Faith—Historical and Mystical

I have been wrestling lately with the historic tension between the faith life anchored in history and the faith rooted in mystical awareness of the Eternal. In his recent posting in Prayer and Politiks, my good friend Ken Sehested calls it the tension between the mystical vision of the ‘thin space’ experience and the historical struggle for justice, where “Heaven’s ecstasy and earth’s agony overlay.”

We need the mystical vision, he writes, in order to “confront history’s ruinous condition,” and, like the early Civil Rights leaders in Greensboro NC, to hear “Heaven’s promise…in the midst of Earth’s affliction.” The historical work of liberation needs the mystical work of King’s Dream and, as he recites in his posting, St Brigit of Ireland’s prayers.

Ken is arguing for the way we need to hold these two together, just as Father Richard Rohr, OFM, does at the Center for Action and Contemplation. But I am also aware of the deep tension between these two orientations.

The kind of religion we find in the Bible articulates faith in terms of a historical drama in which God is working out a divine purpose through establishing covenants, renewing them in the face of human rebellion, and drawing us finally to an end point, an Eschaton, in which the divine purpose is realized for all creation. It is a collective, public drama of salvation.

The mystical impulse seeks this realization in the eternal now in which we experience God’s mystery in our immediate life. We release all our impulse to strive, achieve, produce, and gain external recognition in order to surrender to the overwhelming love of God. It is in this intense, ecstatic personal experience that we realize our true fulfillment, our salvation.

It is not hard to see how these two ways can fall into starkly different religious temperaments— one “Hebrew” and the other “Greek,” one political and public, the other individual and private. And it is also easy to see the distortions to which they can lead. The sense of historical faith has been the doorway to countless wars, conquests, and crusades seeking to achieve the absolute envisioned by faith.

We see it now in the Christian nationalism eroding the US Constitutional order erected 230 years ago as a bulwark against this kind of religious warfare. In these numerous violent expressions of the history-oriented faith inherited from the Bible we can also see how the search to realize a mystical vision within history (“Thy Kingdom come…”) can easily violate the very peace promised in a mystical vision.

While the mystical embrace by itself does not lead easily to violence, it can readily lead to the belief that we can escape the ambiguities, compromises, and systemic evils that imprison us, ignoring the way our actual lives are part of the degradation of the lives of others, even those yet unborn.

The mystical becomes the fantasy of the well-off elites manicuring their souls, as my mentor James Luther Adams put it, in the face of the ethical demands of the often ambiguous historical drama in which the divine is truly active and revealed.

Recent events have only deepened my awareness of the deep tension and interdependence of these two religious paths, not only in my own spirituality but in the world around me. Perhaps this is one reason why St. Paul has moved from being the overbearing eccentric uncle in my religious closet to being a prickly but almost comforting companion in my later years.

As a rabbinically-schooled Jew in the Hellenistic diaspora, he was deeply aware of the long historical drama of salvation and the “cloud of witnesses” in which we stand as well as the mystical vision of a resurrection and of a “new city, whose builder and maker is God.”

Each of us has to thread together the way we address both the mystical and the historical dimensions of faith as we try to figure out our way in the next days, weeks, and months. The way forward, as our history-laden faith puts it. The way to the Ground and Center, as the mystics might tell us.