safeguard our children.    I went directly to the RCIA leader (who was also the Church service coordinator), tearfully demanding to know why nothing was said.  She told me she was upset, too, and she understood my outrage.  Church leadership had been advised by their attorneys to say nothing.  Turned out there was a huge cover-up going on, but we moved to Southern California in the middle of the mess.  And what a mess. The RCIA director moved to Boston where the mess followed her there, too, poor woman.

According to Lobdell, the mess is everywhere and he’s probably right.  He talks about sitting in on a meeting of parishioners who had just been told by their priest that he was leaving the parish because he committed a sexual act with a child many years ago.  What’s amazing is that this priest was Father Mike from San Francisco Solano in Rancho Santa Margarita.  That was the parish we attended when we first lived in California and Father Mike was our parish priest.  I had no idea that this information came out about him!   I taught catechism classes there for several years, but became extremely uncomfortable with the church.  I think my discomfort was was with Catholicism in general, not San Francisco Solano in specific. We left San Francisco Solano and gave Santiago de Compostela in Lake Forest a try, but that made me even more uncomfortable.  So in 1998, after 8 years of being heavily involved in Catholicism, I had decided that I had irreconcilable differences with the Church and was prepared to leave it, even if that meant my husband was going to leave me.  I really thought that was a possibility and had prepared myself for it by finding a job and another place to live, just in case.  One of the things we fought about most in our first 8 years of marriage was my discomfort with the Catholic Church.  Thankfully, he was willing to give the Rancho Santa Margarita Methodist Church a try and that was our church home until  we moved back to Texas.  The stuff about Father Mike came out about two years after we were already back in Texas.

According to Lobdell, what happened at the meeting about Father Mike’s abrupt departure was that the parishioners defended father Mike.  They even talked about naming the Parish Hall after him!!  Can you imagine?  Lobdell said only one man stood up to defend the victim.

Covering all of the terrible scandals within various Christian organizations is what finally caused Lobdell to lose his faith.  It took him 3 years to admit to himself that he no longer believed in God, and that when he finally was able to simply say, “I don’t believe in God”, it was a relief.

That actually made me catch my breath.   Sometimes I wish I could just tell people I don’t believe in God because that would be easy – a nice solid bundled up package I could give them. What I had put my faith in, however, was the Christian institution.  What I quit believing in was the Christian institution.  For years, I tried to find a church home, and finally realized nothing worked for me anymore.  I even tried Unitarian Universalism which didn’t work, either, because there were way too many fundamentalist atheists (followers of people like Hitchens) who made UU feel like the flip side of the same exact coin.  A full pendulum swing, perhaps, but still the exact same pendulum.  I haven’t been a member of a church in over 10 years!

But do I not believe in God?  That doesn’t really make any sense to me. I don’t believe in God. That’s true.But I don’t not believe in God, either.  Which isn’t to say I believe in God!!!  Bare with me, here…

The problem is this:  When someone asks you if you believe in God, what they are really asking is whether or not you believe in the existence of God. That’s a ridiculous question when you think about it.  If you answer yes or no, it doesn’t matter.  Whichever way you answer, your answer merely points back to the question itself which is based on a faulty logical assumption and therefore answers nothing.

Consider this (from Joseph Campbell):

  • John runs like a deer.   simile.
  • John is a deer.  metaphor.

The metaphor says that John runs so swiftly that John is a deer.  We know he isn’t a deer.  Yet in a very real sense, metaphorically speaking, he is a deer.  He’s not like a deer. He is a deer. God is a metaphor in that same sense. To ask someone who understands God as metaphor if they believe in God is to misunderstand the context of their understanding.  Belief is always based on logic -” it’s either this” or “it’s that”.   John is either a deer or John is not a deer.  He can’t be both. Metaphor “is” and “is not”.   John is a deer and is not a deer.  He “is”, “is not”, and “is” and “is not” – all at the same time.

Think about it.  Imagine an olympian at a track meet who completely takes your breath away by his grace, beauty and artistry during the race. When you experience that breathtaking athletic poetry in motion and exclaim, that runner is a deer, you have genuinely experienced that runner as “deer”.  Does that likewise mean you believe the runner is actually a deer?  NO.  But it doesn’t mean you think the runner is like a deer, either.  Your experience of the runner has transcended his physical reality.  Belief (either/or thinking), doesn’t apply to that particular experience.    It doesn’t mean you’ve suddenly become irrational. It’s just that a rational explanation cannot explain that particular experience you’ve had of  the runner.

Some of us have moments of gratitude that bring tears to our eyes or have literally been brought to our knees by intense sorrow. Those sorts of  experiences cannot be rationally expressed!  Some of us call the ground of such experience God for want of a better term.  But God, in this context, is understood metaphorically, not literally, and need not be called God.  No belief is required at all.

I fully understand Lobdell’s lack of belief.  Once you’ve lost it, you’ll never get it back, either.  And why would you want it back?  Belief is like bondage and you don’t fully realize how imprisoned you are until you break free.   But too often, people don’t break free  – they simply trade out one belief system for another.  There are plenty of atheists and theists who cannot understand this at all because they are trapped inside the system.  But there are also plenty of people who tentatively label themselves as theist or atheist, but fully understand that belief or disbelief in God ultiately doesn’t mean a thing – at least not in the absolute sense.

The Church told us it held the secrets to meaning for thousands of years and is still dearly holding on to that claim.  Scientism attempts to denounce the Church’s hold on that claim by assuring us that it holds the true meaning.  Both demand belief in what it is they are selling and some of us have simply quit buying!