Friday, September 30, 2011

The Dangers of Mysticism

In her address to the “Society of Vineyard Scholars,” Stanford anthropologist, Tanya Luhrmann, assures her listeners that there is something wrong if we fail to have face-to-face conversations with God as Moses had. How then can we learn to experience God in this intimate manner? We need to know that we can find the Word of God within, where it has been waiting for us to discover it. This requires that we have to learn how to scrutinize our thought life in order to encounter the voice of God. However, one need not be a Christian to receive the “Word of God” in this manner. In a paper entitled, The Absorption Hypothesis: Learning to Hear God in Evangelical Christianity, which she co-authored with Howard Nusbaum and Ronald Thisted, she asks:

• How does God become real to people when God is understood to be invisible and immaterial, as God is within the Christian tradition?

For this team, it’s not only having a spiritual proclivity, but also a matter of learning certain skills:

• And yet it may be the case that hearing God speak and having other vivid, unusual spiritual experiences that seem like unambiguous evidence of divine presence might be, in some respects, like becoming a skilled athlete…The larger project here is to emphasize the role of skilled learning in the experience of God.

Experiencing God is not based upon coming to faith in Jesus, or in repentance; nor is it a matter of confessing our sins or meditating on Scripture. Instead, it’s open to everyone through learning a skill that Luhrmann calls “absorption”:

• We believe that “absorption” is best understood as the mental capacity common to trance, hypnosis, dissociation, and much other spiritual experience in which the individual becomes caught up in ideas or images or fascinations (see also Butler 2006; Roche and McConkey 1990). From this perspective, “absorption” is the name of the capacity to become focused on the mind’s object—what humans imagine or see around them—and to allow that focus to increase while diminishing attention to the myriad of everyday distractions that accompany the management of normal life…There are no specific physiological markers of trance or hypnosis or dissociation, but as those absorbed states grows deeper, the person becomes more difficult to distract, and his sense of time and agency begins to shift. Those who become more absorbed live more within their imaginations and their inner worlds, and they begin to feel that the events in their daydreams happen to them and feel more real, that they are bystanders to their own awareness, just as one is when a daydream is so compelling that one lets it unfold to see what happens rather than knowing that the dreamer commands the tale. And we believe that, as the absorption grows deeper, people often experience more imagery and more sensory phenomena, sometimes with hallucinatory vividness…Talent for and training in absorption may be important in other religious practices reported in the ethnographic corpus, particularly in those practices described as trance…And certainly the ethnographic work on shamanism, possession, glossolalia, and charismatic Christian healing suggests that practice makes a difference to the subjective experience of trance and that some people respond to this practice more than others…. Those who speak in tongues often experience themselves as in a dissociated state in which the speaking is involuntary, but in fact their glossolalia displays learning (Samarin 1972). Only some of those who become charismatic Catholics become known as experts in the group; they often have an apprenticeship in their craft; mental imagery is central and cultivated. “If there is any sense in which revelation might be said to be perception instead of imagination” begins a discussion by an anthropologist (Csordas 1994:108). It may be that of the many skills in which these different practitioners are trained, one of them is absorption. Religion and spirituality are enormously complex human phenomena. Here we suggest that we may be able to identify one kind of skill that can be cultivated, for which some may have more of a proclivity or talent than others. Absorption does not explain religion and far less does it explain it away. But to understand that some people may have developed their talent more than others may help us to understand why some people become gifted practitioners of their faith and others with the intention and desire to do so struggle and do not. And it reminds us, as Maurice Bloch (2008) remarks, that at the heart of the religious impulse lies the capacity to imagine a world beyond the one we have before us.

What does any of this have to do with the Christian faith? Many Christian mystics suggest that we can take the skills learned from spiritists, shamans, and pagans and simply apply them to our Christian faith, leaving behind their religious elements. After all, we borrow much from the surrounding secular culture – computers, air conditioners, toilets, sound systems. Why not also spiritualistic techniques and skills? Why can’t we, for instance, use our imaginations to conjure up our God as other religions have?

For one thing, if the spiritists can call upon this spiritual entity at will through their various methods, we have to wonder about the identity of this entity and to what type of influence, however appealing, we are opening ourselves. In fact, spiritistic and contemplative prayer writings contain many warnings about evil entities encountered through their spiritual disciplines. However, can they be sure that the seemingly benign voices that they encounter are truly of God? After all, the Devil is able and willing to present Himself as a light-giver in order to deceive (2 Cor. 11:14-15).

The Bible makes reference to many forms of divination – the act of obtaining secret knowledge. Some Biblically condemned forms might resemble “absorption.” Divination is associated with a “delusion of their own minds” (Jer. 14:14), interpreting “dreams” (Jer. 29:8), and seeing “visions” (Zech. 10:2). These practices were uniformly condemned. Instead of going to mediums and spiritists, Israel was required to go,

• To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn.(Isaiah 8:20)

Instead of learning contemplative techniques to cull God’s Word from their thought life, Israel was always directed to God through Scripture. The former seems to have been associated with the pagan nations and was strictly forbidden:
• When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens…Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD…The nations you will dispossess listen to those who practice sorcery or divination. But as for you, the LORD your God has not permitted you to do so. (Deut. 18:9-14)

Perhaps this prohibition doesn’t include “absorption.” However, if obtaining secret knowledge from diviners is forbidden, perhaps any forms of divination are also forbidden, including visualizations and meditative techniques. When we depart from the Biblically sanctioned means of encountering God’s Word, we leave behind His protection and might encounter spirits more intelligent than us. The various contemplative/mystical techniques are not to be found anywhere in the Bible. The Bible does refer to meditation, but this is a different type of meditation, one based upon meditating on the message of Scripture. Besides, in Scripture we have everything that we need for salvation and spiritual growth:

• All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:16-17)

This doesn’t mean that the Spirit is unable to work in any other way but through Scripture, but it does warn us against seeking any other source of revelation. There is not the slightest hint anywhere in Scripture that we also must find a guru or learn certain techniques in order to be “thoroughly equipped for every good work.” In fact, Scripture assures us that we have everything that we need in Christ:

• For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority. (Col. 2:9-10)

If Christ is everything of worth, and we have Christ, then we too have everything. It means that the Christian need not chase after the latest mystical techniques or therapies in order to find wholeness. We have it already. We merely need to grow into it.

The suggestion that we are missing out on something denies the omnipotence of God in making Himself know to us and guiding our paths into the works He has already ordained for us (Eph. 2:10). It also suggests that God is passive and not omnipotent, and that if we fail to tap into Him through the various skills and techniques, we’ve missed His spiritual boat.

Such a conclusion ignores the many accounts describing God infallibly leading even those who were non-believers and non-seekers. He brought the Assyrians and Babylonians against Israel. In order to rescue His people, He turned allied armies against one another (2 Chron. 20:1-24). These armies didn’t have to learn how to discern the “Word of God” within them in order to walk in obedience to His divine promptings. Our God is able to influence our thinking and decision-making even when we are unaware of His influence:

• The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases. (Proverbs 21:1)

We need not worry about whether we are hearing the Lord or not. Instead, He hears us and has promised to guide us along the paths He has designated for us (Proverbs 20:24; Psalm 139:16; 37:23; Matthew 10:29-30). Nor should we allow Christian mystics like Richard Foster to undermine our faith when we haven’t received our prayer requests:

• Often we assume we are in contact when we are not…Often people will pray and pray with all the faith in the world, but nothing happens. Naturally, they are not contacting the channel. We begin praying for others by first centering down and listening to the quiet thunder of the Lord of hosts. Attuning ourselves to divine breathings is spiritual work, but without it our praying is vain repetition. Listening to the Lord is the first thing…(Celebration of Disciplines, 34)

I wonder whether Foster would apply this principle to Abraham who had to wait 25 years in order to receive the child of the Promise, Isaac. Perhaps Abraham had failed in “contacting the channel” for the first 24 years? The Christian life and relationship with God has nothing to do with learning mystical disciplines and everything to do with what the Bible has specified – faith, repentance, confession, prayer and obedience. It’s really very simple:

• If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all--how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:31-32)

We therefore can rest assured that if we have Christ, we need not worry that we are missing something.

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