This is a page that focuses on religious and theological issues, as well as providing comprehensive teaching from a classic Catholic perspective. As you read the articles, it is my hope they will educate and bless you.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Legalism vs. Mysticism

I was planning this week on a continuing a series of teachings regarding the major events of the Church year, as this past couple of weeks we celebrated both the Feast of the Ascension, as well as coming up this Sunday the Feast of Pentecost.  I may combine those later in an attempt to kill two proverbial birds with one stone, but today I was wanting to share something that really has been objectified in my thinking recently, as it relates to a number of things.

As many reading this are aware, I am a graduate Theology student at Franciscan University of Steubenville, and as I am writing this I am in the process of finishing up a couple of courses, one of which is called Theology of the Church, taught by a very brilliant professor, Dr. Regis Martin.  One of the texts used in this course was a little book authored by the late Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthazar entitled Raising the Bastions, and the contention von Balthazar raises in the text is this idea that the Church has been building up many of its own walls of division, and in many aspects, the walls need to be "razed."  The purpose of doing this is to allow for the Church to fulfill its primary mandate, which is to bring Christ to the world in order to offer salvation.  Although the material I present here was not specifically dealt with in the von Balthazar text, it was addressed in class in a lecture Dr. Martin gave us talking about "Dangerous Dissociations."  As if it were a divine mission of fate bringing things together, at the same time I am taking these courses I am also finishing up a book of my own dealing with Christian history, in particular small movements that have caught my interest over the years (for those who have been following my articles for a while, it is part of my "Highways and Hedges" project I talked about).  One of the movements I have examined in that project is the German Seventh-Day Baptists, which interesting enough evolved out of the German Dunkards (of which my own family has deep roots), in particular an 18th-century religious community in Pennsylvania called the Ephrata Cloister.  In researching the information for that particular part of the project, one of the books I read was Jeff Bach's Voices of the Turtledoves, which is one of the best and most comprehensive volumes specifically dealing with the Ephrata Cloister and the movement it spawned.  All of this together constitutes the inspiration I have now for writing this.  Now, let us begin.

Over the centuries of the Church's growth and development, the human aspect of those of us who are her members is to gravitate toward two extremes.  On one hand there is what is called juridicalism, meaning the unbending devotion to legalistic interpretation of the Church's teaching in such a way that in many aspects this emphasis becomes almost idolatrous in that it practically deifies the "rule of law" over the mercy and grace Christ promised to us.  A recent example of this is something I addressed a few months back concerning Fundamentalist megachurch pastor John MacArthur and his "Strange Fire" conference.  People like MacArthur do have their place in the Body of Christ, and indeed they have made some good contributions to it.  However, the problem comes when the legalist like MacArthur reduces God to a one-dimensional abstraction, and therefore faith becomes highly codified and intellectualized.  The danger in this is that it creates a God who is easily provoked to wrath, but has no concern for the maladies of the human condition and its weaknesses.  This "God" of the juridicalist is one I also served for some time, and the result was that I was faithful in my religious practice, but God never became real to me until much later.   Lest you think it is just cessationist Fundamentalists though who get caught up in this, I have also seen it to a lesser degree even among some more conservative Pentecostal folks, as well as among some Roman sedevacantist traditionalists and Orthodox Christians.  Juridicalism is a form of idolatry, in other words, and it seriously limits the spiritual development of those who subscribe to such a system.  However there is also a danger in the other extreme, and we'll talk about that now.

Mysticism is the polar opposite of juridicalism in that it stresses the primacy of human experience over religious dogma in many cases.   The problem with mysticism, however, is that it often creates a blurred boundary between the truly Christian and the esoteric.  In my reading of Bach's aforementioned text, I noted that he devoted a good section of his book to the fact that Ephrata often stressed mysticism in its own spirituality, leading to some odd extremes.  This, however, is a danger that many who hold to what is called Radical Pietism (the movement Ephrata grew out of) fall into - even today, you see it being propagated by many Emerging Church writers such as Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, and Richard Foster, and what it does is it diminishes Jesus by making Him too human.   An important point must be made here in that although Jesus assumed human nature, He didn't absorb it.  Church doctrine has always affirmed that Jesus was 100% God and 100% human, and these were inseparable in Him.  The problem with some of a more mystical mindset is that they diminished Jesus to just human (an ancient heresy which seems to be resurrecting itself today) although verbally they may affirm orthodox teaching - saying with your lips though does not always mean that you believe with your heart.  Hence, the problem.  As I was reading Bach's account of this happening on some level at Ephrata, it was important for me to trace where this stuff came from.  Conrad Biessel, the founder and leader of the Ephrata Cloister, was a highly intelligent and well-read individual who absorbed the earlier teachings of Pietist mystic Jakob Boehm (1575-1624) like a sponge.  Boehm was a bit of an enigmatic figure in that he was both a radical Pietist, but also a mystic who incorporated what he called "good magic" into his writings, drawing much from astrology, alchemy, and the Qabala, all of which many figures of the time (Sir Isaac Newton, a contemporary of Boehm's, was one such individual).  Biessel took this a further step by calling this "good magic" a form of "faith magic," as he truly believed it was the power of God's working through Christ and faith in the believer's life (Jeff Bach, Voices of the Turtledoves {University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002} p. 173).   Boehm, in turn, was inspired by an Italian philosopher, Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola (1463-1494), who taught, based on Qabalistic influences, a form of universalism with an astrological basis (   Reading some of this material got me a bit concerned, because many of the things mentioned - astrology, alchemy - have been thoroughly forbidden as occultic practices by the Church and by Scripture.  However, the danger that the mystic risks is the blurriness that experiential religious practice can often bring if it is not grounded in proper teaching.  However, also as I was reading Bach's text about this, something occurred to me too - upon reading what Biessel defined as "faith magic," it sounds vaguely familiar in a positive way - the way he defined it in his writings was an obedient surrender to the will of God, allowing him to work in the soul in such a way that if one transcends one's own flesh and reaches God, then "godly results" could be achieved.  To me, this sounds more like an Acts 2 experience and has a sort of resonance with Pentecostal fire-baptism.  Therefore, the question I have is this - could both Biessel and Boehm have called this experience "magic" because they didn't have a better word for it at the time?   After all, the idea here was "magic" as a power of God to work beyond human power, as accessible by faith (Bach, 174).  The issue still is raised though about drawing inspiration from astrology and alchemy, and this is where I believe the real issue is raised.

Both juridical faithfulness to Church teaching and mysticism have their place in the Christian experience, but an emphasis on either/or can risk one losing one's Christianity.  Some Protestant Evangelicals view mysticism in a negative light, due to its overly experiential emphasis and potential for heresy and abuse, but in reality the mystical is also a part of Christian spirituality whether we want it to be or not.  Modern-day forms of mystical spirituality are, I believe, embodied in the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements, and for the most part these traditions have enriched Christian spirituality.  Also, in the past, great saints of the Church - notably St. Hildegarde of Bingen in the West and the yurodivi ("Fools for Christ") in the East - have contributed some great things to the Body of Christ.  And, as Christians, our faith is not just an intellectual exercise, but is also experiential in that we live out our faith, so mystical experience does have its place.  However, it can also be abused as well - the recent excesses we have seen in such movements as the Emerging Church phenomenon are prime example - and therefore the mystical needs to be tempered with the juridical, but not supplanted by it.  Vibrant spirituality is to be encouraged, but at the same time any type of spiritual experience is also to be within the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy too.  Of course, that doesn't mean that necessarily every spiritual practice that affirms orthodoxy may be exactly safe, as risks are involved - one reason I have always maintained that most serpent-handlers from my native Appalachia are Christians, for instance, is that they also believe and uphold the central truths affirmed by Church teaching and Holy Scriptures.  Despite one's acceptance or rejection of the practice of serpent-handling, the fact remains that there is no real precedence for rejecting them as non-Christian.  On the other hand, some popular speakers in certain Christian circles would be rejected as heretical because their mysticism has caused them to compromise orthodoxy - Rob Bell and Brian McLaren, as well as certain theological faculty at some professed Christian universities, come to mind here.  That being said, Pentecostalism as a whole is a legitimate movement of God's Holy Spirit, and although at times admittedly excesses do happen (there is a risk of this in any mystical expression of Christianity though) the majority of Pentecostals and Charismatics would be definitely orthodox and would also maintain there must be a balance between doctrine and experience, and therefore that is a good quality.  On the other hand, the overly-juridical people like MacArthur have also diminished Christianity by more or less reducing it to just an abstract, codified, sterile, and quasi-Gnostic system in which God cannot possibly work in his creation because - God forbid! - creation is corrupted.  However, is it really creation that is corrupted and needs to be rejected, or is it rather the fact that mankind in his propensity to sin has corrupted what God created?   That indeed is something to think about.

In conclusion, I am here to say that maybe some who have reservations about the word "mystic" need to understand it better.  Mysticism has been a part of the Christian tradition since its earliest days, and it has a valid place in Christian spirituality.  A lot of times the objections come from those who are uneasy with the terminology due to excesses they see and rightfully condemn.  My challenge to these individuals is not to judge the whole thing by excesses, but rather see it in its historical context.  I mean, after all, you would not throw out the skin on your body just because you get a couple of skin tags or other blemishes would you?  My guess regarding your answer to that is probably that it would be "no," because the answer to your problem is not discarding your skin, but eradicating the blemishes on your skin.  Think of the mystical tradition in Christianity the same way - it is skin, and serves a purpose, but just like your skin, it is subject to blemishes.  Treat the blemishes without destroying a vital organ.  So, "study to show yourselves approved," and learn what the rightful place of the mystical tradition in the Church is before judging it too harshly as well.  In doing so, I guarantee it will give you a deeper appreciation of your faith and may enrich it.   God bless you all until next visit.