Thursday, 8 October 2009

The Bible Society and Mysticism

I was saddened to read the Bible Society’s “The Bible in transmission” magazine, and see its content devoted under the banner of ‘contemplation’ to the encouragement of Christian mysticism. These are some quick thoughts as to why:

In essence, mysticism detracts from the Bible. We must certainly affirm the principles behind the lectio divina – the contemplative reading of scripture. It is good to read slowly and thoughtfully. It is good to respond in prayer and silent awareness of God. But by urging a focus on one verse that “strikes home” on the assumption that this is of the Spirit, does put the reader in danger of reading the verse out of context and so ascribing a meaning to it that is not intended by the Holy Spirit in his inspiration of it.

This danger is more potential than definite in terms of Bible reading. But it is much more apparent in the wider ideas behind mysticism. For there the encouragement is to empty the mind of thoughts of God’s works and attributes, and simply rest in the essence of God. Yet to what extent can we say or known that what we meditate on is truly God apart from his attributes? And do we not see his attributes and works to be exactly the things scripture encourages us to ponder? Not to do so, inevitably leads to the mystic equating God’s presence with whatever sense of other or peace they have as they meditate. But it is surely unwise to give such weight to one’s experience, for it breeds a spirituality of uncertainty, for what one feels resonates with God one week, may be felt differently the week after. And what if someone thinks they sense God taking part in the practices of another religion? What if they sense his peace after they have committed some sexual sin? It is too easy to then assume God’s approval.

Thus in the Bible Society’s magazine on mysticism we see pantheism affirmed because one has a sense of God in nature, the truths of other religions included in Christian worship as if they prove God’s presence in such religion, the benefits of iconography as long as we look through it to God, and we read one man affirm that self-critical feelings such as shame or guilt are never from God. All these ideas are asserted by Christian Ministers, yet each on is contrary to what we learn of God and his will within scripture.

The problem is ultimately one of objectifying experience. It certainly resonates with postmodernism and what those of this age may prefer. But is it right to justify such a spirituality on this basis, as is the concern of many so called emerging churches and fresh expressions? Surely, what the church must do is encourage a right experientialism that reflects on and responds to God’s word with peace, joy, guilt, thanksgiving or whatever; and a healthy discernment that recognises the deceitfulness of the heart and brings it to the checks and balances of scripture – checks to its erroneous feelings, and balances to ensure that what is rightly held is given the importance scripture gives it.

For a previous post on the subject, see here.