Where do we find our mystics in Protestantism?

Bernardino Luini – St Jerome in Penitence, 1525

I was chatting with a Roman Catholic friend, formerly a very engaged Anglican of evangelical bent, recently. He was talking about the rise of “industry” as a virtue in the early modern period (“industry” is not a virtue in the ancient and medieval worlds) and how its rise is involved in the denigration of the contemplative tradition — I, myself, later thought of Gibbon’s criticism of the ‘idle mouths’ of the Later Roman Empire that included monks.*

Basically, today contemplation must always be subservient to action. If you want to sit around in silence, what you do is supposed to outweigh it. The contemplative person, the mystic, has no place in this worldview. They are idle, potentially lazy, and useless.

I remarked that this is the complete opposite of St John of the Cross (whom we both love, of course), and that everyone today thinks this way.

He said, ‘Not the Carmelites!’

And then he said something that I’ve felt sometimes as well. He said that one of the things he has appreciated about becoming Roman Catholic is the presence of an ongoing contemplative tradition in the Roman Catholic tradition, and that such a tradition is something that is lacking in evangelicalism. Evangelicalism is, by and large, devoid of this. It is upbeat and happy. It is also frequently shallow in its approach to suffering — let’s all read our Bibles and sing some happy songs!

This feels like caricature, but much depends on your corner of the evangelical world. (Much depends on your corner of Roman Catholicism, too, of course.) I can think of many times when simply reading the Bible has been presented by evangelicals as a cure-all, and of the discomfort one sometimes has with always singing at a fast tempo in a major key, despite the fundamental brokenness of all people.

I have often felt that Protestantism, and the evangelical world I have spent most of my life in (although that word evangelical is being destroyed and sapped of meaning by American politicising), is not sure of mysticism/contemplation. I think on the many people, including evangelical Anglicans, who say that they have no sympathy with or understanding of monasticism.

I, on the other hand, have had a longstanding interest in monks. The single-minded devotion of the Desert Fathers. The power of St Francis (whose legacy is both active and contemplative). The mystical writings of St John of the Cross. The daily grind of La Grande Chartreuse. Julian of Norwich. Cassian, Benedict, Anselm, Bernard. Cuthbert and Bede. I’ve blogged on all of these.

I have no doubt that there are faithful Roman Catholics who have no use for monks. However, Roman Catholicism has that rich, contemplative spiritual tradition alongside Roman Catholic social teaching and social action.

The mystical path for a Protestant does not usually involve going to your pastor for spiritual direction but, rather, books (and, today, the Internet). It is fraught with danger, but also excitement. And those who set forth are not alone.

There are Protestants who are seeking to plug into the ancient ways of contemplation/mysticism — James Houston, The Transforming Power of Prayer, and Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home both come to mind. But their engagement with the mystical tradition, whether Catholic or Orthodox, is not part of an ongoing living tradition. We Protestants have to go it alone, or make it up with each other as we go along.

I was going to put this forward as a liability, but maybe it is not, which derails anything further I wanted to write when I started this piece.

It forces us to rely on the Holy Spirit to guide us into the darkness, the silence, hesychia.

And that’s a good thing, I’m sure.

*Note: Monks of Late Antiquity not actually idle mouths, since a great many of them were involved in the cottage industry or farming.

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It’s not as though the crisis in western Christianity were new…

Michael Green in 1981:

When the church has grown so uncertain of its own beliefs, when it has become so preoccupied with its own structures, when it has degenerated very largely into a spectator sport for those who like that kind of thing, is it surprising that people have turned from it towards something that actually works? Ironically, the church may well prove to be the last sector in the community which comes to believe in the supernatural. –I Believe in Satan’s Downfall, p. 116

The un-sexy demonology of John Cassian

Having finished A New Kind of Christian, the next “book that ‘normal’ people read” I’m going through is Michael Green’s 1981 volume, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (from the ‘I Believe’ series). Obviously not a book that normal people read anymore, but I hope that some normal people read it in the 80s, because it is very good so far.

I have just finished Green’s chapter about temptation, and I am reminded of the awkward conversations I would have about demonology when I was researching John Cassian (d. c. 435). Specifically, the lack of any Frank Peretti, This Present Darkness or The Oath business. Cassian acknowledges this sort of demonology, but he is not going to spend time on it.

It’s a bit disappointing for the sensationalists. Why tantalise us with the idea of demons who wait at crossroads to mug people if you aren’t going to give us any details? Other stories from the Desert Fathers give us great details! I forget the source, but there’s this one time that a guy took shelter in an old tomb, and a bunch of demons turned up, and he overheard them talking about all the monks they tempted. Or there are the temptations of St Antony, wherein he wrestled with the denizens of Hell all night:

Including Funnel Butt:

John of Ephesus tells the story of some demons who made a woman levitate and appear like the BVM and fool some monks into praying to her.

Cassian doesn’t deny the reality of such things. After all, they say that The Exorcist is based on real events. But these sensationalist stories are not his main event.

Cassian’s demonology is all about temptation. How do the demons tempt you to sin? How do they try to distract you from prayer? What sorts of thoughts do they encourage? How much power do they have in terms of temptation? Can they implant an idea in your mind? Can demons really see the future?

Let me tell you, when you follow, ‘I study demonology,’ with, ‘specifically how demons tempt people to sin,’ your rocketing coolness plummets.

But the un-sexy demonology of John Cassian is just the demonology we need. I remember this scene in This Present Darkness (the aforementioned Peretti novel) where some dude is literally wrestling with demons in his living room. Let me tell you — you probably do wrestle with demons in your living room.

The demon of wrath.

The demon of greed.

The demon of gluttony.

The demon of laziness.

The demons of gossip and slander.

The demon of saying that malicious thing.

And so on.

Our passions are disordered, and the demonic prey on that. Their main goal, though, as Cassian’s Conferences would tell us, and which is, I believe, the lesson from St Antony’s battle with Funnel Butt, is to keep us from prayer. Watch out, then, for

The demon of distraction.

He comes clothed as a Netflix of Light.

A New Kind of Christian by Brian D. McLaren

The short version: This book is written in the genre of a novel which I think is a really good way to explore those ideas bundled together as ‘postmodern’. It is geared towards disillusioned American evangelicals who still love Jesus but find a lot of problems in the way church is done and stuff is talked about in the year 2000 (a lot of these problems persist to this day). It is good at asking hard questions, but the few answers are sometimes too vague as to actually be helpful or only highlight more problems. The concepts of modernism/modernity and postmodernism/postmodernity as assessed. Sometimes I think there are factual errors in these discussions. Nonetheless, this book is good at problematizing — and I think a lot of people found it refreshing to start thinking about different ways of being Christian that did not mean abandoning historic orthodoxy.

18 years later, I am not sure I would recommend the book. This is because McLaren imagined the imminent arrival of postmodernity, yet we have found ourselves living in the hypermodern instead. For example, instead of a pluralist culture where Christianity is one respected voice amongst many, we have a situation that I was recently told is called ‘postsecular’ — secularism is so deeply ingrained in our society’s ways of operating that we are living in the truly secular age forecast by Charles Taylor years ago. That is to say: The book is good, but limited in part because of the new directions our culture is taking and has taken, unanticipated by 2001’s new kind of Christian.

Cultural assessments and critiques like this are probably meant to only have a certain shelf life.

I’ll set aside where I suspect the factual errors are in the description of modernity, and focus on the conversations about Christianity. The conversation partners clearly want to rise above the division of conservative/liberal, which is nice but likely impossible. Throughout, the main pomo fellow, Neo, says, ‘People think in this binary fashion. The conversation is actually up here.’ It’s a nice way of dodging answers. Nevertheless, a question raised cannot be un-asked.

For example, when the question of salvation comes up, this book gets really twitchy. I think McLaren was reacting against some unhealthy approaches to the question used by American evangelicals and fundamentalists. One of the questions about salvation was the question of universalism vs inclusivism vs exclusivism; the first means everyone is saved by Jesus’ saving power; the second means everyone who puts their faith in Jesus is saved along with certain people of other religions like the Calormene in C S Lewis’ The Last Battle; the third means only those who put their faith in Jesus are saved. Neo says that this question isn’t the Bible’s main concern, and the Bible is more concerned with living out your salvation with fear and trembling.

Except the Bible does have things to say that have bearing on the question. I would rather the new kind of Christian be humble in his or her answer, whichever of the three, than come up with some pomo pseudo-logic to avoid answering.

This is only one example of many. It leaves the book intellectually unsatisfying. I am, perhaps, more ‘modernist’ than I’d like to admit, but since the first moderns were mediaeval, and I like the rigour of Boethius and Anselm, I’ll take the label.

I do agree that late twentieth-century American (and Canadian) evangelicalism (which, not modern Christianity at large, is the real target of the book) needed a readjustment regarding the word salvation. Neo insists that the way evangelicals approach the question, of ‘getting saved’ and going to heaven, is selfish. I’m not sure that it’s selfish; it’s too small, however, and I appreciate the bigness of Neo’s vision when he incorporates the cosmos into the question.

But human salvation means the salvation of persons, and this is part of the biblical doctrine of salvation. When I think of salvation on the human level, I am certainly not thinking of a ‘Get out of Hell Free’ card in a heavenly Monopoly game. My reading of the Fathers, medievals, and Orthodox thinkers has been leading me down new paths about participation in Christ and the ongoing work of salvation and such. This sort of richness of human salvation would have benefited the book simply because it tempers evangelicalism without gutting it.

This or something like it could be my tune for almost all of my disagreements with this book. For example, looking for a third way of ethics that is neither fundamentalist moralising nor liberal social works with no regard for inner character (that’s not quite how it’s phrased) — you mean Roman Catholicism? There’s a different kind of Christianity with a powerful social teaching and regard for the despised and rejected as well as moral standards as high as those of any evangelical — except at least Catholics can drink beer!

I could go on because it is easier to complain than to praise. There is much good in this book in terms of shaking things up — What do you believe about the Bible? What about salvation? Your own? Others’? Those outside the church? What is the relationship between church and kingdom? What do we do regarding other religions? Science and religion? etc., etc. Some of the answers are satisfying, some are correction course (‘Hey, the Bible is mostly stories!’), some are unsatisfying in the extreme.

In the end, this chief weakness still comes back to me, though. The characters foresee a future where Christians re-engage ancient and medieval spiritual practices (yay!). They imagine training for ministry that includes reading broadly through the whole tradition in terms of time and space (yay!). They engage in endless periodization (ancient – medieval – modern – postmodern) (blah). But the ideas of ancient and medieval, let alone Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, Christianity are never presented as options for those disillusioned with the options currently on offer in modern Christianity.

From what I see, this problem would plague the emergent movement until it fizzled out. They want the pretty, evocative stuff of ancient/medieval Christianity (incense, icons, candles, compline, pilgrimage, mysticism, even fasting and almsgiving), but not the intellectual rigour of an Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Anselm, or John of Damascus. The existence of Roman Catholics is noted, but the richness of the Roman Catholic tradition rarely engaged.

This is true of all three of McLaren’s books that I’ve read — and the reviews of A New Kind of Christianity show him ramping it up with his ‘Greco-Roman thesis’ that the biblical plot of creation – fall – redemption – glory was an importation from Platonic philosophy (it’s not; it bears little to no resemblance to Platonism; I do not know where he got this), or that if you reject penal substitutionary atonement theory you reject Christ’s death atoning for us (all Christians before Anselm must be confused, along with all of Eastern Christianity) — if he had read the Fathers and the medieval and Byzantine theologians deeply, he would not have made these errors. He may still have been a heretic, but at least an informed one.

In the end, if you are disillusioned with contemporary evangelicalism and want to find a different way of being Christian, this book may be helpful. On the other hand, why not just read Ephrem the Syrian, or Sebastian Brock’s excellent book about him, The Luminous Eye? Or Isaac of Nineveh? Both are online for free, after all. There you will find a different kind of Christian who yet affirms the reliability of Scripture and the Nicene faith without all the hazards of either evangelicalism or liberalism.

Christ the key to the Scriptures

This Lent I read Hans Boersma’s Scripture As Real Presence. This book is an exploration of the exegesis of the church Fathers, illuminating both their approach/method and the Scriptures at the same time in several chapters devoted to patristic treatment of specific passages. I’ll give a full review later, but one of the central arguments of the book is that spiritual exegesis is not willy-nilly but, in fact, follows a particular logic. That logic is that Christ is the key to the Scriptures. These reflections are my own, partly inspired by Boersma, partly taken from his book. I’m not sure where one begins and the other ends just now.

For Christians reading the Scriptures who take the authority of Scripture seriously, we have to realise that he is the substance of Old Testament teaching, scandalous as that may be for the historical-critical method. First, he himself says that he is the fulfilment of the Law — and the book of Hebrews go to great lengths to show us types, antitypes, and allegories of what that exactly means.

Second, the Gospels, especially Matthew, demonstrate Jesus fulfilling a variety of Old Testament prophecies, some of which, when read in historical or literary context wouldn’t look like they are pointing to the Messiah, some of which may seem, to modern eyes, like random Bible verses. Christ is everywhere present, permeating Scripture and salvation history as God the Word, present at creation and returning on the Day of the Lord. Moreover, Luke makes it plain that Jesus is the antitype of Moses through multiple intertexts with Deuteronomy.

Third, not only Hebrews, but St Paul and one of the letters of Peter, make use of allegory in reading the Old Testament. The realities they bring forth from the Scriptures are either christological or ecclesiological, somehow related to salvation.

The above is just to say: Scripture itself gives us licence to read the Old Testament according to the spiritual sense.

Martin Luther complained that allegorical readings of Scripture made the Scriptures into a wax nose. However, one of the things that Boersma points out is that for a great many passages of Scripture, various exegetes across the tradition make the same readings, a statement that can be borne out on even grander scale by reading Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis. Sometimes this is because they all read the same source. But sometimes it’s because they were all guided by the same conviction: Christ is the main content of Scripture.

They were also guided by the Rule of Faith, itself relatively consistent through time and space long before we started reciting the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed in the liturgy in the later sixth century. Thus, no reading that went against the grain of the basic outlines of the faith was valid.

Guided by a similar practice of prayer, seeking how Christ was present in any given passage, ensuring that the Scriptures were interpreted within the framework of tradition, and driving for readings that built up the faithful, it is no surprise that they often said the same things. They also held in common the practice of what some call ‘intertextual’ reading — that is, one passage of Scripture can be interpreted by another, through their use of the same word or phrase or by referring to the same person or event or something similar.

I would call this ‘intratextual’, because the fathers would have considered this valid on the grounds that ultimately, sacred Scripture is one writing; just as the ancient grammarians reading Homer used Homer to interpret Homer, so likewise the fathers with Scripture (this is a concept I first heard from Lewis Ayres at a research seminar in Edinburgh; his paper title was, ‘The Grammarian and the Rise of Scripture’ — I do not know if it has been published).

They were also aware of polysemy, which I suspect Luther would hate (I could be wrong on that). St Gregory of Nyssa, observes Boersma, knows full well that each passage of Scripture is susceptible to multiple interpretations. Multiple valid interpretations, even. Thus, one chooses, with Augustine, charity, as well as seeking Christ and tradition. Thus, Christ could be met in multiple ways in the same passage.

Boersma does a better job at it than I am here, I can assure you. The book is, in the end, a strong critique of the historical-critical school of biblical scholarship and an argument in favour of the spiritual reading of Scripture. He explicitly says that we don’t have to reclaim all of the teachings of the fathers — just their approach to Scripture and method of exegesis.

It makes sense to me — but I believe in a transcendent God who chooses to make Himself intimately known in manifold ways, Scripture being one, second only to Incarnation.

George Herbert, ‘Easter Wings’

For the Monday of Easter week, George Herbert. First, an image from the edition of 1633, then the text for ease of reading:

Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
      Though foolishly he lost the same,
            Decaying more and more,
                  Till he became
                        Most poore:
                        With thee
                  O let me rise
            As larks, harmoniously,
      And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.
My tender age in sorrow did beginne
      And still with sicknesses and shame.
            Thou didst so punish sinne,
                  That I became
                        Most thinne.
                        With thee
                  Let me combine,
            And feel thy victorie:
         For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

The Double Vision by Northrop Frye

Today I read all but the first eight pages of Northrop Frye’s final work (I read the first eight a few days ago), a slim volume entitled The Double Vision: Language and Meaning in Religion. I started here with Frye rather than, say, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, because the book is short and claims to be a quick version of his main ideas. I guess that being an academic means one wants the long version.

There are some great ideas in this book as well as some passages that pack some punch. Unfortunately, I came away a little disappointed, especially after my head had been swimming with big ideas when I read the first few pages of his much longer book, Words with Power: Being a Second Study of the Bible and Literature. In the introduction to Words with Power, Frye discusses his underlying conviction that all literature is mythology.

The idea of all literature and language being mythological excited me, but I’m pressed for time and intellectual capacity, so thought this series of addresses given to United Church of Canada ministers that distils some of Frye’s ideas would be the ideal place to start. Part of the problem is that his big ideas are often stated evocatively but not argued — understandable for the context; but this is why I need the bigger books, perhaps.

However, I fear that, for all that Frye was trying to recover the Bible for the 20th century and give it back to his faith community as something to be believed in, liberal Christianity and late modernity haunt the background of the pages. Frye was pressing his way into a path beyond any conservative-liberal impasse. Perhaps to someone who was only eight when the book came out, Frye did not pass through far enough?

For example, Frye says that sitting down and deliberating on whether story x in the Bible was historically true in a literal sense as we know it or whether it was just a myth is the wrong question. He rightly wants to push past that, and find the stories of Scripture coming alive and bodying forth God for us. However, in the end, I felt like he was recapitulating liberal doubts about the historicity of Scripture but finding a way to still believe in the Bible.

The parts of the book not about the Bible were interesting but failed to move me — very 1991, talking about the fall of the Soviet Union and an awakening consciousness about our devastation of the natural world.

My exposure to patristic and medieval Christianity has been very different from his, I think, and I think it has indelibly affected my own double vision. To take one example. Frye notes that when we start to ask the awkward question of the historicity of Elijah calling down fire from heaven in his competition with the prophets of Baal, the even more awkward reality of God’s lack of doing such things today comes up. That is — if we stick to historical questions, we have problems with today. But if we look at this story as a story about God’s relationship to Elijah, it takes on a more immediate concern for us. No other Near Eastern deity is as intimate with his people and prophets as YHWH.

Well, fine and good.

I still want it both ways. Elijah on Mount Carmel as history does not bother me, because the lack of miracles in the Canadian church of the 20th century is no failure on God’s part. It is possibly a failure on ours. Mind you, Frye points out that miracles aren’t the point of any of it, given Jesus’ own attitude to his miracle-working.

But Elijah on Mount Carmel as only history is less interesting than Elijah on Mount Carmel being an enacted myth that tells me something either about Christ (if the prophet is a living antitype of Jesus, what does this signify about the Messiah?) or about the church (who are the prophets of Baal in our midst, luring us away from the worship of the true God, and what will He do for us if we only ever ask?).

Somehow something bigger than mere scientifically verifiable history is at play in the Old Testament prophets. Frye would agree.

But that doesn’t mean these things didn’t actually happen.

It’s hard to put into words. This is why I’m neither a professional theologian nor literary critic. 😉

In terms of background, I wish Frye were more steeped in Nouvelle Théologie than Hegel or Kant, quite frankly. Not that his use of German philosophers was bad or wrong or anything. But his lack of de Lubac, Daniélou, Bouyer, in his approach to the Bible, the Fathers, and mediaeval theology has perhaps weakened his reading of the pre-modern. (A bold thing to say about Northrop Frye. For who am I? I am nothing. I’m not even confident enough in my ideas to put my name on this blog.)

For here some balance could be redressed. His brief mention of Thomas Aquinas was heavy on Aristotelianism but outrightly stated that St Thomas was not into Dionysius the Areopagite — this is simply a falsehood. What makes Thomas Aquinas so interesting is his extraordinary synthesis of so much philosophy and theology, not merely Aristotle but the mystical and sacramental traditions of patristic and medieval theology, East and West, as well. This is perhaps quibblillng, although I found his statement to the effect that the best mediaeval theologians were those who found themselves accused of heresy troubling (poor Bonaventure, Albert the Great, Anselm, Hildegard, Catherine of Siena).

He also demonstrates a common misconception about the allegorical reading of the Bible, that it was the same thing as the allegorical reading of Homer and that its main goal was to justify the ways of God to men (oh, wait, that was Milton) — that is, to explain away the awkward bits. While the spiritual reading of Scripture was often used to this effect, the fundamental difference between Christian allegory and its pagan counterpart is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the full revelation of God; therefore, when the Fathers and mediaeval thinkers allegorise the Old Testament, it is not willy-nilly, not the wax nose maligned by Luther, but with a specific intent and often with common content — find Christ and glorify Him. See how the passage fits with the church’s Rule of Faith. This is what ancient and medieval allegory was up to.

Henri de Lubac would save you from that trouble. The problem is, Medieval Exegesis was not translated into English until well after Frye’s death. Frye’s reading of allegory and Origen is on a level with much anglophone scholarship of the last century.

Anyway, if we couple my ongoing Anglican diet, my charismatic-Anglican upbringing, my encounters with Orthodoxy, and my ongoing engagement directly with the Church Fathers and certain strains of thought regarding mediaeval and Byzantine theology, it is perhaps inevitable that a book like The Double Vision would strike me as starting in some right directions but haunted by the spectre of late modern liberal Christianity. I no doubt have a very different reading list from Frye’s.

But there is so much in here that I could find myself interesting in and gravitating towards if only it were more fully articulated and argued that I will return to Frye’s thoughts on the Bible and literature again some day.