Affirmation Mysticism

There will be progress and regressions. But every victory, every particular progress from injustice to more justice, from suffering to more happiness, from hostility to more peace, from separation to more unity anywhere is a manifestation of the eternal in time and space. It is, in the language of the Old and the New Testaments, the coming of the Kingdom of God. For the Kingdom of God does not come in one dramatic event sometime in the future. It is coming here and now in every act of love, in every manifestation of truth, in every moment of joy, in every experience of the holy.

In his first attempt at creating a Latin grammar, the ancient Roman scholar and writer Marcus Terentius Varro is said to have forgotten the future tense. That continues to plague us today. The result is that overwhelmingly our thinking is static, repeatedly closing off conversation about the future, and when we do entertain the subject we only address it as something already accomplished, finished. Much of contemporary Christian theology ‘thinks’ this way. Faith, for instance, is required to conform to an orthodoxy – to authorized theories, doctrine and practices all of which find their foundation in the past. Knowledge becomes re-remembering, as in the ritualized eucharist. Celebration becomes the observance of something that has been. And woe unto those who would dare challenge the status quo.  

 

For instance, contemplative knowledge is, by definition, solely knowledge of what can be contemplated, that is considering the experiences of the past, and as such it bends a closing arch over what has been and is and shuts out consideration of what is yet to come. Even where it is grasped historically, this world of ours is thought of as a world of repetition. Our use of scripture falls into this trap of become petrified.

 

In his new book Reality, Grief, Hope, Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks, Walter Brueggemann begins by pointing out that in the development of a tradition that becomes ritualized, the socio-economic advantage of the folks in power is effectively disguised in it. It becomes an “ideological cover-up” that intentionally hides the reality. As an Old Testament scholar he illustrates how this process was the essential factor in Israel’s destruction as the urban elite of Jerusalem were able to deny the reality of the world swirling around them.

 

He turns next to point out the role of the prophets, who are found by the elite to be outsiders and an offense and who champion the God of Abraham and Jacob as well as the rights of the ordinary person. Good, bad or indifferent, it was the role of the prophet to point to the reality of the world.

Read: Isa 1:17; Jeremiah 5:27-28; Ezek 22:6-7

 

Now the reality is that, primarily, all of our lives are in the future. Depending on the orientation of the individual, the future dimension contains either what is feared or what is hoped for.

 

If our orientation is fearful, we leave unexplored our grief over that which is lost for lack of consideration, for our failure to invest, our fear of being embarrassed by failure. We dismiss Utopian thoughts as wool gathering and day dreaming. This is how theologians and philosophers have gone about it for centuries, with their form, idea or substance posited as being a finished product. That includes a postulating Kant and even a dialectical Hegel. This has spoiled our appetites for hope particularly in seeking pathways to a life of satisfaction.

Although it scares us, expectation, hope, intention towards possibility that has still not become is a basic feature of human consciousness. Hope for a future requires an openness to potential danger and a willingness to risk.

Ernst Bloch wrote that what is required is the learning of hope. The emotion of hope goes out of itself, makes people broad instead of confining them. The work of hope requires people to throw themselves actively into what is becoming, to which they themselves belong.  

 

Paul Tillich wrote that there is one idea which has grasped the imagination of the West but which has already lost its power because of the horrors which have happened in our century. It is the idea of progress toward the fulfillment of the age-old hopes of human kind. This is still a half-conscious, half-unconscious belief of many people today. It is often the only hope they have, and its breakdown is a profound shock for them. But the question is: Does this progress justify the hope for a stage of fulfillment? Progress is a justified hope in all moments in which we work for a task and hope that something better and new will replace old goods and old evils. But it seems that whenever one evil is conquered, another appears, using the new which is good to support a new evil.

 

The goal of humanity is not progress toward a final stage of perfection; it is the creation of what is possible for us in each particular state of history; and it is the struggle against the forces of evil, old ones and new ones, which arise in each period in a different way. There will be victories as well as defeats in these struggles. There will be progress and regressions. But every victory, every particular progress from injustice to more justice, from suffering to more happiness, from hostility to more peace, from separation to more unity anywhere is a manifestation of the eternal in time and space. It is, in the language of the Old and the New Testaments, the coming of the Kingdom of God. For the Kingdom of God does not come in one dramatic event sometime in the future. It is coming here and now in every act of love, in every manifestation of truth, in every moment of joy, in every experience of the holy. The hope of the Kingdom of God is not the expectation of a perfect stage at the end of history, in which only a few will would participate. No! The hope of mankind lies in the here and now, whenever the eternal appears in time and history.

 

“There are few crises to compare,” wrote Rufus Jones in 1904, “with that which appears when the simple, childhood religion, imbibed at mother’s knee and absorbed from early home and church environment, comes into collision with a scientific, solidly reasoned system” His generation, young, eager and intellectually hungry in the last decades of the nineteenth century, endured most directly the impact of Darwin’s biology and German historical criticism, an impact that Jones vividly described as a “collision.”   In that day Protestant denominations of all stripes were torn apart by what came to be called the modernist/fundamentalist controversy in the 1920s. We still stumble over the rubble of that convolution. When he wrote that Rufus Jones had recently suffered three devastating losses, first of his wife, then of his fiancé in and most recently and most tragically, of his only child, his son Lowell. In other words, Jones knew spiritual crisis.

 

Out of these crises—the alienations of modernity—Jones composed his most important book, Social Law in the Spiritual World. . He grouped mystics into two classes: negation mystics and affirmation mystics. The first class sought “peak experiences,” the ecstatic rapture of union with the divine. Jones regarded this as spiritual escapism. Rather, he looked to the affirmation mystics for guidance. Such mystics, with whom he certainly hoped to include himself, “do not make vision the end of life, but rather the beginning . . .” More important than the vision is obedience to the vision.” he wrote. For the affirmation mystic, the solitary, personal, inward, mystical experience, which for Jones always lay at the heart of spiritual life, was to be valued only insofar as it empowered a person to service in the world. “The truth test is to be sought, not in the feeling-state, but in the motor-effects,” he wrote. For Jones, the test of mystical experience was its social utility.   In a 1921 article in the Atlantic Monthly, “The Mystic’s Experience of God,” Jones defined mystical experience this way: “Mystical experience is consciousness of direct and immediate relationship with some transcendent reality which, in the moment of experience, is believed to be God.” This made mystical experience accessible to those of almost any theological persuasion. From Spiritual Energies published in 1922: “We assume that [mysticism] is for saints or apostles, but not for common every-day people like ourselves. Well, that is where we are wrong.”19 The mark of Jones’s genius is that out of the crises of his age he was able to craft a vision of the religious life that not only proved workable for himself, as a practitioner of the faith he advocated, but also reached out to countless other struggling Americans. Moreover, Rufus Jones brought mysticism to the masses not just because he declared that mystical experience was open to all in theory; in this regard, he was simply being a good Quaker, affirming the Inner Light.

 

Twenty years later, reflecting on the tumult of the world of 1942, he opened another Atlantic Monthly essay on mystical experience with these lines: “While I am writing this, the world seems to be collapsing into a primitive chaos of revolution and destruction.” Yet, Jones argued, “It is now if ever that we need the voice of those who, ‘listening to the inner flow of things, speak to the age out of Eternity.'” Jones concluded with one of his most stirring refrains, calling his readers to a higher life through intimacy with the Eternal. Mystics, Jones wrote, are in every church and in no church at all. They are in towns and cities, on country farms, in CCC camps and in the Army. They are laboratory professors and they are college students. They are rich and they are poor. They are good-livers and they are hardy ascetics. But they have, one and all, learned that they do not live by bread alone, but have resources from the World beyond the world of space and time, and their “best moments of life” are times of spiritual fecundity, infused by contact with a Beyond.

There is where we learn hope – hope for a future already alive within us.

 

One more thing about the mysticism of Rufus Jones. One of the central themes of his scholarship in the history of mysticism is that mystical experience itself, as he put it, “flourishes best in groups.” This, of course, reflects more than anything else the communal mystical practice that is Quaker worship. As Jones phrased the same idea in Social Law, “No man can be holy unto himself.”

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