Functional Mysticism

19 November 2022

Here’s a Merriam Webster definition of mystical: “involving or having the nature of an individual’s direct subjective communion with God or ultimate reality.” Let’s start with that.

Does the Bible describe direct subjective communion with God? Yes, and this is not remotely controversial. Abraham met God and talked with Him. Moses conversed with God as a man speaks to his friend. Gideon argued with God; Jacob physically fought Him. Isaiah saw a vision that nobody else saw; God told John to look for the Spirit descending like a dove; Saul of Tarsus heard a voice where everyone else heard thunder.

What about today? Today, the Christian faith teaches that you can be a partaker in the divine nature. The Christian faith teaches that if you belong to Jesus, you have been born again spiritually, and are presently indwelt by God Himself in the Person of the Holy Spirit. The Christian faith teaches that the indwelling Spirit comforts and teaches you (among other things). If these subjective experiences are actually happening in your life, then you have a direct, relational experience of God Himself. 

You might not like the word mystical to describe it, but…re-read that definition. If you have a real relationship with God, there it is. 

If those things are not happening in your life…well, then you’re not a practicing Christian. I’m not saying you’re not going to heaven; how would I know? You and Jesus can work that one out. But if you do not have an actual, real-life experience of the realities the New Testament promises to God’s people, if those things aren’t actually happening in your life, then you do not have a Christian spirituality.

At best, you’re an ideologue whose drug of choice happens to be theology. Maybe your doctrinal paperwork is all in order, and that’s great as far as it goes. As far as doctrinal paperwork goes, Jesus was a Pharisee (and so was Paul) so you see how far that gets you. 

Gentle Reader, I am confident of better things where you’re concerned — there’s lots of folks whose doctrinal paperwork ain’t caught up to what they actually do in real life. But that’s a problem, because that gap between your actual walk with God and the things you’re willing to affirm causes you to criticize people who are willing, not just to live, but to tell the truth. You need to update what you’re willing to say, so that it matches what you know in practice.

If you don’t, then you will push people into the arms of the enemy. When kids that grew up in the church go looking for a functioning spirituality at the coven down the street because all they ever saw at church was talk and moralizing, that’s on us. And it’s high time we quit talking like we don’t have the real thing, because we actually do.

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Apostles: Just the Twelve?

1 November 2022

Some folks have an idea that apostleship died out in the first century; that it was just the Twelve, and no more. This is a theologically convenient (for some) stance that has no basis in exegetical reality. The attempt to limit apostleship to the Twelve by appealing to Acts 1:21-22 fails because of Acts 14:4,14, Gal. 1:19, 2 Cor 8:23, and (arguably) Rom. 16:17. The mere existence of Barnabas, James the brother of Jesus, and especially Titus as apostles is enough to blow the whole thing wide open: it’s plainly more than just the Twelve. Once we know that, we don’t have to resort to tortured explanations of passages like 1 Cor. 9:2 and Rev. 2:2, and those passages begin to make a whole lot more sense.

The broader usage gives us a hint at what apostleship looks like beyond the Twelve, and Paul gives us another one in Rom. 15:23. Paul says there’s no longer room for him to minister where he is. What is it that there is no longer room for? Certainly there are plenty of unbelievers to evangelize and plenty of believers to disciple. He’s an apostle, which is to say a spiritual arsonist. He gets the fire started; once it grows to a certain point, he hands it off to others to feed, and he moves on to start another one.

We still need those people today; they’re the ones that start new works of all kinds. Might as well give them the right name, and acknowledge their spiritual gift for what it is.


A Minimum Standard

27 September 2022

The purpose of this post is to recommend that you go read three other posts, with this one as a kind of introduction, so I’ll keep this brief. I’d like to commend the three posts below as examples of a kind of minimum acceptable standard for a Christian understanding of the nature of God’s creation. We are Christians; we have been taught by Scripture that the world is not at all what the materialists think it is. They are not right as far as it goes; they are wrong all the way down, and certain (to a modern mind) startling conclusions follow from that fact — conclusions which most faithful evangelicals have not really thought through. So I want to commend the discussion below, in which someone (and a committed cessationist, at that!) thinks it through:

Regarding the first installment, I should tell you that grasping the point he’s making does not require clicking through to the other articles he references, although if you’re curious, knock yourself out (the link to Toby Sumpter’s post is broken, but you can find it here). There’s a second and third follow-up post to that one. All of them are pretty brief.

I should add, as a kind of postscript to that third post, that Wilson does not grasp the important distinction between prophecy and inscripturation — the two certainly are not the same thing — but that’s a conversation for another day.


Can We Understand the World?

5 October 2021

Contemporary skepticism looks like this: God made a movie, and a theater to watch it in, and then an audience of people to watch the movie. And now the audience is starting to wonder: Can we really understand the movie?

See, we have been analyzing the movie, and we’ve discovered that the whole thing is a fraud! The pictures don’t even actually move — there’s just 24 still pictures every second, in rapid succession. I mean, seriously — the whole thing’s just a trick! How could it mean anything?

But all this is folly, of course. God made the world for us, and us for it. He is revealing Himself in the world, and He is good at what He does. Of course we can receive revelation.

Modern man has just forgotten how.

Primitive man knew how to see the meaning in the world. Everything was alive, everything was meaningful. For the ancient Hebrews, the heavens declared God’s glory. When Messiah delivers His people, the very trees will clap their hands.

Even in its corrupted, nature-worshipping form, the ancient worldview didn’t lose the meaning in the world. We talk about it as “animism,” the belief that every thing in the world also has an anima, a spirit. But primitive man doesn’t see the tree and the tree spirit as two separate things. He sees a single, metaphysically thick entity — a physical and spiritual tree.

Primitive man could see the meaning in the world, could follow the thread of the story. But primitive man could only see a single thread.

With Descartes and Galileo, Western man began to realize that the thread was 2-ply, a twine of matter and consciousness. They unwound the composite thread in order to better study matter alone. Thus astrology became astronomy, alchemy became chemistry, and so on. This was all to the good, and we got a whole lot of good from it — the whole technological world we live in.

Nobody wants to turn back the clock. We’re all very happy to have vacuum cleaners, penicillin, and Prime 2-day delivery, thank you very much.

The problem is not that we need to undo the work that was done over the past few centuries. The problem is the work we didn’t do. We unwound the two-ply thread of matter and consciousness, and examined one of the threads exhaustively…and then pretended that the other thread doesn’t matter. We have not carried out the parallel examination of consciousness.

We have come to a point where our study of matter is forcing us back to consciousness. Matter, it turns out, is not just a series of ever-smaller Lego bricks. The quantum world does not behave like Legos at all. We have tiny particles that behave differently depending on whether we’re looking at them.

Consciousness matters. Consciousness influences the activities of matter. And so we cannot proceed until we understand more about the consciousness of the people that are looking.


Dust and Breath: A Sermon

20 April 2021

Being who and what we are, how do we live together? I had a chance to preach on that subject this week.


Nee vs. Kuyper

6 April 2021

Once upon a time, Watchman Nee wrote a little book called The Latent Power of the Soul in which he allowed that various paranormal things are possible for the human soul, but all of them are off limits for a Christian. The argument goes that these ‘soulish’ powers are verboten to Christians because we are intended to draw our power from the Spirit.

This has curb appeal for a lot of people, but on closer examination, it’s pious-sounding nonsense. The nonsense is easy enough to see if we apply the same argument consistently to all such ‘soulish’ powers. You are not allowed to go to the gym and lift weights, or practice doing complex math problems in your head, or learn to tell when someone is lying to you, because you are supposed to derive your power from the Holy Spirit. 

The nonsense is easy enough to see there. Of course it’s okay to do all these things. Your job is to take all the abilities you develop and bring them into subjection to Christ.

And that’s the underlying problem with Nee’s view: he brackets out certain admittedly natural human abilities, and then says we are not allowed to bring those abilities into subjection to Christ. Abraham Kuyper articulated a better approach: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!'”

So when we’re talking about intuition, specialized powers of minute observation, subtle palpation, manual manipulation, or whatever else, why approach the matter any differently?

“How do we know that these things are even real?” someone will want to know. That is a great question. We should be interested to sift the true from the false.

We may not approach that examination with the bias of, say, a James Randi or a Richard Dawkins. We know something they do not: the materialists are wrong, from top to bottom. The world is not what they say it is. Angels are real. Demons are real. Humans are both body and spirit. God reigns over it all. It is silly for a Christian to approach reality as if all spiritual claims are automatically bunk.

We know better. And whatever human abilities are real, are designed by God to serve Christ’s glory under the direction of the Spirit. Just like physical strength. 


Basics of Barfield: Four Pieces

11 June 2020

Owen Barfield was a companion of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, sometimes called “the first and last Inkling” because of his varied career and long life. He had an extraordinarily agile mind that mostly found expression in philology and philosophy rather than the fiction that was the domain of the more popular Inklings like Lewis, Tolkien, and Charles Williams. Here follows a distillation of some key points from Barfield’s work.

First piece: Language is a forensic record of human consciousness

Human consciousness changes over time. A modern person from New York does not think like a 15th-century English aristocrat, who does not think like a 15th-century Javanese rice farmer, none of whom think even remotely like a 5th-century BC Babylonian astrologer. Some of the differences are cultural, but some differences are more than that.

The development of human thought and consciousness leaves a forensic record in our language. As we develop new concepts and new ways of interacting with or perceiving the world, we also develop vocabulary and expressions to say what we’re thinking.

A simple example of this language/consciousness interplay would be our words for colors. When we don’t have a word for a color, we literally have a harder time seeing it. As soon as we name it, it becomes easier to see. So you have a forward-thinking individual who sees something most people can’t see, gives it a name, and starts teaching other people to see it. If it catches on, your language gets a new color word.

Second piece: Original participation

Ancient languages worked from the outside in. The Hebrew word ruach meant “wind” first, then “breath” — the wind inside the body — and then finally “spirit.” The Greek pneuma and the Sanskrit prana worked the same way. Modern languages, on the other hand, work from the inside out. There’s a whole class of words that have come into existence in modern language that never existed before, as we have come to see the outer world in terms of what goes on inside us.

Originally, human beings saw themselves as immersed in the world, participating in it by taking its qualities into themselves. Thus, in the ancient world, a tribe would name itself after an animal and seek to take on the animal’s traits. Modern people project their traits outward onto the world.  Ancient man would be the bear tribe, channel the spirit of the bear, eat the bear’s heart to gain the bear’s courage; in modern times, we have Smokey the Bear, who walks upright, talks, wears clothes, and carries a shovel. The man no longer seeks to be like the bear; rather, he makes the bear more like himself.

Original participation is nearly dead. We simply can’t see the world in those terms anymore. People who are born into the few societies where the last vestiges of original participation remain can see the world that way, but someone who’s grown up in a modern society has language — and therefore consciousness and categories of thought — that preclude original participation. We can mimic it in a way, but we can’t really go back there. There’s an unbridgeable gap between a modern Wiccan and one of the Druids who tried to assassinate St. Patrick.

But if we are cut off from original participation, we have not yet reached final participation. We can project ourselves onto the world in a psychological sense — hence the cartoon bear wearing pants. But that’s all it is; a portrayal, a fantasy. We do not really participate in the world, and so we are stuck in limbo between original and final participation. We can neither take the world into ourselves to transform us, nor transform ourselves in a way that alters the world; we are cut off from the world, separate from it.

Third Piece: The Twofold Cord

Barfield held that reality is a melange of matter and spirit, inseparably tangled together. Under original participation, nobody saw these as separate things. The idea that the ancient animist believes in a tree spirit would come as a surprise to the animist, who just thinks of it as a single being, a tree– as alive as you and I are. Likewise rocks, animals, and so on. There’s a series of necessary steps to get from there to where we are.

  1. Differentiate matter and spirit.
  2. Focus on matter for the purpose of investigating matter thoroughly.
  3. Come to believe that only matter is real.
  4. Learn that matter is really condensed energy…and that it interacts with and responds to consciousness at the quantum level.
  5. Ooops…

First, we have to differentiate between matter and spirit. The ancient Hebrews started this in Genesis — God formed man from dirt, and breathed the breath of life into him. Man is a melange of these two elements, which are separable only in death — the body returns to the earth, and the spirit returns to God who gave it, as Ecclesiastes says. But while the two elements are not separable in any real way, they certainly are distinguishable. One can talk about them as two things, and this is the first step.

The next step is made by Descartes. Having distinguished objective matter from subjective consciousness, he unravels the two-ply rope of reality for the purpose of an in-depth examination of matter, rigorously excluding any hint of consciousness or the subjective. This is the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, and it gives unparalleled results.  

The third stage is mistaking the Cartesian principle of investigation for a metaphysical reality. People come to believe that anything not subject to scientific examination — i.e., anything not matter — isn’t important, and then that it isn’t even real. At this point, everyone believes that matter is composed of small but solid particles, like a lego building is made up of smaller lego bricks.

The final stage dawns when advances in atomic science show that matter is mostly empty space, gains momentum when Einstein proves that matter is really highly condensed energy, and comes into full bloom when quantum mechanics shows observation changing the behavior of fundamental particles. We have chased our examination of matter as far as we can, and it has bent back round to consciousness.

Meanwhile, the parallel investigation of consciousness, the deep delving into the subjective, has not really been done (particularly in the West). 

Fourth Piece: Final Participation

Barfield saw that in order to continue growing, we would have to undertake that parallel examination of consciousness, and then deliberately re-entwine the two strands to get a fuller understanding of reality. That fuller understanding leads to final participation, in which humanity grows from merely projecting ideas onto the external world to actively interpreting the world in a way that conforms it to the interpretation. Enamored of various techniques for doing this, Barfield missed his opportunity to see what the Bible says in this area. 

The first thing Scripture shows us is that there is a height of authoritative interpretation to which we cannot rise. The world comes pre-interpreted by its Maker; we are invited to explore and interpret under God, not in place of Him. He has invited us to create within His world, but we cannot simply make our own private world. We are not the Creator; we are not imposing our own world on undifferentiated chaos. There are limits we cannot cross.

Second, Jesus showed us in His earthly ministry what final participation can look like. Blind eyes saw, demons fled, the storm was stilled. He commissioned His followers to go out and do two of those things (heal and cast out demons), and set the shaping of the natural world before them as a possibility: “If you had faith as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” Maybe deadly hurricanes make landfall because we haven’t the faith to steer them. 

Third, Jesus fulfills the hope of final participation. He is the human being who, uniquely, can consummate Barfield’s hope by ascending the heights reserved for the Creator. By Him all things were made; all things are now upheld by the word of His power; all things come to coherence and completion in Him. 

If you’re interested in digging further into Barfield’s thought, I recommend Saving the Appearances and The Rediscovery of Meaning. His dialogic novel Worlds Apart is a tough read, but very valuable.


One Bad Day on a Road Trip

3 March 2020

Saul of Tarsus: a serious young Bible scholar who ditched everything he’d been taught, betrayed his mentors, and blew up his whole life based on one bad day on a road trip.

Watch out for mystical experience, kids. It’ll wreck your theology….

If we believe that God is who the Bible says He is, we will never deride the search for spiritual experience. God built us for communion with Him. Adam walked with God in the garden in the cool of the day, and from that day to this, we hunger to experience the presence of God. You don’t have to be a Christian to know this — it’s only natural to seek it out, the same way we seek out water when we’re thirsty.

The unbeliever’s problem is that he thirsts for God, and at the same time doesn’t like Him (as described in Romans 1:18ff.) That aversion leads to a search for all kinds of other spiritual experiences in the vain hope of quenching the thirst without having to deal with the One he thirsts for. In the Old Testament times, Israel struggled with idol worship for this reason. God cured them of idolatry, and by the time of Jesus, Israel faced a different set of temptations. Many Christians today are so frustrated or bewildered by this proliferation of options that they have given up on spiritual experience altogether. Rather than sift the true from the false, they deride the search for spiritual experience as itself an evil thing, and take refuge in an idolatrous quest for moral or doctrinal purity — as the Pharisees did in Jesus’ day. 

This is an utter failure of discernment. We are built for relationship with God. We are not meant to just do holy things and think holy thoughts, but to live alongside God, to experience Him. And we are meant to integrate those experiences into our doctrinal understanding. 

Jesus had the antidote to the Pharisees’ temptations: “If you won’t believe the words, believe the works.” He didn’t denigrate experience; He challenged people to take their experience seriously, and seek out the theological ramifications. Jesus provided the people around Him with many experiences that they could not integrate into their existing theology, because their theology was wrong.

What do you do then? 

Fix your theology, of course. Your theology must remain correctable—correctable by Scripture, and by experience.

If your theology cannot be corrected by your experience, then you are in the position of the Pharisees who rejected Jesus because He wasn’t what their theology told them the Messiah would be like. (Their theology was wrong, of course — but yours is wrong in places too. And that’s the point.)

Of course, everything can be done badly, and so can this. Someone can experience a personal tragedy, a business reversal, a setback of some kind, and decide that God doesn’t love him anymore. That would be a mistake — unfortunately, a very common one. When people say “Don’t make theology out of your experience,” they are trying to guard against this error. But the way they’re going about it is a mistake.

This person’s theology is woefully inadequate. He had a vending-machine view of God: ” I will live a decent, non-scandalous, red-state existence, and in return, God will shower me with personal comfort and material abundance. Since God’s not holding up His end of the bargain, He must not love me anymore.” That theology is wrong, and experience is showing just how wrong it is. This person certainly ought not cling to his theology and deny his experience. Rather, he should allow his experience to drive him back to God and the Scriptures for an explanation. He certainly should allow his experience — i.e., what God is actually doing — to correct his theology. If a literal act of God can’t correct your theology, what would it take?


Children of a Troubled Marriage

14 January 2020

An orphaned spirit can manifest in rebellion or in religion. It can be the prodigal who runs away or the older brother who stays with a sense of entitlement — either one of which boils down to “Look at me, Daddy!”

In reality, Father God has never looked away, never abandoned us, but it is no accident that we think he has. Mother Church told us Papa wouldn’t talk to us directly; she said he only spoke through her. (Convenient, right?) Because we were children, we believed her, and we lost confidence in our ability to hear God. Then, far too often, Mother Church withheld her love unless we conformed to rules designed for her comfort and convenience, rather than our growth. Within Mother Church, many of us found no breathing room.

Some of us grew up into everything she wanted. Some of us stayed around, but got progressively more angry and sullen. Some of us ran away from home. We were children. Perhaps we did the best we could with whatever we understood at the time. But we have to grow up sometime, and an adult is responsible to re-evaluate.

The truth is, Mother Church lied. She said you had to check all the boxes and do all the things or Papa would ignore you. But it was never actually about performance, and Father God loves you more than you can imagine. He never stopped speaking; you can hear His voice.

Yes, you. Yes, now.

What if you took a few minutes to just listen?


The Ninth Day of Christmas: Junk on the Mirror

2 January 2020

In the beginning, God made the world as a temple, and no temple is complete without the image of the deity inside. As His last act in creation, God installed man and woman in the temple as His image. You can’t escape this; it is the very core of who you are. Mystics and meditators the world over testify that if you dig far enough inside yourself, if you can peel back layers of ego and shame and damage, you will find, deep within, a light so bright you will consider worshipping it. What you are seeing is what the Desert Fathers and Mothers described as the Created Light — the very image of God, a mirror that reflects the beauty of God Himself. 

It’s very hard to find that beauty in some people, isn’t it? If we’re honest, it’s often very hard to find in ourselves, too. We excel at piling all kinds of junk on the mirror, and we’re not good at cleaning it off. On top of that, we’re really good at rationalizing the junk we pile up for ourselves. Maybe this is what we’re supposed to look like….

The incarnation of God as His own image — the coming of Jesus — blew away all our rationalizations. He reflected God’s beauty Himself, and He never failed to find it in others. Jesus showed us a whole new set of possibilities. Possibilities that only become visible to us when we hear them from God directly, as He did.

So listen. What would the day be like if it were one long, running conversation between you and God?