Mysticism is the art of union with reality.
Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism
Before I venture into the mysteries offered us by today’s readings, I’d like to spend a moment with this little quote from Evelyn Underhill’s book Mysticism. In my view, this little sentence is one of the most important things ever written in Western literature.
Mysticism is the art of union with reality.
Think about that. What do you think of when you say the word reality? Is reality the thing to which you wish to be joined or do you secretly seek escape from it? How do you integrate your experiences as churchgoers with your experiences of reality? What, on this Labor Day weekend, does it mean to do the work of God?
I have to say that the first time I read that sentence, my mind stopped dead in its racing tracks. I encountered the work of Evelyn Underhill when I returned to the Church as a young adult, hoping that religion could make some sense of the disordered state in which I was living and offer comfort during the Reagan years that broke my heart. The religious right was on the rise and I didn’t want the traditions of my ancestors taken away. Being me, I was certain I could find my answers in books. I plunged into a long, Christian reading list. I was eager to embrace a lifestyle based in ethics rather than Reaganomics. I wanted to protest the so-called “real” world of consume until there’s nothing left, with an “ideal” world of loving your neighbor, caring for the poor, and above all, preserving this beautiful earth.
And then Evelyn Underhill came into my life and offered me, not an alternative to reality, but reality itself. As she writes in the preface to the twelfth edition of Mysticism: From being regarded, whether critically or favourably, as a byway of religion, [mysticism] is now more and more generally accepted by theologians, philosophers and psychologists, as representing in its intensive form the essential religious experience of [humanity].
Although it has produced some great mystics, the Christian Church, as it has existed throughout most of history has not been particularly mystic. Shaped by the organizational traditions of the Roman Empire and the legal traditions of Judaism, the Church has been an institution as much about governance as about spiritual teaching. Even at the height of its worldly influence, the Church viewed itself, not as the arbiter of culture but as an alternative social system, living in creative tension with “culture.”
There is an essential difficulty with this image of the Church. All religions are intensely cultural. Religions are the glue that hold cultures together and lend meaning to what it means to be human in the context of culture. A minority religion, such as Judaism, might see itself as an alternative, but once you become the dominant culture, to oppose that which you dominate is to risk becoming “a house divided” where conflict and opposition are simply the norms of daily life.
In this light, it becomes very easy to read today’s Gospel, not as an interesting example of a Jewish learning debate of the sort that continues even to this day in yeshivas, but as a clash between religions, between the new good guys and the old bad guys, the Pharisees representing hidebound conservatism and Jesus as the new progressive. When the Pharisees question why some of Jesus’ disciples (we have no idea who -- they are probably not the twelve) are not following ritual practice and washing before meals. Jesus takes the opportunity to answer that ritual actions not accompanied by proper motivation are empty. This is very straightforward prophetic teaching.
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord in Isaiah, Chapter One.
“Inscribe the law upon your hearts,” teaches Jeremiah in Chapter 33. It is the inner life, not the outer one that brings understanding of God. “Return to me with all your heart,” writes the prophet Joel. “Then afterwards I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your old men shall dream dreams and your young men shall have visions. Even on the male and female slaves, I will pour out my spirit.” Jesus does not argue against ritual as much as he argues against performing rituals in vain.
But, in a typical liberal church commentary we hear, “What makes Israel acceptable to God is not correct performance of ritual acts but ethical behavior. Similarly, Jesus declares that it is not scrupulous observance of the food laws that makes Israel holy, but morality.” (Douglas R.A. Hare, Feasting on the Word, Proper 17)
This would be very well and good except that ethical behavior and morality are just as external as handwashing. I know. I have spent many days behaving with perfect respectability while my heart has been dark with anger or resentment. Jesus is not pointing the finger at my behavior, he is pointing the finger at my heart. James agrees. “Anger does not produce God's righteousness.” No excuses. No justifications that my anger might helps me recognize injustice. It might, I cannot heal injustice as long as I am angry.
In this way, James reminds us that outer actions matter. Continuing with today’s teaching, Science has definitively proved that hand washing is very important for health reasons, but for about 1000 years after the Roman culture of bathing ended, Christians did not take baths. Using this passage as one of their proof texts, they decided that washing itself was hypocritical and that the true believer went about with filthy flesh, for as we all knew, flesh was the locus of sin. Indeed, one of the reasons Christians persecuted Muslims in Moorish Spain was because Muslims took baths and this was clear proof of their immorality.
Only when science discovered germs did we change our doctrinal tune, and such phrases crept into the lexicon as “Next to Godliness comes cleanliness.” The Pharisees would smile.
By recognizing the mysterious nature of reality itself, mysticism reminds us that knowing what to do and be is never easy. Reality suggests that when we neglect our inner lives and concentrate only upon outward appearance, test scores, success, bank balances, that our inner lives will erupt in conflict. We need to be open at both levels. Life is not about getting the right answer. Life is about asking the right question.
Last week, the New York Times ran an article called “From Bible-belt Pastor to Atheist Leader.” It told the story of Louisiana preacher Jerry DeWitt who had been a fundamentalist for 25 years until one night a parishioner called asking prayers for her brother who had been seriously injured in a motorcycle accident and might die. All of a sudden he realized he could no longer provide prayers on demand. It was ridiculous to think you could, or should, influence things like that. “He walked into the bathroom and stared at himself in the mirror. “I remember thinking, Who on this planet has any idea what I’m going through?”
He’s being a little self-referential, because anyone whose ever had a big crisis of faith will know what he was going through. Deciding that God is an impossibility is a natural part of the spiritual journey, particularly in a culture that is as rational as our own, a culture that relegates what it cannot explain to the psychiatrist’s couch. If the universe is an elegant machine, and my brain is already “hardwired,” who needs God?
As a fundamentalist, Jerry DeWitt was expected to have answers about God as clear as a mathematical equation. After all, fundamental religion, steeped in a model of cultural conflict, stands against science, brandishing the Bible as a book of answers. And when those answers fail, as they must, because the Bible is not that kind of book, the religion based on answers will fail too. As he concluded, “In the end, I couldn’t help feeling that all religion, even the most loving kind, is just a speed bump in the progress of the human race.”
A mystic will tell you: sit in the absence of God long enough and you will see God. Two of the world’s greatest religions: Buddhism and Confucianism, have no God. But they do have reality.
Reality is a far more complex landscape than that which can be mapped by facts alone, which is why no rational system will ever be adequate to explain life. Reality, from protons and electrons on, is grounded in relationship. Reality recognizes and teaches inner experience as well as outer skill. But most importantly, reality leaves nothing out. No single brain will ever contain it. It is our job as human beings to be participants in the whole, not controllers of it.
If you let the Bible be mysterious and contradictory, it will reveal much that is surprising. Let the scientific world give us the facts. Facts are the looms upon which we weave mystery, and science has changed how we read the Bible. From the very beginning, the Bible has never been consistent, it regularly contradicts itself, is often outrageous, and even has conflicting versions of the same story, sometimes on the same page! This is reality, friends. There is no one version of that. Because the same thing can be both helpful and harmful.
And thus we come to the matter of love. If you’ve been coming to church this summer, you will have heard an earful about the dangers of erotic love: David, Bathsheba, the unraveling of family.
Then today, the same Bible that critiques David and Bathsheba, extols the passions of their son Solomon.
The voice of my beloved!
Look, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle
or a young stag.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
Can erotic love be at once a huge social disorder, and God’s very gift of life? Can I run through the hills with my beloved and still be a woman of great faith? Is a healthy relationship with God also a healthy relationship with nature?
The answer, my friends, is yes.
Is passion dangerous? Does social authority seek to control that which is dangerous?
The answer, my friends, is yes.
In the mystical world, spiritual gifts are neither inherently good nor inherently evil, but become what we do with them. To live religiously, say the wise ones, is to be able to live with paradox. Our passions are valuable teachers, but that does not mean we should give into every passion. Our intelligence is an amazing gift, but our intelligence is just as good at deluding us as it is at showing us truth. Social justice is the light toward which we are always growing, but it is not a way of beefing up my resume or telling the rest of the world that their backwardness stems from not being just like me.
The world is not a simple struggle between good and evil. God is not who I want God to be. God is God. True religion is not either or, but both and. Nature is diverse and so are the paths to God. Understanding one another may be our greatest task. Understanding one another may be our greatest risk. On this Labor Day weekend, may all that you do be an act of Love. AMEN.