Magical or Mystical

It seems to me the fundamental divide in the Christian church right now comes down to whether we see God as working magically or mystically in our lives and in the world.  In a magical religious understanding, I say some prayer of repentance, “accept” Christ as my Savior, and God stamps my ticket into heaven, cancels my ticket to hell, and gives me — at that moment — the gift of wholeness and holiness.  Of course theologians who believe this must go to great lengths to explain why most people who have this experience are in fact not significantly transformed and not able to live according to God’s standards of holiness.  And, of course, they in fact do go to these lengths.

In a mystical understanding, God shows me what holiness looks like and why it is good, and then produces that holiness in me as I learn to increasingly cooperate with him.  Both magical and mystical thinkers believe that human effort in transformation is necessary.  Magical thinkers will tell you that transformation is something that God is producing, but will spend hours talking about defeating sin or making other efforts to stop this or start that.  Mystical thinkers do not deny our cooperation with God, but the efforts mystics make are not usually efforts to combat any specific sin.  My efforts are aimed at clearing my mind and heart and life of clutter so that God can spring to life in me, producing the life God desires for me.  Magical thinkers think mystical thinkers aren’t aggressive enough in defeating sin and tend to wonder if Christ is even really in them at all.  Mystical thinkers tend to wonder if magical thinkers know where transformation actually comes from, since we see real transformation in our lives and believe all transformation into love is from Christ.

Jesus said, “A tree is known by its fruit.”  If we can trust and believe this, we can easily identify God at work in and around us.  If we cannot believe it, we must build elaborate theological systems to justify why so often the apple tree isn’t producing apples.  I do not doubt that God changes lives in many ways, I just happen to believe that it will happen more often through mysticism than through magic.

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  • Hi Vicki. I’ll take a swing at your question, even though it’ll probably end up being long enough to be a separate blog post. Yes, I have read those books by Rohr and many, many others by him as well.

    I have recently been revisiting traditional theology a little bit, and I must say I am more uncomfortable with it now than ever before. I can’t deal with how circular it is. If I talk about James Fowler’s famous work on stages of faith (http://jmm.aaa.net.au/articles/2219.htm), traditionalists (stage 3) will say, “That’s not of God,” and basically insist that anything beyond stage 3 is actually moving AWAY from God. If I mention that Billy Graham said something that would seem to support the possibility of people of other faiths knowing God, instead of saying, “Wow, Billy Graham’s whole life has been one of integrity — we should really listen to him,” they say, “Billy Graham has betrayed the faith.” If I say, “Gandhi said such and such,” they will of course say, “Gandhi was a Hindu, and Hindus are going to hell.” Stage 3 faith rejects everything except Stage 1, 2, and 3, and yet claims to be all about growth. If I’m at stage 3, I’m supposed to be striving to grow and move forward — but all within Stage 3 thinking and understanding. It suggests that the path of growth toward God is infinite, but then draws extremely tight lines around what does and does not qualify as growth in God, and certainly never allows faith itself to grow — only faith in what one already knows, which requires less and less faith as one comes to “know” with more and more certainty. The authors of the website I was visiting today that inspired my original post would claim that God is powerful and that God is mystery, but if you check out the site, there apparently is very, very little that haven’t completely figured out.

    So I think the fear comes from venturing outside of the known boxes and ways of thinking. It comes from realizing that even though God is the heartbeat of your life, and your whole desire is to serve and know him, you will be dismissed, invalidated, and labeled a heretic simply for venturing blindly onto the journey that actually IS faith. Also, there is fear in that process of letting go of what seemed for so long to be certainty, but you do it because at a certain point you kind of see through it and realize that, though it can be very good, it is also extremely limited and short-sighted. It is a lonely, confusing, frustrating, and exhilarating journey.

    • Vicki

      Thanks for the response, Dave. What you wrote resonates with me, especially when you said,

      “Also, there is fear in that process of letting go of what seemed for so long to be certainty, but you do it because at a certain point you kind of see through it and realize that, though it can be very good, it is also extremely limited and short-sighted. It is a lonely, confusing, frustrating, and exhilarating journey.”
      This certainly describes my personal journey. I feel there is always new truth yet to be revealed, uncovered and taken hold of, and I don’t want to miss it because I’m blinded by my own fear or preconceived ideas of what that “truth” must be.

      I checked out the website you included and found some interesting reading there. Thanks.

      • Of course this realization that the traditional faith as it has been taught to us is limited seems, itself, like complete heresy and arrogance to those who aren’t there. There’s nothing we can do about that either — just keep our heads down (good for prayer anyway!) and keep on. Peace to you, Vicki.

  • Vicki

    Okay, I’m going to try this again. My first response had a computer glitch and was posted inadvertently and incompletely. So,here it is again:

    Dave, I recently read “The Naked Now” and “Everything Belongs” by Richard Rohr.(mystical thinker) and I find myself wrestling with much of what he says. I’m drawn to it, and yet, I fear it. Nonetheless, I am wrestling with it and that feels like “awakening” to me so I think I’ll just stay here in the wrestling match for awhile. I’m not quite sure where the “fear” comes from, but I’m thinking it comes from the thought of letting go of some long held assumptions and “dualistic” thinking that have caused me to look at the world and Christianity though a distorted lens. Even as a very young person I was drawn to the mystic way of thinking, but never found a place in my evangelical, fundamental church where my thoughts could be expressed freely without judgment. Consequently, for many years, it felt like a very lonely and sometimes confusing spiritual journey. Fortunately, it seems that there are more and more Believers in the evangelical churches that are seeking Truth apart from any one specific doctrine and being drawn to this mystical way….a way that should not have to be categorized by any religion or doctrine, because in reality isn’t it just the way of “Love”? Have you read the books I mentioned, and if so, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  • nathan

    When God created us in his image-the creator-we are creators-I think he meant for us to be part of writing the christmas story not just to be writen with a list of names in a book (Book of Life). We need more plot and story arc writers. No one wants to read a list of names.

    I’m praying for you get get plublished.

    • For sure, and thanks so much for reading and for pulling for me. Maybe 2011 will be your year AND mine!