Van Morrison is the John Donne of blue-eyed soul*. Into the Mystic is my personal favorite. It is rare for a song or poem to be equally about human love and a divine/mystical encounter with a sustained metaphor that honors both, with a lovely boat ride thrown in for free. Love and beauty point us to some(thing/one?) more real than words, images, or concepts can contain. I recently took a walk on a sun- basked beach, with the snow melting, the wind and the waves colliding. Whatever was unsettled in me at the beginning of my trek, seemed to melt as well.
Of course, what I failed to mention are the previous days of struggling through my prayers, sitting through an unsettling worship service, wrestling with multiple texts, and other stuff I either cannot remember or chose not to. In spite of the ubiquitous sentiment of "I am spiritual, but not religious," encountering the living God is not easy. The English theologian Nicholas Lash has observed that "it is the tragedy of modern Western culture to have fallen victim to the illusion (widely shared by believer and nonbeliever alike) that it is perfectly easy to talk about God."* And it is much harder to have a genuine conversation with God than to talk about him and even harder yet to be present to the Presence.
For nearly three hundred years, American Christianity has had a strong experiential bent , which by itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Not only did heart-felt faith became normative, but in many circles certain kinds of "religious affections" became the only sure sign of the presence of The Holy Spirit or true conversion. One's salvation and knowledge of God became tied not to the Christ-event but rather to an existential "event" which would if not immediately, eventually be accompanied by some kind of "feeling of assurance." This whole process, even if it happened in a mass meeting, was individualistic and whether one had a "personal relation with Jesus" was the only sure marker that one belonged to God. The expectation was one would "feel" something deep and profound and the implication was either explicitly or implicitly communicated that the feeling was God.
An important part of my early faith journey was shaped by that evangelical impulse and I am forever in debt to being exposed to many wonderful Christians and of equal import, being immersed in the Scriptures. But eventually I came to question first the techniques and then the theology behind the instantaneous encounter. I have nothing inherently against campfires, twenty minutes of silence with God and the stars and singing the same song thirty times in a row.* But part of me wonders if we all were a bit mislead and then misleading to imply that God could be conjured up that way. When I hear on the radio someone saying that they tried the "born again thing" but it didn't stick or when a popular youth speaker who spent his entire career getting paid to be a Christian renounces the faith to become a humanist chaplain, I wonder if their experiences or notions of faith ever really knew Love itself. Only God knows; my best attempts at rejecting God have always been thwarted by those glimpses of encounter with the Knowing One.
I am thankful for the faith of my childhood and early adult life but also grateful that my knowledge of the Bible, plus being exposed to the larger Church both historically and in its present forms, led me out of that dangerously rocky and shallow soil of the faith. Even so, the mystery of "amazing grace" seems to transcend the errors and limitations of the broken earthly Body of Christ. I have known great souls living out a true piety regardless of the strengths or weakness of the particular branch of Christianity they happen to be in. Somehow bad, bizarre or broken theology is overcome by the crucified mystical body of Christ. Maybe the body/bread broken in The Lord's Supper is commentary as well as Sacrament.
Humans need a relationship with the living God, not an experience with their own psychological projection. I ended my last blog with perhaps the most important point of the whole piece: we live in an age where the transcendence of God is either under appreciated or practically lacking from the practice of contemporary Christianity. The Czech priest and theologian Tomas Halik defines piety as "openness to the unmanipulated mystery of life." He goes on to state that "those who wish to seek the living God and truly follow Christ must have the courage to learn to swim in deep waters, not in the shallows. God is the depths; He is not to be found in the shallows."*
One Halik's favorite Augustine quotes is "Si comprehendis, non est Deus- If you comprehend (fully), it is not God." If Jesus is right that the greatest commandment is to love God, then the task at hand is to not only to love God by caring for our neighbor and our selves, but to commit to the journey "into the mystic" that is the Triune God.
1. I apologize to my readers who may not know a. Who Van Morrison is (You Tube him) b. Who John Donne is (google him-read not just death poems) c. What blue-eyed soul is (think about for awhile) 2. Nicholas Lash, Holiness, Speech and Silence: Reflections on the Questions of God, p.84. 3. Actually I hate the singing of the same song over and over again. 4. Tomas Halak, Night of the Confessor: Christian Faith in an Age of Uncertainty, p. 55