Everything is impossibly complicated

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Christianity and Mysticism

I read an article on Challies Dot Com about the increasing influence of mysticism on Evangelicalism (http://www.challies.com/articles/the-boundaries-of-evangelicalism). The author is concerned about this influence, given that the two ought to be opposed.

I find the attempt to distinguish between Christianity and mysticism interesting, because one thing that becomes readily apparent when one studies Judaism is that Christianity is mysticism. That is, the topics that form the core of Christian belief are, in Judaism, the material of mysticism: heaven and hell, the nature of G-d, the nature of the soul, the Devil, the supernatural understanding of history. The idea of Jesus dying on the cross for sins is a mystical concept. So is the idea of becoming part of his body. And so is the idea of the trinity.

Core Judaism isn’t as worried about making sure your beliefs on hell, or the structure of G-d, or whatever, are correct. In Judaism, you don’t follow the Law so that you don’t go to hell. You follow the Law because you’re a Jew, and the Law is what Jews do. G-d founded the Jewish nation, yes, and you’re obeying Him by following the Law, yes, but at the end of the day, the Law is proscriptive. You’re supposed to do–why isn’t as important. (To be fair, due to the influence of Chassidism, this description isn’t entirely accurate.)

Christianity is mystical to its core. Its main concerns are the nature of G-d in the Trinity, the meaning of Jesus’s death on the cross (understood as the ultimate victory), and eternal reward or punishment in heaven or hell. As a whole, it rejects the idea of following the Law. Some parts (Protestantism) even reject the idea that doing anything has any importance. Everything happens via the vehicle of the mystical Grace of G-d for the purpose of the Glory of G-d, and the only proper goal of life is the understanding that everything that exists is only an emanation of that Grace. The goal is understanding, not action–that’s mysticism.

What’s really interesting is that for some reason (or reasons), much of Christianity has felt the need to see itself as non-mystical. Thus came the “canon law” of the Catholic Church, that tried to essentially become a new law-based religion while still rejecting Judaism. So also comes the article at the beginning, trying to strictly and logically define what is proper, based on rules and guidelines–including rules for the proper way to feel awe at a sunset! It is certainly a curious experiment: making a practical religion out of a mysticism.


Review of Love Wins by Rob Bell

Reading Rob Bell’s latest book Love Wins was something of a bipolar experience for me. When I began reading the book, I found it insightful and inspiring. However, as I got to the end of the book, the ideas seemed to peter out into typical wishy-washy Evangelicalism. In the end, I found the book to have a lot of really interesting and illuminating ideas, but the book as a whole seemed to be weak. What this means is, if you have some kind of well-defined worldview in place that allows you to adopt the ideas effectively, you could get some inspiring ideas out of this book, but if you’re looking for someone to help you construct a well-defined worldview, you’ll probably be disappointed.

In general, the points I found to be the most inspiring in the book were the ones that more or less cohered with a more Jewish theology and worldview (to the extent that I can judge something to be Jewish or not). I’ll give some examples. In Chapter 2, Rob Bell considers the story about the rich man who comes to Jesus and asks him what he can do to be saved. Jesus responds with a list of commands. The rich man says he’s kept all these since childhood, to which Jesus tells him that he’s lacking only one thing: sell everything he has and follow Jesus. Rob Bell makes the point that this is the perfect place for Jesus to clearly explain the process of salvation (accepting Jesus into his heart, etc.), and yet he doesn’t. It seems that we’re missing something. If someone asks an Evangelical how to be saved, he responds with a formula that sounds nothing like what Jesus said to the rich man.

The more general argument of Chapter 2 is that “heaven,” contrary to how we usually think of it, isn’t a spiritual place disconnected from this physical reality. Rather, it’s really “the kingdom of heaven,” or, “the kingdom of G-d” — the age of the world when G-d finally (and explicitly) rules over His creation. The discussions about “heaven” in the New Testament are really instructions for how to live now in order to become a person who best aligned with the nature of the age when G-d rules over the world. As the principle goes in Judaism, we’re forming (by our actions) in this world the kind of person we’ll be in the next world (see, e.g., the references to good deeds as garments in Revelation).

Then in Chapter 3, Rob Bell makes a very interesting point that when Jesus spoke of hell, it was not in conversations with heathens trying to get them to follow him, it was with the people who were believers in G-d and followers of His directions. Once again, we see the disconnect with how the subject is approached today, where the primary use of hell is to threaten those who won’t believe in an attempt to convince them when we have no logical arguments left. Now granted, for the (large) segments of Christianity that believe it was always Jesus’s intent to create a new religion, this argument is somewhat weak, since they could say that the reason Jesus threatened the “believers” with hell was because in his new religion, they were no longer believers. I consider the idea that Jesus came to start a new religion false, but that’s an argument for a different article.

Actually, the whole of Chapter 3, where Rob Bell examines the ideas of hell in Scripture and develops them, is very informative. What emerges is an idea of hell as a punishment in the next world for the wicked behavior of people here. This can include, maybe surprisingly, even G-d’s people. The cause of the innocent victims will be upheld and justice will be done. The general discussion of hell by the prophets and Jesus is not necessarily a thread of eternal punishment for failing to choose the correct religion. Consequently, we start to see hell as being more logically a limited punishment, rather than an eternal one. This idea is well attested in Judaisim and more Orthodox Christianities.

There was one place where Rob Bell seemed to make a point with a particularly Jewish understanding, even though it wasn’t clear to me that he got it from Jewish tradition (some of his other points appear to be more obviously informed by it). In Chapter 5, he picks up on the fact that in John, the first couple of signs that Jesus performs are numbered (saying things like “this is the first sign that Jesus performed etc.”). He notes that if one counts all the signs in John, one gets to seven before Jesus dies and rises from the dead: eight signs. He see this as being significant based on the seven days of creation in Genesis followed by a second description of creation: the “eighth day” is a new creation. This idea is furthered confirmed by the Jewish tradition that seven indicates a fullness of the physical realm, whereas eight indicates a transcension of the physical realm into the spiritual, eternal realm (see Artscroll’s book on bris milah).

Finally, in Chapter 7, Rob Bell makes a point that I think goes very much to the heart of the problem with a lot of Evangelical theology. Let me quote the punch line: “…we do not need to be rescued from God. God is the one who rescues us from death, sin, and destruction. God is the rescuer.” The reason I like this statement is that it blows away the haze and confusion that exists in many Christians’ minds about the powers in the world: G-d, Jesus, Satan. While saying they believe in one, all-powerful G-d, too many Christians believe in a dualistic polytheism. Dualistic because they believe that G-d and Satan are struggling for control of the world, polytheistic because they believe that Jesus is G-d but acts independently from Him. Jesus doesn’t save us from our sins. G-d does.

Like I said, I thought that most of the book had really thoughtful, interesting points in it. However, at the end it started to peter out into more feel-good, “I’m ok, you’re ok” kind of thinking. By this I don’t mean that he became universalistic. At the point he started talking in more wishy-washy terms, he started to sound much more like any other generic Evangelical. I’ll give a couple of examples.

The first example is in Chapter 6, “There Are Rocks Everywhere.” Now don’t get me wrong, this chapter is actually very profound for one who is willing to hear. However, I think that in trying to communicate something profound too plainly, it ended up becoming rather washed out. Rob Bell says, “…Jesus is bigger than any one religion…[he] is supracultural. He is present within all cultures, and yet outside of all cultures.” These statements are alluding to profound truths, but spoken like this, without qualification or nuance, destroys the profundity of Scripture and the traditions we’ve received. It implies that they are good ways of understanding G-d, but don’t necessarily have any advantage over any other way. I’m not saying that this is what Rob Bell is trying to say, just that it’s how it comes across.

Another example is in Chapter 7. Again, the concepts in this chapter are indeed touching on profound truths, but the way they’re stated overly plainly makes them washed out. Rob Bell says that “Forgiveness is unilateral…God has already done it…The only thing left to do is trust.” The problem I have with statements like these is that they take away the power of our actions to really change the world, reality. The way they’re stated, they take oppose the idea brought up earlier in his book that we’re shaping in this world who we’re going to be in the next world. Reality is not all in the mind. It’s not that in one mental state (trusting) I’m in heaven and in another (not trusting) I’m in hell. Again, I don’t think that Rob Bell necessarily thinks this, just that it’s how the argument comes across. The ideas are flattened out too much.

All in all, I think it’s a very useful book to read. The material that Rob Bell covers is very interesting and very useful to think about, but it ought to be understood that his book alone isn’t enough. The ideas he brings up touch on profound and deep subjects which need to be examined slowly, carefully, and thoughtfully to reach the truth of the matter.

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