On Christianity, on Mysticism – A Few Thoughts

©2008, Ramona K Silipo. All rights reserved.

A discussion about Christianity (whether or not, I mean) has been going on in Quaker circles here in England for years. In the last revision of Faith and Practice (the book of  queries and testimonies),  almost all references to Christianity were removed. When I first went to Strawberry Creek meeting, the meeting was described as Christ-centered rather than Christian.

Friends accept anyone into meeting for worship, and woe betide the meeting that offends the one single Bah’ai who might wander in one day. The issue is serious, that is, that Friends in general do not believe there is one exclusive path to God, and so do not judge other religions. But it is carried to silly extremes lately. (I think the fundamentalists and evangelicals have a lot to answer for. People shy away from saying  Christian because of all the negative and repressive connotations connected with the fringe elements.)

My definition of Christian is pretty simple: A Christian is someone who sees Jesus Christ as a teacher or leader, possibly God– someone whose life is an example to follow. Redemption, sin and all the rules are not the key elements. It’s wanting to be Christ-like that is the transformative thinking. If you follow Jesus’s example, you’re a Christian in my book. You may be a trying Christian, but at least you’re trying.

That’s part 1. Part 2 is, I love all the Jesus stories. They are whacking good yarns. Raising people from the dead, walking on water, making wine from water, accepting people as they are (including tax collectors and whores, among other societal outcasts) — all of those are great stories,  are every bit as good as anything the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen or C.S. Lewis came up with. Plus, in my view, it doesn’t matter whether he was “truly the Son of God” or not. If we do nothing more than follow his example we’re making an effort. As it happens, I do believe in his divinity. Whether he was more divine than Krishna or Buddha is another question, and, again, I don’t think it matters.

Oddly enough, the Christian mystics I know about are the Catholic ones, especially Theresa of Avila, who apparently had orgasmic experiences of Jesus (although we won’t find THAT word in any of the stories of her). I’ve always been fascinated by the descriptions of Christian mystical experiences, because they so often sound like sex as described in mildly pornographic novels. Is it all in their heads? Is it really a physical manifestation of the Holy Spriit entering their bodies? Is it delusions– and if delusions, from fasting or lack of sleep or other explainable reasons? Is it the Catholic Church’s so obvious masochism? What?

More seriously, mystical experiences are by definition unique and personal. No two people experience God in the same way. We are all imperfect humans, and we bring to any experience of God all the intellectual and emotional baggage we carry, no matter how genuine our intentions. Being open to being taken over by God is a pretty big order. Quaker meeting started the process for me; Tantra moved it forward very, very fast. Being able to surrender completely, even if only for a few seconds at a time, is an incredible grace. And the more you can do it, the more exciting and wondrous it becomes.

My favourite Jesus movie is Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Willem Dafoe plays Jesus as a real man, with doubts and needs and secrets, not as a perfect godlike creature. I mean, his Jesus  obviously likes women (which none of the other Jesus actors seemed to portray). And the relationship between Judas, played by Harvey Keitel, and Jesus is close and loving (and interpreted by some hopefuls as homosexual, but I don’t see it). The apostles are very real too, bickering among themselves, all trying to impress Jesus. To me, showing these “holy” people as absolutely human, with all the fears and needs we all have, makes them MORE holy, not less. They were able to overcome those very human failings and follow this guy for three years. That’s a big sacrifice if you were making money, sleeping with women and living a life before he turned up.

For me, that is the point: the mystical takes you out of the physical world and into the inexplicable, but even more real, world of pure spirit. Even if we only have it for a few seconds, or once or twice in a lifetime, what a gift! That some of us manage to have these experiences at length or repeatedly, then actually to communicate them in human language, and to have people hear and understand and follow— well, that’s a great grace.

Enough. I’m nattering on and on. I’ve been thinking about this for a couple of days, and it’s just spilling out.

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