Mystical Union: The Only Alternative to Legalism

23 January 2011

In conversation with a couple of friends this week on these things, I happened more or less by accident on a truth that surprised me, and sharpens the mysticism issue for me a great deal.

Here’s how it happened: in discussing the ongoing person/proposition controversy, we were considering how poorly the Saving Proposition/Content Of Saving Faith positions fare when faced with the burden of addressing a person’s present experience of death.  However well they might do at addressing truths regarding the second death (not well, actually, but that’s another discussion), these positions utterly fail to bring God’s saving power to bear on death right now. Jesus came to save His people from their sins — not just from the Lake of Fire, but from drunkenness, adultery, theft, lying, murder, addiction, and so on.

An eternally secure heroin addict who will certainly go to heaven when he dies has not yet been saved from his sin.  No proposition suggested in the Content of Saving Faith debate will help him.  He needs more than propositions; he needs rescue.

If you insist on sticking to the truth-is-a-proposition approach, then you find yourself stuck in a two-tiered view of the Christian life, in which one needs this proposition to guarantee passage to heaven, and then those propositions to experience life here and now.  In principle, this is the Galatian heresy all over again, and as long as you confine yourself to thinking of truth in terms of propositions, it’s absolutely unavoidable.

Which is why you ought to consider the living Christ instead of just propositions about Him, however true.  A propositional view of receiving eternal life not only fails to meet the real human need for life now, it can’t help lapsing into legalism.  You can refer to a person in a proposition, but you can’t contain a person in a proposition, or transmit a relationship with a person via a proposition.  All you can contain and transmit in a proposition is an idea.  Living by ideas — even the most noble of ideas — is living by Law.  We already know how well that works, and anyhow if Sinai had been all we needed, whence Jesus?

The solution?  Actual relationship with the living Christ, which is to say, mystical union.  Either you live in real relationship with God or you’re just another legalist, living by ideas in your head.


Gordon Clark Refuted in Three Sentences

22 January 2011

Faith is trust/reliance/persuasion/belief — frame it how you will — in something which one holds to be truth.  All faith is propositional only if all truth is propositional.  But John 14:6 has already shown us that this is not true.


Mystical Union

16 January 2011

I’ve had several recent conversations that converged on the same basic truth.  It’s at once the very core of the Christian faith, and a drastically under-acknowledged and under-emphasized point in conservative circles.  I don’t even know how to talk about it without setting off alarm bells among my colleagues.

But this is the truth that underlies the person/proposition discussion, and it’s something we need to discuss directly.

Here it is: the core of the Christian life, the very center of it all, is mystical union with Christ.

Paul talks of this in Romans 6: we are buried with Christ in baptism that we might be raised with Him to walk in a new life.  He talks of it in Galatians 2: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.”  It’s how unbelievers become converted, according to Romans 10: “How shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard?”  (Note, the Greek does not say “of whom” — Paul is asking how they can believe in Jesus if they haven’t heard Jesus.  Then he goes on to ask “How will they hear [Jesus] without a preacher?”  In the faithful preaching of the gospel, the unbeliever hears Christ.)

It’s not just Paul, either.  Jesus talks of it in John 17: “I do not pray for these [the 11 disciples] alone, but for all who will believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I in You….And the glory that You have given Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them and You in Me….”

I could go on with the proof texts, but you get the idea.

I figure I might as well out myself now: It’s taken me a long time to get to this point in my Christian life, but I’m now an unabashed mystic.  Actual contact with the living Christ is the sine qua non of the Christian faith, and if you haven’t got it, you haven’t got anything.  If you have got it, you can still be wrong about various factual matters — just like a man can be married to a woman for years and still not know the color of her toothbrush — but you have the relationship, and that’s what matters most.

Most of us know this instinctively.  When a friend or loved one dies, or you lose your job and you can’t pay the bills, or your child is sick in the hospital, hovering between life and death — all your theological knowledge (in itself) isn’t worth ten cents right then. What you need is comfort, the personal comfort of a God who is really there.  Certainly this can come through Scripture, but it’s not the ideas in the Scriptures that comfort you, but the God behind them, the One who says them to you.  You hear His voice, and it is in trusting Him, in clinging to Him, that you make it through.  If your Bible knowledge doesn’t help you toward that, you might as well have memorized the manual for your DVD player.

I remember once reading the testimony of a seminary professor who came to this realization when his child was ill.  I thought it was an amazing, thought-provoking article, and recommended it to a friend.  He was underwhelmed: “If he really believed what he taught, his theology ought to have been enough for him.”  Sadly, many of us think that way, even under really trying circumstances.  These are people who have managed to build the theological house of cards in their heads to the point that they can escape into it for hours, days if necessary, the way some socially awkward teenagers used to escape into D&D or an addict escapes into getting high for as long as possible.  Sadly, their theology is enough for them.  It is enough for them to think of the idea of God’s presence; they don’t actually need Him to be present.  These same people tend to be a bit devoid of human feeling, and have stilted, awkward relationships as a result of their preoccupation with their own fantasies.  If you’re going to be preoccupied with fantasies, I suppose theological truth is better than D&D — but not by a whole lot.  Preoccupation with your own fantasy — any fantasy — still inhibits loving God and your neighbors, and the fantasy still becomes an idol.

Unfortunately, people mistake this fantasy-worship for faith, just because the theological house of cards has a great deal of propositional truth in it.  The Pharisees had just as much propositional truth in their theological fantasies.  What they lacked was actual relationship with God — and the problem is as real in the church today as it ever was in first-century Judaism.

I recognize that a lot of the things that have happened under the banner of mysticism are wrong.  Conservatives are suspicious of anything with the label “mystical,” and not without reason.  But we can’t allow the various abuses to stop us from seeing the truth.  There is no substitute for actually walking with God.

Besides, the fact remains that we do need some word to describe the thing that the various proof texts above are talking about, the experience of actual contact with the living Christ.  Jesus and Paul are not just building theological castles in the air.  They are describing something that really happens, the real experience of actual Christians.  How are we to describe this?  Our fathers used the phrase “mystical union with Christ,” and if there’s a better term, I haven’t yet heard it.


Truth is a Person

4 October 2009

A further thought to add to the earlier reflection on universals and particulars:

Ultimate reality — truth — is a Person: “I am the Truth,” Jesus says. Because the Truth is also the divine Word, one expects propositions, and there are propositions. But because the Truth is a Person, one expects more than propositions: one expects acts in history, questions, commands, stories, emotions, all the true things of which a person is capable. And there they are. These lay claim to truth in the same way that propositions do: they are the derivative truth that comes from being a reflection of Truth, the Person.A life that honors God — “walking in the truth,” the apostle John calls it — derives its truth in the same way: by reflecting Christ.

This is another reason why universals and particulars are equally ultimate. When the divine Word is made flesh, when Truth is a person with hair of a certain length and eyes of a certain color, particulars and universals have met and kissed, and can never be separated.

Which leaves us with a burning question: how are universals and particulars related?  It’s a question that has plagued philosophers for centuries (again, see Rushdoony’s The One and the Many for details on the history).  Christians have an answer to this question: “The same way unity and diversity are related in the Trinity.”  We have a word for it: perichoresis, the mutual indwelling of the Persons of the Trinity in one another.  So we might say that in the world, universals and particulars are perichoretically related — each indwells the other, as in the Trinity.  Which is to say, we don’t understand the phenomenon in the world any better than we understand the Trinitarian phenomenon of which it is a reflection.  But since the world is created by the Trinity and reflects the Trinity, we expect to encounter a mystery on this point, and it should not surprise us that the answer is beyond our ken.

Discovering that the thing is, finally and forever, beyond our reach forces us to realize that we are not God, and never will be.  There are two possible responses to this: glorify Yahweh in gratitude, or be offended and ungrateful.  One of them is life, health and peace, and the other is struggle, sickness and death — the same two choices humanity has always faced, from the Garden right down to today.


Universals or Particulars?

28 September 2009

In week 2 of the Truth Project, Tackett notes that many pagan philosophies attempt to begin with particulars and proceed thence to universals. Others, notably Plato, try to begin with universals and make their way to the particulars. Tackett contends that “Plato was right; he just didn’t know where to get” his universals. He goes on to say that God gives us the universals by which all the particulars make sense.

There is an element of truth there, but it’s too simple by half, and flies directly in the face of some of the Scripture he cited earlier. When we look at a sunset and see the heavens declaring the glory of God, we are learning a universal from the particulars. When Paul tells us that everyone in the world is without excuse because “since the creation of the world, His invisible things are clearly seen, being understood by means of the things that are made,” Paul is telling us that man knows the universals — particularly God’s eternal power and God-ness — because he sees them in the particulars.

On the other hand, in Genesis 1-2, we note that God speaks to man, and by that revelation gives the principles by which man and his place in the creation make sense. Genesis 3 provides us with a graphic lesson in what happens when man tries to start from the particulars without taking account of what God has already told him. (Even this is oversimplified — we’re equating verbal revelation with universals, which is a bit too facile, but let it pass for now.)

So which is it? Do we start with the universals, or the particulars? The Christian answer to this is “both,” and a brief reflection on the Trinity should be enough to teach us this point.

God is ultimate reality.  Where do we start in the Trinity: unity, or diversity?  Which is more important, more fundamental to the nature of God? Both are equally vital, you say? Exactly. For more on this, see The One and the Many (more demanding, but a great review or the relevant history) or Trinity and Reality (more accessible) and its companion piece, Paradox and Truth.

Does all this seem a little arcane to you?

That’s because it is. But pushed out into the corners, the thing has serious consequences. Rushdoony likes to talk politics, and goes to some trouble in The One and the Many to show how societies that take plurality as ultimate disintegrate into chaos, and how societies that take unity as ultimate trend toward totalitarianism. Since the trinitarian idea isn’t available outside Christianity, pagans find themselves oscillating forever between one pole and the other, unable to reconcile them.

At a simpler level, I’d leave it with this: Christians ought not to forge an alliance with Plato when Scripture has given us a much, much better answer.


Retraining the Hair on the Back of the Deacon’s Neck, Part 2

16 August 2009

As I concluded my previous post, I could fairly hear the deacons in the audience shouting, “Just because the hair on the back of your neck stands up, how do you know it’s right?”

That’s a good question.  There has to be some norm, some standard by which to measure.

There is.  It’s called the Bible, and one of the things it teaches us is this: who the hearer is will determine what he hears.  If this sounds subjective to you, that’s because in a sense, it is.  But it’s entirely biblical: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” as Jesus often said.  This saying teaches us that there is such a thing as having ears to hear, and such a thing as not having ears to hear.  The person with ears and the person without ears are both standing in front of Jesus, and both hear the same parable…but only the one with ears to hear really hears it, after all. The same propositional content for both, but one understands and the other does not.

Nor is understanding, or failing to, the full range of outcomes.  The same content can convey two opposite messages to two different people, as Paul tells us:

Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place.  For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.  To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life. And who is sufficient for these things?

We carry the gospel on our lips and in our lives, and this bespeaks death to those who are perishing, but life to those who are being saved.  It’s the same content, but different messages are received because the hearers are different.  This is obvious with a little reflection: “Yet I have set My King on My holy hill of Zion” is gospel to God’s people, but chains and a rod of iron to those who will not kiss the Son.

This is to say that there is no substitute for walking with God and being conformed to the image of His Son.  As we do this, we will find that He makes us able to see and hear what would otherwise be invisible and inaudible to us.  All of which returns us to the question: how will we know when this is happening?

Two blind men are standing on a hill, looking out at a sunset.  Suddenly, one of the blind men is healed entirely, and the sunset bursts in on him.  “I can see!  I can see!” he shouts.

“How do you know?” asks his still blind companion.