Mystical Prayer and Biblical Christianity 3: Pantheism?

My third point from yesterday’s post was that, contrary to how it seems to be presented by Keller in his analysis of the work of Davis in Chapter 4 of Prayer, mysticism is not about turning ‘inward’ simply to find God within me, and it is certainly not pantheist.

Here’s where I’ll finally get biblical, I guess. Davis via Keller rightly argues that prayer is meant to be focussed upward. Amen. So say all of us. However, God is both immanent and transcendent, and we must wrestle with this tension of the reality of God’s presence and absence in our lives, just as we accept on biblical authority that he exists as three persons in one essence and that Jesus Christ is fully man and fully God existing as a single person.

That God is transcendent is, in fact, the root of apophatic Christianity — the via negativa, the path that seeks to silence all created thoughts and ideas to find an encounter with God. God is wholly other. This is the thrust of Genesis 1 — ‘In the beginning, God.’ Creatio ex nihilo is a rare idea in the ancient world, but it is rooted in Scripture, and it tells us that there is an ontological gulf between us and the Divine Person(s).

Furthermore, Isaiah 55:8 says:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. (NIV)

Indeed, the otherness and holiness and power and majesty of the glorious splendour of the transcendent God when he appears in glory before Isaiah causes him to fall on his face. Ezekiel’s vision of God is a singularly bizarre encounter that I doubt even Scripture has done justice to.

But God loves us. Mystical theology is rooted, I would argue, in the incarnation of God the Word. God loves us so much that he became one of us, suffered, thirsted, grew weary, ate food, was beaten, bruised, crucified, died. He tasted all there is to be human except for sin. God knows us intimately, and he is not disconnected from the human condition. This is the message of the Incarnation as found in the Gospels and laid out for us in the Apostolic epistles.

Not only this, of course, but, as St Paul famously said, ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’ So God, in fact, is within me. He is so close to me, so near, so intimate with me because he is so other than me that he is simultaneously everywhere in universe at once, yet my own sin and clouded vision enable me to see only as through a glass darkly. The Kingdom of God is within you, but we don’t always realise it.

The mystics know this. There are certainly trends within the mystical tradition of Evagrius of Pontus and Pseudo-Dionysius in particular that make his transcendence an unsuperable gulf, and Protestants have generally taken an Evagrian or Dionysian theology as the basis of mysticism at large and thus rejected the wider tradition that is rooted in Scripture, in prayer, in the sacraments, and in the liturgy of the church simply through unfamiliarity with it.

There are also trends in some current discussions of mysticism that forget the transcendent gulf and jeopardise the difference between Creator and created. These trends are not part of the mainstream of Christian mysticism as I know it — certainly not in Eastern Orthodoxy, where the mysticism of St Gregory Palamas, for example, acknowledges the difference between us and God and allows for a way to express ideas of ‘union’ that are, perhaps, better understood in the English language as communion.

To be fair, Keller is not, however, as severely critical as Davis, and he seeks balance. However, J.I. Packer whom Keller sees as bringing balance carries similar suspicions when he characterises Neoplatonic/Dionysian mysticism:

God is to be realized and contemplated as an impersonal presence rather than a personal friend.

This, again, is not the majority tradition, is not the tradition rooted in Scripture and tradition that is the best on offer from Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox mysticism.

The solution Packer offers, as quoted by Keller:

there is a place for silence before God . . . after we have spoken to him, while joy at God’s love invades the soul.

I am not certain that silence need be so narrowly sought.

And so, in my final post in this meandering thought process, I’ll talk about silence, Scripture, and the Jesus Prayer.

Thoughts on ‘This Is My Father’s World’

Re-post from 2008. I thought it was germane to some of the current discussion in the post Gender-Inclusive Language. This old post rings strongly of ‘Leave My Hymns Alone!

Albertan Rockies
Albertan Rockies

One of the most important events of my life was moving from Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, to Thunder Bay, Ontario. Most notably, by moving to Ontario, I chose to go to the University of Ottawa for my undergrad rather than the University of Calgary. At the U of O, I met my wife, a fellow student of Classics.

In this move, I also learned more and more to trust my Saviour. I was torn from life in the country and began to live the city life. I left behind mountains! More importantly, I left behind friends and a supportive, loving, strong church community. Yet through it all, through the times of loneliness all alone at midnight on my bedroom floor rocking back and forth, God Almighty, Lord of all, was there. He became more real to me through this time.

I truly learned the message of ‘This Is My Father’s World‘ at that time, that the world, the creation, is the Lord’s. The fullness of His glory dwells herein. He speaks to us everywhere. In the rustling grass, I hear Him pass!

Our last Sunday at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Rocky we sang “This Is My Father’s World,” the music of the spheres ringing round us. My mom and I arrived in Thunder Bay before my dad’s official start at St. Thomas’, so we went to St. Paul’s our first Sunday in the city. And we sang “This Is My Father’s World,” the morning light declaring its Maker’s praise. And then, in case we hadn’t quite got the message yet, our first Sunday at St. Thomas’, we sang the hymn again, resting in the thought of rock and trees.

“This Is Our Father’s World” was almost like our theme song! And I wasn’t cognisant of it at the time, but this is the message I truly needed to hear as I crossed two provinces, from foothills to Canadian shield, as I left behind all I knew — that my Father was in control, and that “Jesus, who died, shall be satisfied, / and earth and heaven be one.”

Reading Week 2008. My wife and I avail ourselves of the GO Train and her grandpa’s generosity. We have a lovely visit with him and Ruth and stay with them on Saturday night. Sunday morning we go with them to the local United Church.

The sermon was good. The man preaching knew Jesus and preached that salvation is from Christ our God. It was a good sermon. And we almost sang two of my favourite hymns, “This Is My Father’s World” and “Be Thou My Vision.”

Only Voices United is a sad travesty and butchered both, the former more than the latter.

“This is God’s wondrous world,” the words read. I sang, “This is my Father’s world.” Rather than, “In the rustling grass, I hear him pass,” it read, “In the rustling grass, in the mountain pass.” I was more than a little perturbed and angry.

You see, as Christians, we don’t simply worship some vague divinity up there in the clouds. We worship a specific Person (or, more accurately, Persons) who is certain things and not others. One of the things God is is Father. Clearly no one thinks he has a penis. God does not have a penis. God is Spirit! But as Father, we are reminded that God is our creator, that He is the one who sustains the universe and keeps us alive.

In the Trinitarian God, the Father is the One Who begets the Son, the One from Whom the Spirit proceeds.

He loves us.

And He cannot be both Father and Mother because then He loses specificity and becomes a vague blob of some variety. God is beyond personality, as CS Lewis notes in Mere Christianity, but he is more than our personalities, not less. His role as Father is one of love, care, and benevolent rule.

A glance through Voices United showed me a hymn wherein God was called “Mother.” It’s one thing to call God “Mother” because He performs some motherly tasks for us, another to call Him “Mother” because you are being inclusive and a third to call Him “Mother” but not “Father” which is the biblical name for Him. Are we smarter than the Bible?

A review of Voices United cites that God is only called Father if the word Father is accompanied by the word Mother.

What Voices United is reminding us is that we are smarter than Scripture. It is the modern rejection of the old and traditional for the new and “progressive.”

I could rant longer but won’t. My gorge is rising to high and too quickly.

For the ruin of the falsehood that calling God Father won’t be of use to people who had bad dads, read Knowing God by J I Packer (p. 229, although that whole chapter “Sons of God” is worth a read to understand the fatherhood of God) and Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf (169-181; reader beware, he uses words such as ontologization and the clause, “the Father therefore constitutes the mutual relations between the persons as egalitarian rather than hierarchical”).

Edith M Humphrey’s book Ecstasy and Intimacy, pp. 170-174, dispels this whole “Mother God” business.

For the hubris of modernity, see Thomas Oden, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy.

Last, Jerome, quoted in Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers by Christopher A. Hall:

It is inconceivable that sex exists among God’s agencies, since even the Holy Spirit, in accordance with the usages of the Hebrew tongue, is expressed in the feminine gender, ruach, in Greek in the neuter, to pneuma, in Latin in the masculine, spiritus. Hence we must understand that when there is discussion concerning the above and something is set down in the masculine and feminine, it is not so much an indication of sex as an expression of the idiom of the language; because God Himself, the invisible and incorruptible, is represented in almost all languages in the masculine gender, and since sex does not apply to Him. (112)

A Christmas-themed Sermon from a Year Ago, Part 2

2. Why Did God Become a Man?

So this God has chosen to take on flesh and dwell amongst us (see last post).  He could have stayed in Heaven on His sapphire throne with cherubim and seraphim surrounding him with their continuous cry, “Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Hosts!  Heaven and Earth are full of thy glory!”  “All the heavens cannot hold Him!”  The train of His robe fills the Temple!  He is Light!  He is utterly perfect, which means that there is nothing He lacks and that He fulfils His role in the universe without fail, blemish, or fault.  This perfect being, the One Who thought up butterflies and cheese, chose to enflesh Himself and pitch His tent among us.

And He chose to do so, coming as a baby.

Why?

He came because of love.  His creation had fallen.  We human beings, created in the very image of God, had fallen into sin and death.  All that awaited us was annihilation.  We were destined to death, to corruption due to our fall.  Without God’s redemptive action, we were destined for an end the Bible calls various things: death, a place of outer darkness where there is moaning and gnashing of teeth, the second death, spiritual death, the lake of fire, Hades, Sheol, the pit, the grave.  However, we weren’t really made for that.  We were made to dwell with our Creator forever.  And He took great pity upon us and sought to remake us after His own Image.  He alone could do this, however.  The law could not do this, nor the prophets, nor the revelation of His character in nature.  Only He alone could recreate humanity into what we were meant to be.

In order to effect this re-creation, however, He had first to do away with death and corruption.  Therefore He assumed a human body, in order that in it death might once for all be destroyed, and that men might be renewed according to the Image.  The Image of the Father only was sufficient for this need. (St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation)

Part of the mystery of the Incarnation, then, is that God loved us sinners enough to make Himself human.  It’s not simply that the Creator made Himself into a man.  Some point out that He can do anything.  In fact, some of the Church Fathers say that Jesus was ordering the universe the whole time He was on earth—that, as perfect God, He never ceased performing the full function of the Almighty.  I’m not sure I believe that, myself, but it’s an intriguing thought.  Nonetheless, Almighty God took on flesh because He loves us!  He became man for our sake.

O Come, let us adore Him!!

We see this aspect of Christ’s incarnation, in fact, in some of tonight’s passages (Christmas 1, Year 1, BCP Evensong).

Ps. 130:8: He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.

Jer. 31:1-6: 1 “At that time,” declares the LORD, “I will be the God of all the clans of Israel, and they will be my people.”  2 This is what the LORD says: “The people who survive the sword will find favor in the desert will come to give rest to Israel.”  3 The LORD appeared to us in the past, saying: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness.  4 I will build you up again and you will be rebuilt, O Virgin Israel. Again you will take up your tambourines and go out to dance with the joyful.  5 Again you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria; the farmers will plant them and enjoy their fruit.  6 There will be a day when watchmen cry out on the hills of Ephraim, ‘Come, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God.’ “

3. Our Response

What is our response?  First, worship.  Second, worship.  Third, worship.  And while we worship, we should take the words of Jesus seriously and live by them in faith.  The sort of faith is found in the second lesson from tonight.  In Matt. 18:3-4, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

As we live worshipping Jesus and putting our whole faith in Him, certain attitudes will inevitably be adopted.  St. Paul puts it eloquently in Philippians 2:

5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

We should give of ourselves as God Himself has.  God, the, the Creator of all that was, is, and shall be, is Jesus.  God Who revealed Himself to us in the Old Testament and acted in real ways in history, is Jesus.  God is Jesus.  How can we not worship Him and get caught up in the glory that He came to earth to save us from our sins?  And so, reflecting on this mystery, we are spurred on to live righteous lives, lives of humility, lives lived for others, lives that seek to help the poor, lives that seek to help other people find the joy of life with Christ, lives that relieve the needs of those around them.  J.I. Packer writes:

We talk glibly of the ‘Christmas spirit’, rarely meaning more by this than sentimental jollity on a family basis.  But what we have said makes it clear that the phrase should in fact carry a tremendous weight of meaning.  It ought to mean the reproducing in human lives of the temper of him who for our sakes became poor at the first Christmas.  And the Christmas spirit ought to be the mark of every Christian all the year round. (Knowing God, p. 70)