Saturday, February 27, 2016

Do Doctrines Divide? Do Mystical Experiences Unite?

Many in the Western church are choosing mystical experience over doctrinal truth. Why? They insist that doctrines divide us, while common mystical experience can bring us together. Mysticism is now touted as the means to directly experience God, making our “divisive” doctrines unnecessary. These experiences are achieved, not through believing the truth or even living the truth, but through techniques available to us all, irrespective of our religious orientations.  In this regard, sociologist Tony Campolo writes:

  • A theology of mysticism provides some hope for common ground between Christianity and Islam. Both religions have within their histories examples of ecstatic union with God…I do not know what to make of the Muslim mystics, especially those who have come to be known as the Sufis. What do they experience in their mystical experiences? Could they have encountered the same God we do in our Christian mysticism. (Roger Oakland, Faith Undone, 108)
According to Campolo, we can plug into God through mystical techniques and experiences, and this common experience can become the basis of a “common ground” among the various religions. He claims that he has been able to achieve “intimacy with Christ” through “centering prayer” (113). For him, this involves the repetition of the name of Jesus. However, he suggests that Muslims – and probably others – may also be able to achieve this same “intimacy with Christ” through the use of similar mystical techniques. If this is so, then theology and doctrine are no longer important. Instead, they build walls and present obstacles.

This raises the question, “What is an ‘ecstatic union with God?” The Bible makes no mention of such a thing. This Biblical silence speaks loudly, especially since Scripture claims to provide everything that we need for a relationship with God:

  • 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)
If mysticism and “ecstatic union with God” are the means for world unity and peace, we should expect that Scripture would say something about this! However, Scripture insists that, for spiritual matters, we mustn’t go beyond it (Isaiah 8:19-20; 1 Cor. 4:6)

If anyone had experienced an “ecstatic union with God,” it was Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. However, instead of teaching His disciples about how to have an “ecstatic union with God,” He instructed them to not tell anyone about what they had seen (Matt. 17:11). If there ever had been a teachable moment to introduce mystical methods, it was then!

Moses also had a fantastic mountain-top experience, through which his countenance was transformed. However, instead of telling the Israelites about how they too could experience God, he directed them to God’s words (Exodus 34:29-34). Rather than focusing upon having an experience, Moses placed the emphasis upon the Word of God.

Campolo fails to recognize that there is a prohibitive price to be paid for genuine experiences or revelations from God. God had taken Paul on a journey to heaven. However, lest he become proud about what he had learned and experienced, God chastened him severely (2 Cor, 12:1-10)!

However, it is important to realize that each one of these transformative experiences had been the product of God’s initiative and not human manipulations. In fact, the idea that we humans can coerce an “ecstatic union with God” is sheer arrogance.

At a low point in his ministry, Moses did request a divine revelation: “Show me your glory” (Exod. 33:18). However, God delivered in the form of doctrinal content rather than an ecstatic experience. He placed Moses in “the cleft of a rock,” while “His glory passed by” (33:22) and He honored him with His Self-disclosure:

  • And he said [to Moses], “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. (Exodus 33:19)
  • The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. (Exodus 34:6) 
But do we really encounter God through mystical techniques, and what assurance do we have that we aren’t really plugging into something malevolent? The mystic:

  • Richard Foster claims that practitioners must use caution. He admits that in contemplative prayer “we are entering deeply into the spiritual realm” and that sometimes it is not the realm of God even though it is “supernatural.” He admits there are spiritual beings and that a prayer of protection should be said beforehand – something to the effect of “All dark and evil spirits must now leave.” (Roger Oakland, 99)
Foster is presumptuous if he thinks that just a “prayer of protection” will suffice.  In view of these spiritual threats, he should be asking whether or not he has taken the wrong path, an unbiblical one, one that has taken him outside of the parameter of God’s protective hand! In view of the fact that the Devil poses as an agent of the light (2 Cor. 11:14), what guarantee does Foster have that he hasn’t been deceived?

This leads us to the next question: “Can people of other religions employ mystical techniques to experience God?” For one thing, God is the last Person that the unredeemed wants to experience. Naturally speaking, we hate God (Rom. 8:8:6-7) and can’t stand His presence:

  • This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. (John 3:19-20)
Even the children of Israel couldn’t tolerate His presence:

  • When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” (Exodus 20:18-19)
The last thing they wanted was a more intimate encounter! Surprisingly, God was pleased that Israel had this fearful awareness and, therefore, wouldn’t try to pursue a mystical union with Him. Without the redemption of the cross, He too didn’t want to be in Israel’s presence. He explained that He might destroy them if He came into their presence:

  • I will send an angel before you and drive out the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way.” (Exodus 33:2- 3) 
Campolo suggests that the Muslims might also be experiencing God, apart from faith in Christ. However, if they were to experience God, they would be experiencing His wrath:

  • The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness. (Romans 1:18)
It is only through faith in Jesus that we have been redeemed from the wrath of God: It is only through Him that we can enter boldly into His presence:

  • Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:19-22)
Mysticism would not be quite so offensive if it only claimed to influence our personal experience. However, it also claims to influence God! Campolo writes:

  • The constant repetition of his name clears my head of everything but the awareness of his presence. By driving back all other concerns, I am able to create what the ancient Celtic Christians called “the thin place.” The thin place is that spiritual condition wherein the separation between the self and God becomes so thin that God is able to break through and envelope the soul. (114)
Campolo claims that “constant repetition … to create…the thin place” out of a thick separation between he and God, enables his less-than-omnipotent god “to break through and envelope the soul.” In essence, Campolo has become the prime agent of reconciliation, since God, by Himself, is unable!

However, Scripture assures us that God already lives within us to such an extent that we can confidently say:

  • I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. (Galatians 2:20)
Mysticism preaches a different Christ, one who is not omnipotent and cannot break through to us without our mindless repetitions or other profane techniques. Besides, Scripture teaches us that we need not create the “thin place” so that God can break through. Instead, as He had explained to Abraham, every place is a “thin place” for our God:

  • The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.”( Genesis 18:13-14) 
Jesus even warned us against this practice of vain, meaningless repetitions:

  • And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. (Matthew 6:7) 
Repetitions might make us feel connected, but they have nothing to do with our relationship with our Savior! Instead, God wants truth, not repetitions, in our inmost being (Psalm 51:6). This truth should entail contrition and repentance and not ecstatic union!

Perhaps most troubling of all, Campolo claims that, through his “centering prayer,” he is the one who has removed or thinned the separating barrier between him and God. However, God claims that this is a barrier that He has eliminated through the cross, renting the separating temple veil in two! Of course, this is not to deny that we do erect barriers through our sins. However, we address such barriers through confession and repentance and not mystical practices!

In general, the mystics teach a different Christ, a Christ who is not so much concerned about truth, faith, doctrine, righteousness, repentance, obedience, and holiness as He is about learning techniques – repetitions, centering prayer, imaginations, visualizations and practicing silence. These are practices that find absolutely no biblical support.

Nevertheless, experience is essential to the Christian life. However, we enjoy this experience through the blessings of learning about our Lord (2 Peter 1:2-3; 1 Cor. 3:18; Jer. 9:23-24).

Our experience/feelings reflect what we understand! Having experienced decades of depression and self-loathing prior to coming to Christ, these tendencies had been deeply engraved within my flesh. They were so deep that I even felt that God loathed me. It seemed that God had created humanity for His own sadistic entertainment – plenty of laughs. However, one evening, He made very real for me the cross, His own suffering and compassion (Hebrews 4:15; Isaiah 63:9). My tears of gratitude have not ceased flowing since!

Sometimes, Divisions are Unavoidable, even Necessary

In the church, we are to avoid divisions. The Apostle Paul pleaded for us to maintain our unity:

  • Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.  There is one body and one Spirit-- just as you were called to one hope when you were called-- one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:2-6)
However, we can only preserve unity where there is already a basis or foundation – Jesus - for that unity. We cannot create bonds of brotherhood where there are none. Nor can a skilled midwife bring forth a baby where there is none already waiting in the womb. Instead, we are called to be separate from the world:

  • Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: "I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people." (2 Corinthians 6:14-16)
It is Christ’s unity that must be preserved and not a unity of our own invention. Instead, we must not compromise our relationship with our Savior with “fellowship bonds” that will lead us into compromise.

This doesn’t mean that we cannot love and befriend those who do not share Christ with us. We certainly must, but these bonds cannot be such that they will diminish our life with the Lord. We cannot be yoked together with unbelievers in a way that compromises our supreme marriage but must be scrupulous about anything that might harm the Body of Christ. “A little leaven [sin] leavens [corrupts] the whole loaf” (Gal. 5:9).

In the Book of Revelation, the Holy Spirit provided the churches with the results of His theological evaluation. The church at Ephesus was even commended for its intolerance and willingness to risk divisions:

  • I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. (Revelation 2:2-3)
Sometimes intolerance, division, and excommunication are commendable. There are other times when the churches were too tolerant, too concerned about achieving an unbiblical and superficial unity, that they were castigated by the Spirt. This was the case with the church at Pergamus:

  • Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent therefore! (Revelation 2:14-16) 
Evidently, the church at Pergamus lacked an adequate understanding or appreciation of God’s truths and concerns – theology! This was also the case with the church at Thyatira:

  • Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. (Revelation 2:20-21)
Excommunication seems so archaic, intolerant, and unloving to modern ears. However, we are instructed to pursue this form of church discipline, not only for the benefit of the church, but also for the offender. Paul mentions two such offenders:

  • Timothy… fight the good fight, holding on to faith and a good conscience. Some have rejected these and so have shipwrecked their faith. Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme. (1 Timothy 1:18-20) 
For their own welfare, Hymenaeus and Alexander had to be taught to not blaspheme. To accomplish this, strong measures are sometimes needful to bring about repentance. Paul also advised excommunication for an unrepentant man having sex with his father’s wife:

  • When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord. (1 Corinthians 5:4-5)
Paul was not only concerned about the church but also the salvation of the unrepentant.

We Christians are often told that, “You shouldn’t judge.” However, when our critics judge us in this manner, they are being hypocritical since they too are judging. This should demonstrate that there is no way around judging and making divisions. They are a necessary part of life.

Mystical Experience and Peace

Can mystical experience unite the world and bring the peace that Campolo hopes for? I don’t see how! Already, we share many common experiences – fear, desire, family, children, friends, anxiety…  The list is almost endless. However, these haven’t brought peace. Why then expect that another common experience might bring peace?

My wife and I share many common experiences. However, we have to strive to maintain peace. How? With God’s theological truths! These instruct us how to please God and to love others:

  • Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:29-32)
These truths take precedence over all over our feelings and experiences, as they should! However, when we get our theology down right, the proper feelings will follow.

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