Second-hand religion? [reprise]

mystical möbius — curating facts, ideas, text, and media to create a contemplative space.


‘Mysticism,’ so what? [pt. 2]

The institutional form[s] of second-hand religion may fittingly be thought of as a “dead man walking.” Please allow me to explain.


an ark meme 500
Spiral Dynamics, page 145

‘Forms’ and being/doing church

Sadly, in my lifetime the Church (the one on the ground in ordinary neighborhoods near and far) has essentially ignored much, if any, teaching, or even discussion, of mysticism (that is, experiential spirituality). At the same time, without identifying them as such, Church has integrated many cataphatic mystical practices (affirmative ‘forms’) into the very fabric of being a local church. Brad J. Kallenberg has written a helpful book that offers insight on this embodied way of understanding faith formation: Live To Tell: Evangelism for a Postmodern Age.


Live To Tell

People like forms

So, these past many decades the Church has largely bypassed any direct talk/teaching with respect to mysticism, especially apophatic (negative) theology. As they have traditionally been wont to do, local churches have quietly embodied cataphatic mysticism (that is, affirmative, express, devotional, lived practices)—e.g., discursive prayer practices; hymns, sacrament, and worship forms; scripture reading/study/reflection; serving the poor, sick, oppressed, and imprisoned; relating in intentional Christian small-group; and growing in generosity, empathy, and compassion. This helps explain why, even while struggling mightily, the Church is still serving society with essential utility through its embodied forms. However, our present life conditionsthat is, in our E.P.I.C. [experiential; participatory; image driven; connected] and V.U.C.A. [volatile; uncertain; complex; ambiguous] societyurgently call for a more holistic church teaching and witness (cf. Divine darkness). 


mystical seat
Image by Michele Caballero Siamitras Kassube || CC0

A college try?

It’s not as though theology hasn’t tried. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768 – 1834 C.E.), [often referred to as “Father of Modern Liberal Theology”] took a mystical view and defined faith in experiential terms, e.g., a feeling of absolute dependence—an immediate self-consciousness of being in relation with God. And, while in his classic, The Courage To Be, Paul Tillich (1886 -1965 C.E.) argues that mystical theology ultimately fails to provide the courage to be, even he defines faith in a way that may be experienced—e.g., “Faith is the state of being grasped by the ground of being-itself.” [TCTB, page 172] 


Ark -Image by Jeff Jacobs
Image by Jeff Jacobs || CC0

Building an ark?

These past five weeks, I’ve been alluding to the assertion that holistic spirituality helpfully transcends the second-hand religion on offer in most local American churches. Admittedly, as Kallenberg’s work (unintentionally) demonstrates, many/most Christians would not need to add any consciousness of mysticism to faithfully practice the second-hand Christianity they’ve been taught. This fact is the basis for my first reason a mysticism movement is needed in Christianity—e.g., cataphatic and apophatic mysticism that is intentionally/actually preached/practiced in local churches. A religion of mental assent to a set of propositions rarely leads to any actual experience of G-d, or transformation. In a society increasingly distrustful of all institutions, dogmatic religion by fiat rings very hollow to many. 

Someone thoughtfully remarked in a recent on-line conversation on this theme:

Faith without Experience is very hard to sustain.


Image by Simon Steinberger || CC0

Epistemology problem

How do you know things? Did/does the bulk of your knowledge come to you first or second-hand? While people generally do like forms, dogmatic religious forms, Google, and cable news all offer second-hand reality [SHR]. These can be very helpful at times, yet regardless of the source, most kinds of SHR are rapidly losing traction within our present [E.P.I.C./V.U.C.A.] life conditions. We don’t trust the information given to us by “elites” or “institutions” as we once did. Derek Thompson wrote this week in The Atlantic:

What Americans young and old are abandoning is not so much the promise of family, faith, and national pride as the trust that America’s existing institutions can be relied on to provide for them. (here)

Alternatively, the epistemological authority and the very currency of mysticism is first-hand, personal experience. Immediate experience is able to provide a vehicle to common-ground for discourse in a fractured church and society. We need to reconnect. Mysticism could provide a practical way to cut through SHR and bridge our divisions.

Mysticism, for the good of Christ’s body

So, my first reason, ‘dead church walking,’ calls for creating an environment in the local church that includes an organization-wide expectation that G-d is present and that “church” is about cultivating transformation and true humanness through encounters/experiences of G-d. A community whose members routinely experience G-d’s Presence, and the attending transformation, will be a community of natural evangelists able to organically inspire and engage the persons they encounter in their livessomeone said: like a hungry beggar who finds food and is now able to show others where they can find food, too.




Mysticism, for the good of our social body

My second reason is perhaps more secular and socially pragmatic. It matters not which side of the cultural and political divides one finds themself these days. Pick a side and you’ll find an information bubble describing reality in ways that totally disallows the information that is being put forth as reality by the opponent’s info-bubble. Tribalism, poisonous partisan political polarization, culture of outrage, it goes by many names. We barely trust our own second-hand doctrines and institutional dogma. Any thought of finding much credibility in the other’s ideological views is unthinkable at this point. Politicians seem determined to exacerbate these dynamics.

Won’t you be my neighbor?

Politics used to get worked-out on ground level. The political process of our society was formed in people having candid conversations at work, school, post office, or grocery store, for instance. However, in these treacherous partisan times this has become far too risky and has slipped away. We need to reconnect. We need to be willing to hold each other’s hands with empathy and compassion as we walk together. We can learn to be mystics and communicate with each other through our own experience and a sensitivity to each other’s experience, and the common ground experience creates. Even better, this move can organically lead us to finding ways to shared experiences of G-d.

—First published September 8, 2019.

Your thoughts?

Apologies. Please pardon, I ran a bit long [normally 800 words, this week 1055]. 




mystical seat

3 thoughts on “Second-hand religion? [reprise]

  1. Good stuff Michael. I have long been a proponent of mysticism.

    Have you read any of Bernard McGinn’s “The Presence of God” series? I see that they are much more expensive than they used to be. It is interesting that when I looked up Vol 1 Amazon told me that I bought it in 2003. My how time flies.

    It was probably over 50 years ago when I read Evelyn Underhill’s book “Mysticism: The Preeminent Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness Paperback.” It likely shaped my understanding of Christian mysticism more than any other text.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, David!

      My mysticism professor in seminary took her PhD under McGinn. I have a paperback edition of Vol. 1, Origins to Fifth Century. I gave $29.95 for it in 2002, and I refer to it often.

      Indeed, Underhill was foundational for many folks (along with William James’ work),

      Not to forget that Brother Lawrence wrote an excellent little book on the topic, Practicing the Presence of God.

      Thanks for writing!


  2. Yes, William James’ “The Varieties of Religious Experience” was one of the early influences in my study of mysticism. I didn’t read Brother Lawrence until much later.

    Liked by 1 person

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