Lover or Seducer?
Does “spirituality” mean more than one thing?
A horrible and shocking thing has happened in the land: The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way. But what will you do in the end?” (Jer. 5:30, 31).
Marriage may be God’s most powerful metaphor for helping us grasp the intensity and complexity of His relationship with us—Christ gave Himself up for the church He loved (Eph. 5:25). But His passion for us is under constant threat—from seduction. When seduction works, devastated parents stand impotently by as some smooth-talking deceiver exploits their child because no talking, no persuasion, no hard evidence seems capable of making a child change course. Passion and hunger for emotional attachment produce persistent refusal to accept sound advice. Parent and friend must let disaster have its course. Young life is wasted for lack of discernment.
“How would I know the difference?” asked a student in one of my classes. The question is urgent, for marriage is one of life’s greatest decisions: How do we distinguish the true lover from the seducer? Spiritually, our surest safeguard against seductive infatuation is knowing the True Lover well. An intimate and informed relationship with Jesus Christ is the best protection from seduction’s falsehood.
Jesus, the Suitor, wants to be chosen. Opposite Him is Satan, the master seducer, using the same words and phrases. There is plenty of duplicity in language use. And the more similar the language, the more difficult to detect deception. The seducer makes promises, lies wrapped in truth. So it was at the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And so with Jesus in the desert. Flattery, flirtation, evoking self-pity, all are his tools. Those who doubt, who are hurting, who are marginalized, ostracized, who are unchurched, nonchurched, dechurched, as the “emergents” like to say, are especially in danger, for his dishonesty thrives on our vulnerability. And if we are unsure of the Word of the True Lover, we will the more easily fall for the seducer’s fake spirituality and falsehood. The seducer wants to be taken for the real thing. Mental confusion works in his favor. While the sincere Suitor offers His life to His beloved, the seducer wants to use her for a night.
Today’s seduction seems much more potent than decades ago. Changes in our academic and cultural settings within the past six decades have made it easier for the seducer. For example, the Bible’s role in one’s life was much easier to discuss with yesterday’s atheists than with today’s postmodernists. It was easier for Christian youth to hold their ground on Genesis 1 against regnant secularism, naturalism, and atheism than for young Christians today against an evolution that has been christened as theistic. In my years in the Communist educational system of the former Yugoslavia, I had an easier time resisting Marxist teachers than my children in a Christian educational system today riddled with theistic evolutionist sentiment and postmodern philosophizing.
Religious leaders claiming Jesus today rank among the greatest perpetrators of the confusion of our age. Brian McLaren’s book A Generous Orthodoxy1 powerfully examples this confusion. McLaren has been called “the Moses leading us out of the land of Modernity,” and “recognized as the Martin Luther of Emergence internationally.”2 With his world-embracing title (see note 1), one wonders what he teaches that everyone of all stripes does not already believe. McLaren and many other contemporary Christians work hard to confuse by their distinctions—“We are not religious, we are spiritual!” Spirituality is in, and being religious is out! No more talk about do’s and don’ts. Now we’re asked to reject the old ways of religiosity and adopt new ways of spirituality. At the same time contemporary spirituality literature overflows with admiration for the medieval Patristic tradition. Mysticism and the monastic way of life enjoy new esteem. Richard J. Foster and Gayle D. Beebe offer the tradition of mysticism as the seven paths of Christian spirituality.3 New heroes of spirituality include Martin Luther and John Calvin, together with Ignatius of Loyola. We are expected to model not only Augustine and Francis of Assisi, but Pseudo-Dionysius and the Cloud of Unknowing. The Protestant tradition is even blamed for society’s evil by contrast with the spiritual model of the medieval Catholic mystical tradition.
Tired of Religion
People are said to be tired of religion. While this may indeed be so, much more mischief may be accomplished by continually repeating that claim. Moreover, while many are indeed thirsty for meaningful spirituality, the term also legitimizes personal lifestyles that will not tolerate doctrine’s divisiveness, and the “judgmental” criticisms of “sinful behavior.”
Opposing religiosity to spirituality well pleases the seducer. For Christ’s true disciples are both devotedly religious and deeply spiritual, with spiritual signifying being under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. For more than one spirit is abroad (1 John 4:1).
The Mystics and Mysticism
Mystics love to stress that materialism, atheism, consumerism, and other forces of modernity—including the influence of the Protestant Reformation—have deanimated nature. We need to reanimate nature. We have forgotten, they claim, that God’s Spirit is present everywhere in nature. The rhetoric, unsupported by serious study of the Scriptures, satisfies many a whimsical lifestyle. For many, it is far easier to live according to the book of nature, than according to the Bible. In this they may overlook that (nature’s beauty, design, and complexity notwithstanding) it is the God of Creation, rather than any object or force of nature, the inner self included, that we are required to worship.
Bible study, some say, leads to argument, but when we pray we stop arguing. Thus prayer, along with contemplation and meditation, opposes biblical investigation. None of these is wrong per se. But chosen instead of Bible study they may facilitate every manner of diabolical deception. The Bible’s prayers disclose a manner, language, content, and intent far different from those taught by many modern mystics and spiritual gurus. Biblical meditation is frequently a matter of thought about God’s law (Joshua 1:8; Ps. 1:2; 119:48).
Mysticism’s past 50-plus years have shown great dynamism across the western world. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, National Public Radio’s award-winning religion correspondent, reports that fully half of all Americans have had a life-altering spiritual or mystical experience.4 Accepting mysticism as just another form of spirituality immediately elevates the status of Christian mysticism. But assurances that Christian mysticism is different from that practiced in the Far East are complicated by dismissive opinion that the differences are of cosmetic and not essential nature.
Biblical meditation is frequently a matter of thought about God’s law.
Problems With Definition
Mystics themselves may be rather mystical about the true nature of mysticism. Definition of the mystic as one who seeks companionship with Christ, one whose religious life is centered around experiences with or of God rather than around traditionally accepted beliefs and doctrine, may not say much, though it purports to be informative on the subject matter.
Christians in general seek companionship with Christ. But all Christians are not therefore, whether in their own minds or in popular understanding, mystics. Most self-identified mystics would reject the premise that they are the same as Christians in general. Furthermore, all truly converted Christians center their lives around experiences with God, rather than around doctrines and dogmas. Yet they do not, for such reason, deem themselves mystics. To define mystics in these terms may equate with arguing that because the seducer is loving, attentive, caring, gentle, nice, quotes the Scriptures, and so forth, he is the true lover.
Opposing economic exploitation of workers does not make me a Marxist. Supporting equal treatment of women and men does not make me a feminist. That Paul was caught up in a vision, and a mystic one at that (2 Cor. 12:1-4), does not make him a mystic. And claiming Ellen G. White to be a mystic denies understanding of both the true nature of mysticism and of White’s message. White herself has recorded rather stern warnings against mysticism. “The study of God’s Word should take the place of the study of those books that have led minds into mysticism and away from truth.”5 In referring to the John Harvey Kellogg’s The Living Temple, she cautions, “We do not need the mysticism that is in this book. Those who entertain these sophistries will soon find themselves in a position where the enemy can talk with them, and lead them away from God.”6
Here is a fair enough definition of mysticism—a spiritual-intellectual notion that truth proceeds “from certain inner lights.” By contrast, Bernard McGinn, scholar of Western mysticism, simply defines it as a utopian dream. But he does believe proper research of the written records left behind by and about the Christian mystics can help our understanding.7
McGinn’s three headings of analysis on mysticism are (1) as an element of religion; (2) as a way of life; and (3) “as an attempt to express a direct consciousness of the presence of God.”8 We may add a fourth: mysticism as the end result of certain (mystical) practices.
Analyzing a Phenomenon
Mysticism, a term evoking secrecy, whose lexical basis means “to close” (the eyes or lips—Greek, muein),9 is an ancient phenomenon familiar to Egyptian, Babylonian, Hindu, Greek, and medieval peoples. Like ancient Gnostics claiming unique esoteric knowledge of spirituality (gnosis) that liberates from this material and evil world, mystics claim to possess knowledge of how to reach a higher and unique level of contemplative consciousness that is essential to attain union with the divine within, or the divine outside oneself.
Mystics are able to perforate “the veil of physical reality” and glimpse the world beyond, reports Hagerty.10 She also reports a finding of American philosopher and psychologist William James (1842-1910) that mystics know “firsthand ‘the [realities] of the unseen.’ ” According to her summary of James, all mystical experiences share: (1) ineffability (human language cannot describe them); (2) a noetic quality (“a deep insight that is truer to the person than the material world itself”); (3) transience (they quickly ebb); and (4) surprise (they “pounce”: external power “takes control, pushing the mystic into the passenger’s seat”).11 She quotes James: “the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power.”12
Answering my query on the ultimate objective of his meditation and spirituality, a Hindu priest responded, “To become one with Brahman.”
I asked again, “Does that mean, when I become one with Brahman, I cease to exist as an individual, distinct person?”
“Yes,” he said.
To that, I could say nothing but “Thank you.” And according to Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, a mystic whose lectures I have attended, critical, analytical, dualistic thinking (good versus evil, right versus wrong) is a primitive and immature way of thinking, even predatory, and certainly inadequate to the experience of spiritual truths, divine love, divine forgiveness, or the divine presence. For these it is essential that we learn the nondualistic state of mind, actually, a superior level of contemplative consciousness, a “third-eye” seeing reality. Journey to this contemplative consciousness involves a mixture of light and darkness and more or less requires cessation of thought.
Ron, a friend of mine, studied the Bible with Bob.13 Bob could not accept the Sabbath truth. He wanted a different answer. He would pray to God, he told Ron. Bob prayed and prayed until one night he was visited by a being he believed was Jesus, who told him to remain faithful to his Orthodox tradition. He promptly stopped further Bible study with Ron. Evidently, it’s possible to have your prayers answered contrary to the Bible. Years passed by, and Ron forgot about Bob. One day Bob knocked on Ron’s door, and confessed that for all of this time he had had no peace, and that life was not good for him. Prayer had sent him back to what the Bible says. He eventually got baptized and became a leading elder in the local church.
God’s Word created everything that is (Ps. 33:6, 9). His original gift of humanity involved the power to think and to do14—thoughts and actions that should be guided by obedience to that very life-giving Word that makes us wise unto salvation through its reproof, correction, and righteous instruction (Deut. 8:3; Matt. 4:4; 2 Tim. 3:15, 16). Our experience of and with God engages rather than sets aside our intelligence, and is subject to the entrance of that Word that brightens the path our feet must follow (Ps. 119:105). God’s promise of Edenic restoration guarantees to saved humanity an eternal, distinct, and intelligent individuality—we shall know as we are known (1 Cor. 13:12). Becoming one with Brahman, or as Christian mystics say, achieving oneness with the divine, where personal individuality is lost, is the sale of mindlessness and nonpersonhood, in effect, the sale of death and nonexistence, as something desirable. It is rearticulation of the ancient lie, “You will not certainly die, . . . you will be like God” (Gen. 3:4, 5). The choice between the options of mysticism thus exposed, and the plain teachings of Scripture, is the choice between the deceptions of the seducer, and the affections of the True Lover.
- Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I Am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-yet-hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished Christian (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004).
- See Phyllis Tickle, Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), p. 99. The “Moses” nickname derives from popular conversation.
- Richard J. Foster and Gayle D. Beebe, Longing for God: Seven Paths of Christian Devotion (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2009).
- Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality (New York: Penguin Group, 2009), p. 33, and endnote 23.
- Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 6, p. 132.
- Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958, 1980), book 1, p. 202.
- Bernard McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism, The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism (New York: The Crossroad Pub. Co., 1991), vol. 1, pp. xii-xv. McGinn’s monumental commitment to his own conviction has so far produced five volumes totaling more than 3,000 pages of text and footnotes.
- McGinn, pp. xv, xvi.
- James A. Wiseman, Spirituality and Mysticism: A Global View (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2006), p. 7.
- Hagerty, p. 16.
- Ibid., p. 25.
- Ibid. Also William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1902, 1985), p. 3.
- Not their real names.
- Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1903), p. 17.