Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Mysticism, Witchcraft, and Discernment

"Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity." -G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, VII

There is much anxiety among Christian conservatives today regarding the New Age movement, the Emerging Church, and the alleged connections between the two. This essay is written in response to a presentation given by Johanna Michaelsen several months ago at the Community Center in Oakhurst along those lines in which she lamented the lack of discernment in the Church and disparaged large numbers of believers, many by name.

It may be helpful at the outset to define our terms. "Mysticism" I take to mean experience within the context of faith that transcends the natural. "Witchcraft" I take to mean the manipulation of supernatural forces for evil or trivial ends. "Discernment" I take to mean conducting an accurate spiritual evaluation of a given person or phenomenon, or knowing when there is insufficient information to conduct such an evaluation.

All three of these can be slippery concepts. Mysticism is difficult to pin down because it is not usually a significant part of our experience, and it is, well, mystical. To complicate matters, Michaelsen believes that witchcraft often masquerades as mysticism. While this is likely to be true to a certain extent, it seems fair at this juncture to point out that if witchcraft often masquerades as mysticism, fear often masquerades as discernment. Discernment is not drawing a line a couple miles away from the cliff edge so you can be safe. Discernment is knowing where the edge is so you can walk out in the open and feel the wind. "For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind."

Some readers may be questioning whether mysticism ought to have any place in Christian thought and experience at all. While we can concede that this is a debated point, it would appear that the overwhelming majority of Christian writing, practice, and tradition presupposes the possibility of intersections - indeed transformations - that raise our natural experience into the supernatural realm. From Jesus to Paul to Francis of Assisi to Brother Lawrence, the Christian faith has a long and established legacy of mystical practice. Perhaps this makes us uncomfortable, but it certainly cannot be ignored.

"[God] will entrust you with revelation to the degree you will trust Him with mystery." -Bill Johnson

Michaelsen castigated the Emerging Church for promoting practices such as a "place of silence" and an "altered level of consciousness" (ALC). This seems odd, as silence itself is almost universally regarded as an unequivocal good; it is the purpose of silence that we ought to be concerned with. And I'm not sure what Paul meant when he said he was caught up into the third heaven and heard things that cannot be told, but that sure sounds like ALC to me. If you want to take the Transfiguration literally, there's even precedent for communing with the dead.

It is important here that we orient our thinking. We need to find North. If Christians are glibly mimicking occultist practices, it would be justifiable to feel alarmed. But if the enemy is crafting counterfeits of practices that originated within the heart of God, is that honestly all that surprising? Not really.

I alluded earlier to Michaelsen's criticism of a wide array Christian voices. The blacklist included Todd Bentley, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Rick Joyner, Mike Bickle, Thomas Merton, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Benny Hinn, Richard Foster, and John Wimber, all stirred up in the same soup. These men cover a tremendous spectrum in terms of spiritual viewpoints, ministry goals, and personal integrity. This is discernment gone to seed: fear.

There were also several instances of sloppy psychology that undermined discernment in the name of discernment. I will point out two.

1. To accuse someone of believing what they believe because it "feels right" is meaningless, because nobody believes anything that "feels wrong" to them. People may have deeper or shallower reasons for their beliefs, but everybody who is not wilfully violating their conscience will "feel right" about what they believe.

2. Nor is it useful to argue that someone's theology has been influenced and distorted by their experience, as this is once again true of everybody. There is no such thing as a pure theology that is free from the subjectivity and ambiguity of experience. This ought to be self-evident.

Leading into her conclusion, Michaelsen stated that "The fruit of doctrine is more important than the fruit of life." This I feel is the crux of the matter. In the New Testament, the way you live is your doctrine. They are one. If what she means by this is that beliefs are more important than actions...

Monday, August 1, 2011

Towards a Post-Doctrinal Church

Over the last while, I have been gradually coming to a realization that is changing the way I think about everything.

Christianity is not about issues.

Christianity is not about throwing rocks at society (or at each other) and defending our right answers. It's not about hammering out the metaphysical truths of the universe to the minutest detail (fun as it sounds). It's not even about ascertaining conclusively what every last verse in the Bible means.

I think the very nature of scripture itself is a revealing clue that is often overlooked. Whatever else the Bible is, it is not simple, clear, and harmonious, and it is futile to continue forcing it into a systematic, cohesive structure.

God could easily have written the Bible in such a way as to make all issues abundantly clear and forever staunch discussion, but He didn't. As Lesslie Newbigin writes in his book The Household of God:

It is true that Christ gave to His disciples His word and sacraments. But He did not give them naked. He left no written code which should keep inviolate for all time the essential message, and the essential requirements for the due observance of His sacraments. A vast amount of scholarly labour has been spent in trying to discover precisely that thing which the Lord Himself did not choose to provide. What He left behind was a fellowship, and He entrusted to it the task of being His representative to the world...

What this means is that we have to figure out together what it looks like to be the Church, in motion, with a pieced-together, ramshackle record of what God has said and done in the past. The truth is happening, and we need to find ways to participate in it. A living dog is better than a dead lion.

“The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” -Jesus

One verse occasionally cited to indirectly justify theological narrow-mindedness is Matthew 7:14. However, this reading requires that "way" be interpreted as "system of thought," and it bears pointing out that the gate leads to life, not to mere correct-ness.

It ought to go without saying that this is not a thoughtless life. Anyone who knows me knows I bristle at anti-intellectualism. We should live a life that thinks, and even loves thinking. But first we should live. (See prior post: Truth is a Verb.)

Also, there will and should always be theologians ministering to the intellectual health of the Church, as well as apologists recommending the beliefs of the Church to those outside. I only reject the notion that this intellectual work is supposed to be the primary function of the Church.

What we need today is not more theological posturing and debate. What we need today is a post-doctrinal Church that is incarnating Jesus to the world.

Anyone interested in a stack of theology books, cheap?