Monday, March 07, 2005

Into the Mystic

It’s Sunday morning adult class at St. Paul’s. A dozen people are sitting at the front of the sanctuary, flipping through their handouts, as Pastor Schneckenlaufen commences the next installment of “Fancy Greek Words That Lutherans Like to Use to Make Ourselves Sound Really, Really Smart.”

Pastor: I’ve been looking forward to today’s class because we’ve got not one but three great words to discuss…kairos, kenosis and kerygma. And, no, kerygma is not a skin disease. Hahahaha! That was a joke. So if Margie can get the ball rolling this morning by reading the first paragraph of our…Margie? Margie?

Margie: Oh…sorry, Pastor.

Pastor: You seem a little distracted. Is anything wrong?

Margie: Well, not wrong, but…um…hmmm…how do I…um…I guess I have something to say to you all…I just can’t keep it inside anymore…and I know this is going to for some of you to hear, but this...well, this is just part of who I am…and we’re all sisters and brothers in Christ, and I hope you’ll try and understand and not judge me…the thing is, I…aw, gee whiz…oh, God, this is so hard…I haven’t even told my parents…I…I…oh, Margie, just say it…[deep breath]…I have recently had a religious experience.

A collective gasp fills the sanctuary. Someone leaps up and runs to the church office to find the emergency number for Community Mental Health. Old Mrs. Carlson faints dead away.

Pastor: I don’t mean to be insensitive, Margie, but couldn’t you have waited, at least until I got through kenosis?


Lutherans don't do mysticism well. For people who grow up learning to ask, "What does this mean?" in a theological context, when that question moves from the academic realm to the experiential one, we get nervous; we tend to agree with theologian Karl Rahner, who once quipped that the problem with mysticism is, it begins in "mist" and ends in schism. I used to agree with that assessment. (Until The CEO persuaded me otherwise.)

I think the problem is less that Lutheran theology per se is antagonistic toward Christian mysticism -- we know that the medieval Rhineland mystics influenced Luther's thought, and there are certain thematic threads woven through Lutheran theology that I believe lend themselves to a more direct, receptive experience of God -- and more that, in our church culture, it's bad form to be "different" by talking about our personal encounters with God. In the words of the Lake Wobegonians, Who do you think you are?

One of the real benefits I have found in paying more attention to my prayer life and following a more structured personal spiritual practice has been an increasing feeling of closeness to God. Sometimes this has indeed manifested itself in that exciting, scary phenomenon of religious experience...things as subtle as feeling a divine hand of benediction on my shoulder in the course of the day or as dramatic as...well, I'm working myself up to sharing that incident here. And it can be rather lonely not knowing with whom I can be self-disclosing. I recall one online exchange with a fellow Lutheran -- someone I've known for years, who enjoys Godtalking with me -- during which I attempted to broach the subject of my own religious experience, and I could almost hear him, a couple of thousands of miles away, hastily sliding his chair away from his computer in distaste. Talk about the love that dare not speak its name.

Why is it so hard for us to talk about how God makes Godsself known to us?


Andy said...

Hi. I'm Melancthon. And I've had a religious experience.

Seriously, I know what you mean. Last year in an adult ed forum I shared having felt a deep, emotional experience of the meaning of Easter during worship (which, on the whole, I would regard a relatively tame religious experience). Luckily(?), a friend made a joke about me "getting all Pentecostal" and defused the situation.

But maybe, just maybe, this is going on with a lot of Lutherans and no one wants to be the first to speak up.

LutheranChik said...

[All together now] Hi, Mel!

Well, I'd like this comment space to be a scorn-free zone for Lutherans (or anyone else) wanting to share their own religious experiences.;-) I'll tell my "big" story in a bit, I think.

To me part of the reticence (apart from our being a shy people) has to do with the idea that religious experience will be perceived as some sort of "work" on our part that we think is going to earn us merit points, or some indication of having earned said points from God. The least in my life, every profound religious experience has been unbidden; it's just happened without any prompting on my part. And they've been precursors to my developing a more committed "living into the faith" -- not spiritual "trophies."

Andy said...

As I read your comment, I just had one of those "head slap" moments. I've been reading the book on the Finnish interpretation of Luther, and I was thinking that while it is very cool theology, what possible practical (pastoral?) difference could it make whether we teach that Christ is actually, ontologically present in the believer in faith (as opposed to sanctification being a basically extrinsic work done on us)?

A: It makes sense of religious experience.

LutheranChik said... that's why I'm able to have two-way communication with The CEO?! Verrry interesting!

Meanwhile, on B'net I sort of got my fanny handed to me on a plate because I dared to make fun of a couple of Lutherans waxing philosophical on Schleiermacher, Tillich, et al...I said I now had a new understanding of why people are attracted to the "emergent Church" movement.;-) Honestly, it reminded me of the Godspell Prologue , with the chorus of philosophers.;-)