Who is “Christian?” What is “Mystical?”

A discussion among Quakers about de-emphasizing the Christian foundation of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers),  and its Christian principles got me thinking about the definition of  “Christian.”  People shy away from the word because of  the negative and repressive connotations connected with fringe elements.  Fundmentalists,  Evangelicals and similar sects have hijacked the word and given it a narrow, often angry and aggressive, generally hateful meaning; they have made Christianity repugnant to many people.

The discussion about Christianity 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) pretty much all the references to Christianity were removed. When I first went to Strawberry Creek Meeting in Berkeley, the meeting described itself as Christ-centered rather than Christian.

Friends accept anyone into meeting for worship, and woe betide any meeting that offends the one single Bah’ai or atheist 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.

My definition of Chrisitian is pretty simple and broad: A Christian is someone who reveres Jesus Christ as a teacher or leader, someone whose life is an example to follow. Doctrines such as redemption, sin and all the rest are not so important to me as the principles Jesus taught. If you follow Jesus’s example, you’re a Christian– living the teachings, not just believing them.

That’s part 1. Part 2 is, I love all the Jesus stories. They are whacking good yarns, in my book. Raising people from the dead, walking on water, making wine from water, accepting people as they are (i.e tax collectors and whores, etc.) — all of those are great stories, every bit as good as anything the Grimms or Anderson or 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 that descriptions of Christian mystical experience so often sound like sex as described in borderline pornographic novels. Is it the Catholic Church’s  preoccupations with sex and masochism? Is it all in their heads? Is it truly a physical manifestation of the Holy Spirit entering their bodies? Is it delusional– and if it’s all delusions, are they the result of fasting or lack of sleep or other explainable reasons?

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.

Have you seen Scorcese’s Jesus movie– The Last Temptation of Christ– the one with Willem Dafoe as Jesus and Harvey Keitel as Judas? It’s my favourite of all of the Jesus movies. Dafoe plays Jesus as a real man, with doubts and needs and secrets, not as a perfect godlike creature. I mean, he obviously likes women (which none of the other Jesus actors seemed to do). And the relationship between Judas 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 human, with the fears,  needs and quirks we all have, makes them MORE holy, not less. They were able to overcome those things 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  have it only 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.

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