Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Boundaries of the Western Theological Imagination.

I would like to present you with a scenario I was similarly presented with a few days ago: You have a close acquaintance or colleague. He has been distraught for a while and has prayed for God's help. One day, he confides to you that God has begin speaking to him, mostly when he meditates alone at night. He tells you  and says he would like to know what you think but is afraid you'll suggest he seek counselling and dismiss his religious experience.

When trying to analyze the scenario mentioned above, the initial response one is likely to have, and, I confess, the one I immediately had was to look for some psychological reason. Distraught could indicate depression. The hypothetical person has prayed for God's help, but instead of saying he's received God's help he tells you God has started talking to him. This would indicate, to me, that the distraught state/depression has not remitted, otherwise he would have said something about how God has helped him, not started talking to him. One could, I presume, ask for more data, try to learn the content of the communication he thinks he's received.

The more supportive reaction is to label this man as going through something that is both psychological and religious. It is either extreme psychological duress that has generated a religious experience, or, more charitably, it is extreme psychological duress that God has used for a moment of grace. In the venue in which this scenario was posed, this was the majority opinion.

The final possibility is that there is no human element at work. This person is genuinely confiding the truth, not the truth as he sees it, but indeed the objective truth.Something external has been received.

I still stand by my initial reaction to the scenario - I would argue the man is going through some type of psychological break and one would have to find away to get him to let go of his illusion. This being said, whether Hagar or Elijah, Scripture seems to affirm a model of divine encounter that takes place when we are brought to our brink, when we stand upon the edge of our emotional, mental, physical and spiritual limits. God radically intervenes in reality at God's own will and we are totally subject to that intervention.

Western thought, including western theology, has all but abandoned such a proposition. Western theology affirms divine intervention is possible, however, we have an intrinsic role in the manifestation of said intervention - our perception determines reality. We have, in many respects, lost the language for anomalous experience.

I would charge anyone go into any mainline bookstore, those that are left, and browse through the area concerned with religion or spirituality. Look at what titles are on advertised display. More often than not, title representing mainline Christianity are in the minority and only have 50/50 representation during Christianity's major seasons. Although new age as a marketing phenomenon died out with the close of the 1990s, people are still hungering for some sort of spiritual alternative to mainline Christianity. I share the minority opinion when I take the stand that it is not because we are less moral than before and we're looking for a religion that excuses are vice. Rather, I believe it is the inability of Western thought and in turn western religion to speak of the anomalous or anomalous experience that leaves spiritual vacuum in one's life. People are looking for something that expresses what Rudolph Otto termed the mysterium tremens. People are looking for a narrative of the anomalous either to give form to their own perceived experience of the anomalous or, at the very least, provide a religious view in which the anomalous not only could happen but indeed does happen.

Allowance for the anomalous does not put a stamp of authenticity on any alleged religious experience. Although, I admit, it does open up some terrifying vistas of reality. I want to return to the Old Testament for some consideration. There is a paradox in the Old Testament to explore. Let's return to Hagar. Hagar is effectively forced from Abraham's house with her infant. There, in her moment of desolation, she encounters the angel of Yahweh. At the end of the encounter she poses a question which every experience of the supernatural, if true, ought to engender: Have I truly seen him who sees me? (cf. Genesis 16:3) Hagar's divine encounter illustrates the tendency for God to radically intervene in our situations of duress. Later in the same book, Jacob engages in nocturnal conflict with God face to face. (Genesis 32:23-31) At the conclusion of the encounter. Jacob names the location of the conflict/grappling Penuel, on account of having seen the face of God and yet his life was preserved. Encounter with the divine not only comes in situations of extreme duress, it has an element of terror. The anomalous by its very nature not only can occur in times of volatility, it often exposes the person subject to its immediate experience and those who inquire into its veracity with a glimpse of chaos, of a terror, and perhaps of death. No man may see God and live, so says Exodus. Yet, Scripture often presents surviving the divine encounter as possible, though, the encounter itself is fairly rare.

The anomalous, if it is true, or, in our terms, if the vision of God while upon earth is possible, poses risks, including the risk of death. We often gloss over these passages. We wrap up the vision of God in the cloth of beatific vision and, at times, dismiss such passages as either primitive mythology or part and parcel of the numerous things Jesus did away with. Christianity does this to its own detriment.

There's a great line from the original version of The Haunted: "I know the supernatural is not something that is supposed to happen, but the fact is it does happen." Scripture holds a proposition which, by and large, is either qualified to the point of practical irrelevance or until it becomes a philosophical concept. We can either continue with this trend or except that an uncomfortable or perhaps even unexplainable phenomenon runs through various strands of our faith fabric. In turn, we'll be forced to distinguish between the phenomenon of mind versus the phenomenon of God, recognizing, however cautiously, that the rumblings of the supernatural are at times unsettling in their tumult.