Mythic mystic Christianity: a theology

I was recently asked to write a brief overview of my personal theology. If you’ve read any theology, you probably know that “brief” is among the least frequently used words to describe theological writing. Nevertheless, I took a crack at it. I don’t know if the result – two and a half single-spaced pages – counts as “brief”, but at least I kept it shorter than book length.

Oh, and as you might have guessed from the title, my personal theology is rooted in the Christian tradition. If that’s not your thing, you might find something you like here.

  • I believe in God, the creator of all that is.
  • I believe in Jesus Christ, both God and human, who, by grace, is the source of our redemption.
  • I believe in the Holy Spirit, equally God, present and active within us.

But these statements are not my theology.

My theology is my contemplation, analysis, and understanding of these statements, my “unpacking” of them.

God

God is the creative force that powered – and still powers – bringing the universe into existence. God is a Being, a be-ing, as in the Hebrew name for God, I Am. This being underlies all else; God is the Ground of all being. We creatures – we created ones – are connected with that creative force, making us one with it, and thus with all of creation. And we humans, blessed with consciousness, are able to be aware of that connection. We can know that we are connected not only to all else that is, we can know the connection itself, and through that, we can know that Ground, that Creator, to which we are connected.

We have two crucial sources of knowledge of God: what we experience, and what we learn from others.

I believe the experience is essential. Without experiencing that connection with the creative force that grounds all being – without physically/mentally/emotionally/spiritually experiencing a connection with God in some way – we would not have the frame of reference to make sense out of what we would learn from others about God. This direct, personal experience we call mystic. I believe that everyone is capable of experiencing this connection, though some have not (yet) had the experience, and others have chosen to interpret the experience for themselves as something other than connection with God. One person cannot cause another to have the mystic experience, nor can one person prevent another from having the experience, nor can one person prove to another that she or he has had the experience. The mystic, experiential element of knowing a connection with God is completely individual.

The other source of knowledge of God is what we learn from others. Since we cannot directly share one another’s experience of God, we need an indirect way of communicating. Sacred story, song, sermon, and poem serve this purpose. They may tell of something as corporeal as eating and drinking, or as intangible as dreams and visions. They may be emotionally raw or intellectually rigorous. They may recount past events or prophesy the future. Together, they comprise myth, in its original sense – sacred tellings about God. For Christians, much of our sacred myth is embodied in the Bible. Other ancient and even modern writings, as well as traditions that have defined Christians (and Jews before us) over the millennia, are also part of the body of our sacred myth. It must be stressed that “myth” does not mean something that’s not true – quite the opposite. Myth is how we express truths that we cannot express more directly. Thus, what is important about myth, including our sacred Christian myth, is not its historical accuracy, or its direct commands, or even the precise words used to speak or write it. What’s important is what we can learn about God from these stories, songs, sermons, and poems.

Jesus Christ

What, then, do we do with that knowledge, whether learned or experiential, mythic or mystic? What does it mean for our lives? It is through Jesus Christ that we can approach the answers to those questions. The phrase “Jesus Christ” itself demands unpacking. The one we call Jesus Christ is rooted in ancient tales of a man who had a special relationship with God, but Jesus Christ is more than this man. We need not even know whether such a man “really” lived in the first century, near the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, nor whether he “really” said and did all that has been attributed to him. To focus on his historicity is to focus on the narrative instead of the story; it is to miss the meaning inside the myth. The purpose of myth is to learn about God.

“Jesus Christ is Lord” is perhaps the earliest statement of Christian theology. From it, we learn three things. First, Jesus, the central character in the uniquely Christian part of our myth, was a man in a primarily agrarian society, a society that also included cities, a semi-autonomous society under occupation by a foreign army. From this we learn the context for his teachings. Second, he is the Christ – he has a unique relationship with God – he was created to be the appointed one to speak for God to people, and to speak for people to God. From this we learn the authority of his teachings. Third, he is Lord – he is himself God. He contains God within him, just as God, the Ground of being, contains him. The wall of separation between that which is God, and that which is not God, is shattered by Jesus Christ’s very existence. Our connection with God is not a bond connecting two separate things; our connection is that we are not separate at all. The bond is simply this: that God and we – and by extension, everything that is – are a unity.

In this brief overview, I won’t go into the ethical theology implicit in this understanding of Jesus Christ, except to observe that Jesus’ ethical teachings are grounded in, “Love God. Love others. And those two are a single imperative.” Suffice it to say that all Christian ethics are derived from that.

From our sacred myth, there is a further lesson to learn for our theology of Jesus Christ. We have answered, “Who am I to God? Who am I to others? How am I to relate to God, and to others?” but we haven’t addressed, “Who am I to me? How am I to relate to myself?” This is the question about redemption.

To redeem, at its root, means to take back, to regain possession of something, usually by paying a price. What we regain through Jesus Christ is our lives and ourselves, the essence of who we are; traditionally we call this our soul. The price was graciously paid by God – as Jesus Christ – in living on earth as a human being, with the work, pain, and death that are part of that life. God chose to pay this price, not for God’s benefit, but for ours – hence we call it an act of grace.

In our redemption, in our reclaiming of our souls, we receive the knowledge that we are not weak, isolated, helpless, and alone. Jesus’ lessons of love and unity teach us to know ourselves: as part of a universal whole, even when we feel lonely; as strong in the face of fear, even the fear of death; as loving, even in the face of all the selfish acts we know we’ve committed; and as beloved, connected with all humankind, and with God. We need to hear those lessons from a fellow human sufferer in order for them to touch our deepest selves, and so it was necessary for God to be among us as a human being. For how else could we see with our own eyes that there is no separation between us and God?

Holy Spirit

As God the creator fills the universe, and as Jesus Christ is God with us, it is the Holy Spirit that is God within each of us. We sense God as the creative force. We encounter Jesus Christ. But we feel the Spirit, in some ineffably non-physical way, and this feeling changes us. It makes us more open to God. The Reformed way of expressing it is helpful. Reformed theology asserts that the Spirit is the first to come to us; that the Spirit enters our hearts, and prepares us to receive God. The Spirit readies us for the mystic and the mythic knowledge of God that follow.

Moreover, the Spirit stays with us, a presence within that keeps us aware of our connection with God, even when our minds are too busy and our emotions are too roiled. That awareness can serve many purposes: it can comfort us, it can motivate us, it can inspire us. God the creator is always creating anew; God, through Jesus Christ, is always teaching us about love and unity; but these are so big that we have trouble staying focused on them. It is the Spirit who is with us in day-to-day life, walking every mundane step of our path with us.

Closing observation

The structure of this theological overview parallels the classic Trinity: Father, Son, Holy Ghost; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. However, orthodox Trinitarian doctrine does not, and cannot, truly describe God. It is not literally true that God is three and God is one simultaneously. Our words are inadequate to qualify God, let alone quantify God. Theology is part of our sacred myth, our indirect, linguistic way of telling truth. This overview is nothing more than how I tell you about my own understanding of the truth of God.

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4 thoughts on “Mythic mystic Christianity: a theology

  1. Adam Howard December 13, 2012 / 6:23 pm

    This is very interesting, but it leaves me with some questions. First, how do you get from “we are all connected to each other and also to all of the universe in a way that we can sense spiritually but not feel physically” (yes, I know I’m oversimplifying your thesis, but I’m *really* not trying to write a book in the comment to a blog post!) to the specific trappings of Christianity? Or is it all just a useful metaphor, the way you’ve used the Trinity here? It seems to me that Buddhist theology (is it theology if there isn’t a theos?) is at least roughly consistent with the ideas you’ve laid out here. So why a Christian framework instead of a Buddhist one? I have to say, even as an atheist, that I can’t really disagree that we’re all connected to each other and to everything else everywhere. Having studied astronomy, physics, and biology, I cannot help seeing humanity as my brothers and sisters, all Earthling life as close cousins, and the rest of the universe as only slightly less related. However, I do not see the need for an intelligent creator agent underlying the connections–the connected universe simply IS.

    Second question: in the Jesus section, you speak to redemption. It is not quite clear to me if you mean the sort of traditional Christian form of redemption (“humanity is inherently sinful, maybe due to that Eve chick’s apple-eating ways, so we need a blood sacrifice to appease God”) or if you are again being more metaphorical. From what do our souls need redemption? You seem to imply that it is a disconnection from God (and each other, and all of creation), but it is left unsaid.

    Finally, I like the way you treat myth. It is much more nuanced than the way I often see Christians react to the word. Of course, just because a story is not literally true doesn’t mean that it has some deeper truth… but I think that “a story that contains truth regardless of its literal veracity” is a good working definition of myth and lets us discuss things like the Bible, Aesop, and even Harry Potter in interesting ways.

    Ok, I have to end this comment now to go celebrate the end of Chandra’s classes until January. I could definitely write more, but I think this is the longest comment I’ve ever left on a blog! Good post!

  2. CassandraToday December 14, 2012 / 10:29 pm

    This is very interesting, but it leaves me with some questions. First, how do you get from “we are all connected to each other and also to all of the universe in a way that we can sense spiritually but not feel physically”… to the specific trappings of Christianity?

    How do I get from the mystic experience to a specifically Christian way of talking about God? Well, having had the mystic experience (direct personal experience of connection with God), I have a lot of questions: Who/what is this God? What is this sense of connection about? What does it have to do with my life? How can I talk about it to others? How can I ask others about their similar experience, if any? As I said, conversations about these questions don’t readily lend themselves to direct linguistic expression; I need an indirect way of expressing them – a sacred myth. In the time and the culture in which I find myself, Christianity is the dominant sacred myth, and it addresses – or allows me to address – the kinds of questions I have. Someone born and raised and living in India might very well express her or his theology in terms of the Hindu body of myth.

    Or is it all just a useful metaphor, the way you’ve used the Trinity here?

    First, I would take exception to the word “just” meaning “merely”, which suggests that metaphor is inferior, or subordinate, to direct, literal declarative sentences. Both have their uses. And to answer your question: while metaphor is certainly one way of expressing something indirectly, it’s not the only one. Poetry, song, story, and prayer spring to mind, for example.

    It seems to me that Buddhist theology (is it theology if there isn’t a theos?) is at least roughly consistent with the ideas you’ve laid out here. So why a Christian framework instead of a Buddhist one?

    Yes, many theological and/or spiritual frameworks are basically consistent with one another. Christianity works for me. If Judaism or Islam or some other body of myth works for someone else, as a way to communicate about the shared mystic experience, that’s great. My theology is about my experience of God.

    I have to say, even as an atheist, that I can’t really disagree that we’re all connected to each other and to everything else everywhere. Having studied astronomy, physics, and biology, I cannot help seeing humanity as my brothers and sisters, all Earthling life as close cousins, and the rest of the universe as only slightly less related. However, I do not see the need for an intelligent creator agent underlying the connections–the connected universe simply IS.

    Beautifully expressed. I would add that part of what I’m trying to do is “unpack” that IS, and relate it to the personal experience of God. It’s interesting that you’re using the same bottom-line verb as I do when I characterize God as the ground of all BE-ing, or as Jews do with the Hebrew name of God, I AM. As far as the creative force being an “intelligent agent”, those are your words, not mine.

    Second question: in the Jesus section, you speak to redemption. It is not quite clear to me if you mean the sort of traditional Christian form of redemption (“humanity is inherently sinful, maybe due to that Eve chick’s apple-eating ways, so we need a blood sacrifice to appease God”) or if you are again being more metaphorical. From what do our souls need redemption? You seem to imply that it is a disconnection from God (and each other, and all of creation), but it is left unsaid.

    I am neither using the word in its traditional Christian sense of substitutionary atonement for human sin, nor am I using it metaphorically. Jesus Christ is, for me, the path from what appears to be my limited and unhappy human condition to the way of life I describe, in which my sure inner knowledge of unity and love give me back my self, my true self, the self that felt lost yet still felt rightfully mine. Not only is that self connected with God and all of creation in a way that I didn’t feel when the self felt lost; that self is, as I said, strong, loving, and beloved. In the sense I’m using the word redemption – to get something back – I’m not sure what to do with the phrase “redemption from.” For me, redeem doesn’t mean the same thing as “save.” Still, in response to that last sentence, I would say yes, in the absence of my soul, I do feel disconnected from God, from others, from all.

    Finally, I like the way you treat myth. It is much more nuanced than the way I often see Christians react to the word. Of course, just because a story is not literally true doesn’t mean that it has some deeper truth… but I think that “a story that contains truth regardless of its literal veracity” is a good working definition of myth and lets us discuss things like the Bible, Aesop, and even Harry Potter in interesting ways.

    I would define myth a little more narrowly, perhaps as “a body of story that contains truth about God/the spiritual, regardless of its literal veracity.” Myth also needs, I think, to develop over time. If it is the copyrighted, unalterable product of a single person, I personally do not think of it as myth. As you point out, though, it would be interesting to think about some modern works as myth, and see where that leads.

    Ok, I have to end this comment now to go celebrate the end of Chandra’s classes until January. I could definitely write more, but I think this is the longest comment I’ve ever left on a blog! Good post!

    Thank you! And good comment – thoughtful and thought-provoking!

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