Saturday, May 30, 2015

Judaism and the Mystical Christ, Ch. 3: What is Christian Mysticism?

Note: This is part of an ongoing series entitled "Judaism and the Mystical Christ".  I have created a blog entry containing the table of contents linking to each article which may be accessed here:

Table of Contents


A Tale of Two Mars Hill Churches
So far in this series - and in other posts I've written - I've been exploring and/or alluding to root issues in Christian thinking which I believe have led to many problems.  In this post, I'd like to explain what Christian Mysticism is all about and why I think it offers solutions to these problems.  

But to really get to the heart of the matter, I think the juxtaposition of two stories really illustrates what is going on with the Church in America.  That juxtaposition lies in the contrast between what happened with the pastors of two very different "Mars Hill" churches.

In February of 1999, Rob Bell founded a church called "Mars Hill", which originally met in a gym in Wyoming, MI.  Within a year, the church was given a shopping mall in Grandville, MI, and they bought the surrounding land.  The church quickly grew to "mega-church" numbers, with 11,000 in attendance by 2005.  Rob Bell was a rock star.  His books made the top seller list, and Bell made No. 10 on the magazine's list, "The 50 Most Influential Christians in America", in 2007, and then in June 2011, Bell was named by Time Magazine as one of the "2011 Time 100", the magazine's annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world.  

And Bell was not simply a shallow Christian riding the wave of fame.  Bell believed in practicing what he preached, and that's why - as James Wellman explains in "Rob Bell and a New American Christianity" - Rob Bell moved his family into a Grand Rapids ghetto, questioning how some churches "spend 20 million on remodels while 20 percent of the Grand Rapids population lives in poverty". 

But in March of 2011, Bell released a book called "Love Wins", that challenged the idea of eternal hell.  Immediately, the attendance in his church began to drop rapidly, and on Sept. 22 of 2011, Bell stepped down.

This story makes for a striking contrast, I believe, with another church named "Mars Hill" - the one founded by Mark Driscoll in Seattle, WA.  This Mars Hill church also grew very quickly, and their pastor - Driscoll - also sold many books.  But over the years, many stories of abuse surfaced - there are entire websites (such as and that are dedicated to documenting these stories.  Finally, even some of the co-pastors began to tell stories of abuse.  In the fall of 2013, plagiarism charges began to surface, regarding some of Driscoll's books.  This sparked the protest of many former members of the church, and the abuse allegations seemed to spring up by the dozens.

On August 24, 2014, Driscoll announced that he would take a hiatus from his pastorship for six weeks while charges against him were investigated.  On September 7th of the same year, the church announced layoffs due to financial strain, and on October 14th, Driscoll stepped down.  But the Mars Hill board just didn't seem to get it - while they admitted his personal problems, they did not "believe him to be disqualified from pastoral ministry", for the reasoning that he did not teach false doctrine.  It didn't matter that Driscoll had hurt many people over the years and had deep character flaws - what mattered to them was that his doctrinal teachings matched a checklist.

So here we have a sharp contrast.  On the one side, you have a church that fell apart because their pastor challenged an idea, and it didn't matter that this pastor sought to practice his teachings of love.  On the other side, you have a church that refused to face the allegations of abuse for years, and even after their pastor's career fell apart they defended him.

In my mind, this highlights the biggest problem in the church - the idea that what matters most is our ideas.  In this paradigm, having all the right ideas is not only what matters the most, but it is the basis for salvation, and the distinguishing characteristic that differentiates between Christians and non-Christians.  Practice is secondary, in this paradigm.

But there are some issues with this paradigm - issues coming both from scripture, and from science.  Let's start with the science.

In Two Minds

I think it's a little more nuanced...but you get the general idea.
Have you ever heard someone say that they were "in two minds" in regard to a difficult decision, or a topic that requires deep thought?  The expression refers to being able to see the pros and cons of more than one decision or position, and finding them to be more or less equally balanced.  But there is some very interesting science that points to the idea that we all really do possess two minds.

Most people in this day and age have at least a rudimentary knowledge of the idea of "left brain" vs. "right brain".  We know that the left hemisphere of the brain controls the right side of the body and is dominant in the areas of logic, mathematics, fact retrieval, and language.  And the right hemisphere of the brain controls the left side of the body and is dominant in the areas of creative thinking, art and music, spacial abilities, and facial recognition.  This is, of course, a very simplified version of things - it's not as if the right hemisphere is incapable of thinking logically, or the left brain incapable of thinking creatively.  But they seem to work in ways that are different from each other.

What most people don't know is the story of the man we owe this knowledge to - Dr. Roger Sperry.  Sperry had performed research on cats, severing their corpus callosum - a bundle of nerve fibers connecting the two hemispheres - and training them to distinguish shapes with one eye covered.  He found that when he covered the eye they had learned with and uncovered the other eye, they no longer remembered how to discern the shapes.  The result of severing the corpus callosum was then termed "split-brain".

Later on, Sperry developed the idea to use the operation to sever the corpus callosum for patients with severe epilepsy - the theory was that the epileptic seizures of certain patients was being caused by a feedback loop between the two hemispheres of the brain, and that severing this nerve bundle would stop these feedback loops from occurring. 

When this operation was performed, at first it seemed that nothing had changed with these patients, except the absence of seizures.  But over time, some odd behavior began to surface.  Some patients reported being unable to control their left hand - as if it had a mind of its own.  One patient described an event where he had gone to hug his wife, and his left hand slapped her!

This spawned some very interesting research.  One type of experiment involved having the patient look at an object with the right eye covered, and then asking the patient to describe what they had seen - they could not.  But when asked to draw the object, they were able to comply.  It seems that though the left hemisphere - which controls speech - could not describe the object, the right hemisphere - which controls creative thought and spatial recognition - could draw it. 

Other research involved asking a patient questions, and giving the right brain scrabble letters to work with - the researchers would often get different answers between what the patient would say through speech and what they would spell with the scrabble letters.  In one case, a man was asked what he wanted to do for a career.  His left brain uttered that he hoped to become a draftsman - a very practical career.  His right brain spelled out the words "race-car driver".

Michio Kaku is a very smart man
What does this have to do with the paradigm of ideas being the basis for salvation?  Here's where it gets interesting - in "The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind", Michio Kaku writes:
Perhaps there is truth to the oft-heard statement that “inside him, there is someone yearning to be free.” This means that the two hemispheres may even have different beliefs. For example, the neurologist V. S. Ramanchandran describes one split-brain patient who, when asked if he was a believer or not, said he was an atheist, but his right brain declared he was a believer. Apparently, it is possible to have two opposing religious beliefs residing in the same brain. Ramachandran continues: “If that person dies, what happens? Does one hemisphere go to heaven and the other go to hell? I don’t know the answer to that.”
Ramachandran's query ought to be haunting for anyone who believes that the priority for Christians - the basis for determining if you are a Christian or not, and the basis for salvation - is having the right ideas and the right words to express them.

Perhaps even more disturbing is the possibility that we could one day develop Alzheimer's disease - a brain related malady that not only makes it so that patients have difficulty developing new memories, but over time begins to destroy old memories.  Often, patients with Alzheimer's cannot even remember their own children.  

If salvation is based on our ideas, then what happens to people who have forgotten that they were Christians because of Alzheimer's?  And if they go to hell because of their disease, which took away their correct ideas, then might it be the most merciful thing to kill an Alzheimer's patient before the disease progresses to the point where they begin to forget their Christianity?  (Of course, you know that I would answer "no" to this question, as I am about to argue that it is not our ideas which save us in the first place.)

Or perhaps we need to learn to embrace our inner atheist - to love those parts of ourselves that we hide, even from ourselves?

Examine the Fruits
But science is not the only area that causes conundrums for the paradigm of idea-priority.  The Bible also challenges this paradigm.
Fra Angelico's depiction of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats
Perhaps the most important passage is Matthew 25:31-46 - known as the parable of the sheep and the goats.  In this passage, we find that there is one group of people who seem to have all the right ideas and the right words to express them.  They know who Jesus is, and they know what to say to him - "Lord, Lord!", they exclaim.  It is as if they are saying "see?  Look at how I'm using the right words in order to demonstrate that my Theology is correct!"  And yet these people go off to judgment - why?  Because they failed to show kindness.

Meanwhile, on the other side, you have a group of people who seem baffled that they have been selected as members of the kingdom.  But Jesus says that whenever these people have shown kindness to "the least of these", they have done it to him, and therefore they belong in the kingdom.  This undercuts the paradigm of right-ideas!  The basis for determining the difference between sheep and goats has nothing at all to do with ideas, and everything to do with conduct in this story!

Another story that throws out this challenge is the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).   In this story, Jesus deliberately chooses to use the priest and the Levite - members in high standing of the religious elite - as examples of people who acted in a manner that was not righteous.  But he provocatively chooses to use a despised member of another religion - a Samaritan (the relationship between Jews and Samaritans would not have been unlike the one between Christians and Muslims today - enemies who share many of the same scriptures and beliefs) - as an example of righteous behavior!

Note here, as well, how 2 Chron. 28:15 seems to act as a prelude for the parable of the Sheep and the Goats - it says that some Samaritans "got up and took the captives, and with the booty they clothed all that were naked among them; they clothed them, gave them sandals, provided them with food and drink, and anointed them; and carrying all the feeble among them on donkeys, they brought them to their kindred at Jericho, the city of palm trees. Then they returned to Samaria."  It seems that the combination of the parables of the "Good Samaritan" and the "Sheep and the Goats" may act as a challenge from Jesus to the religious power structure of his day that they have the wrong paradigm - they are more concerned with "right belief" and "purity", while the "heretical Samaritans" are more concerned with "right action" - and this is what God cares more about.

Another passage where Jesus challenges the right-idea paradigm is in Matthew 7:15-20, where he tells us that we can know a false prophet by their fruits.  This was not a way of saying that as long as someone said all the right things, they were good - this was a way of talking about a person's conduct and character!  If it is not obvious from the mere fact that fruits are what a plant produces, then it should be made so by the fact that Paul describes the "fruit of the Spirit" in Galatians 5:22-23 as "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control."  In other words, if your ideas are producing more of these character traits, then you're on the right track - but if they are not, and especially if they are producing fruits that are the opposite of these things (hatred, anger, mean-spiritedness, etc.), then you're on the wrong track and you need to reexamine yourself.  I'd say that this challenges us to rethink the tale of two Mars Hill Churches.

Also in Matthew, Jesus tells another story about a wise builder and a foolish builder in Matthew 7:24-27 - and he starts the story by saying that everyone who hears his words and acts on them are like the wise man!  It isn't enough to hear and then get all the right ideas - you must act!  Furthermore, this passage comes immediately after a very challenging passage in Matthew 7:21-23:

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’
[emphasis mine]
The entire book of James functions as a challenge to the paradigm of idea-priority - as James 2:14-19 says:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food,  and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
Elsewhere in this book, James says that "pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father" is helping orphans and widows (James 1:27) - I have argued before that this is one of the ways that the Bible talks about social justice.  And in James 3:13, it says:
Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.
The author of I John also draws a contrast between words and deeds in verse 3:18:
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
All too often, our modern version of Church has put all the emphasis on ritual and liturgy, but this does not mesh well with the life of Jesus.  As William Barclay puts it in his commentary on Matthew (vol. 2):
Jesus insisted that the greatest ritual service is the service of human need. It is an odd thing to think that, with the possible exception of that day in the synagogue at Nazareth, we have no evidence that Jesus ever conducted a ‘church’ service in all his life on earth, but we have abundant evidence that he fed the hungry and comforted the sad and cared for the sick. Christian service is not the service of any liturgy or ritual; it is the service of human need. Christian service is not monastic retreat; it is involvement in all the tragedies and problems and demands of the human situation.
Gregory Boyd writes in "The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church":
One wonders why no one in church history has ever been considered a heretic for being unloving. People were anathematized and often tortured and killed for disagreeing on matters of doctrine or on the authority of the church. But no one on record has ever been so much as rebuked for not loving as Christ loved.

Yet if love is to be placed above all other considerations (Col. 3:14; 1 Peter 4:8), if nothing has any value apart from love (1 Cor. 13:1–3), and if the only thing that matters is faith working in love (Gal. 5:6), how is it that possessing Christlike love has never been considered the central test of orthodoxy? How is it that those who tortured and burned heretics were not themselves considered heretics for doing so? Was this not heresy of the worst sort? How is it that those who perpetrated such things were not only not deemed heretics but often were (and yet are) held up as “heroes of the faith”?
Judaism has an interesting take on heresy - I have a friend who grew up in the tradition and is something of a scholar when it comes to the Hebrew language and Talmudic scholarship.  He has told me that Judaism is not about belief at all - it is about living according to various traditions and practices.  He's said humorously that Judaism is about eating.  

In a later post, we will discuss Pardes - the Jewish method for interpreting scripture.  Pardes is a way of saying paradise, since it means "garden", and conjures up the imagery of the Garden of Eden (additionally, the English paradise came from this word).  There is a well known Jewish legend which says that four Rabbis entered pardes - they entered paradise, which my friend said is "a term for knowing the entire Tora".  Of the four, Ben Azzai died, Ben Zoma went mad, Elisha ben Abiyuh (nicknamed Akher, which means the other) became a heretic, and only Rabbi Akiva came out unscathed.  My friend says of this story: "yet we follow all of them."

The story goes on that Akher (the heretic, the other) taught a revered theologian named Rabbi Meir, who is, according to my friend, "one of the most prominent scholars in the Mishna, which is the basis of the Talmud."  One Sabbath, Rabbi Meir and Akher were traveling and arguing, which was quite usual for them to do since Rabbi Meir recognized Akher's heresy.  The heretic was riding a donkey and Meir was walking, since riding is forbidden on the Sabbath.  Meir was listening with such intensity to Akher's words that he hadn't noticed how far they had walked - he didn't notice that they had reached a ritual boundary beyond which Jews were forbidden to pass on the Sabbath.  Akher stopped at the boundary and said "Look, we have reached the boundary - we must part now: You must not accompany me any farther - go back!"

The story is an interesting one as it is used to illustrate the importance of avoiding shunning our heretics - as the story goes, even though Akher is a heretic, we follow him.  His wisdom is still important - we don't simply throw everything he's said out because of a few things deemed heretical.  Rather, his words are carefully analyzed and wrestled with - he provides important questions to ponder.  And in some ways, Akher was a better Jew than many "Orthodox" Jews because of his respect for the practices, and the way he sought justice through his life.

Be-loving Jesus
When you examine the history of the early church, in the first through third century, you find that this emphasis on having the right ideas seems to be curiously absent.  In fact, there was a strong emphasis on practice.

Justin Martyr (c. 100 - 165) spoke about how the teachings of Jesus were practiced when he said:

We who formerly…valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possession, now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to everyone in need; we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies.
St. Athanasius (296/298 - 373) believed that one could not even hope to understand the principles of theology without proper practice:
Anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the saints by copying their deeds.
The School of Alexandria has a practice many modern Christians would find curious - one of the main purposes of the school was to prepare its pupils for Baptism.  In other words, Baptism did not happen until the students had demonstrated that they were prepared.  As Origen (184/185 - 253/254) - a highly influential early Christian writer and student of Alexandria - wrote:
If you want to receive Baptism, you must first learn about God’s Word, cut away the roots of your vices, correct your barbarous wild lives and practice meekness and humility.
The early historian Rufinus (340/345 - 410) once wrote about a Christian community that draws a sharp and shocking contrast to society, and demonstrated Christ's love in an amazing way:
Then we came to Nitria, the best-known of all the monasteries of Egypt, about forty miles from Alexandria…. As we drew near to that place and they realized that foreign brethren were arriving, they poured out of their cells like a swarm of bees and ran to meet us with delight and alacrity, many of them carrying containers of water and of bread…. When they had welcomed us, first of all they led us with psalms into the church and washed our feet and one by one they dried them with the linen cloth they were girded with, as if to wash away the fatigue of the journey…. What can I say that would do justice to their humanity, their courtesy, and their love? Nowhere have I seen love flourish so greatly, nowhere with such quick compassion, such eager hospitality.
It seems that the early Christian communities took John 14:15 very seriously ("If you love me, you will keep my commandments.").  And what did Jesus command?  That we love one another as he loved us (John 13:34).  Indeed, Jesus and Paul both declared that love sums up the law (Mt. 22:37-40, Rom. 13:10, Gal. 5:14), and I John 4:8 and 16 declare that God is love.  St. Augustine wrote in his Enchiridon that "all the commandments of God are embraced in love."  He goes on to describe how the end of following the Way of Jesus is love and every practice "has love for its aim."

As Greg Boyd writes in "The Myth of a Christian Nation":

We are to be nothing less than “the body of Christ,” which means, among other things, that we are to do exactly what Jesus did (Rom. 12:4–5; 1 Cor. 10:17; 12:12–27; Eph. 4:4; 5:30; Col. 1:18, 24; 2:19). John teaches us that, “Whoever says, ‘I abide in him,’ ought to walk just as he walked” (1 John 2:6, emphasis added; also 1 John 1:7; 1 Cor. 4:6; 11:1; Eph. 5:1–2; Phil. 3:17; Col. 2:6; 1 Thess. 1:6; 2 Thess. 3:7; 1 Peter 2:21). “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5) must be regarded as our central command. Our every thought, word, and deed is to reflect the character of Jesus and thus manifest the reign of God in the world (see Rom. 12:2; 2 Cor. 10:3–5).

What About Justification by Grace Through Faith?

The protestant instinct might be to ask: what about justification by grace through faith, as the popular Pauline phrase goes?

First off, I do not believe Paul's purpose in Romans was to say that works - in and of themselves - are bad and/or worthless.  Rather, I think Paul is preaching against works-without-faith.  Also, I think he is also speaking specifically in his context - he's talking about the debate which was current in his time over whether or not gentile Christian converts had to be circumcised and adopt a Jewish kosher diet, as if doing so were what mattered and what justified them.

Secondly, I also believe we must form a better understanding of what faith in a Roman world meant.  In the historical context in which Paul wrote about "justification by grace through faith", cities would seek the favor of Rome by paying tribute - called pistis, translated "faith" - to Rome.  They would build monuments to Caesar, temples, etc., in order to show their loyalty or allegiance to Rome, and often the temples they built would generate revenue for Roman taxes.  Thus, the word translated "faith" has more in common with allegiance, loyalty, or fidelity.  This is not a "works-less" concept - it doesn't mean "inserting ideas into your head and insisting they are true."  It has much more to do with how you live your life than the modern concept behind the word "faith".

You can have works without real allegiance, loyalty, or fidelity - but you cannot have allegiance, loyalty, or fidelity without works.  Or as
scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan put it in "The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church's Conservative Icon":
You cannot have love without show, but you can always have show without love.
And after all, we cannot hide behind Paul's concept of "justification by faith" when he says the following in Romans 2:13:
For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified.
Additionally, it should be noted that if one believes - as is all too often the case in Protestant circles, it seems - that having faith (interpreted as insisting that the "right ideas" are true) magically results in God's righteousness being deposited into one's account, we run into problems in 2 Corinthians, where Paul presents a vision of Christians being transformed into the image of the glory of the Lord (2 Cor. 3:18), their "inner nature... being renewed" (2 Cor. 4:16), and becoming a "new creation" (2 Cor. 5:17).  The "faith" Paul speaks of is supposed to result in transformation, and if it doesn't, there is a problem!

Additionally, Paul sees Christians as participating in the sacrifice of Christ's death, as we see in Romans 6:1-23, and Galatians 2:19-20:

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.

What is Mysticism?
Meditating on how the law is summed up in love and how God is love is a wonderful tie-in to explaining what mysticism is.  Mysticism is about much more than belief - it is about practicing faith in such a way that one comes to actually experiencing the Presence of God.

As Carl McColman defines mysticism in "The Big Book of Christian Mysticism: The Essential Guide to Contemplative Spirituality":

Christian mysticism is not the same as ordinary religious belief or observance. It has room for profound doubt and insistent questioning. It does not ask you to check your mind at the door and submit your will to some sort of external authority - whether that be a church, a priest or minister, or a book . Rather, Christian mysticism argues that any respect you pay to external authority can emerge only from a profound inner experience or conviction that God is real and present, and that it is both possible and plausible for the average person to have a truly experiential relationship with God.
In "The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church's Conservative Icon", scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan define mysticism this way:
[M]ysticism is union with God. A mystic is one who lives in union or communion with God. The difference between union and communion is relatively minor: the first involves a sense of “one-ness” with God; the second, a sense of connection with the sacred that is deep, close, and intimate, even though a sense of “two-ness” remains.

Most mystics have mystical experiences—by which we mean ecstatic experiences in which there is a vivid sense of the presence of God, or the Sacred, or the Real, terms that we use interchangeably here. An ecstatic experience, as the roots of the Greek word suggest, is a nonordinary state of consciousness. One is “out of” or “beyond” ordinary consciousness and in this state has an overwhelming sense of experiencing God. God becomes an experiential reality. In this sense, mystics know God. They do not simply believe in God, but have moved from believing to knowing.
Contemplate the Mystery of the Universe
Mysticism is all about possibility - "the
more".  It doesn’t have to deny rational thought or science, but works with it while also going beyond and asking "what else?"  The illumination of the mystic is not a denial of reality, but is an enlightenment that enables the mystic to see things the way they really are.  It’s not about seeing visions and hearing voices - though this is in the realm of possibility for the mystic, and when a mystic has such experiences they are for the purpose of exposing reality and illuminating in the way I've just described.  But while such visions are possible, one can be a mystic without ever having such an experience, or one could be a mystic while having attributed such an experience to psychological explanation.  St. John of the Cross actually felt that supernatural phenomenon were problematic because they could have so easily come from the ego’s need to feel important and special.

To think more about the "experience of God" - consider the following analogy which came from an essay by Arthur Eddington: Eddington asks his readers to consider the idea of analyzing a joke scientifically in order to determine if it is in fact a joke - much in the same way that a scientist might analyze a chemical compound in order to determine if it is in fact a chemical salt.  Upon concluding that it is, in fact, a joke, would we still laugh?  Or would the act of having gone through the analysis have robbed us of the inclination to laugh?  He concludes:

And as laughter cannot be compelled by the scientific exposition of the structure of a joke, so a philosophic discussion of the attributes of God (or an impersonal substitute) is likely to miss the intimate response of the spirit which is the central point of the religious experience.
This is why so much of mystical practice has focused on methods for recognizing and experiencing the presence of God, rather than analyzing God.  But because we so often have analytical minds that are constantly seeking to understand, mystical writing seeks to confound this analysis through delving into the mystery of the paradoxical nature of God.

The paradox of mysticism itself is that the more it reveals, the more it conceals.  It opens you up to the experience of God while at the same time forcing you to give up all your idolatrous concepts of God - it is almost as if the more you know God, the less you are able to claim to know for sure about God.  Mysticism is meant to point people to an experiential knowledge of the presence of God - to draw its adherents into the mystery of the infinite Being.  As I noted in the first section of this series, the word translated "repent" (metanoia) means "to go beyond/to expand the mind".  So when one ponders the ultimate Mystery that is God, one must constantly go beyond and expand on our current understanding.

When we seek to understand the mystery of God, we must always keep in mind that it is just that - it is mystery.  There is an ancient Indian parable that has crossed into many religious traditions about a group of blind men and an elephant.  None of these men have ever experienced an elephant, and they have no idea what it is like - so they go and touch this elephant to find out.  In one version of the story, one man, touching the leg, declares that an elephant is like a pillar.  Another, touching the trunk, says he is wrong - an elephant is like a snake.  Another, touching its tusk, declares that an elephant is like a spear.  Each man, touching a different portion of the elephant, has a different experience of the elephant.  The point of the story is that none of these men are wrong, but neither are any of them completely right - they all only have a piece of the picture.  And if they could put aside their ego and stop arguing long enough to find out why each of the other men "see" the elephant differently, they could have a broader, more complete experience of what an elephant is.  This is a very good way, I feel, of understanding why we must respect the mystery of God.

I think Pope John XXIII put this well:

[When one] attempts to convey something of God’s holy otherness he tries one earthly simile after another. In the end he discards them all as inadequate and says apparently wild and senseless things meant to startle the heart into feeling what lies beyond the reaches of the brain. Something of the kind takes place here: “Eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, what things God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9). [These realities beyond understanding] can be brought closer only by the overthrow of everything naturally comprehensible. Flung into a world of new logic, we are forced to make a genuine effort to understand.
And another great quote that captures mysticism well, in my opinion, is the following by Bishop John Shelby Spong from his book, "Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile":
I define myself above all other things as a believer. I am indeed a passionate believer. God is the ultimate reality in my life. I live in a constant and almost mystical awareness of the divine presence. I sometimes think of myself as one who breathes the very air of God or, to borrow an image from the East, as one who swims in the infinite depths of the sea of God. Like the psalmist of old, I have the sense of God’s inescapableness. I am what I would call a God-intoxicated human being. Yet, when I seek to put my understanding of this God into human words, my certainty all but disappears. Human words always contract and diminish my God awareness. They never expand it.
One of the wondrous things about emphasizing practices which lead to an experience of God is that the more we practice, the more we begin to shine with the light of God - "He must increase, but I must decrease." (John 3:30)

This has been termed "deification", and has been described with the analogy that with the practices, we become like a polished pane of glass which the sunlight may then shine through.  With this concept, our sin is not what defines us, but is merely the dirt covering the glass and making it opaque.

Bishop Irenaeus - a second century Christian - taught that "God became man, so man could become like God." He further explained that "Christ became what we are, so that He might bring us to be what He Himself is."  Irenaeus was probably the first Christian theologian to teach deification, but he was by no means the only. One of his contemporaries, Clement of Alexandria, said:

The Logos of God had become man so that you might learn how a man may become God.
In verses 12-13 of John 1, the gospel writes that "to all who received him", God "gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.Meister Eckhart, writing about this passage in "The Book of Divine Comfort", teaches this idea of deification when he writes of "agents of the soul" which, "being created with the soul, are not God" and "must be changed, transformed into God, reborn in Him and of him, so that only God is Father and they, too, become his sons, his only-begotten sons.  For I am God's son when I have been born and formed in his image."

I believe that this idea of deification was what Jesus was alluding to when he said in John 15:4 that if we abide in him, he will abide in us.  After this, he gives the metaphor of how a branch cannot bear fruit without abiding in the vine.  This picture shows that we must live in the way of Jesus in order to become like him, and only then can we experience the Presence - or the in-dwelling - of God.

Indeed, within the context of first century Rome where there were so many stories of deified human beings, many passages would have been heard by this audience as pointing to deification.  For example, in Luke 22:29-30, Jesus says that "just as My Father has granted Me a kingdom, I grant you that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel." (emphasis mine)  And the book of Revelation has Jesus saying (Rev. 3:21) that "He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne."  In a first century context where there were many stories of deified humans whom had been given power and dominion by the gods, these verses would have been heard as pointing to a Christian version of deification - which indeed, the quotes I have provided from early Church fathers demonstrate.

I think it important to note that I am not speaking of a performance driven Christianity where we are always afraid about whether or not we are doing enough. This is not what we see when we look at how the disciples were treated while they were following Jesus.  When we look at the picture of Peter's journey especially (which I wrote about in more detail here), we see that he was always messing up, and yet he was very close to Jesus and was accepted by him.  That is why I use the word practice - in the same sense that when we train in athletics or musical instruments, we practice, and practice makes perfect.

Even more than the fact that this is a practice, it is the practice of love, which includes forgiveness - not only of others when they fail, but of ourselves as well.

Next Chapter: Mysticism, Fundamentalism, and Judaism 

Friday, May 29, 2015

Judaism and the Mystical Christ, Ch. 2: The Bible and Communication Theory

Note: This is part of an ongoing series entitled "Judaism and the Mystical Christ".  I have created a blog entry containing the table of contents linking to each article which may be accessed here:

Table of Contents


The Bible and Communication Theory
In my last post, I explored the topic of what is called a paradigm shift, and mentioned that I had experienced a few of these myself.  The overarching theme of this series has to do with how gaining a perspective on Judaism reshapes the way we perceive the meaning of the Bible, Jesus, and faith itself, and leads us towards what I will call "Mystical Christ".

But before I begin to explore these ideas I would like to address the elephant in the room - namely, the way that we read the Bible.  It has become a very popular notion within Western Christianity that the Bible functions in a way that is very similar to a gavel - one slams down a Bible verse taken out of context and then triumphantly shouts "the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!"  Case closed.  The one who struck the gavel now expects their "opponent" to walk away in shame while they may now hold their head high.

This attitude and behavior is usually the result of being steeped within a culture that teaches that the Bible is "inerrant".  But there are a few problems with this starting point - the first of which, I'd like to point out, does not require that we reject the term "inerrant" when describing the Bible.  It has to do with a theory for how communication works.

J.L. Austin was a British philosopher of language who lived in the mid 1900's, and whom developed a theory of speech acts.  The theory states that when a "speech act" occurs, there are multiple things happening simultaneously.  The first part of a "speech act" is referred to as a locution, and this is the "material" of the act.  It could be a physical and audible utterance of words, a writing of some sort, or some form of art (such as a painting or play).

But for this locution to be a speech act, it requires a bit more.  First of all, it cannot be a speech act if there is no audience.  But secondly, there must be some meaning which the locutor intended to convey to his or her audience.  This intended meaning is the second part of the speech act, and is referred to as the interlocution.  But interlocution is a bit more than the intended meaning - because in order for a speech act to be considered successful, we must endeavor to ascertain whether the meaning intended by the locutor is the same meaning that was perceived by the audience - so the interlocution is not only the intended meaning but it is also the perceived meaning, and these may not always match up.

The final part of a speech act is called the perlocution.  The perlocution is also broken up into two parts, as in the case of the interlocution - it is both the desired effect or result of the speech act, and the actual effect or result of the speech act.  So for us to deem a speech act to be successful, we ought to try to match up the locutor's desired effect with the actual effect it had on the audience.

One of the common fault lines where a speech act breaks down and fails to be successful is when it is "taken out of context".  Let me give you an example: let's say that I dramatically blurt out with a tone of despair "where has all the salt gone?  Is there any salt left in this world?"  The locution is not merely the collection of words, but it is also the mannerism in which I said these things - my dramatic tone of despair.  Without this context, one might miss the point and incorrectly perceive the interlocution, as well as failing to perform the correct perlocution.  But the problem of correctly perceiving interlocution and applying perlocution does not end there - we should also ask where and when I made this speech.  

Let me give you a few examples where the context completely changes both the interlocution and the perlocution of the statement I mentioned.

In the first example, I'd like you to imagine that I have been having dinner with my wife and some good friends at my house, and we have been having a very enjoyable time.  At some point during the evening, I ask for the salt to be passed to me.  When it arrives, I turn the salt shaker over only to discover that no salt comes out.  This is the lead up to my dramatic exclamation of despair: "where has all the salt gone?  Is there any salt left in this world?"

With this setup, one might guess that my tone of dramatic despair is hyperbolic and meant to be humorous. Thus, my interlocution - or intended meaning - could be a joke, meant to result in a multifaceted perlocution.  If the result of my utterance is for everyone at the table to laugh, and for my wife to refill the salt shaker, this actual result is very likely a good match for my desired result.

Now, before I move on to my second example, I'd like my readers to imagine that one of the people at the table decided to quote my exact words on Twitter or Facebook without any of the setup.  How likely do you think it would be that the online audience would perceive the correct interlocution and perlocution?

In my second example, let's say that we place my words in a completely different context: I have been participating in a Bible study group that has just been studying and discussing Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount", and after discussing Matthew 5:13 where Jesus says that his disciples are "the salt of the earth" for a bit, we begin to discuss how so many people who claim to be Christians do not resemble the things Jesus mentions in the rest of his sermon.  It is within this context that I then dramatically blurted out "where has all the salt gone?  Is there any salt left in this world?"  Within this new context, do you think that I am hoping that everyone in the room will laugh, and then someone will run home to grab a salt shaker and bring it back to me?

In addition to the context in which the locution occurs, we might also want to pay attention to the context of the locutor - the character we are able to know about the person who spoke.  In the example I gave of the dinner party where I dramatically and despairingly uttered "where has all the salt gone?  Is there any salt left in this world?", those who know me (perhaps even just from one dinner) might have perceived that I have a certain sense of humor, and this context might have given them more of a foundation on which to build the assumption that I was being hyperbolic in an attempt to cause laughter.

Another example of how context changes meaning -
I'd like you to consider the following conversation:
Jane: Would you like some coffee?
John: That would keep me awake.
Do we know at this point whether John wants coffee?  The answer is that we don't, because this conversation is too ambiguous.  Even if we had access to John's tone of voice and facial expressions when he answered, it would still be very difficult.  However, if we knew whether this conversation occurred in the morning or in the evening, this context would give us a fairly accurate idea of whether John actually wanted coffee or not (keep in mind there could be other factors, i.e.: is this in the evening, and John and Jane are on a road trip and need to stay awake?).

In the case of the Bible - if we wish to ascertain the interlocution and perceive the desired perlocution of a writer such as Paul, we might want to pay careful attention to his other writings so that we do not make a judgment call on one statement that contradicts a large portion of his other writings - to do this would be to completely ignore the context of his character.  But we also need to know as much as we can about Paul's Jewishness, as well as the history of the time period he lived in, and the common traits of the environments of the various places his audiences resided in.  Because without this context, we may have completely missed the desired interlocution and perlocution and substituted our own.

One final and very simple illustration might help drive the point about the importance of context home.  In the parable of "The Good Samaritan", Jesus says that "a man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho" (Lk. 10:30).  With our modern context and the access we have to maps with north being located "up" and south being "down", we might assume that Jericho was located to the south of Jerusalem.  But one look at a map challenges this:

Now what do we do with this challenge to our assumptions?  One option might be to declare the mapmaker a heretic who has challenged the integrity of God's Word and is denying the authority of the scriptures (hey, the Church did this to Galileo and Copernicus).  We might demand that people ignore such maps and draw maps placing Jericho to the south of Jerusalem.  Another option would be to say that Jesus was ignorant, and thus was wrong.  Another might be to say that Jesus never said this, but rather it was Luke who was ignorant and wrong.  And yet another option might be to say that either Jesus or Luke were trying to deceive us.  Or, we could attempt to place ourselves within the historical context and realize that because they did not have the access to maps in this period that we do, and because Jerusalem was at a higher elevation than Jericho and thus the experience of walking from Jerusalem to Jericho was a journey down a very long hill, the assumed meaning of down in that culture had more to do with elevation than with geography.

It is for this reason that I will be attempting to enlist the help of Jewish thought throughout this series - because I believe that without understanding Jewish thought, we cannot help but misunderstand the Bible.  Westerners - thinking through a very Western lens - cannot possibly understand the very Jewish and Eastern Jesus if we do not attempt to immerse ourselves within their thinking.  The modern Western versions of Christianity have all too often suffered from the arrogance of thinking that they hold a monopoly on truth and do not have to listen to any outsiders.  And when we do this, we forget how our traditions have grown out of much older traditions.  As the English writer Aldous Huxley once put it:
Every individual is at once the beneficiary and the victim of the linguistic tradition into which he has been born - the beneficiary inasmuch as language gives access to the accumulated records of other people’s experience, the victim insofar as it confirms him in the belief that reduced awareness is the only awareness.

The Finger is not the Moon
I have written before on why I reject the idea of "inerrancy" (see here, here, and here), so I am not going to rehash this debate again here.  But I would like to try once again to offer an alternative vision for the purpose of the Bible. 

I believe that we are meant to see an overarching story within the Bible - an ongoing narrative the leads up to the person of Jesus.  But it doesn't even stop there!  I believe it continues on in the narrative of the "body of Christ" - the church!  We are meant to carry on the story! 

So for me, I believe that if we take any section of the Bible and treat it like a "stopping point", we have made an idol out of that scripture.  Consider the Bible as if it were a telescope - the point is not the telescope itself, but what it enables us to see!  If we revere the telescope too much, we will completely miss the point!  I believe that "Sola Scriptura inerrancy" is essentially holding a telescope up to our eye while covering the end with our hand - at that point, you're really just making up fantasies about the heavens in your own head.

This idea is very similar to something the Buddha said: 

[M]y teaching is a method to experience reality, and not reality itself, just as a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself. An intelligent person makes use of the finger to see the moon. A person who only looks at the finger and mistakes it for the moon will never see the real moon. My teaching is a means of practice, not something to hold onto or worship. Only a fool would continue to carry his raft around after he had already used it to reach the other shore, the shore of liberation.
If we do not open ourselves up to the various possibilities of what the symbolic language of the Bible is pointing to, it is like worshiping the finger that is pointing to the moon.

I think it helps to understand that all our words are symbols.  Louis Chauvet describes the meaning of symbol in "Symbol and Sacrament" as follows:

If one construed it transitively, one would translate it, according to the context, as "gather together", "hold in common", or "exchange". The substantive symbole designates the joint at the elbow or knee and, more generally, the whole idea of conjunction, reunion, contract, or pact. The ancient symbolon is precisely an object cut in two, one part of which is retained by each partner in a contract. Each half evidently has no value in itself and thus could imaginatively signify anything; its symbolic power is due only to its connection with the other half. It (can thus be described) as an agreement between the two partners which establishes the symbol; it is the expression of a social pact based on mutual recognition and, hence, is a mediator of identity.
The idea that the words we use are always inadequate for describing the reality they symbolize is even a concept many scientists have grasped - as is illustrated by the following quote by Sir James Hopwood Jeans (known for the Rayleigh-Jeans Law):
The essential fact is simply that all the pictures which science now draws of nature, and which alone seem capable of according with observational fact, are mathematical pictures. Most scientists would agree that they are nothing more than pictures - fictions, if you like, if by fiction you mean that science is not yet in contact with ultimate reality. Many would hold that, from the broad philosophical standpoint, the outstanding achievement of twentieth-century physics is not the theory of relativity with its welding together of space and time, or the theory of quanta with its present apparent negation of the laws of causation, or the dissection of the atom with the resultant discovery that things are not what they seem; it is the general recognition that we are not yet in contact with ultimate reality.
To apply this to the Bible, I would like my audience to consider that the Bible may function as a scatter plot pointing off into infinity.  A scatter plot is a tool that enables us to see how many samples of data over time show a trend that is occurring:

To use another, similar analogy, if you have seen the movie "Gravity", there is a scene where Sandra Bullock's character is trying to reach a space station.  Before firing thrusters, she lines up her cross-hairs with the tiny speck that she sees of the space station in the distance.  She does this very carefully - making sure to get the sights lined up perfectly before firing her thrusters.  And yet, when she is close to the space station, she ends up having to jump out of the ship's side door and do some tricky maneuvers in order to get to the station because her course was not perfect.  I believe that what many people do with the Bible is like sailing right on past the space station while insisting that your course was perfect and therefore while it may look like the space-station is over there, that's just Satan lying to us!  This displays a remarkable arrogance!

As I spoke of in the last section, I believe that God may be described best in various terms of infinity.  And thus, logically we may conclude that any single description which tries to solidify the infinite concepts of God into a solid form will ultimately fail.  This is why I believe that over the course of the narrative of the Bible, we will see a trend developing that points off into infinity, much like a scatter plot.  But if we take one of those points of data and solidify it into a definitive concept, we couldn't possibly understand the path of the trend.  Or, if we point the line of the scatter plot trend in the wrong direction (as in, we take "the wrathful God of the Old Testament" as our defining image rather than the God Jesus shows us who loves enemies perfectly), we have also missed the trend of the scatter plot.

To say this is not to say that the Old Testament passages have no value or do not help us to see God!  Rather, we must understand that God is present within the Old Testament, but as God is infinite, these old understandings had to be transcended - and we see these understandings continually being transcended, just as we are called today to transcend old, limiting understandings of the infinite.  I believe this attitude of recognizing the finitude of our current understanding in order to transcend it is what Paul was speaking of in I Corinthians 3:18:
Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise.
Paul recognized that "for now we see in a mirror dimly" (I Cor. 13:12), and that God - being infinite - was fully outside any man's ability to grasp truth.  And so in order to continually grow closer one must become "foolish" in the eyes of the world, in order to, paradoxically, become wise.

This attitude of continually transcending our limited understanding transforms the language of the Bible from a dead, rigid form of stone into living, breathing truth.  And for those who have been trained their whole life to be dogmatic, while treating the Bible in this way may be difficult, I would like to remind you that Abraham negotiated with God (Gen. 18:23-33), Jacob wrestled with God before he was blessed by Him (Gen. 32:22-31), Moses negotiated with God more than once (see Ex. 3:12-16 and Num. 11 for two examples), the Psalms and Lamentations are full of pleading and even accusation against God (shocking!), and even Jesus is said to have plead with God to change the course he was on.  

I think that the Jewish attitude towards the Bible is much healthier than "Sola Scriptura inerrancy" - recognizing how various figures in the Bible negotiated with God as I've just mentioned, they seemed to understand that the Bible is up for interpretation and that newer understandings may trump older ones.  We'll get into that a bit more as this series progresses, but for now I'd like to share a story from the Talmud.  The Talmud is a very interesting collection of commentaries on the Torah, and is revered by modern Jews as being a work every Jew should study.  And what's interesting about it is that the Talmud doesn't hide disagreement, but preserves it - often polar opposite views of a passage or idea are kept side by side.  And there is one beautiful story that demonstrates perfectly how the Jewish view of the Bible flies in the face of "Sola Scriptura inerrancy" - the story of Rabbi Eliezer and the oven, which I will retell in my own way.  

The story goes that Rabbi Eliezer had a disagreement with a group of other scholars over whether an oven was pure or impure.  Rabbi Eliezer brought the other scholars all sorts of proofs to his point of view, but they still disagreed.  At one point during the disagreement, Eliezer said "if the law is as I say, let the river prove me right!"  Instantly, the river reversed its course.

But one of the other scholars said "one cannot prove a matter of Torah by the flow of water!"

So Eliezer said "if the law is as I say, may the walls of the study hall prove me right!"  Instantly, the walls of the study hall began to cave in, but one of the other rabbis, Rabbi Joshua, stood up and rebuked them: "if Torah scholars are debating a point of Jewish law, what are your qualifications to intervene?"  The story goes that the walls, in respect to Rabbi Joshua, did not cave in, but in respect towards Rabbi Eliezer they remained at a permanent slant afterwards.

So Rabbi Eliezer tried once more: "if the law is as I say, may Heaven prove me right!"  A booming voice filled the room and reverberated around them all: "why do you argue with Rabbi Eliezer?  Don't you know he's always right?"  But once again, Rabbi Joshua stood up and intervened, saying "the Torah is not in Heaven!"

We might fail to follow the logic here, given the Christian over-reverence of the Bible that turns it into an idol.  But Jews interpret Deuteronomy 30:11-14 to mean that Torah was given to us so that we could interpret it.  In other words, the popular understanding of this tale from the Talmud is that Rabbi Joshua was rebuking God for not allowing them to do the job He'd given them to do!  Note how Jesus actually supports this idea when he tells his disciples in Matthew 18:18 that "whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" - in Jewish terminology, when a Rabbi "binds" something, he is declaring it forbidden by his interpretation of the law, and when he "looses" something he is declaring it allowed.  So here, Jesus is giving us permission to interpret!

The story of Rabbi Eliezer and the oven goes on from there to arrive at a conclusion many "Sola Scriptura inerrantists" might find shocking - Rabbi Nathan is said to have experienced a vision wherein he meets the prophet Elijah, and at one point Nathan asks how God reacted at the moment that Rabbi Joshua rebuked Heaven.  Elijah responds: "God laughed and said 'my children have bested me!  Haha, my children have bested me!'"  

This picture of a God delighted with His children for exercising their wits and even disagreeing with their Heavenly Father is altogether foreign from many forms of Christianity, sadly.  We cower in fear underneath a tyrannical Molech that we've slapped Christian branding over.  But the God of Judaism wants us to negotiate with Him.  This God wants us to think for ourselves!  This God wants us to cry out for justice - because it is at this moment that He can invite us to join him in the cause!

Dr. Ismar Schorsch, the sixth chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, put it this way:

[I]n Judaism precisely because the Torah is revered as divine, it becomes susceptible to unending interpretation. It would be a denigration of God's word to saddle it with just a single meaning. In contrast to human speech, which carries a finite range of meanings, the language of God was deemed to be endowed with an infinity of meanings. This theology freed the Rabbis to do midrash, creating the anomaly of a canon without closure. The vessels kept changing their contents. New challenges elicited new insights into a text inviolable only on the surface.
If we can just remember that the words we use for Theology are not what they represent, but are symbols for what we are speaking of - like a finger pointing to the moon - we can ease so much tension.  And then we may not feel the need to demonize those who use different words.  If we could just remember that the point is not the words themselves, but the way of life that these words are supposed to lead to - maybe we'd stop judging people by what words they use but put emphasis on conduct instead.  Because the point is not words or "beliefs" - as James 1:27 points out:
Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
And later on in James 3:13, the author writes:
Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom.
George MacDonald - a member of the Inklings whom C.S. Lewis called his "master" - picked up on this principle and wrote in one of his "Unspoken Sermons" titled "The Truth in Jesus":
Yes; for to hold a thing with the intellect, is not to believe it. A man’s real belief is that which he lives by; and that which the man I mean lives by, is the love of God, and obedience to his law, so far as he has recognized it. [...] What a man believes, is the thing he does.
In "Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian", Dr. Paul Knitter writes about this attitude of allowing words to be symbols that point to a way of life:
[I]f a new interpretation of – that is, new words for – a traditional Christian belief enables people to live their lives according to the spirit of the Gospel, it’s probably a faithful “reinterpretation” or a valid new understanding of that belief, no matter how different the words may be. In theological jargon, right acting (called “orthopraxis”) is more important than, though it is dependent on, right believing (“ orthodoxy”). Or in contemporary jargon, walking the talk is more important than talking the talk. So, if the new “talk” enables us to keep walking, it’s probably okay. It’s probably “orthodox.”
To illustrate even further how the Bible is not "The Truth" but functions as a finger pointing to the moon, I'd like to consider the words of Jesus in John 5:39:
You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.
We see here that Jesus himself challenged an idolatrous relationship with the Bible, but tells us that the Bible functions as a finger pointing to the moon.  As George MacDonald - who is credited with the conversion of C.S. Lewis - puts it:
Sad, indeed, would the whole matter be if the Bible had told us everything God meant us to believe. But herein is the Bible greatly wronged. It nowhere lays claim to be regarded as the Word, the Way, the Truth. The Bible leads us to Jesus, the inexhaustible, the ever-unfolding Revelation of God. It is Christ "in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge," not the Bible, save as leading to Him.
This idea is further reiterated by authors John Kronen and Eric Reitan in "God's Final Victory":
[W]e think that the way in which Scripture contributes to the formation of doctrine is far more complex than the 'plain sense' view would have us believe.  The whole text must be read in light of what is central, namely Christ, and in light of the theological tradition that has struggled, and continues to struggle, to integrate the experience of the Christian community and its members as they have endeavoured to live out their understanding of what it means to be the body of Christ.  Reading the text in the light of these things requires a practice of receiving inherited theological conclusions with respect and honour; but it also requires critical engagement with that inheritance.
Even Augustine saw that we must identify the guiding principles of Scripture which take precedence over the peripherals:
But any who understand a passage in the scriptures to mean something which the writer did not mean are mistaken . . . but all the same . . . if they are mistaken in a judgment which is intended to build up love . . . they are mistaken in the same sort of way as people who go astray off the road, but still proceed by rough paths to the same place as the road was taking them. God spoke the true word, in spite of the reader’s error.
Here we see that Augustine paid careful attention to the priority of love - as both Jesus and Paul said that the principles of Scripture are summed up in love (see Mt. 22:36-40 and Gal. 5:14).  If the thought of prioritizing principles in the Scriptures that take precedence over peripherals makes you uncomfortable, I'd like you to understand that you do this as well even if you're unconscious of this.  It's highly likely that if you're reading this post in 2015, you prioritize monogamy over the passages within Scripture that seem to support polygamy, you don't support slavery (even though Scripture seems to be ok with it), and if a male joins your church you probably don't take him into a back room and have him pull his pants down so that you can make sure he's circumcised before allowing him to join.

If you're still not sold on this attitude towards the Bible, I'd like to come at this from one more angle before we break.

One of the ways that the Bible - and not just the Bible, but all Eastern religions - hints at a "truth beyond words" is through the use of paradox.  To illustrate how a paradox works, I'd like you to examine a famous illustration called "My Wife and My Mother-in-law":

You've probably seen this before, and the question that is asked is: do you see the back of a beautiful young woman's head or the side of an old woman's face?  And the answer is: it depends on how you're looking!  It's actually both.  Now we could say "well, it's supposed to be one or the other" and then explain how one view must be the correct one - but that wouldn't do the illustration justice!  Because the illustration is meant to illustrate a profound truth - that the mother-in-law has characteristics very much like the daughter, and the daughter has characteristics very much like the mother-in-law!  Or to put it another way - one can see the daughter in the mother-in-law and the mother-in-law in the daughter!

Now what many theologians all too often do is very much like insisting that the illustration above must be either the daughter or the mother-in law.  And so they'll often try to pretend that Biblical evidence doesn't exist - much like if we were to erase a few lines from the drawing above (maybe the red part) and then insist that it is only the daughter.  But what if the only way to communicate the profound mysteries of spiritual truth were to use two seemingly opposing ideas (a paradox)?

There are many paradoxes within the Bible, but I am going to focus on one very important one - a paradox that is foundational for "Mystical Christianity".  It is the paradox of kenosis and God's sovereignty.  

I argued in the first "chess move" of my series on Hell that verses like Job 42:2, Psalm 135:6, Isaiah 14:24-27, Daniel 4:35, Matthew 19:26, Romans 11:36, and Ephesians 1:11 imply that in the end, God gets everything God wants - or in other words, God is sovereign.  Another way of saying this is that God is omnipotent - this is a popular way of putting it in theological terms.

But an interesting paradox presents itself when you consider that Jesus is, as Colossians 1:15 puts it: "the image of the invisible God."  Because we know that Jesus emptied himself, as Philippians 2:7 puts it.  The Greek word used in this verse is kenosis, and it implies a self-emptying.  The passage in Philippians goes on to explain that because Jesus humbled himself, he was exalted - which matches quite well with Jesus' saying that "whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted." (Mt. 23:12 and Lk. 14:11).

If Jesus is indeed "the image of the invisible God", then would this imply that God's nature is a self-emptying one as well?  Many theologians have concluded that the answer to this is: yes!  And this presents us with a profound mystery - because in God we see power in a way of being that looks to us like weakness!

If this sounds like nonsense, then I suggest you re-examine Paul's words in 2 Cor. 12:10 - he implies that Christians are to emulate this strength through weakness!

Let's come at this from another angle - I John 4:8 and 16 tell us that God is love.  If you have a hard time with this idea, I'd ask you to read another post I wrote titled: "Yes, God Really IS Love!"  But if this is true, then I believe that, logically, when we read Paul's wonderful poetry on the nature of love in I Corinthians 13, we can take this as a description of God's character - in other words, wherever it says "love", we can substitute the word "God".  And if we do this, we find a profound paradox - because God does not demand His own way (verse 5 in NLT, or as the NASB puts it: "love does not seek its own"), and yet God never fails! (I Cor. 13:8)

Somehow - though it may make no sense to human logic - though God does not force His way into being or coerce others to do His will, God still gets everything God wants in the end!  And as Christians who are to be followers of Jesus, I believe that if we align ourselves with this way of being - by taking on the nature of a servant and gaining through losing (Phil. 3:7-8) - we will have aligned ourselves with the will of God and will receive the inheritance of the kingdom of God (Col. 3:23-24) - which is the realm in which, as the Lord's Prayer puts it (Mt. 6:10), God's will is done.  Through kenosis - the self-emptying nature of love - we may become conquerors (Rom. 8:37) - just as Jesus conquered through emptying himself even to the point of death!

To see the truth in the Bible, we cannot deny one side of the many paradoxes it contains - but rather we must see the "radical middle" - the truth that is communicated in between the two seemingly opposing ideas.

There is another Buddhist story that illustrates what I've been trying to get at.  The story goes that a young, single father had a son whom he loved more than anything else in the world.  One day, while he was away, some plunderers came to the father's village and burnt most of it down - including the father's house.  When the father returned, he could not find his son, and mistook one of the burnt corpses for his son's body.  He was completely devastated, and during his mourning he had the body cremated and the ashes put into a silk bag that he kept with himself at all times.  But what he didn't know was that his son was alive - he had been kidnapped by the plunderers!  

Later on, the boy managed to escape and returned home to his father.  But the door of the house was locked, and so the boy knocked.  "Who is it?" the father asked.  "It's me, your son!"  The father had been sitting in the room weeping while holding the bag of ashes, and he said "you wicked boy!  How could you play such a horrible trick on a heartbroken father - go away!"  The boy continued to knock and cry and plead to be let in, but the father continued to rebuke him until finally the son left and never returned.

In "No Death, No Fear", Thich Nhat Hanh tells this story and concludes with this thought:
The Buddha said that if you get caught in one idea and consider it to be “the truth,” then you miss the chance to know the truth. Even if the truth comes in person and knocks at your door, you will refuse to open your mind. So if you are committed to an idea about truth or to an idea about the conditions necessary for your happiness, be careful. 
Likewise, the medieval German mystic Meister Ekhart once said:
If you want to get at the kernel of something, you must first break the shell. Only then can you enjoy its true benefits. Symbols of reality are not the same as reality itself, so they must be destroyed. Then you will come closer and closer to what truly is. When you finally reach the One, there your soul must remain.

Next Chapter: What is Christian Mysticism?