Friday, April 5, 2013

Why Contemplative Christianity Is Neither Contemplative Nor Christianity: Part I

As I've noted before here, heresies often come in waves. The first waves are usually more explicit. Christians deal with their challenge to the faith by contemplating theological truths more deeply. They have the ability of moving immature Christians, who don't think much of deeper theological truths, into a firmer understanding and beatification of that theological truth. Hence, God is said to place them among His people for that very reason. Those who stand against the heretics and move into deeper maturity in the truth show themselves approved by God.

But heresy, once largely defeated, comes around again for a second swing at things. This time it comes implicitly in other more acceptable doctrines that assume its truth.

Because of this, heresies, such as Gnosticism, in the early church, were rejected explicitly, but many times accepted implicitly through the adoption of other theological ideas or practices, absent of its more extreme forms of dispute, that assumed it. One of these theological ideas, really an entire theological framework, is found in the apophatic theology of contemplatives.

Apophatic theology is a theology of the negative. In other words, it can only look at the world around it and say what God is not, since to say positively that God is X is merely an analogy built upon the world, and God is not equal to anything in the world. The world is therefore not sufficient to describe God as He is. It can only describe Him in approximation, but approximation is as accurate as it is inaccurate. Hence, kataphatic theology, a theology of positive statements built upon the analogy used by language is a necessary, but insufficient step on one's journey toward truly knowing God.

As Gregory of Nyssa argued, the more one says about God, the less he knows about Him. To attempt to know God through language as the goal of one's faith is to remain in an immature state of spirituality. God's essence must be known directly and experientially. Hence, the mature believer must transcend language in order to know God.

The link to Gnosticism is really found in a couple of the ideas assumed by apophatic theology. The first is that there is a higher secret knowledge of God that can only be attained by those most spiritually in tune with the divine. It is not accessible to babes (contra Matt 11:25), and it cannot be attained through any medium in this crude world.
The second link is found in the idea that language and the world of analogy it utilizes are too below God to speak of Him accurately. There is a higher knowledge of God that must transcend the base world. God is completely other than this crude world, and as such, cannot be described by it. There is thus a disdain for the material world and its abilities to bring one to a mature knowledge of/relationship with God.This often leads to a rejection and replacement of the God, Jesus, and gospel of the Bible with some other God, some other Jesus, and some other gospel, as well as, in our day, a denial of all sorts of biblical ethics. We might say that the apophatic theology of the mystics often leads to practical Marcionism as opposed to theoretical Marcionism, where one does not explicitly deny the teaching of the whole Bible, but rather rejects it via alternate interpretations and uses of the texts that were once meant to convey that teaching.

Hence, language, such as that used by the Bible to communicate God, and therefore the Bible itself,  is just one lower step on the staircase upon which one must step to get closer to the top, but there are many other steps beyond it that leave it far behind in one's spiritual journey.

What this does is to allow the contemplative to experience God directly without a medium, since a medium is inadequate to communicate God anyway. It is an attempt to remove the darkness of the created world from our knowing God, which is really what blinds us from knowing Him, since it hides God when we think we know Him through it rather than reveals who He really is, and allows us to experience God in pure light and mystical enlightenment.

Thus, this allowed contemplatives to turn the Bible itself into a book of allegories, especially when it conflicted with the contemplative's own religious ideas, since His knowledge of God came from his own personal and direct experience of God and he was capable now of critiquing the lesser medium made up of analogy and approximate claims about God.

Ergo, one sees Gregory of Nyssa speaking of certain texts needing to be reinterpreted because they were unworthy of God. One would only presumably know this if there was some other standard besides the Bible with which to critique the biblical portrait of God.

But what this really does is make the individual the final arbiter of truth. The Bible must bow to his own religious ideals. And this clearly happens to most contemplatives. Hence, they end up denying all sorts of scriptural teachings in favor of their own visions of God (e.g., Gregory Nyssa rejected the idea that hell was eternal and that it merely functioned as a way, albeit painfully, to save both men and devils alike--thus, rejecting the necessity of trusting the gospel for salvation). Similar biblical teachings are denied when they do not accord with the contemplative's experience, a view of those teachings that bears striking similarity with the positions trending within the contemporary world of the mystic.

But an emptying of the mind of language is hardly worthy of the designation "contemplative." In reality, it is the exact opposite of that. Instead, the goal is to, in the words of Obiwan Kenobi, "put away your conscience self," and "feel the force," oh, I mean, "God." This is Self getting to define God as it experiences Him. This is Ego getting to dictate to the Bible what it can and cannot say about God. It is not that mystics have nothing to say about God. Of course they do. They just use this ploy as a way of arguing that their own visions of God are more reliable and accurate than the biblical relation of God. Hence, they make all sorts of dogmatic statements about God in practice, and retreat to the idea that God cannot be described adequately in language only in theory.

But my primary point here is not that mysticism is Gnosticism. It does assume ideas very similar to it. Nor is it my point to merely say that one should not experience God. My point is to say, however, that an attempt to bypass the Scripture as the supreme authority by which one must interpret all experiences of "God" is yet another manifestation of the religion of the Self. It puts me in control of even the Bible itself. The Bible now can say nothing contradictory to my own preconceived views of God gained from my personal and direct experience of Him. That's because I am the supreme authority now. And I should be if I am experiencing God directly and biblical language is only capable of relating God approximately.

My point in bring this up in Part I is to say that any religion of the Self is not a religion of Christianity, and that is why Contemplative Christianity is neither contemplative nor Christianity. It is another religion that seats the Self as the receiver of God's true essence that cannot be known through any other medium, and it, therefore, does not seek contemplation of the Scripture, but rather to remove the analogies that Scripture puts in one's mind in an effort to achieve a higher vision of God directly experienced.

Part II will discuss the charge of bibliolatry and why it is necessary to have a supreme authoritative medium that is external to self in order to achieve both genuine contemplation of who God is and true Christian maturity.

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