Why esoteric Christianity will never reform the church

An unusual juxtaposition of reading material has got me thinking about esoteric Christianity and anabaptist Christianity and their relative strengths and weaknesses.

On the one hand I’ve been rereading “Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition” by Gnostic author Richard Smoley. In this book Smoley discusses the Secret Church, the Johnanine church within the Pererine church.

On the other hand the recent conversation on not going to church prompted me to reread “The Politics of the Cross: The Theology and Social Ethics of John Howard Yoder” by Craig A Carter. In the book Carter observes “Yoder contends there are three basic types of ecclesiology: [1] the theocratic vision, [2] the spiritualist reaction and [3] the believer’s church.”

It was Carter’s description of the spiritualist church that grabbed me: “From the perspective of Pilgrim Marpeck [believer’s church], the Spiritualizers and Zwingli [theocratic vision] were quite similar insofar as they both denied the ultimate importance of proper church order. Schwenckfeld [spiritualist reaction], because he thought only spiritual reality matters, did not challenged established worship and church structure of Christendom and thus suffered no persecution … spiritualism is able to function quite well within the framework of the theocratic society that it rejects, as a ‘church within a church.'”

Now, once we recognize esoteric Christianity as a variant of this spiritualist reaction that Yoder speaks of, it becomes immediately evident that many of the same criticisms apply. Thus we can say that, as esoteric Christianity functions as a “formless form” of church rather than an “alternate form” of church, it is unable to concretely challenge the “Christendom form” of church, even when that form becomes horrendously corrupt.

In other words, esoteric Christianity doesn’t challenge exoteric Christianity in any tangible way precisely because it devalues the tangible. It does not offer revolution, it merely offers reinterpretation.

Not so with anabaptist Christianity. Anabaptist Christians suggest alternative forms of church are essential if we wish to reform the church, and I’m convinced they are right. But where I find the anabaptist tradition sometimes lacking is precisely in the area that the esoteric tradition is strongest, in its development of a Christian psycho-theology. Therefore, if anabaptist Christians seek to be genuinely holistic I think they need to work more on developing a holistic understanding of humanity, an understanding that includes the psyche and psychological experience. So, while I reject esoteric Christianity as a dead end on the post-Christendom path, I think esoterics still ask some very good questions.

Story, Symbol and Spirituality

holy-spirit-doveOne of the reasons I value interfaith dialogue is that it helps me to see my own faith in new ways.

For example, in conversing with the esoteric community over the years one of the things that has been highlighted for me is how distinctive Christianity is in terms of its emphasis on story. Esotericists place much emphasis on symbolic correspondances. Christians, in contrast, place much more emphasis on story correspondances.

So, where esotericists draw extensively from various symbol systems, such as the major arcana of the tarot, the sephirot of the qabalah, the elements of alchemy, etc, etc, Christians draw much more extensively from story collections, not only in terms of the New and Old Testament collections, but also in terms of hagiography and testimony. This is not to say esotericists are indifferent to story or Christians are indifferent to symbol; what I’m saying is, the emphasis differs. It really differs.

Nowhere is this more important in how we understand deity. In my experience esotericists relate to their deities primarily through their symbol systems and only secondarily through their stories, their mythologies. Indeed, for some esotericists their deities are symbols. This can be vary difficult for Christians to understand, particularly Christians from more iconoclastic traditions.

Why do I mention this? Because of its implications for alternative worship, for contextualized ritual. Because, if we’re committed to being in the world but not of the world, if we’re committed to engaging our culture without loosing our Christian distinctiveness, then we have to learn to use symbol more effectively without story become subordinate. But I’m afraid, from what I’ve seen and heard, that, this has not always been the case.

So engagement with the esoteric community has given me a deeper appreciation for story and its significance for Christian spirituality. I have learnt I need to learn more about stories. How does story work? How does story relate to drama, to sacred reenactment, to crisis ritual, to life as we experience it? In the New Testament stories for instance, there can often be multiple characters involved. Disciples like Peter, Thomas, Mary. Opponents like the Pharisees, Herod, Pilate. Ambiguous characters like Judas and Nicodemus. Others like the tax collecters and the crowds. And, overarching them all, God. How do their struggles touch our struggles? How am I sometimes a Judas? A Nicodemus? How can I engage with the story on the level of symbol? Is this story something I find myself in? When I pray, how do these stories inform me? In this visual, interactive, multimedia age of ours, its important that Christians, evangelicals in particular, relearn how to relate story and symbol in ways that are distinctively Christian.

Is incense ok for Christians?

Last week I was over at a friends house and was asked about incense. I can't remember the precise question, but I do remember my off the cuff answer: if Jesus was ok with receiving frankincense and myrrh as a birthday gift then I am ok with it too.

More that ok with it in fact, because I just restocked with some frankincense incense sticks today. Not sure if you have ever tried this but I like to burn frankincense as I meditate and pray, as an affirmation of Jesus as messiah. I also like the aroma.

Thinking of this reminds me of an Old Testament incense recipe:

Then the LORD said to Moses, "Take fragrant spices—gum resin, onycha and galbanum—and pure frankincense, all in equal amounts, and make a fragrant blend of incense, the work of a perfumer. It is to be salted and pure and sacred. Grind some of it to powder and place it in front of the Testimony in the Tent of Meeting, where I will meet with you. It shall be most holy to you. Do not make any incense with this formula for yourselves; consider it holy to the LORD. (Exodus 30:34-37)

A bit too Old Testament you think? Well here is something newer.  

When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and to them were given seven trumpets. Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel's hand. (Revelation 8:1-4)

There, so angels do it too 🙂

The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism

Christian-mysticism This afternoon I had an interesting conversation with a good friend about "The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism", an anthology of Christian mysticism that has been fascinating him for some time now.

Reading the introduction I think I am now hooked too. Unlike some books on Christian mysticism, this book acknowledges that life transformion is more important for the Christian mystic than the peak experiences. It also acknowledges that we miss much of the Christian mystic tradition if we restruct ourselves to the language of "union" and "contemplation". When he finally finishes (he is REALLY chewing on this) I think I'll be keen to chew on it too.

So,

  • What is your experience of Christian mysticism?

  • Would you consider yourself a mystic?

  • Would you like to explore mysticism some more?

Who said Fair Trade was mean’t to be easy?

Last week one of the women in our local Christian community brought my attention to an article highlighting how a large number of the Make Poverty History wristbands were manufactured in sweatshots. This has lead to subsequent discussions in our discipleship group about how hard it is to unravel the systemic exploitation we are all caught up in, in this consumer society of ours. I think though, that the first step is raising awareness.

Will a co-redemptix make everything warm and fuzzy?

Crucified-woman-and-pope Pagans over at the Wild Hunt Blog have been celebrating suggestions that the Pope may be moving towards officially recognizing Mary as co-redemptrix. Even if this is true I think their celebrations may be premature if they think this is equivalent to a shift towards feminism. If anything the Papal line against feminism seems to have hardened in recent years. Personally I see this as a way of controlling and domesticating feminist impulses within the Catholic church.

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  • Luther on Alchemy

    In researching Christian Hermeticism in general, and Christian explorations of Alchemy and Tarot in particular, I came across this fascinating comment by Martin Luther, yes, the father of the Protestant Reformation:

    “The science of alchemy I like well, and, indeed, ’tis the philosophy of the ancients. I like it not only for the profits it brings in melting metals, in decocting preparing, extracting, and distilling herbs, roots; I like it also for the sake of the allegory and secret signification, which is exceedingly fine, touching the resurrection of the dead at the last day. For, as in a furnace the fire extracts and separates from a substance the other portions, and carries upward the spirit, the life, the sap, the strength, while the unclean matter, the dregs, remain at the bottom, like a dead and worthless carcass; even so God, at the day of judgment, will separate all things through fire, the righteous from the ungodly.”

    I knew his mate Melanchthon was into Alchemy but this is very interesting. It would seem that those of us delving into ways of contextualizing Christianity within esoteric contexts are merely following in the footsteps of the Reformer par excellence.

    Meditations on the Tarot – The Emperor

    tarot-emperor.jpgHe who has true authority needs no sword. Nor is true authority found in the sword.

    Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”

    “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”

    The sword is only used by those who have lost their grip on authority.

    When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.

    True authority is seen in the power to empower.