Lesson 9: I see nothing as it is now.

Cup or 2 faces?
  • I do not see this keyboard as it is now. 
  • I do not see this computer screen as it is now.
  • I do not see that little dog as it is now.
  • I do not see that lamp as it is now.
  • I do not see those trees as they are now.
  • I do not see that ACIM book as it is now.

ACIM says that it is difficult for the untrained mind to believe that what it seems to picture is not there. I found myself looking at things in the room saying

  • That TV is not there.
  • That picture is not there.
  • That desk is not there.

That’s different from saying I do not see it as it is now. Is this just a gentle way of trying to get us to realize that what we see is not there? Or is it there, but just not in the way we think it is there?

Wapnick says it is literally not there. Furthermore, it is hard for us to believe that what we are seeing is not there… In “reality” all we are seeing is an out-picturing of our thoughts of separation, and specific forms that are projections of our illusory thought system.

So in reality, there really is nothing there? ACIM says we aren’t supposed to try to understand. We’re merely asked to practice. (Which is good because it’s much too difficult for me to contemplate what I’m seeing as not being there.)

Wapnick makes an interesting comparison. Michelangelo apparently said of his sculpture that he first saw an image in stone, and then took away what did not belong. This is essentially what we are doing. We have an image of our true Identity. All we need to do is clear away what does not belong. We do this by simply bringing the debris of our illusions to the Holy Spirit (metaphorically speaking, of course!) and it is cleared away for us.

Wapnick seems to be intentionally drawing on Original Sin. (Does ACIM do this?) He says, if my thoughts are meaningless because they are preoccupied with a past that does not exist, and the past does not exist because it is rooted in sin and separation, which never happened, then it must logically follow that “I see nothing as it is now.”

I think I see what he is doing – the sin and separation never happened. But he seems to be talking about a basic human experience, not necessarily a Christian one. The Jews didn’t believe in Original Sin and there are plenty of Eastern religions that don’t believe in God at all, yet all of them seem to think we are separate beings, at least to some extent. Is our tendency to project only because of a guilty belief in sin and separation?

Wapnick says everything I “see” is a defense against the holy instant. I see nothing as it is now because my mind is preoccupied with the past. My mind is preoccupied with the past because that’s all it can “see”. In the holy instant, there is nothing to see.

Lesson 8: My mind is preoccupied with past thoughts.

Emerson’s Transparent Eyeball

The meaning of Lesson 8 is very literally that no one really sees anything. According to Wapnick, all we “see” is a projection of what we have been thinking. The point of these lessons is to help us realize that we are not really thinking at all because our thoughts are rooted in the past, or the fear of the future. (Remember the unholy trinity: sin (past); guilt (present); fear (future)? I’m still struggling with this concept.) As long as thoughtless ideas preoccupy our mind, the truth is blocked. Recognizing our minds have been blank is the first step to opening the way to vision.

The purpose of today’s exercise is to train the mind to recognize when it is not thinking at all.

The mind cannot grasp the present, which is the only time there is. It is preoccupied with the past and, in fact, does not understand time. The only wholly true fact about the past is that it is not here.

I seem to be thinking about my brother, my scared dog, my son’s cat, my daughter, rain, colds, crazy hair, having to clean the house, my husband, plants that need watering, big bellies, and dust. But my mind is preoccupied with past thoughts.

ACIM says the only wholly true thought one can hold about the past is that it isn’t here. The mind is blank when it pictures the past or anticipates the future. Therefore, the purpose of this exercise is to begin to train our minds to recognize when they are not really thinking at all. Thoughtless ideas preoccupy the mind which blocks the truth. Recognizing it isn’t filled with real ideas is the first step to opening the way to vision.

Wapnick says that it is not simply that we see only the past (Lesson 7), but we see only the past because we think only according to the past. What we see outside comes from what we think inside, a major theme of the text: “projection makes perception”.

Wapnick says the statement, “the wholly true fact about the past is that it is not here” means that our existence is literally made up. This should terrify us. If it doesn’t, it is because we aren’t paying close attention to what it says. We literally do not exist. And not only is our existence an illusion, all existence is an illusion.

A little further explanation from Wapnick:

The ego’s present is not this “present,” what A Course in Miracles refers to as the “holy instant”. As this experience is not rooted in time, it is also not rooted in sin, guilt, and fear. It is rooted in the right-minded presence of the Holy Spirit, in which vision – not based on the past, and certainly not on specialness – becomes the means for love to guide us from within.

He goes on to say, “If you are a creature of the past and there is no past, then it must mean there is no you.” He says this should horrify us. Maybe I’ve intellectualized it too much over the years, but it seems reasonable that there is no me. At least in a sense. Of course, I’m understanding it from my own definition of “you” and I’m not exactly sure what Wapnick is referring to by “you”. It reminds me of Emerson’s Transparent Eyeball – I am nothing, I see all. We’ve all had glimpses of that experience, right? We don’t necessarily have the language to express it and so we are left speechless.

Wapnick keeps going: “Not only is our existence an illusion; indeed, all existence is an illusion, for it contrasts with the reality of being.” That doesn’t make much sense to me. How do you define being and how do you define existence? This gets tricky. Heidegger worked out very intricate differentiations of types of being (Dasein and Sein) and these don’t necessarily contradict existence. For Heidegger, the primal nature of being is Sein, while Dasein is revealed by projection into, and engagement with, a personal world. It is a never-ending process of involvement (kind of like Nietzsche’s never-ending process of becoming), as mediated through the projections of the self. It makes sense to claim that there is a difference between entities and the being of entities, but does it make sense to contrast existence and being? I don’t know. I don’t have a good grasp on any of this, yet, but I’m sensing Original Sin is sliding into Wapnick’s definitions here, too. (Or maybe he is very intentionally including it?)

To conclude, Wapnick says that by ending our practice with: “But my mind is preoccupied with past thoughts”, we are asked to practice in the central aspect of the process of forgiveness: bringing the specifics of our illusions to the non-specific truth of the Holy Spirit.

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: Lectures 4-13 – Jewish Mysticism

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

Judaism is not the same as what we read about in the Ancient Hebrew texts. Judaism formed between 350 BCE and 200 CE.  This was in direct response to Rome bringing Palestine into the Roman Empire.  Most Jews, however, lived in the Diaspora, not Palestine, and they were far better off than those in Palestine because they could learn Homer then go to Synagogue and learn Torah. They weren’t as confined as Palestinian Jews who would have been chastised by “Pious Jews” for learning Homer and chastised for learning Torah by the Roman authorities.

Second of all, in Jewish mysticism, the mystic is one who can read the Torah and unfold and reveal to others the deeper meanings of the texts that are not obvious to the literal mind.

Merkabah Mystics of Ancient Palestine

The Essenes were possibly the oldest Jewish mystics.  They created a community far from the rest of the world and contemporized Ezekiel.

Philo of Alexandria represents the earliest mysticism in the Diaspora (15 BCE-50 CE).  He read the Septuagint (Greek translation of OT) allegorically (in the style of Greek philosophers), so had a Platonic understanding of the world -phenomenal (Earth) vs. noumanal (Heaven).  He read the ascent of Moses as a transition from the phenomenal to the noumanal.  What we see in Philo becomes the future of Jewish mysticism – seeking in the texts deeper meanings which can reveal the realities of God.

A problem arose, especially after the destruction of the Temple in 70 ACE.  What was written by Moses was written for agricultural realities, not urban realities.  Plus, the temple has been destroyed so there is no way to carry out the sacrifices.  How do you take the words of Moses and apply them to these new realities the Jews found themselves in?

Scribes began making interpretations through Midrash (which means “to search out or seek”).  Halakic Midrash was expertise applied to law.  (Halak means “walk”.)  Haggadic Midrash was applied to stories and songs. (Haggad means “recite”.)   This process of interpretation is what is known as “The Oral Torah”.  Seeking to understand the Torah becomes the equivalent of carrying out the sacrifice/observance.

Obeying God’s law was a community responsibility.  There was a strong conviction that the Shekinah (divine presence) was among humans, particularly among those studying the Torah.  It was said that when 2 or 3 are gathered together to study Torah, the Shekinah is among them.  (Sound familiar?)  And mystics were considered to be the most learned and observant – the only people worthy to speculate on certain aspects of the Bible, like the throne chariot and heavens (Merkabah).

Merkabah mysticism is outwardly about an ascent, but it is really about a descent into interiority.  The deeper you go, the more dangerous it gets.  There are seven heavens.  The mystics ask (Torah study), why not just one?  Because it is an arduous task to reach the transcendent.  The transcendent is protected.  You can’t reach it just by desiring it.

Merkabah mysticism is a mysticism of the mind, not the heart.

Hasidism of Medieval Germany

The Hasidism of Medieval Germany (Hasidic Ashkenazi) is a mysticism of the heart over the mind.  It maintained elements of Merkabah Mysticism, but interestingly was primarily based on the mistranslation of a rationalist philosophical text – The Book of Philosophic Doctrines and Religious Beliefs by Saadia Gaon (892-942).  The book was written in Aramaic but mistranslated into Hebrew where it appeared as a mystical text rather than the rationalist text it was originally meant to be.  It was read by Eleazer ben Juhudah (one of the founders of Hasidism) as a mystical text and had great influence on his ideas.

Hasidism picks up a lot of elements from Christianity.  For instance, for the first time in Judaism through Hasidism, there is a huge emphasis on penitence and repentance.  (Jews had always emphasized “turning away from sin”, but never feeling bad for it until now.)  With Hasidic Askanazi, mysticism becomes a practice for ordinary Jews.  All you had to do was be a pious member of the sect. You didn’t have to be a scholar.  It introduces a popular, practical mysticism, which includes the ability to do extraordinary things.  God is not understood as transcendent, but rather, imminent.  And there is more emphasis on “love” than on “knowledge”.  (There is a very healthy attitude toward sexuality in Hasidism.)

This Hasidism presents the first intonation of monotheism becoming pantheism.  (Monotheism as pantheism preoccupies every form of mysticism in the three traditions.)  “Everything is in Thee and Thou art in everything; Thou fillest everything and dost encompass it; when everything was created, Thou was in everything; before everything was created; Thou wast everything.”.  Song of Unity

Early Kabbalists of Gerona

Kabbalah was first introduced by Moses Maimonides in the 12th & 13th century.  The Zohar is considered to be the authoritative text. Tradition holds that it is much older because it is written in an ancient style, but it is a 13th century text.  Some claim that Kabbalism is closely linked to Christianity, but it arose directly from within Jewish tradition.  The Zohar had been preceded by a century of fantastic mystical developments – Merkabah, which has already been discussed, and The Book of Creation which discussed the idea of emanations from God (Sefirot) that are like rays of light – God extending God’s self into the world.

The Book of Brilliance is actually the first Kabbalah text and was written by an anonymous author in the 12th century.  Obviously, this also preceded The Zohar.  It introduces a female component of the divinity for the first time – the Shekinah – which creates a sort of dualism.  Evil is connected to the material world, which creates a further dualism.  And, there are 10 Sefirot.  The Sefirot are understood in contrast to the Eyn Sof – God in God’s self.  God cannot be known in God’s self, but God can be known in God’s emanations (the Sefirot.)

Adepts of the Zohar

Kabbalah comes to maturity with The Zohar, (The Book of Splendor).  This is the canonical text of Jewish mysticism.  It introduces innovation as though it were ancient – as though it were written by the first generation of rabbinic teachers (specifically Simeon ben Yohai 2nd Century CE).  Some Kabbalists believe it came from this time period, but it was not introduced with Judaism.  It came much later.  The author of The Zohar was a Spanish Jew named Moses de Leon (1250-1305).  He studied Maimonides and was interested in classical sources and The Book of Brilliance.  In Aramaic, the text is over 2400 pages long and very little of it has been translated into English.  Moderns who claim to be Kabbalists actually know very little about it.  You have to be able to read Aramaic in order for the text to be valuable, spiritually.

The Zohar combines all mystical elements of Judaism up until this time.  Kabbalists understand a mystic to be someone who finds mysticism wherever they happen to look.  It isn’t the subject matter that makes something mystical, it is the mystic’s eyes that make it mystical.  Much of The Zohar is ordinary and down to earth, but is extremely powerful mystically.

The Zohar is scholarly, not popular.  It appears to be exoteric but requires initiation and intense study.  It works from the exoteric to the esoteric.  It is a theosophy.  God is both completely other and can only be approached through negation.  But God in the world is knowable and approachable through the Sefirot.  God is in the Torah.  God is in the world.  God is in humans through the divine emanations.

At the head of the Sefirot, there is a triad. Keter (“the crown”), Binah (“womb, palace, understanding”), and Hokhmah (“wisdom”). The Sefirot are not static, but dynamic.  Each Sefirot uses a Biblical term so that when you read the Bible, you are constantly encountering God’s revelation.

Marriage is highly valued in this mysticism.

Lurianic Spirituality

Then comes Issac Luria and Safed Spirituality – which is the 17th century version of Kabbalah and becomes more of a practical, popular mysticism (like Hasidism) than a prophetic mysticism.  This, to me, is where it gets really interesting because it directly addresses my my concern with those who want to popularize mysticism, today.

The Jews were exiled by Catholicism in the 17th century which caused Kabbalism to spread.  Those who ended up in Egypt and Palestine found Muslim rule to be much more tolerant and welcoming of Jews than were Christians and so the Jews flourished.  Safed in upper Galilee became the new center for Jewish mysticism and had a prestigious group of scholars.  Gilgul, transmigration of souls, was already an idea well established in Judaism, but it began to take on a new understanding.  People started to think in terms of a soul leaving one body and entering another.  (This mimics history – people lose one self during exile and gain another self in restoration.)  Messianism begins to arise again as a hope for the restoration of the people and it is this Messianism that creates a new Kabbalah.

Isaac Luria is the most influential of the Safed teachers.  He fits the stereotypic mystic: visionary, distracted, wandering around, seeing souls everywhere and thinks he is in contact with Elijah.  He had a very strong sense of the transmigration of souls.  Out of Lurianic Spirituality comes these themes:

  • transmigration of the souls
  • emphasis on visionary
  • emphasis on the individual mystic as a public figure who manifests the presence of God miraculously through mysticism

These themes made their way like wildfire throughout Northern Europe.  It is a practical mysticism which often involves the manipulation of reality through the manipulation of symbols.  Lurianic spirituality becomes far more mythic than what is found in The Zohar.

Sabbatianism – Messianic Mysticism

As was mentioned earlier, Lurianic spirituality is a popularization of mysticism with the focus being on the mystic.  It is not prophetic, scholarly mysticism.  This popularization of mysticism allowed for a dangerous move to Messianism.

There have been lots of Messianic figures over the years, but Sabbatai Zevi (1626-1676) presented something totally different.  He created a crisis in the heart of Judaism. The Ghetto had been established in 1516 in Italy which required that Jews all live in a single quarter, wear identifying clothing and were allowed on the streets at certain hours.  Judaism became more of a prison than the marginalism it had been previously.  Meanwhile, the Christian expectaion of the end of the world was at an all time high.  In England, it was thought that 1656 would be the year the Messiah wold return.  Many Kabbalists were identifying 1648 as the year the Jewish Messiah would return.

In 1648, Sabbatai Zevi proclaims himself the Messiah and he basically plays out the script of Jesus’ life.  He claims he is the Messiah by pronouncing the divine name – the tetragrammaton.  So, like Jesus, he breaks Jewish law in order to establish himself as Messiah (Jesus openly broke Sabbath laws, hung out with “low lifes”, kept company with “loose women”, etc.).  This is called the antinomian Messiah – it is a reaction to socially established morality.

Sabbatai Zevi meets Nathan of Gaza (1644-1690) who is said to be Sabbatai Zevi’s John the Baptist and Paul the Apostle combined.  With Nathan of Gaza, Sabbatai Zevi gains immense fame.  In 1666, Sabbatai Zevi claims he embodies Elijah and would conquer the world without bloodshed and that he would lead the 10 lost tribes back to Israel.  And he claims he will do so riding on a lion with a seven headed dragon in his jaws. He gets kicked out of Jerusalem for these claims, but a large part of the Jewish population believes he is the Messiah.  People were willing to leave their homes and totally change their lives to follow him.

Sabbatai Zevi begins to issue decrees about the non-observance of rules.  Fasting days are turned into days of celebration.  Again, he is likely following the script provided by Jesus.  Jesus declared that people cannot fast when the bridegroom is with them.  They can only fast when the bridegroom is absent.  When the bridegroom is present, they should feast.  (Mark 2:19-20)

What Sabbatai Zevi establishes is the idea that the mystic/Messianic figure can overturn Torah.  He was arrested by a Muslim ruler in Instanbul and stories abound about the miracles he performs there.  Prayers for Sabbatai Zevi are offered in almost every synagogue.  A more serious arrest is made and he has to go before Sultan Mehmed IV.  So like Jesus facing Pontius Pilate, Sabbatai Zevi is facing an imperial power.  This is his chance to die as a martyr.  But what does he do?  He takes off his Jewish clothing, puts on a turban, and declares himself Muslim.  As a reward, he is made a minor official and takes on more wives.  He declares that God has made him an Ishmaelite.

Despite this, Sabbatianism continues amongst the Jews. People begin to reinterpret Apostasy in terms of Lurianic Kabbalism – as a form of self-exile.  By entering into the realm of evil and the abyss, his restoration will occur in the future.  Sabbatians expect the return of Sabbatai Zevi in the future. This movement was rejected by the majority of Jews, but it had 100s of 1000s of believers who practiced the ritual of the breaking of the commandments.

The Ba’al Shem Tov and the New Hasidism

A new Hasidism arose in Eastern Europe in the 18th century.  This was, in part, a response to the enlightenment which threatened Jewish observance.  Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), a Jewish thinker, was one of the first influential critics of the Bible.  He regarded the Bible as “not true” but said it was still meaningful.

Spinoza’s panentheism mirrored Kabbalism – he offered a secularized version of Kabbalah.  He made a distinction between thought and extension which virtually mirrored the Eyn Sof and Sefirot.

The New Hasidism began in the Ukraine where Jews were scattered in rural villages. There were no centers of great learning here, so Hasidism arises out of popular mysticism. The founder was Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760).  He was a healer and had been known as a pious, poor man.  Even the elite would come to hear him teach.  He taught by means of stories and said that all things are filled with God and reveal God.  (Panentheism)

This movement spread quickly.  Soon Talmudic scholars had joined the movement which gave it even greater credibility.

Eliezer is known as a Tzaddik.  A Tzaddik is at the center of a community’s life because of his personality and life of prayer.  He is not at the center of the community because of his knowledge of Torah.  Because personality is central, the role of Tzaddik is handed down from father to son.  Sometimes Tzaddik are messianic figures, but not always.  Because of how Tzaddik is handed down, different lines of Hasidism have developed.  The largest group of Hasidic followers is Chabad Lubavitch.

Today, Hasidic Jews look like the most orthodox of all Jewish observers.

Mysticism in Contemporary Judaism

There has not been much development in mysticism in modern times because of the challenges to Judaism in the 19th and 20th century.

  • The Jewish political emancipation was a mixed blessing.  Their assimilation into the wider culture has caused many Jews to leave their religion (intermarriage, etc.)
  • There was a continued and increased anti-semitism.  One of the great problems of modernity is that everyone is accepted as long as they are the same.  If you insist on being different, you are despised.
  • Haskalah – The Enlightenment threatened the sacred text of the Torah even more than did Christianity.
  • Jews responded to continuing persecution by embracing Zionism.
  • The Shoah (Holocaust) took place in 1932-1945

Jews had various ways of responding the the demystification that took place during the Enlightenment.  Reform Jews abandoned the Talmudic tradition altogether.  Prophets, rather than Law, became the focus and the emphasis was placed on a call to social justice.  Orthodox Jews insisted upon maintaining the tradition, but did so in a reactionary way.  Conservative Jews sought a middle ground between Reform Jews and Orthodox Jews.  They continue to observe the Talmud as the basis of their practice, but they are also free to accept elements of the current culture.

Zionism was the hope for a Jewish homeland.  This began with Moses Hess (1812-1875) and became an organization under Theodore Herzl (1860-1904) with the World Zionist Organization.

Emil Fackenheim said that the Bible should be read as a history of the people rather than as mysticism, and Elie Wiesel said that the Shoah (holocaust) demanded silent witness and a very cautious recovery of meaning.

One form of mysticism is represented by the Chabad Lubavitch sect of Hasidism which is still going strong.  It emphasizes ecstatic experience and the role of the mind.  Rebbe Menachem Mendel Shneerson (1902-1994) served as the head of the community for 44 years.  He was a messianic figure.

Another form of mysticism comes from Rabbi Abraham Issac Kook (1865-1935).  He was the Chief Rabbi of Palestine from 1921-1935 and provided a restatement of Lurianic Kabbalism.

Kabbalism has taken on a totally new (and in comparison to Zohar adepts, quite shallow) understanding through the pop-spirituality realm (see Kabbalah.com).

There remain thinkers like Martin Buber and Abraham Heschel that are both deeply marked by the mystical tradition.

Johnson says it is unclear whether Jewish mysticism will be able to gather itself back together.  But what is clear is that “if mysticism is to be authentically, genuinely Jewish, it must involve deep study and devotion to the Torah and the God therein.”

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.

Eternal Life: A New Vision

John Shelby Spong was the Episcopal Bishop of Newark until his retirement in 2000 and he has been an outspoken critic of Christianity (while remaining one) for many years.  His book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die was somewhat life changing for me in that it confirmed my discomfort with Christianity.  I resonated with Spong’s term, “Christians in Exile”.

I left the church right after I read Spong’s book.  It gave me permission, I suppose.  But for whatever reason, after 10 years of being “out”, my husband and I just joined a mainstream United Methodist Church in November of 2009.   I’m not yet sure exactly why it is I’m back at church. The idea of a personal God no longer works for me nor do I believe any church is an authority on God. Both ideas seem absolutely ridiculous to me, now.  As far as I can tell, however, the United Methodist Church continues to insist upon the existence of a personal God and continues to describe itself as an authority on God. But since I’ve never heard of excommunication in the Methodist Church, I suppose it’s OK I’m there even if I disagree with some of its fundamental precepts.  Several of the people I most admire, who sit very far outside mainstream Christianity, continue to be a part of their Methodist communities.  I’m just not exactly sure why it is I’m back, yet.  I read an excerpt from Spong’s Eternal Life: A New Vision, which seemed like the book might actually provide some insight into my return.  I checked it out and read it cover to cover.  But it didn’t help at all.  Guess I’ll just have to figure that one out on my own.

I’m not exactly sure what to make of Spong’s book. Spong says we have to be able to probe religion as an outsider in order to see through it.  I’ve been on the outside of religion for over a decade, and personally, I wonder if its ever possible to truly be on the outside of it once heavily immersed within it?  All of Western society has been immersed in religious ideology for thousands of years, so none of us can exactly claim to be immune to religious immersion, no matter how many generations of atheists our family can boast.  The Enlightenment itself came out of a religious world view.  To this day, there are elements of original sin (via St. Augustine) that remain within the scientific world view that are very difficult to tease out. Plus, the idea that there is some sort of absolute truth that can be discovered through scientific inquiry is directly related to the Western religious view that meaning can be “found”.

Spong asks:

Does religion, as it has been practiced in human history, actually make us more human or less human?  Is it possible that religion, rather than transforming reality, enables us to hide from reality, a reality which we are not emotionally equipped to embrace?  Is religion in all its forms, as Marx suggested, an opiate for the people?  Is the very function of religion calculated to provide us with a believable denial of the angst that accompanies self-consciousness?  Beyond those questions is the deeper probe into religion’s origins.  Was the development of the various religions a human inevitability?  Is the anxiety of self-consciousness so great that only the belief in the existence of an external supernatural deity, who has the power to come to our aid, will ever quiet our fears?  Is God, or is religion now revealed as little more than a human creation?  These are the tough questions which we must now pursue.

I think Spong is right.  It is time we pursue these questions. When I started asking such questions 10 years ago, I started with my minister friends and one of them has never talked to me again.  It was too threatening.  But it’s ten years later.  We’ve lived through 9/11 and all of the questions and divisions that created, and I think we have potentially grown up, at least a little bit, since then.  Maybe we are more ready to face these questions now than we were 10 years ago?  Sometimes I wonder if my desire to return to a church setting (besides the bizarre loyalty I feel toward Methodism) has to do with easing the transition? I know how difficult and isolating it is to face these sorts of questions.  But face them we must!  And if we could face them as a community, all the better!

What I’m not convinced of, however, is Spong’s idea that the only reason religion was created was to provide a means to hide from reality.  I think it is definitely true of the failed attempt to merge abstract Greek rationalism and Jewish individualism.  Nietzsche said (through the madman in Zarathustra) that  God is dead and that it is we who killed him.  But alas, the madman realized he had come too soon, and he prophesied that it would take 300 years for people to finally realize that God is dead.  Nietzsche was including the atheistic rationalists in this prophecy, not just those who still maintained a belief in God.  Mankind attempted, long ago, to merge the Jewish God with the idea of an abstract absolute from Greek rationalism.  That which cannot be named became a Greek value (an idea/noun) rather than the integral part of life (a process/verb) that YHWH had been for the Jews.   Nietzsche saw that God, understood as an abstract value, is not sustainable because it inevitably creates narcissism, division, and eventually nihilism.  (Think of literalist fundies who look forward to end of world times so they can go to heaven.)  God is dead, and it is we who killed Him.  And we cannot go back and fix it.  That understanding, however faulty, is now and forever a part of our heritage.   It is part of what makes us us – whether or not it was a “necessary” idea in the first place.

But much of religion is more art than belief, isn’t it?  As Joseph Campbell said, it is the final mask before reality.  As art, it doesn’t so much provide security as it provides inspiration through the imaginative imitation of life.  In this sense, it provides the strength and courage necessary to face reality.  And it also adds to the enjoyment of life.

Spong says that truth is not religion’s ultimate agenda; security is.  When religion is considered to be under the authority of “church” or a literal interpretation of a sacred text, then security is definitely the name of the game.  But out of religion have come practices like meditation, contemplative prayer, and other practices that help us face reality, rather than hide from it.  There seems to be some proof that communal meditation is more effective than individual meditation in keeping people engaged in the practice.   And there is the artistic representation within religion that helps us move out of our ego and into the fuller experience of “oneness”.

My daughter and I just recently finished watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos which does a beautiful job of showing how incredulous it is that humanity should exist at all. The belief that I was intentionally created by a creator God doesn’t make me feel near as grateful as knowing that my existence occurred by mere chance. What a wonderful gift life is when you know it happened because all of the right elements just happened to be in place at the right time!  So I entirely agree with Spong that science has opened our eyes to how unique the human experience is and that it helps us realize how horrific it is to take such a chance event for granted.  But hasn’t art (and artistic religious expression) been doing the same thing, in a different way, for much longer?

I agree with Spong that dogmatic religion has come out of political need.  No argument with me there.  Religion is an excellent way to control the masses.   Whenever one religion claims to have a monopoly on God, you can be assured that religion is making the claim for political gain.  But do Eastern religions make this claim in the same way western religions do?  I have yet to meet a Buddhist who claims to believe in God.  In fact, it was through Buddhism that I was able to realize that the question, “Do you believe in God?” is itself a faulty question because it’s based on circular reasoning.  Whichever way you answer (“yes” or “no”) can only point back to the question itself – not to any sort of reality. That’s why, I am told, Buddhists don’t “believe in” God.   The answer is based on a nonsensical question.

Spong says that we have to stop searching for meaning within religion.  Fair enough. But not all religion is about searching for meaning, is it?  I remember hearing the Dali Lama say that if we are all evolving from pre-Cambrian sludge, then we might as well affect that evolution in the most beneficial way possible and that religious discipline can help us do this because it helps us acquire awareness.  We create all the meaning there is so we might as well create what is beneficial rather than what is harmful.  In that sense, it’s not about seeking.  It’s about creating.   Spong’s correct, however: the typical Western idea of religion is definitely about finding some truth “out there”.   But that’s often the basic premise behind many atheistic rationalistic perspectives, too, isn’t it?

Surely we don’t seek meaning so much as we seek the experience of being alive.  And perhaps that is Spong’s point?  If so, right on! Live the questions!!

But does the use of artistic and religious imagination keep us from living or does it help us live more fully?  Maybe the answer depends on the person/society and not an absolute “truth”.

Cosmos: A Personal Voyage

My daughter and I just finished the entire series of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.  It’s one of those series available at the library that you have to wait forever to get.  And no wonder!  It’s excellent.

For high school transcript purposes, we have to come up with various courses so my daughter and I decided to create a course called “The History of Science”. The Cosmos series kicked it off and was a better choice than either of us had imagined. The series covered a multitude of scientific topics along with their historic origins.

I can see why people who watched this series became atheists. Sagan has an obvious love of the earth and believes strongly that had science been allowed to continue without interruption from religion back in the Middle Ages, we’d have a much better world today.  He says that, through science, “We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.”

He’s got a point.  The Christian religion tends to be focused on that which is otherwordly rather than the world we inhabit.  Do the right thing and you get to go to heaven, wherever that is.  So why care about this world?  Now we have all of this technological capability thanks to science, but we still don’t have much regard for the Earth. Things are absolutely crazy!  We eat an apple, but are we eating an apple, or a notion of an apple?  And what does that notion of an apple do to us? Is genetically modifying our food a way for the Cosmos to know itself?  It seems to me it’s just the opposite!

Sagan’s main concern was nuclear war, because this show was filmed during the Cold War. But he was also very concerned about Global Warming.  What I think he wanted his series to do was to put people in awe of the world around them, and to recognize how unique life on our planet is. If we could just understand how amazing and irreplaceable humanity is, perhaps we wouldn’t be so hell bent on self-destruction.

I wonder, have things gotten better or worse since Cosmos was first filmed?  Most of us see ourselves as a global community, now.  But there are still a lot of bumper stickers on the road that say something along the lines of “In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned”.  Original sin via St. Augustine is still built into the fabric of our understanding, be we religious or not.  And despite the consensus among scientists, the media and general public still resist the claims that the world is warming.  Or if they agree that it is warming, they excuse our bad habits and blame it on nature.

Anyway, excellent series.  My daughter really liked Carl Sagan and his approach to science.  The other night, she was having trouble sleeping and said she wanted to watch another episode of Cosmos!  (No – not because it would put her to sleep, but because she genuinely enjoyed the series.)  We both got a lot of out of it.