Mysticism, theology, evangelism, and social action

The Penitent Saint Francis by Annibale Caracci, Capitoline Museum
St Francis, a man who loved God and neighbour (my pic)

I sent an e-mail to my friend who’d given the talk spoken of in this post, outlining the same things I outlined here on the blog. His response included:

Thanks for this. … I am no Eastern Orthodox but Presbyterians need a good dose of EO and the EO could use a little Presbyterianism. I like to think of my theology as a Presby ressourcement. That sort of mystical theology is totally absent from the Free Church.

I, myself, am not a Presbyterian, but the call to mystical theology for low Protestants is important.

The image of people who are interested in evangelism and church-planting, who want to see their culture reached for Christ is not — fairly or otherwise — typically that of the mystics. Which is a shame.

Another tale.

A couple of my friends run a Greek theology reading group. A third friend joined them a few times (I went once for St Basil, ‘On the Holy Spirit’), but (I am given to understand) his general attitude towards the discussion was, ‘But what does all this have to do with the man on the street in Glasgow?’ (Why Glasgow?)

In my mind, ‘the man on the street in Glasgow’ — in this instance — is in need of social assistance. (This is not intended as a general statement on Glaswegians.) Why should we worry about St Gregory of Nazianzus and Trinitarian theology when there are starving people out there? In Glasgow?

The image of people who are interested in social action/activism, who want to see the poor clothed and the hungry fed is not — fairly or otherwise — typically that of the systematic theologians. Which is a shame.

Somewhere in his book The Inner Experience, Thomas Merton references St John of the Cross as teaching that one should spend more time in contemplation (used here in its mystical sense) than action — that actions ungirded in the contemplative life are prone to be willy-nilly and of less use. How do we know we are doing them for God’s glory? What is His will? That sort of thing.

That’s one approach to contemplation in a world of action (social/evangelistic).

The other is this: Good theologia and good theoria (contemplation), good thoughts about God and good thoughts in God, dogmatics and mysticism — these, in fact, lead to just behaviour and holy living and Gospel-telling.

Think on St Francis, who was a mystic if ever there was one. But his fervour for prayer, dispassion, contemplation was as tied to a fervour for preaching and for helping the poor.

Solid theology and ‘mystical’ practices give heart and soul to our activities in the world.

Perhaps it is our lack of deep thinking and deep praying that weaken our witness of love to a world eroded by hatred and false loves at every turning.

By looking upon God, whether through the intellectual truths of theology or through the noetic experience of mysticism, we can be suffused with His power, His light, and His love for a broken world.

Maybe then we’ll be worth listening to.

The ‘liberal’ convictions of a theological conservative

Thomas Guthrie, DD, theological conservative and social reformer

This July in Paris, a ‘hippie’-ish friend from BC was in my French class. One day in class, we were discussing what we would change if we held the reins of power in government, and he said that he would stop extracting oil from the tar sands, that northern Alberta has become a moonscape. Apparently, this was said not only out of conviction but also to see my response, since I was raised in Alberta. However, I agree. Extracting oil from the tar sands, even if done cleanly, is destroying a unique ecosystem that will ultimately vanish forever, at best replaced by more boreal forest. But it’s not done cleanly, as the evidence of tumors in fish in the Mackenzie River demonstrates.

When he told this story to another friend (himself a theological conservative like myself; a Californian), this other friend jokingly remarked, ‘Guess Matt’s not as conservative as we thought!’

But, of course, I am. My commitment to responsible environmental stewardship stems precisely from my commitment to biblical ethics and theology. This second friend, before you get the wrong idea, is also in favour of wise treatment of the natural world, and sometimes expresses surprise that fellow evangelicals so rarely make a noise on the issue.

The other day, I was chatting with this Californian friend, and he noted that in the USA, I would be thought of as ‘liberal’ by many (not all) conservative evangelicals — apparently because I believe in such radical things as treating creation well and free health care provided by the government. He went on to observe that he doesn’t understand why more evangelicals aren’t in favour of free health care, since it would exist to benefit the poor, and the second most recurring theme in the New Testament — after the Gospel — is to care for the poor.

These two incidents are worthy of note. I must now say that I am a theological conservative. There is no way around it. I believe in ridiculous things like the Trinity — which, scandalously, comes with a wholehearted trust that the ‘historical Jesus’ of Nazareth was, in fact, God in the flesh pitching His tent among us, having been born of a virgin and rising from dead before leaving this plane of existence to Heaven in a fashion resembling ascending into the sky. Despite respect for the conservative Cyrillian camp (those ‘Monophysites’), I find that conciliar orthodoxy (including two natures and two wills in Christ as well as right use of icons) is the most philosophically coherent and biblically faithful account of the broad sweep of Christian theology. I also believe in the 39 Articles — I may even believe in the predestination one (but with some hedging around the edges).

I also, therefore, believe the Bible. Frankly, you can’t believe all that crazy stuff about the hypostatic union and the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit being homoousios without the Bible. I believe that the Bible is God’s primary, normative means of revelation to us and that, at least from Abraham to the Apostles, it provides us with a historically reliable account of His interactions with the human race — including the miracles and visions and prophecies.

Finally, as a theological conservative I also hold some very unpopular views on ethics and morality. Just ask me the hot button issues, and I’ll probably disappoint all my liberal friends, Christian or otherwise.

However, this belief in Scripture and tradition as the standards for Christian belief and ethics means that I believe in looking after the poor, the widow, the orphan, the alien. I think the Church should be on the front lines of the battle against the social ills associated with these things. In my experience in Canada and the UK, it is, even if people don’t realise it.

My church growing up ran the local food bank (honestly, this means it was my dad, a hero of the faith, if ever there was one). In Toronto, Jennie and I helped out at Toronto Alliance when they served a hot meal to the local poor of the community (they also had a food bank, clothing room, and a nurse to look at people’s feet). In Edinburgh, my church recently took up a collection to help Syrian refugees in the Middle East; they are involved in helping refugees come to Scotland; they also help the Bethany Christian Trust run its care shelters for the local poor throughout the year; our Sunday School does the now traditional act of service by supporting two children through overseas charities. All of these churches fall under the heading of ‘theologically conservative’.

My theologically conservative aunt and uncle have lived in Angola for decades providing free health care to the poorest of the poor and have built a hospital there. Their hope and dream is for there to be a team of local Angolan doctors and nurses to run this hospital without them. This is what the Gospel calls us to do.

In the nineteenth century, churches were on the front lines in providing free education and health care to the poorest of Britain’s poor, as, for example, in the Ragged Schools Movement. Thomas Guthrie, the founding minister of our church here in Edinburgh (St Columba’s Free Church), was also the founder of a Ragged School. Our church in Toronto (Little Trinity) had also been involved in the running of schools for the nineteenth-century poor. When education became freely available through the organisational skills and financing of the government, this was in part because of the activities of Victorian Christians. The same goes for the establishment of free health care in Canada and Britain in the twentieth century.

The government has far more resources than the Church, especially today as our numbers fall. So it makes sense that we support them in their efforts to ensure that there is free education and health care available to all — in this way, we can help the most vulnerable in society. And we can turn our attention to other social ills that plague our cities, things that governments, perhaps, are less well-equipped to deal with.

It boggles the mind to think that there are Christians who are not involved, whether with their time or money, in caring for the poor. If we look in Scripture, we will see passage after passage, on page after page, telling the people of God to care for the poor. If God has a bias, it is for the poor (somebody said that somewhere, but I forget who).

This has run on too long, but I can assure you that my ‘liberal’ convictions concerning environmental issues stem also from my conservative reading of Scripture and the traditional doctrine of creation. The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it. We humans were given a responsibility to tend the land, not pollute it, destroy it, burn it; not to turn it into desert, not to bring the bounty of animal species made by God to the brink of extinction. That doesn’t sound like good stewardship to me…