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Written Off Not Because I’m Emergent, but a Mystic

I had just finished preaching when a middle-aged chap walked up to me and said, “What’s with all the spiritual ‘God is in everything’ nonsense?” I responded, “Nonsense, huh? What do you mean?” He blurted out, “Just tell me what you believe? Are you a hippie or what?” Perceiving that there was no end to the Who-Wants-To-Be-a-Millionaire style game, I answered his million dollar question that I often resist, “ ‘Hippie,’ no. But ‘Christian mystic,’ yes.” As he began to walk away, he said, “Okay, never mind then. I don’t care what you have to say if that is what you believe.”

 

This wasn’t a first for me. I have become a little accustom to this kind of response. I often ask myself, “Am I just too abrasive? Or, what was that all about?” I have begun to realize that the problem is one of terminology. Let’s talk about hippies, mystics and the whole problem of categorizing Christianity.

When Did “Mystic” Become Synonymous with “Hippie”?

I love the people that are often called hippies. If you knew much about my town, Bellingham, you would understand why. Bellingham is full of people who simply want to love life, experience spirituality, make soap, farm their own food, and “just get along.” Outsiders call them hippies, but to us, they are “Bellinghampsters.” (Seriously, that is what you are called if you live in Bellingham.) I have learned a great deal from my downtown Bellinghampster friends. So, if you think of yourself as a hippie, don’t take the rest of this post as an insult. (I love you, I promise.)

Mysticism and Hippie-ism are not synonymous. Hippie-ism is generally about all religions being equal and really the same—all of them being a way to express our inner-selves. Mysticism was established as a certain kind of spirituality. Its brand was Jewish and eventually Christian. Jewish and Christian mysticism are sold separately, but not in stores, synagogues or your average church. You have to take a long journey, or have a miraculous experience, to acquire mysticism. Why? Because you can’t buy faith. And it’s not transferable.

Mysticism: Not Emergent, Not Holy Roller—Just Christian

Around 250 BC, Jewish mysticism emerged. It’s ancient. To be frank, I think Jewish mysticism is a bit wacky but I love what it was the precursor to—the Church. (Yes, I hear some of you yelling and screaming, give me a sec hear; you may enjoy what is coming.)

In Acts 2, there is an explosion of the Holy Spirit. People begin to speak in languages they did not know, spiritual gifts get outpoured upon multitudes, and 3,000 people accept Christ. A pretty good evangelism campaign, eh? None of us complain about Pentecost and most of us think it is pretty cool. But what if it happened today? We would likely say, “What the heck?” Some people of the time said, “Oh, they’re just drunk. Don’t listen to that drunkard Peter” (Acts 2:13). But they weren’t drunk. They were serious. The very Spirit of God was poured upon these people. So what happened here? Why did those 3,000 people believe? Was Peter’s preachin’ really that good?

Just Preachin’ Isn’t Enough. People Have to Relate to It

We have Peter’s sermon, so we know his preaching was that good. But when it is read in church, I don’t see the same effects. What then went down in the first century that convinced 3,000 people to believe in Christ in one setting? It seems that they experienced something. And it rang true of something else—what they knew in their Scriptures about the coming Messiah and the experiences they witnessed of prophets in the past (e.g., Isaiah 6; 1 Kings 18; 19:10–18). These experiences are what Jewish mysticism was based upon. (And remember, the people hearing the message of Jesus for the first time were Jews.) So when Christianity emerges, it comes out of an experience that is beyond what is tangible. An experience with the Infinite God. And if that isn’t “magical” (one of the definitions of mysticism), then I don’t know what is. The event also introduced “a feeling of awe and wonder” by the people there (again, another definition of mysticism.) So, when the Christian movement begins, it begins with a mystical experience.

How did your spiritual experience begin? Maybe it was subtle and that’s why you don’t relate to mysticism.

In my next post I will define mysticism further. For now, tell me what you think. How would our belief system and experiences change if we were on the hunt for an experience with the Infinite God? Would it set us up for success in finding Him? If you are a Christian, ask yourself, "If the early Christians really were mystics, why am I resistant to calling myself one?"

Because maybe mystics aren't emergent and maybe they're not holy rollers. And maybe, just maybe, they aren't soap-making, farm-loving, I-only-eat-what-falls-off-the-tree, and only-worship-in-yoga-class, hippies. Maybe they're just first-century Christians and a few of us today.

Comments

I love this, John. Yes, terminology trips us up, and we would do well to listen to how folks define their terms before tossing them out. I thank you for some solid biblical history, too.

As someone who was raised in a Pentecostal church and then spent many years of higher education apologizing for it, it's taken me some time to embrace the notion of "mysticism" again. I've had to learn to stop defining what it is that draws me to Jesus Christ. If he is the Infinite God, why do I think I can access him only through scholarship or logic? Thanks for this post--good stuff.

Thanks for the kind and thoughtful words Caroline. I find that I too struggle with placing God far too often in my scholastic and logical boxes -- hence my proposed solution. Perhaps scholarship is one of the confines that prevents us from embracing the Infinite God, but I suppose it can also help us find Him. (How about that for a paradox and riddle? What can help you find and lose God?)

Would anyone like to comment further on this, Caroline's thoughts, or the above post? I would love to hear what you have to say.

--John

Love it! Great words here John!

Thanks Dan! The positive feedback is much appreciated.

--John

I'm really glad to have read something like this. I had a great professor for Philosophy of Religion years ago and we discussed this problem at length.

I too grew up in a Pentecostal (old school) environment, but have not spent any time apologizing for it. Though I have apologized for some of its leading figures. I feel like there are so many who want to dismiss the inexplicable aspects of God. I don't like to mess around with extra-biblical stuff, but unless I see direct scriptural condemnation of thought or lifestyle, I at least try to give it a listen.

These days I'm less and less concerned with labels or titles (emergent, mystic) and more concerned with the substance of the belief. Unfortunately labels are a lazy way of parsing what we will and won't listen to. Like the man in your story, if it isn't flowing through an approved pipeline we just shut it off. The funny thing is, this concept works in reverse as well. Too many people listen to nonsense because it does flow from the mouth of the approved. Just my thoughts. I'm glad you're not afraid to say you are a mystic. I'm sure that makes lots of folks uncomfortable - which I don't think is a bad thing! I have always defended the mystic title, though I've never referred to myself as one. But why not?

Thanks Bill -- some insightful stuff here.

Would anyone else like to follow-up with a comment about their experience, specifically how it relates to Bill's, Caroline's, or mine?

Do you like labels? Can they be helpful? Unhelpful? Let us know what you think.

--John

labels??? decidedly not helpful. My wife and I just had supper last week with a couple new to our church and they were trying hard to put me in a box. "Too orthodox to be emergent... too 'free will' to be Reformed... too justice oriented to be dispensational... too "hippie" to be Presbyterian", "to left leaning and environmentally conscious to be right wing evangelical" to which I replied, "thank you very much"

Thanks for the comment Richard. I have had similar conversations, so I know how you feel.

I agree that labels can be unhelpful. But don't we in some ways need them? With no labels how can we have an intelligent conversation about where our belief systems differ?

I tend to believe that the very nature of language requires labels: we use words to describe actions and things. After all, all language is metaphor. As Aristotle said, a table is not a table in its essence, it is wood. And wood is a tree, and trees have component parts (sap, bark, roots, etc.). In this regard, labels help us articulate what we are observing in our surroundings but are never final. This does not mean, though, that there are not deeper levels. It also does not mean that labels are the only way to dialogue.

Judgmental labels only ostracize people, but self-ascribed labels can help us classify our beliefs -- not to put them in a box but simply to dialogue.

So, I call myself a mystic because it is the closest label that describes how I combine what I know about God with the Spirit of God I believe I have received. It is the closest movement to what I believe. Although, I don't take the label line, hook, and sinker. Just like my reform friends don't ascribe to everything Calvin believed or their reform denomination believes, but still ascribe to the movement.

My label is a way for me to merely articulate my position. Labels, when self-ascribed, help us get closer to understanding each other. But I am with you that when they are placed upon someone, they only drive us apart.

So, Touche, we need to be cautious.

--John

I think there needs to be some level of making sure you're speaking the same language as the person you talk to. While calling your self mystical is true, I think the meaning was lost on the dude who talked to you. If you said "I'm not a hippy, but I believe that the presence of God is real" or "I believe that the Holy Spirit is real" or pulled out some Colossians 1 or John 1 about Jesus and all things he might not have been so dismissive. Then that can open up more conversation. If people don't understand the labels then they aren't helpful.

Obviously some people will still be dismissive of what they don't like or don't understand, but a lot of things are issues in language. Different Christians/groups of Christians can so easily use different terms to describe the same thing and talk right past each other.

Good point!

Anyone want to pick up on Paulos' thoughts?

--John

I believe in your precisions man. Thumbs up on that. Nicklaus Misiti

I really appreciate your blog.

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The Infinite God is everywhere, are you looking? I am dedicated to finding God in all aspects of life – the Bible, the news, and the arts. Because I find that the most fulfilling journey of all is searching for heaven here on earth.