Faith and Mysticism PART II: Let’s Get High

 

“What does mysticism really mean? It means the way to attain knowledge. It’s close to philosophy, except in philosophy you go horizontally while in mysticism you go vertically.” – Elie Wiesel 

Why do we search for ways to leave the ground, and what do we find once we arrive “up there”?

During times of extended channel surfing, I usually regret stopping for a moment to watch religious cable. I always seem to catch it right in the middle of a worship-athon.  It’s that typical scene- an uncomfortably large auditorium full of people with their hands desperately stretched out, and eyes squeezed shut as if God is a genie just waiting to be willed into the room. Some are searching desperately for a sign.

What is so enticing about these experiences?

As I see it, there is a huge risk to leaving our thoughts behind as we travel upward.  Once a person enters an undirected moment, the participant might actually discover nothing (other than the temporary bliss associated with it), and still decide to sanctify the experience. Such an event might become an addiction for the one who worships pleasure, or demands connection and belonging, and distinguishes this spiritual version from drinking lots of alcohol or any other heightened episode only because they have proclaimed the former to be ethereal. Is there a backbone of consistency or truth during these episodes, or are we free to determine the value of whims and interpret the warmth as we please?

If what we find in mystical moments is just us giving orders (or a pat on the back) to ourselves, then the experience is of limited value in my opinion, and maybe even harmful. I have always wondered- what good is faith-based belief if it doesn’t change you? How powerful is any experience if you return to it often, and only to have it confirm what you already knew. That applies to spiritual nomads as well as fundamentalists of all kinds, from Christians to gnostics and atheists. If we seek enlightenment or heightened knowledge just to recite the line “I told you so” both to ourselves and to others, then we’re probably on pretty shaky ground. At that point, discovery is out the window. Of course there is health in encouragement and reinforcement, but it’s a lopsided diet to be eating just that.

Regardless of the foundation, any effort towards a seductive experience is dangerous because a person might then be living for the thrill of the high and not for the God above it all. Either that, or we might quietly believe, by way of these journeys, that we are close enough to Deity on our own, and from that point-scour to find ways “up” so that we can remind ourselves. Self deception is a daily possibility for us all, and mysticism might be one of the easier ways to find it.

“Liking money like I like it, is nothing less than mysticism. Money is a glory.”- Salvador Dali

I see his point. Isn’t a reaction to everything from nature to the ballet something like a lower-grade mystical experience? It seems like any moment or response that surpasses what we’d consider average might reasonably qualify. If that’s true, then even joy would be a sort of minor mysticism because, though the reaction may or may not have a cause, it is still of the elevated kind. That’s the bright side of daily mysticism should we accept the broader definition.

I don’t think Dali’s quote is addressing life’s childlike joys, but he’s getting at something worth discussing further. Does our culture love pleasure and power (and their cousin- enlightened experiences) more than truth? Perhaps a group-think has spread and we’re now influenced to continually chase those darker lower-grade mystical experiences without any urgent desire to attach lasting truth to it. If that is the chosen course of faith (we all put faith in our beliefs), and the journey has been tuned to seek out only personal transcendence- warmth, comfort, importance and excitement or a brief soul stirring (or worse), then I’d say faith is doomed. At that point, isn’t it likely to become just as pliable as other vices? The need for continual and increasing pleasure will make slaves of everything intended for joy through moderate use.

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It's deep, bro

So the risks of mysticism have been stated, but I don’t want to ignore the potential for reward. I mentioned pastor Earl Palmer in the previous installment. During the discussion I attended (on C. S. Lewis and mysticism), he made a point that has lingered in my mind ever since. Palmer said he doesn’t like to regulate people’s journey, and would rather encourage exploration. Despite all of my reservations about mysticism, I have to admit that I really like his perspective. Nothing is authentic if we’re told to accept it before we’ve done our own investigation.

C.S. Lewis said “some men are above all intellectual, others are rational, others imaginative.” We are clearly created with differences and embedded strengths and weaknesses. The rational thinker might be wrong to try to persuade the imaginative mind away from a fascination with higher visions and abstractions, in the same way that the imaginative person might be encouraging fraud for the intellectual who’s told to “just feel.”

10 thoughts on “Faith and Mysticism PART II: Let’s Get High

  1. I must say, Yabs.

    We disagree on many metaphysical topics. However, I do applaud you for your intellectual curiosity and sort of self criticism (both of yourself and your fellow Christians).

    This sorely lacks in the church as a whole.

    -Fest

  2. “I have always wondered- what good is faith-based belief if it doesn’t change you? How powerful is any experience if you return to it often, and only to have it confirm what you already knew.”

    I am def one of the spiritual nomads you refer to, so I will think about this quote for a few days.

    I guess…where does that confirmation come from? Is it something I already know? Am I convincing myself I feel something? Or am I successfully picking up on the power of an experience?

    “How powerful is any experience if you return to it often” reminded me of my latest running binge. There’s a ridge I’ve been running for the past two weeks that feels spectacular, close to ecstacy. I don’t know where I was going with that.

  3. “I guess…where does that confirmation come from? Is it something I already know? Am I convincing myself I feel something? Or am I successfully picking up on the power of an experience?”

    Good questions. I want to think on them for awhile, and *attempt* to give an answer in the last part because you’ve opened a can of worms.

    Initially I want to say- if you’re moved by an experience, then it’s authentic at least as far as having “really felt it.” But what’s it worth past that? Maybe the longterm effect (or lack thereof) are the better judge of authenticity or at least value.

    Yeah this is a huge can of worms. Someone else should chime in while I stew over it. Nice going :)

  4. “Nothing is authentic if we’re told to accept it before we’ve done our own investigation”

    I agree with that completely.

    Perhaps we are busy trying to define what we are supposed to feel when we finally “get it”- I struggle constantly with this.
    The only thing I really do know…When I ask for help with this quest…I always receive it. For me it comes in clear and distinct *winks* or synchronistic events that literally take my breath away.
    It fascinates me when people are able to leap into their faith without a long and complicated journey.
    Maybe it is the assumption such sweetness can only be found through hard work.

    Truth already exists, it does not rely on the audience or number of believers. The mystical experience is a reminder or hint we are closer?

    The gift may be our desire to know more… A consciousness able to look at itself. Most of us know God exists because we feel the presence of God in every cell. Much of our lives and struggles are spent defining which street signs to follow. We are unable to turn off the loud noises and traffic lights force fed to us by religious institutions. Mystical experiences, like pure emotion remind us to look inward more often. It seems or feels illogical to be able to find such truth in unchanging dogma- Again, I think of the blind men and the elephants…what we are led to believe is the way to TRUTH is merely snapshots of a collective journey.

    and my mind churns and churns………..

  5. Hey Beth- thanks for putting all of that on the table. Lots to think about. I am going to pull another cheap move and sortof indirectly respond to your thoughts in the final post, only because I might end up writing it ahead of time right here if I address what you said.

    thanks again,

    ian

  6. I’m going to agree with you on the dangers of the mysticism lure. I feel that the word ‘experience’ is a tricky thing. Sometimes in going for that ultimate textbook “high” there comes into play that adage too much of a good thing can be taxing. (Unless you’re Mae West, who felt a little differently on the subject.) LOL.

    I agree with you on the fact that people are becoming rather indolent as a whole. Maybe people are too tired to attempt to transcend on their own, as it were, to that level of Jesus-in-the-wilderness joy because it just took up so much time and effort. After all, between all that people have to do just to get by nowadays, it almost seems that having a spare minute is a luxury, much less 40 days of think-time. Maybe the idea of sitting next to that sunny refreshing fishing spot to reflect and feel that inner joy is great, but who has the time to actually do it? “Man, I’ve got three appointments, then I need to go shopping, then I need to pick up the kids, do laundry, make dinner, spend time with the family, yada yada.” The lure of mysticism is, as you’ve said, a very dangerously addictive vice, because it screams of feeling awed and inspired in one thunderclap of emotion.

    Maybe with our imperfect minds and bodies, we live with the brevity of our averaged 60-70 years constantly in our faces, less so if we’re faced with that pesky “time and unforeseen occurrence” befalling us or those we love. It seems there are a lot of people who are so far removed from the idea or concept of God, for whatever reason, that they feel that the only way that his existence could possibly be proved would be with one big earth shatteringly obvious *TA DA* That big, fat, mind-bending, rays of light flying everywhere, clouds and puppies raining from the sky, mindbendingly exhilarating rush of “YES, I SEE IT NOW, I AM SUDDENLY TRANSFORMED” reaction. Pretty dangerous thought in a society that boasts “Go big or go home.”

    And maybe that’s what people feel that’s what it would take in this world where we are so damned busy, Satan keeps us busy, clouding our ability to stop and smell the roses, as it were, to appreciate the proof of creatorship in every day life. It’s kind of hard to pick out the white horse in the landscape out the window when the car is moving at 75 mph…but I guarantee that you’d see the huge cow in the road in front of you pretty damned quickly. What takes more effort to see, and which will you stop for?

    The Bible itself at Psalm 34:8 implores the Israelites to “taste and see that Jehovah is good”. Who amongst us doesn’t appreciate a fine meal, one that we can linger over, exploring the aroma, the texture and savor every bite? For God to invite us to linger over the knowledge of him, to gain the conscious appreciation for his existence through his works and creation, that implies time.

    I think that’s what’s in those religious shows, the hands in the air, grasping for that *something*, that *make me a believer, God!* kind of mentality. You’ve gotta admit, that’s kind of like the Happy Meal version of spirituality. Why sit and make the effort to chew on a meal when you can just fish around for a minute and pull out the prize of enlightenment? People are in such a hurry they go about gulping down everything at once, and either end up throwing it all up or are left with a sour stomach and a bitter aftertaste, clutching some shiny piece of crap that once the plastic is off, is usually a letdown after the first minute. I’ve seen those shows, too, and I occasionally play a brief game of picking out the most bored looking person (there usually are a small handful) and pretend I can see a cartoon speech bubble that says
    “I drove all the way from Okahoweenow Missouri and all I got was this lousy handshake.”

    It seems there are a lot of definitions of mysticism floating around out there (no pun intended, really) but I read one that said it was the immediate consciousness of the reality of God. I guess when I think about people really trying to find that immediate transcendence, I wonder if they’re trying to find it on their time, or on God’s. All in all, I think mysticism is just another wedge, a tool in Satan’s device. I hope his cogwheels are jammed pretty soon :)

    Ahaha.

  7. uh…I feel a little stupid as I somehow missed your comment until just now Heather. And you wrote a whopper.

    I especially liked your point about the long meal vs. the quick fix. Maybe mysticism and the variety of spirituality that is thrill-intensive are incorrectly viewed as the antidote to our nation’s growing impatience?

    -ian

  8. Ah, here you broach something vitally important, imo. Someone, actually a few people have told me that if I’m going to be seated in contemplative prayer, meditation and engage with the mystics, it is imperative that I have a Spiritual Director. My ego fought that for a while, of course. “Why do I need someone to monitor my reading or my prayer time?” But upon really entering into that space, it became immediately clear why.

    So, imo, spiritual direction is an imperative. Accountability against the ego is so important.

    I’ve also learned through my experiences that “true” mystical, One-ness experiences with God will, above all else, humble me. I grew up being told by the church to stay away from mysticism (which was always paired together with New Age-ism which I now find bizarre) because it’s evil. And you know what? Without proper guidance, it certainly can be. But to put a blanket statement on the whole of it is also evil.

    But back to humility – that’s my measuring stick. If the experience doesn’t fully ground me in God and instead, flatters me, feeds my vanity, makes me feel good about my spirituality or anything, really, then I was doin’ it rong.

    This is actually really difficult to talk and write about, which is why this post is now far too long and rambley. :)

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