Mystical Musings

For about a half hour every night, after I’ve completed an outline of what needs to be covered during studies with my daughter for the following day, I pick up Carl McColman’s The Big Book of Christian Mysticism and settle in for a very enjoyable and informative read.

I’ve kept up with Carl’s blog off and on for over 5 years and can’t say I always agree with his views, but I certainly respect and appreciate them.  That’s been true of The Big Book of Mysticism, too.  Carl’s writing style is easy to follow, organized, informative and gracious.  I always feel like I am reading the thoughts of an extremely kind, gentle soul when I read his writing.  I appreciate his spiritual perspectives, but I do not agree with his view of mysticism.  It seems to me as though he is trying to define it in order to “sell” it and that makes me uncomfortable because I don’t think mysticism is something that can be bought and sold.  It is certainly an experience that can be shared with others, but not in a coercive, manipulative marketing sort of way.

Robert Bly was once asked if he hoped to make poetry mainstream.  He said that was not at all his goal because once something becomes mainstream, it loses its power.  Professional marketers are aware of this.  Once you discover that cutting edge thing that resonates “cool” and market it to the masses, it almost immediately loses its “cool” so you have to go off looking for the next cutting edge thing to market.   Bringing something into the mainstream does not give it power, it takes it away because the mainstream always demands that the ineffable be made concrete.

The way I see it, mysticism is to religion what poetry is to literature.  In order to sell it to the masses, you have to reduce it to labels and catch phrases that turn it into something far less significant than what it actually is.

Granted, I’m only 75 pages into the book and my intellectual understanding of Christian mysticism is admittedly somewhat limited.  It’s not non-existent, but I know I don’t have Carl’s knowledge.  I had a significant mystical experience in my youth that has provided my primary understanding of mysticism.  Everything gets checked against that experience which is what made me interested in Christian mysticism in the first place.  It resonated with my experience.  Beyond that, I attended a dozen or so Franciscan and Jesuit retreats and conferences during the 8 years I was Catholic.  Most of these were silent retreats and a few were specifically based upon a study of the Christian mystics.  More recently, I’ve made a fairly extensive study of The Cloud of Unknowing, Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton and a few others.  But my knowledge of Christian mysticism, in general, is somewhat lacking.  I know very little about the Celtic influence on Christian wisdom, for example.  I’ve made an in depth study of Church history, but I have not made an in depth study of many of the Christian thinkers themselves.  So undoubtedly Carl has far more knowledge than me.  But I’m still uncomfortable about his desire to nail mysticism down so concretely.  What is the point of doing this?  To gain converts?

Carl says that he can’t guarantee that he will win anyone over to his point of view.  Fair enough.  But doesn’t mysticism have more to do with helping people enlarge their perspective from their own point of view rather than trying to get them to adopt someone elses’ point of view?  Carl very clearly says that his goal is to inspire and encourage us to make Christian mysticism a part of our lives.  His selling point is that Christian mysticism “promises” to make our lives better.  This is also the standard selling point of Christianity which has all but become a “brand” these days.  (Well, maybe it IS a “brand”!!)

Carl says that a central “goal” of Christian mysticism is experiencing the ineffable splendors of the mutual indwelling of the soul in Christ.  This doesn’t seem right to me.  I think it would be more accurate to say that mysticism is the experience of the ineffable splendors of the mutual indwelling of the soul in Christ.  To claim mysticism has “goals” makes me cringe.  Perhaps it was Paul’s goal, but that doesn’t mean Christian mysticism has goals.

Carl writes:

Paul promises that the mystery of Christ leads to a glorious end that so many mystics since have described – union with God, beatific vision, communion with the Holy Trinity, deification, to be filled with the utter fullness of God.

I have a problem with the word choice here, specifically the word “end”.  Is union with God, etc. an end result?  If so, an end result of what?  Doing what Christian mysticism says we should do?  Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems highly problematic to assign “end results” to mysticism.  Goals that create end results have a lot to do with the modern striving for achievement and marketing tactics (as in growing a church), but very little to do with mysticism as I understand it.

Carl writes, “For example, many forms of non-Christian mysticism are anchored in the idea that human beings are (or can become) identical with God.  Christianity denies this and Christian mysticism concurs.” Mysticism concurs? With what exactly?  I wish Carl had provided specific examples here, because these sorts of blanket statements made by Christians are what I find to be the most detrimental of all.

God is a metaphor and means very different things within different religions.  Mystical Jainism is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of a non-Christian religion that believes human beings can become “identical” to God.  But to compare the God of the Jains with the God of the Christians is completely inappropriate.  The Jains do not believe that there is a beginning or end as far as the universe goes so they do not believe in a creator God.  For the Jains, God is perfect Being.  When Jains say that human beings have the ability to become identical with God, they do not mean that they have the ability to become identical with a creator God.  What they mean is that human beings have the the potential to achieve perfect Being. Of the Christian mystics I’m familiar with, I’m fairly certain that this idea would not pose a problem.  Some may not agree with it, but at worst, it would be a non-issue.  (Note: We’ve warped Augustine’s “Original Sin” beyond all recognition since Descartes!!)  Buddhists don’t maintain a belief in God at all.  There are something like 330 million gods in Hinduism.  All of these gods represent the one Supreme absolute called Brahman.  Each god is an aspect of Brahman who is formless and beyond human conception – human beings do not become “identical” to Brahman.

Carl says that the Christian idea of God as a Trinity is a unique idea.  That’s not necessarily true.  Hinduism is far older than Christianity and maintains a triumverage -Brahman, Vishnu, and Shiva.  Brahman (Creator) is “Being”; Vishnu (Preserver) is “Thatness”; and Shiva (Destroyer) is the holy word or holy spirit.  The Christian trinity is Father (God), Son and Holy Spirit.  I don’t see a huge difference here. God is “the Ground of Being”, Son is “Thatness” (God on earth; the Word made Flesh); and the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit.  Each aspect of the Christian trinity, like the Hindu trinity, contains and includes the others.

In Wicca, the Goddess is understood as a trinity: Mother (preserver), Maiden (creator), Crone (destroyer).  Look at it this way…

  • Maiden (Creator) – innocence, continual new beginnings, the youthful enthusiasm of infinite potential.  In Hinduism, Brahman is the Creator and is also known as “Being”. Paul Tillich called God (the Father) the “Ground of Being”.  Dostoevsky said God was “a field of infinite potential”.
  • Mother (Nurturer and Sustainer) –  fertility, sexuality, fulfillment, stability, life.  In Hinduism, Vishnu is the Preserver and also “Thatness”.  Thatness is the ineffable thingness of stuff.  Human sensual experience.  Thisness/Isness is Brahman/God.  Thatness is based on human experience.  This is the individual experience of infinite potential.  God made flesh.  The Son.  God’s way of experiencing Himself. (In Christianity in the form of Jesus who represents all of humanity.)
  • Crone (Destroyer) – wisdom, repose, death, endings.  In Hinduism, Shiva is the Destroyer.  Shiva is also considered to be the holy word/spirit.  In Christianity, it is the Holy Spirit that leads us to new perspectives which means the death of old ones.  It is the Holy Spirit that undoes the ego so that we can hear God.  It is the communication mechanism between Isness and Thatness.

I think Carl was a Celtic Pagan before becoming Christian. There is a trinity within Celtic paganism, too.  The Trinity exists everywhere.  It is NOT unique to Christianity.  Why would it be?

Also, Christian pantheism is not unknown.  Paul said, “For in him we live, move and have our being”.  What is that if not pantheistic??  Carl writes:

A corollary of this principle is the Christian insistence that mysticism does not lead to a pantheistic merging of you and God, but rather culminates in a loving communion, where mystical unity with God occurs as a loving embrace.

Mystical unity?  To me, there is ultimately very little difference between pantheism and panentheism.  Personally, I think panentheism is a pantheism because the definition of pantheism is broad enough to embrace it.  Perhaps some pantheists insist upon a merging of “you and God”.  But come on!!  God is a metaphor.  We don’t understand metaphor anymore!  If we did, the idea of merging “you and God” wouldn’t make any sense at all!  It’s total nonsense, not pantheism.

I don’t mean to imply that I dislike everything about Carl’s book.  My discomfort with his view of mysticism is nothing new, I have voiced it several times on his blog and he is always very gracious.  I always enjoy reading his blog despite my discomfort and look forward to having time to read his book.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll change my mind as I make my way deeper into it.

ACIM Lesson 145: Review of Lessons 129 & 130

My mind holds only what I think with God.

  • Beyond this world there is a world I want.
  • It is impossible to see two worlds.

I truly am understanding this so differently now. It’ s so exciting! This isn’t magical mumbo jumbo about a world that exists separate from this one. Just the opposite. (It’s a fun play on words!)

Huston Smith said that modern world gets the medal for cosmological achievement, the postmodern world gets the medal for achievement in social justice, and the traditional world view gets the medal for metaphysics. (Smith defines the traditional world view as before the middle ages – before Constantine made Christianity the political religion of Rome.)

The Enlightenment was so influential at creating the belief that the world of nature as science conceives it is all there is that we are no longer able to conceive metaphysics in the same sense as those with the traditional world view understood it. This is true within modern religion, too. Modern religion equated cosmology (which is clearly the realm of science) with metaphysics and turned God into an actual physical, entity that requires our defense against claims that God is “not true”. But the question of whether God exists or not is a purely scientific question and any religious person who insists that God does, in fact, exist is engaged in a scientific query, not a metaphysical query as it was understood from within the traditional world view.

God was understood as metaphor. But as Joseph Campbell has pointed out, we moderns are almost completely incapable of understanding metaphor. We mistake it with simile. We are taught that difference between simile and metaphor is that a simile uses “like or as” and a metaphor does not. But it’s not just a difference of words, it is a difference of meaning. He uses the example of a man (John) who runs very fast and people exclaim – “John runs like a deer.” That’s a simile. But imagine that we are so in awe of how fast John runs that we exclain, “John is a deer.” We know on the one hand he isn’t a deer. But on the other hand, he is a deer. That’s metaphor and it’s also metaphysics in the traditional worldview sense. God (and the gods) were understood in this metaphorical sense. Just like it makes no sense to try and prove that John is or is not a deer in the physical sense (we know he’s not), it makes no sense to try and prove that God does or does not exist. When we say John is a deer, we aren’t talking about a physical reality, we are talking about a metaphorical/metaphysical understanding.

Metaphysics is the study of everything and includes science. From this perspective, it makes no sense to reject science in favor of religion. Cosmology is the domain of science and there is no reason to challenge this. But the view that physical nature is all there is has created a lot of really big problems in terms of meaning. It’s created nihilism in both the secular world and the religious world.

The religious don’t really need to care about this world because there is another world waiting for them. And the more secular deny this world by placing their primary focus on the possibility of a future, better world through technological progress, future medical breakthroughs, more perfect forms of government, etc. It is more subtle, but it’s not that different than what the religious have done. It’s not this world that matters – it’s a future world that matters. (And so we destroy the earth in the name of progress.)

It is impossible to see two worlds. So which world is it that we see? The world as it is, or some future, better world? When ACIM says “Beyond this world there is a world I want” it isn’t trying to say there is a future better world waiting for us. This is about a shift in perception that allows us to see the world as it is rather than through the eyes of egoic desire that rejects what is. What is the use of wanting anything other than what is? It’s like Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence. If we had to live our same life over and over and over again – would we say “no thanks – don’t want to do that” or do we have the sort of gratitude toward life (this life!!) to enthusiastically exclaim “Yes!” The ego, on the other hand, must forever say “no” to what is in order to uphold desire. We think the ego shows us what it is we want. But what happens once we get it? We don’t want it anymore and so the ego finds something else for us to want. But is that what we really want? Do we, in fact, want (as in lack)?

Imagination and Metaphor

On Thursday, I bought two books: Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut (for the Analogical Imagination Group) and The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. I went to the bookstore specifically to get Vonnegut’s book and caught out of the corner of my eye on another shelf, Le Guin’s which had been recommended to me several years ago by Nacho of WoodMoor Village Zendo. I’ve just read both introductions and found something interesting…

Vonnegut writes of Campbell in the Editor’s note to Mother Night:

     To say that he was a writer is to say that the demands of art alone were enough to make him lie, and to lie without seeing any harm in it. To say that he was a playwright is to offer an even harsher warning to the reader, for no one is a better liar than a man who has warped lives and passions onto something as grotesquely artificial as a stage.

     And, now that I’ve said that about lying, I will risk the opinion that lies told for the sake of artistic effect – in the theater, for instance, and in Campbell’s confessions, perhaps – can be, in a higher sense, the most beguiling forms of truth.

LeGuin writes in the intro. to The Left Hand of Darkness:

     …Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying….Fiction writers, at least in their braver moments, do desire the truth: to know it, to speak it, to serve it. But they go about it in a devious way, which consists in inventing persons, places, and events which never did and never will exist or occur, and telling about these fictions in detail and at length and with a great deal of emotion, and then when they are done writing down this pack of lies, they say, There! That’s the truth!

     They may use all kinds of facts to support their tissue of lies. They may describe the Marshalsea Prison, which was a real place, or the battle of Borodino, which really was fought, or the process of cloning, which really takes place in laboratories, or the deterioration of personality, which is described in real textbooks of psychology and so on. This weight of verifiable place-event-phenomenon-behavior makes the reader forget that he is reading a pure invention, a history that never took place anywhere but in that unlocalizable region, the author’s mind. In fact, while we read a novel, we are insane – bonkers. We believe in the existence of people who aren’t there, we hear their voices, we watch the battle of Borodino with them, we may even become Napoleon. Sanity returns (in most cases) when the book is closed.

     Is it any wonder that no truly respectable society as ever trusted its artists?….

     I talk about the gods; I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.

     The only truth I can understand or express is, logically defined, a lie. Psychologically defined, a symbol. Aesthetically defined, a metaphor….

     A metaphor for what?

     If I could have said it non-metaphorically, I would not have written all these words, this novel; and Genly Ali would never have sat down at my desk and used my ink and typewriter ribbon in informing me, and you, rather solemnly, that the truth is a matter of the imagination.

Ah… The power of imagination and metaphor!

The Heart of Christianity – The Truth of Metaphor

I firmly believe, as Joseph Campbell says, that most people do not understand the power of metaphor. They confuse it with simile. I’ve said this over and over and over again and will continue to do so because its important. If you say, “John runs like a deer”, that’s a simile. But if you say, “John is a deer”, that’s a metaphor. In the simile, John is substituted for the deer and the deer for a John. They are alike. But in the metaphor – they are indistinguishable. John is not the deer, yet he is.

Borg does not seem to understand this use of metaphor. He writes, ”The Bible regularly speaks of God as having hands and feet and ears and eyes, but God does not.” He makes it seem as though what historically happened “really happened” yet what metaphorically happened didn’t. This is not metaphor, this is simile. God does have hands, feet, ears and eyes metaphorically speaking. And this is not the same as saying it symbolically. Symbolically is typically understood in terms of simile: “it is like God having feet, ears and eyes”. A metaphor is far stronger than this. If it says God has hands, feet, ears and eyes – then God does have hands, feet, ears and eyes, even though we can simultaneously understand that he does not. We know John is not the deer, yet he is. To say a metaphor is not literally true is not exactly accurate. We know John is not a deer, yet he runs so fast that he is a deer. Metaphor is more than simply finding truth in a story, it’s the understanding that the story IS the truth, even though it is not. John runs so fast he is a deer. Understanding this metaphorically has nothing to do with whether we believe it to be true or not or even how we believe it to be true. It’s simply about understanding it to be so.

As far as I know, this is not Smith’s beef with Marcus Borg. But I do think Joseph Campbell would take huge issue with him metaphorically speaking.

Borg says the reader will say “The Word of the Lord” after a scripture reading. In the Jesuit Catholic Church we belonged to in Dallas, we didn’t say “The Word of the Lord”, we said “Word of the Lord”. The difference seems minimal, but it is immense. To say “The Word of the Lord” is to say that what we just read is like the word of the lord. But to say “Word of the Lord” means it IS the word of the Lord”. “The Word of the Lord” implies that you must take it as is. But “Word of the Lord” implies it is up for interpretation and it is the potentiality within the interpretation that IS the Word of the Lord in a metaphorical sense rather than in a symbolic sense.

I think the ultimate point of religion/Christianity is that John is and is not a deer. At the transcendent level, the two are not just similar (simile), they are One. This applies equally to our ideas of God and ourselves. We are and are not what we think we are. God is and is not our ideas of God.

When you listen to Joseph Campbell explain mythology, or Huston Smith explain religion or Robert Thurman explain Buddhism, you know they have a very deep, experiential understanding of the respective metaphors they are talking about. It might be easier for Thurman to do this for Buddhism than it is for Borg to do so with Christianity since we don’t tend to have all of the superstitious attachments to it like we do for Christianity. But I just don’t have that same sense of Borg although historically speaking, he’s right on as far as I’m concerned.

Angels in America (2003)

My husband and I watched Angels in America and he was not able to hold an interest in it at all. But I absolutely LOVE this mini-series. This was the second time I’d watched it. It’s a wonderful modern myth – something we have far too little of these days. It’s based upon Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (a play in 2 parts) by Tony Kushner.

The acting is fantastic: how can you go wrong with Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, and Al Pacino?

Al Pacino plays a fictiionalized version of Roy Cohn: the right hand man of Joseph McCarthy who actually targeted homosexuals even though he, himself, was a closeted homosexual who died of AIDS.

Meryl Streep plays the Mormon mother of a homosexual son. Streep also plays the ghost of Ethel Rosenburg who haunts Cohn who was largely responsible for her execution.

My favorite character is played by Jeffrey Wright. He’s the black drag queen and registered nurse who takes care of Cohn and watches out for the well-being of his friends with AIDs. He’s like the guy who really gets it – who sees the bigger picture beyond the narrow view of everyone elses focus.

God has abandoned his angels and his human creations leaving everything in disarray and chaos. Yet, despite this abandomment, the movie remains hopeful and optimistic.

I have never seen anything quite like this movie. It’s a bizarre mix of Mormonism, Judaism, secularism, racism, homosexuality, anger, forgiveness, abandonment, loyalty, immorality, morality, sickness, hope, death, life.

It presents metaphor as it is. Not like something, but the something itself.

Beautiful! It’s absolutely amazing what the human mind can create.

Imagination and the Bible

I believe that our biggest problem with reading the Bible is our inability to use our imaginations. We tend to look at everything in pieces and think we can put the pieces back together to make a whole. But that doesn’t work with imagination – there are no pieces to separate. The stories told in the Bible go deeper than the summation of their pieces.

For instance, the story of the miracle of bread and wine at the wedding Jesus and his mother attended is miraculous in that Jesus was able to get everyone to share what they had. That is the true miracle. And what better way to tell of this happening than through enchantment? Unless, of course, people understand it piece meal,and separate the magical nature of such an event from the actual event. Which, of course, is what has happened.

What would Shakespeare be, for instance, without magic and fairies? But we don’t get caught up in the reality of the magic and fairies in his stories. His tales still point to an important truth and we readily grasp that truth. If we don’t get caught up in the magic in Shakespeare, then why do we do this with the magic in the Bible?

The stories are beautiful, and much less devisive, if we take them as imaginative, poetic works that speak to a truth deeper than we can express in mere factual words.

Jesus may have been an ordinary man, but the way in which he affected others was extraordinary. And how but through the power of poetic metaphor can you possibly express such an extraordinary experience of humanity?

To miss the metaphor is to miss the power of the story. And that’s what I am beginning to see as the problem. We’re still holding on to a mechanistic world view and it obscures our ability to see the whole because we get so stuck in the parts.

Balinese Tale of Heaven and Hell

The Balinese are Hindu. But I first heard this story told by Zig Ziglar at the First Baptist Church in Dallas and have heard it several other places since then. It has great universal appeal.

A man asks to know heaven and hell. First, he is brought to a room with a great banquet of food and drink of every kind. But the people at the table have arms made of long fork-like poles and although they are able to spear the food, they are unable to bring the food to their mouths. They sit at the table in great angrish, crying and hungry. He is horrified by the scene and wants to be taken away. That, he is told, is hell.

Next, he is taken to a room that looks exactly the same. Same great banquet of food and drink. The arms of the people are also made of the same long fork-like poles so they cannot bring the food to their mouths. But there are no anguished cries. Instead there is laughter and joy. They discovered that even though they could not feed themselves, they could feed one another. This, he is told, is heaven.

What is the difference between these two places? Nothing. They are exactly the same in every detail. The only difference is some people realize they are already in heaven. And others do not. Those who recognize they are already there feed one another with joy and laughter. Those who do not, wail in anguish and hunger because they either do not realize they can feed one another, or they do not want to.

Assume someone in the room where everyone is being fed becomes indignant because they see someone who has caused great harm to others in their past. They refuse to feed this person and work hard to get others to do the same. Is that person who chooses to punish the “sinner” by not feeding him helping to create heaven? Or hell?