Mystical Tradition: Lecture 23-24 – Protestant Christian Mysticism

More notes on Christian Mysticism from Dr. Johnson’s Mystical Tradition lecture series

There had long been a tradition of reform in Roman Catholicism, so the desire of the Protestant Reformation to reform the Church was not new.  What was new was that the Reformation challenged the papacy, the priesthood, and the sacraments.  These had never been seriously challenged before.  What was especially different was that the two-tiered Christianity that had existed almost from the Church’s earliest beginnings – that lay people live one sort of life and the way of perfection is reserved for those who live in special houses and take vows of chastity and are freed from domestic distractions in order to live a life of prayer – was being challenged.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a German and Augustinian monk who called for a return to the fundamentals and basic realities of Christian life: faith and scripture.  There are no monks in scripture, so there shouldn’t be any monks.  The Pope has no right to annul marriages based on scripture.  Nor is there any scriptural reason for pastors to be celibate.  He wanted to completely disregard Aristotle whom he viewed as a heathen teacher and ruled Christianity more than did Christ. He challenged almost all of the structural elements that made up the Medieval Church.

The goal of the reformation was not meant to be destructive, however.  It was meant to be constructive.  It called for perfection among all Christians – not just the elite few.  It also called for more rigor in Christianity.

Martin Luther was deeply indebted to early mystic writers.  However, in a sense, what Protestant Reformers were trying to do was eradicate mysticism from religion.  But what basically ended up happening was the extension of ascetic ideals to all believers.  The Reformation also exposed social and religious tensions that were very difficult to negotiate.

Martin Luther did not write in a systematic fashion, but his student, Philip Melanthon (1497-1560) organized Luther’s reform into a systematic theology – a Lutheran scholasticism that was insufficiently radical for the Anabaptists and others, including Johann Arndt (1551-1621) who argued that external attention to doctrine, such as the Doctrine of Atonement, was insufficient.  Instead attention needs to be paid to the work of Christ in human hearts.

Mystical teachers arose in Protestantism in response to a personal and transcendent relationship to God that went beyond public worship and theology.  Jakob Boehme (1575-1624) was a mystic in the Lutheran tradition who had mystical experiences from an early age.  His writings included Gnostic/Neoplatonic elements.  For Boehme, Christianity is inward Christianity.  Inward Christianity consists of the path back to God through Christ through knowledge of self that leads to being regenerated in the image of Christ.

Pietism was a movement that began in Germany with the publication of Pia Desidera *1675) by Philipp Jakob Spencer (1635-1705).  He issued a 6 point agenda for reform which caught fire and led to the spread Pietism in north and middle Germany in the 18th century.  In reaction to this movement, the German Awakening took place in the 19th century, spearheaded by August Tholuck.  “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”  In the German Awakening, worldly pleasure was celebrated more than rejected which was something completely new within Christianity, especially since medieval times.  The enjoyment of life was understood as given to us by God and therefore considered to be an intrinsic part of Christian life.

Friedrich von Bodelschwingh (1831-1910) taught that the poor are friends to Christians.  His view on the poor was completely different view than had ever been previously presented. Where Christianity often talks about being among the poor or becoming poor, Bodelschwingh said the poor serve two functions:  1) an opportunity to practice charity  and 2) a challenge to our own sense of self-entitlement and self-indulgence.  The German Awakening marks the beginning of a more worldly Christianity that characterizes the 20th century.

Back in England, William Law (1696-1761) defended the Anglican faith against Deism.  He wrote a classic of Anglican spirituality called A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728) where he says a devout life leads to happiness more than it does its opposite.  He also wrote The Spirit of Love (1754) which was more explicitly mystical. John Wesley (1703-1791) and Charles Wesley (1707-1788) were disciples of William Law. They began a renewal within the Anglican Church which eventually led to a new denomination altogether based on a specific method of being Christian (Methodism).

John Wesley said that faith is not an opinion.  It is the ability to pierce the veil and it is also an inner experience.

A string of opinions is no more Christian faith than a string of beads is of Christian holiness… The faith by which the promise is attained is a power wrought by the Almighty in an immortal spirit inhabiting a house of clay to see through that veil into the world of spirits, into things invisible and eternal: a power to discern those things which with eyes of flesh and blood no man hath seen or can see either by reason of their nature, which (though they surround us on every side) is not perceivable by those gross senses or by reason of their distance as being yet afar off in the bosom of eternity.  To believe (in the Christian sense) then, is to walk in the light of eternity and to have a clear sight of, and confidence in, the Most High, reconciled to me through the Son in his love.”

Charles Wesley wrote significant and beautiful hymns that show up in worship services in all traditions today.

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? 


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.

Mystical Tradition: Lectures 15-17 – Eastern Christian Mysticism

My husband cannot understand how I can listen to Dr. Johnson’s lectures (Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity & Islam)  for hours on end.  He says it would drive him crazy.  I guess it probably does sound completely monotonous when you don’t have an interest in the topics he covers, but I find it completely engrossing.  I’m cramming in as much as I possibly can right now because the time I have to put toward lectures these days is extremely rare.

I took so many notes on Christian mysticism that I had to purchase a second spiral notebook to continue.  What I find interesting is that I am far more interested right now in Jewish Mysticism and Islamic mysticism than I was in Western Christian mysticism.  It’s not that Western Christian mysticism doesn’t interest me, but I am already quite very familiar with most of it. I’ve read essays or books from almost every Western Christian mystic Dr. Johnson cites.  Can’t say the same thing for Eastern Christian Mysticism, however.  Those lectures were extremely fascinating to me because I know so little about Eastern Orthodoxy. 

I went through Dr. Dreyfus Berkeley webcast class on Existentialism and Literature a few years back.  He claimed that Dostoevsky’s answer to the seemingly unsolvable predicament Ivan Karamazov presents (Grand Inquisitor, etc.) as being Russian Orthodox Christianity.  I had a feeble grasp on why that might be at the time, but have a much better understanding now, after Dr. Johnson’s lectures. Please bare with me as I make my way through those notes…

I suppose I should start with the Desert Fathers and Mothers who were influential on both Western and Eastern Christian mysticism. Desert spirituality came about during the 4th century.  It emphasized askesis (asceticism). This is the disciplined programming of the self on the way of moral transformation. For these people, the martyr was the highest expression of Christianity.  There were two sorts of martyrdom: red martyrdom was the actual spilling of blood while white martyrdom was a life of asceticism and prayer.  When Constantine made Christianity the religion of Rome, Christianity became a path to wealth. This is when the monks fled to the desert and became hermits (lived completely alone), anchorites (semi-hermitical existence – lived completely alone except to pray and worship with others) and cenobites (those who have pulled away from the world but live in communities). This is the beginnings of the monastic tradition. Purification of the passions was more important than physical asceticism. Humility and lack of judgment were extremely important. They did not exercise a “holier than thou” form of asceticism.

After the 4th Century, Christianity in the East developed very differently than Christianity in the West.  This is because a lot was happening in the West in the 4th and 5th centuries that wasn’t happening in the East. Rome shifted from being the seat of imperial power to becoming the centralized power of the Pope. Latin replaced Greek so Christians in the west were increasingly forgetting their Greek and became more and more cut off from the wisdom of the East that had preceded them. Also, Barbarian invasions threatened the order of society, including ancient learning.

Meanwhile, none of this was happening in the East. A slogan that persists in Eastern Orthodoxy today is “hagia pardosis”: sacred tradition. The east maintained a continuity of its past that the west did not. Greek remained the language of scripture (it became Latin in Rome) and Greek theologians were well aware of their past.  Also, unlike the west, the Patriarchy in the East was regional, not absolute.

In Eastern Christian mysticism, the role of scripture was fundamental, especially the Psalms.  The spirituality of the desert had a very strong influence over Eastern Christian spirituality and there remained a Platonic world view.  This didn’t impose upon the thinking in the east because it had continuously existed. (Unlike in the west where it was “rediscovered” in the middle ages.)

So, what was this thinking?  Plato made a distinction between phenomenal (perceivable by the senses) and noumenal (only known by the mind).  The distinction was between matter and ideas.  This distinction applied ontologically (to being), espitemologically (to knowledge), and axiologically (to worth or value).

Ontologically, it was understood that the realm of spirit is more real.  Things that corrupt and die are less real. Epistemologically, truth is only at the level of Spirit. In other words, it is only at the level of real being.  (Things that corrupt and die are not as real as Spirit.)  Another way of stating this is that there is a difference between truth and opinion. (Reality and perception.) Axiologically – spirit is better than how we find ourselves.

Humanity is a necessary part of experience, but it must be transcended. This is very similar to the Jewish thinker, Philo of Alexandria, who read the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Bible) allegorically.  For instance, Philo could read the story of Moses’ escape out of Egypt at a literal level as escaping the slavery of Egypt and entering freedom as a people of God of Israel.  But he could also read it as being the slavery of the person who is locked in the passions.  Embodiment itself could be viewed as slavery.  (Again, this is very similar to what is presented in The Book of Hebrews.)

The idea of Apocatastasis remained fairly stable within Eastern Christianity.  This is the idea that eventually there will be a restoration of all spiritual creatures, including the devil, in God.  (It is this idea that is central to Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.) It was originally developed by Origin of Alexander (184-254) who is considered to be one of the great geniuses of Christianity.  He influenced almost all subsequent Christian thinkers.  He considered himself to be Orthodox and against gnosticism, but he definitely pushed the boundaries.  His thoughts were very closely related to Gnosticism.   He was eventually deemed as heretical, but not until the 6th Century, which was centuries after he actually lived.

The Cappadocian Fathers (Cappadocia was an area in Turkey) were also extremely influential.  These were Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, and Gregory of Nanzienzen. They helped develop the Trinity and thoughts on the Holy Spirit.  Gregory of Nyssa was a mystic and provides a precursor to The Cloud of Unknowing

What does it mean that Moses entered the darkness and then saw God in it? …  Leaving behind everything that is observed, not only what sense comprehends but also what intelligence thinks it sees, it keeps on penetrating deeper until by the intelligence’s yearning for understanding it gains access to the invisible and the incomprehensible, and there it sees God.  This is the true knowledge of what is sought; this is the seeing that consists in not seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge, being separated on all sides by incomprehensibility as by a kind of darkness.  Wherefore John, the sublime, who penetrated into luminous darkness, says “No one has ever seen God”, thus asserting that knowledge of the divine essence is unattainable not only by men but also by every intelligent creature.”  (Life of Moses, Gregory of Nyssa)

Another feature of Eastern Christian Spirituality is  the Hesychastic tradition.  Hesychia means “stillness” or “quiet”.   Teachers in Eastern Christianity taught people to pray in silence. There was also a belief in theosis which was the process of becoming divine.  For the Eastern Christian mystic, mysticism is the realization of the process of divination.

An important 5th-6th century author was Pseudo-Dionysius.  (Also known as Dionysius Aeropagite.)  He was extremely important for theology in both the East and the West.  He wrote Mystical TheologyThe Divine Names; Celestial Hierarchy; and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy.  We don’t actually know who he was or where he lived or what his exact dates were.  All we know is that he criticized the anthropomorphism (attribution of human traits to a deity) that is present in all propositions concerning the divine.  He explains that the names of God are metaphors that cannot be taken literally.  If we accept “God is good” or “God is wise”, or “God is creator” literally, God becomes captive to our language.  This is a form of idolatry.  In order to avoid this, one must not make positive statements of God (ketaphasis – affirmation or assertion).  Apophasis (denial or negation) is more important.  In other words, God is X or Y AND God is not X or Y – that’s the only way to maintain the otherness of God (which was likewise important in the Merkabah mysticism).

From The Divine Names

If God cannot be grasped by the mind or sense perception, if he is not a particular thing, how do we know him?  this is something we must inquire into.  It might be more accurate to say that we cannot know God in his nature, since this is unknowable and is beyond the reach of mind or reason.   But we know him from the arrangement of everything because everything is, in a sense, projected out from him, and this order possesses certain images and semblances of his divine paradigms.  We therefore approach that which is beyond all as far as our capacities allow us and we pass by way of the denial and the transcendence of all things and by way of the cause of all things.  God is therefore known in all things and distinct from all things.  He is known through knowledge and through the unknowing of him.  There is conception, reason, understanding, touch, perception, opinion, imagination, name and many other things.  On the other hand, he cannot be understood, words cannot contain him, and no name can lay hold of him.  He is not one of the things that are and he cannot be known in any of them.  He is all things in all things and he is nothing among things.  He is known to all from all things and he is known to no one from anything.

This shows an ontological link with God but an epistemological gap.  God goes beyond the human capacity of knowing. He speaks of the radiance of God as a dark cloud.  This is akin to the ascent of Moses to God in Merkabah mysticism.

According to Plotinus (205-270), everything that is of God participates in God.  Christ represents the full offer of the divine in creation. Christ is the divination of human nature (theosis).

In the 7th Century comes Maximus the Confessor (580-662).  There was a controversy (called the Monothelite Controversy) over whether or not in Jesus there was a real human will or whether it was totally subsumed by divine will.  Maximus held that there was a real human will.  This is standard Eastern Christian stuff.  He was arrested, tried, exiled and maimed for saying this. Maximus wrote, “In becoming incarnate, the word of God teaches us the mystical knowledge of God.” It is through the human image we reach God.  Paradoxically, the closer one gets to God the more one comes in touch with one’s own humanity and humility.  The process of divinization is ontological, not epistemological.

John Climacus (579-649) taught that discipleship is a process of ascent.  He wrote, “Stillness of body is the accurate knowledge and management of one’s feeling and perceptions… The powers of heaven join in living and worship with the man who practices stillness in his soul.”  In this sense, hesychia is a profound state of concentration on what is not there.  It is a movement of the heart, not of the mind.

     Words are not important – when man has found the Lord, he no longer has use for words when he is praying, for the Spirit Himself will intercede for him with groans that cannot be uttered.

     Let the remembrance of Jesus be present with your every breath.  Then indeed you will appreciate the value of stillness.

Sounds like meditation to me!!  The Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”) doesn’t become popular within the Hesychastic tradition until it is more fully developed by Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) in the 14th century.  Then it becomes virtually synonymous with the Hesychastic tradition.

Mystical Tradition: Lecture 14 – Gnosticism

Dr. Johnson (Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity & Islam) offered an entire lesson on the Gnostics and my notes barely touch on all he covered.  But I found the following to be especially interesting…

Not much is known about the Gnostics.  There is a wide variety and diversity of compositions attributed to them with the only single unifying element being “revelation”.  We don’t know if there was an actual Gnostic community or not.  We don’t know why these compositions were written or who was reading them or what their purpose was.  What is most important about Gnosticism is how it helped shape early Christianity through the orthodox response to it.  The Patristic authors (“Church Fathers”) of Christianity, in response to Gnosticism, created a public, historical, exoteric religious tradition…

  • a closed cannon of scripture (Old & New Testaments) were the only texts allowed to be studied.
  • a rule of faith/creed was established.
  • a public apostolic succession of bishops as guarantor of faithful teaching was established.

Interestingly, the early Church Fathers’ main objection to Gnosticism was that it was a philosophical sect, but this appears to be untrue based on the Gnostic literature now available to us.  Very little of the extensive collection found at the Nag Hammadi library contains philosophical writings.  It is likely that the early Church Fathers (Iranaeus, Tertullian, etc.)  were creating Gnosticism according to their own interpretation of Gnosticism, not according to what it actually was.  Yet, the early Church was shaped, in large part, as a reaction to this understanding of Gnosticism.  What’s ironic is that the Christian tradition, handed down to us by the early Church fathers, became increasingly philosophical.

In Gnosticism, the body and community is not viewed as particularly important.  It is the salvation of the individual, through revelatory knowledge, that is the primary connecting thread of the literature.  Beyond that, the literature varies significantly.

Mystical Tradition: Lecture 13 – Symbols in Christian Mysticism

Continuing with notes from Timothy Luke Johnson’s Great Courses lecture series,  Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity & Islam

Christian mysticism, in general, is far more diverse than Jewish mysticism.  This is because the figure of Jesus complicates the understanding of God, the scriptures and even prayer.  For Jews, Jesus was at best a failed Messiah.  Things were no better for the Jews after he came.  In fact, they were much worse.

Christianity is based primarily on what was written about Jesus.  Why was so much written on him if his public ministry was not exactly impressive?  He was only in the public 3 years, maybe as little as 1 year.  His teaching was non-systematic and he didn’t lay out a systematic teaching on anything. His success was minimal.  He was betrayed, denied and abandoned by all of his followers.  His death on the cross was a stumbling block because it was the means of punishment for petty criminals, not Messiahs.

Even Paul, the Apostle agrees that the cross is a stumbling block to Jews and a matter of ridicule and foolishness for Greeks.  (1 Cor. 1:23 “but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”).  Jesus is not the founder of Christianity in the same sense that Moses and Muhammed are founders of Judaism and Islam.  He didn’t teach a noble path like the Buddha, either.  Christianity exists because it is written that Jesus is Lord.  He is Messiah because he is Lord. He shares God’s light and is the very embodiment of the divine.  “God was in Christ” is understood ontologically.  (Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being, becoming, existence or reality as well as the basic categories of being and their relations.) Jesus does not act in a powerful way.  He is regarded as a revelation of God. This is similar to the Jewish tzaddik, but the difference is that this is not a marginal conviction.  It is a central one.

Christianity is completely exoteric in the sense that the salvation happens as the result of an historical event.  A real event happens outside of the believer and the believer accepts this event which changes the structure of the believer’s existence.  Also, Jesus becomes the model for true humanity.

Christians participate in Christ.  They are in union with God through the mediation of the Holy Spirit.  The Eucharist is also understood ontologically.

In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus is a prophet and a mystic.  He is always at prayer when mystical things happen to him.  As a mystic, he is the path toward God.

A substantial number of books in the Bible are attributed to Paul, who never physically met Jesus, but claimed to have a mystical experience of him.

From Paul, 2 Corinthians 12:1-5…

I must boast; there is nothing to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord.  I know a man in Christ who 14 years ago was caught up to the third heaven – whether in the body or out of the body, I do not know, God knows.  And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know.  God knows – and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.  On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf, I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.  Though if I wish to boast, I shall not be a fool, for I shall be speaking the truth.

Paul is borrowing from Merkabah mysticism.  He has extraordinary mystical experiences involving the risen Lord which allows him to claim he has a very strong relationship with the crucified Jesus.  Galatians 2:20…

I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me… The world has been crucified to me and I to the world.  Henceforth let no man trouble me for I bare on my body the marks of Jesus.

The marks he bares are known as stigmati – the wounds of Jesus.  This shows up frequently in Christian mysticism.

Paul views the community as the body of Christ.  1 Corinthians 12:12…

Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For by one spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

This is the mystical body of Christ, a common symbol in Christian mysticism.

Paul also says we should “Pray without ceasing”.  1 Thessalonians 5:17.  Much of Christian mysticism is focused on how to actually do this.

It is understood that Jesus becomes increasingly “Son-like” through his obedience to God. The moment of death, subsequently, becomes the opening to divine life.  Discipleship is based on this pattern and is understood as a movement/pilgrimage.  Externally, it is described as a journey, but this refers to internal transformation.  Disciples are on their way to a heavenly homeland with Christ as the pioneer of their faith.  Their goal is not the fiery place full of fear.  Their goal is where Jesus lives and they are destined to go there if they follow him in obedience.

The Book of Revelation describes the classical ascent, like that described in Jewish Merkabah mysticism.  (Along with Hebrews, the Book of Revelation establishes a primary mysticism of Christianity.)  Human experience on earth is intricately linked to heavenly realities.   Revelation 1:9, 12-15

I… share with you in Jesus the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance…  Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and a golden girdle round his breast; his head and his hair were as white as wool, white as snow, his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters.

This is the vision of a resurrected Jesus that is very similar to the vision Ezekiel had of the heavenly throne chariot.  It goes on, Revelation 4:1-2…

After this I l looked and lo in heaven an open door!  And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said “Come up hither, and I will show you what must take place after this.”  At once I was in the spirit, and lo, a throne in heaven, with one seated on the throne!

This describes the heavenly palace, hekel, the sea of glass, and the heavenly throne – all symbols from Jewish Merkabah mysticism.  But what is different is the presence of the resurrected Jesus.  Revelation 5:6 –

And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into [all] the earth.

This is the recasting of the Jewish Merkabah in light of the resurrected Jesus.

The Schizophrenic Split

I commented to Carl that I am more suspicious of Western Orthodoxy than traditional Eastern Orthodoxy because Western Orthodoxy has attempted to merge the abstract values of Greek rationalism with the Hebrew God. I’m with the Existentialists as far as this goes – the absolute values associated with Greek rationalism are completely incompatible with the individuality inherent in the ancient Hebrew notion of “God”.

Carl asked:

Do you think the eastern church does not attempt to integrate Greek philosophy with the Christian revelation? Do you think Christians should have nothing to do with the thought of Plotinus and the other Neoplatonists? I’m not trying to bait you, I’m genuinely curious as to where you’re coming from. Brian McLaren, in his most recent book, A New Kind of Christianity, makes a similar argument that we need to deconstruct the unwieldy integration of Greco-Roman philosophy and New Testament spirituality that accrued over the early years of Christianity. Are you familiar with his argument, and is that pretty much where you’re coming from?

My response:

Karen Armstrong said that when the Eastern Orthodox Church split off from the Roman Catholic Church early on, it opted not to attempt to merge Greek rationalism with Christian theology. Armstrong said that the Eastern Church (which was a large part Greek) had “been there, done that” for centuries already and was fully aware of the flaws. The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand was just coming into contact with Greek rationalist thought and couldn’t get enough of it. Almost all of the theology of the Middle Ages was an attempt to merge Greek philosophy into Christian thought. Of course, there were elements of this already with Paul since he was a Helenized Jew. But essentially, the Eastern Orthodox church developed very differently than the Roman Catholic Church over the years because it didn’t have the same enthusiasm for Greek rationalism that the Roman Catholic Church had.

Dostoevsky, (whom I consider to be a Christian mystic), was one of the first to recognize the unresolvable nature of the merger. By his lifetime, it wasn’t just affecting the Western world, it was affecting the entire world and making its way into Russian Orthodoxy, too. Dostoevsky was very concerned about this. He felt the way out of the problem was through the traditional Russian/Eastern Orthodox Church. (This conflict and the potential way out of it is the theme of The Brothers Karamazov. Existentialism is largely about the unresolvable nature of this conflict, too.)

I’m not a philosopher, so I’m not sure if Neoplatinism is the primary target of concern or not. The specific problem, as I understand it, is this: the Hebrew faith was focused on maintaining Hebrew individuality in the face of diversity. Therefore, the God of the Hebrews stressed a value system based on individuality. The Greek rationalists created an abstract value system that was supposedly attainable by all human beings. The two exist independently just fine. But when you assign this abstract value system to the individual value system of the Hebrew God, you’ve got an incompatibility. The Western world has been trying to solve this incompatibility for centuries, but there is essentially no way out of it. It doesn’t just affect Christianity, it affects all of Western society and pretty much the entire world because western thought has had such a heavy influence globally.

What you end up with is lots of religious hubris (and anti-religious hubris), holier than thou problems, my way is right for me and is right for you, a lack of concern for the environment, and existential malaise (doomsday Christians looking forward to the rapture and doomsday environmentalists, for instance.) We have trouble fully living in the world because we’ve been trying to reconcile a “schizophrenic split” that cannot be reconciled.

I’m not familiar with Brian McLaren, so am not familiar with his argument. It is my feeling that this is something we can transcend, but it is not something we can go back and undo.

Paul’s Radical Views

My husband and I have been attending a Methodist Church and gave Adult Sunday School a try.  It was actually quite interesting.  The class has been going through a series with Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan.  Today the lecture was given by John Dominic Crossan on Paul’s view of women.

Remember this from Galatians 3:28?

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free man, male nor female; for you are all one in Christ.

I don’t profess to know what Paul meant by this, but Crossan makes an interesting point that Paul had totally radical ideas about slaves and women. For instance, Paul was very clear in the first chapter of Philemon that once an individual becomes a Christian, in good conscience, he must free his slaves.  Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, had run away to Paul and Paul sent him back to Philemon.  Paul writes to Philemon…

I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. 15Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good— 16no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.

Crossan says this is proof that all of the other passages condoning slavery were not written by Paul, like these statements in Ephesians and 1 Timothy, both of which are attributed to Paul by some scholars…

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear.  Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ. (Ephesians 6:5) Christians who are slaves should give their masters full respect so that the name of God and his teaching will not be shamed.  If your master is a Christian, that is no excuse for being disrespectful.  You should work all the harder because you are helping another believer by your efforts.  Teach these truths, Timothy, and encourage everyone to obey them. (1 Timothy 6:1-2)

So what’s going on?

The same, exact contradiction occurs with women.  Paul sent his letter to the Romans by way of a female.  Phoebe is a deacon/minister – diakanos.  (Paul uses the term, diakanos, 34 times.  But the only time it is interpreted as “servant” is when it is used with a female.).  He had to entrust her to not only deliver the letter, but to be able to read it to the various congregations and also to be able to explain it to them.  In Romans 16: 1-16, he heaps praise on several females and goes so far as to say Adronicus and Junia are outstanding among the apostles and were in Christ before Paul.  So what happens to Junia in the interpretations?  She becomes Junianus in the middle ages – which is to say – she becomes a he. Crossan says the early Christian Church didn’t have a problem with female leadership but as the Church increasingly adopted the Roman hierarchical structure, women were denigrated so passages were re-interpreted and rewritten and sometimes scribes added their own views.

Why, for instance, would Paul entrust Phoebe with his letter to the Romans, but then in 1 Corinthians write:

As in all the congregations of the saints, 34women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. 35If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

It really doesn’t make any sense.

Personally, I don’t know what happened back then and I’m not sure any historian can say with any certainty that he/she does, either.  We don’t have the actual texts to know for sure.  We have copies of ancient texts that were copied by scribes, who translated the texts according to their own interpretations.

Obviously, I find Biblical history fascinating.  But I’m not as interested in it now as I once was.  I think why I found it so interesting, previously, was that I needed to unlearn all of the crazy things I had been taught. I don’t know that Crossan’s interpretations are the “right” ones.  But I think what they help to show is that the Bible is not infallible. Until about 10 years ago, I felt the need to prove that something was “right” or “ethical”, etc. because it says so in the Bible.  It took a very, very, VERY long time to get over that need, however.  Like most of us, I was taught to trust in authority rather than myself.  I am slowly, but surely, learning to trust my own inner wisdom.  But I’m not completely confident about this yet so I sometimes get defensive. I’m getting much better, though!

Anyway, don’t think I’ll go back to this Sunday School class even though it is very interesting. Studying Biblical history just keeps me in my head and I already spend far too much time there.  Opening my mind was the first step.  Now I want to open my heart.