Tag Archives: Episcopal

Venn Mysticism

To what extent can clear thinking and logical analysis help untangle the complexities of trying to live a life of faith? Let’s try a test case. In his later years, as he continued to discard the grave-clothes from his religious past, my father17251_297220732720_3663220_n[1] was fond of saying that “Not every mystic is a Christian, but every good Christian is a mystic.” The philosopher in me immediately wants to analyze this truth claim logically. Actually, there are two truth claims in this sentence. The first claim, “Not all mystics are Christians,” relates the category “mystic” and the category “Christian.” If we imagine circle A containing all mystics, and circle B containing all Christians, how should these circles be drawn in relation to each other? For those of you who took Logic 101 in college or maybe in a really good high school, you might remember that these are called “Venn diagrams.” So let’s have logic class for a few minutes.

There are four possible ways in which circles A and B can be drawn in relation to each other:

1. Circle A is entirely contained within circle B (“All A’s are B’s, not all B’s are A’s”)003

2. Circle B is entirely contained within circle A (“All B’s are A’s, not all A’s are B’s”)002

3. Circles A and B have no relation to each other. (“No A’s are B’s, no B’s are A’s”)001

4. Circles A and B intersect. (“Some A’s are B’s, some B’s are A’s”)004

Remember my father’s first claim: “Not every mystic (A) is a Christian (B).” Looking at the diagrams above, we can immediately rule out possibility 1, since it claims that all A’s are B’s, while Dad’s claim says they aren’t. Unfortunately, options 2-4 are all compatible with Dad’s claim that “Not every mystic is a Christian”—do not continue until you can see for yourself why this is the case! So which of the remaining three possible relationships of circles A and B is the right one?

images[8]Fortunately, my father helps us out with his second claim, “All good Christians are mystics.” But wait a minute. What’s the deal with this “good” thing? Where did that come from? I thought we were only talking about mystics and Christians! What we have here is a classic case of a “suppressed premise”—not surprising, since we all suppress premises all the time, especially premises we want to slip unnoticed under the radar screen. A suppressed premise in a discussion is something important to your argument that you consider to be true, but aren’t bothering to tell the listener or reader about, for any number of reasons. In this case, Dad’s suppressed premise is that “Some Christians are good and some aren’t.” He’s slipped in a qualifier (“good”) into his second claim via a suppressed premise.

Once we realize this, we can choose between options 2-4 above. Option 2 doesn’t work, because that places the entire Christian circle (B) within the mystic circle (A), and doesn’t provide any guidance for making the further distinction between good and non-good Christians. Same problem with option 3—if circles A and B have no relation to each other, then we once again have no way to distinguish between good and non-good Christians. That leaves us with option 4, and indeed it provides the help we need. Look again at the intersecting circles in diagram 4. If we shade in the area where A and B intersect, we have a diagram representing the truth of both of Dad’s claims. “Not every mystic is a Christian” is right in front of us, because there is an area of circle A that does not intersect with B—in this non-intersecting area are those mystics who are not Christians.QED_BW_logo[1]All good Christians are mystics” is also in front of us, if we write “good Christians” in the shaded area where A and B intersect. That shaded area contains the Christians who are also mystics (“good” Christians), while the area of circle B not intersecting with A contains all other Christians, who are non-mystics (and apparently non-good).

Wasn’t that fun? Haven’t you learned a lot? At this point, intelligent students should be asking: “But what have we learned about mystics and Christians from this logical analysis”? And the answer is: ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. What we have discovered in this exercise is the logical structure of my father’s claim, but nothing about the content. banana doxie[1]The logical structure of “Not all dachshunds are bananas, but all good bananas are dachshunds” is the same as the structure of my Dad’s claim. More often than not, logical analyses of truth claims turn out to be what Muriel Barbery calls “a conceptual fuss in the service of nothing.” So what if we know what the logical structure of Dad’s claim about mystics and Christians is—what we really want to know is whether it is true.

That all depends on what one means by “Christian” and “mystic.” Just how elastic is the category and concept “Christian”? How far can I stretch its meaning before it stops meaning anything at all? As for “mystic,” I have at least a dozen definitions of “mysticism” and related terms in my hard drive, taken over the past few years from authors that I respect and love. None of the definitions is the same; some are radically different from others. ee24810ae7a068542122d110.L._V260843872_SX200_[1]My current favorite definition of “mystic” comes from a talk by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner that I read recently. He prefaces his definition by saying “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not what you’d call a big-time mystic.” Well, neither am I. Kushner goes on to define “mystic” as “someone who has the gnawing suspicion that just beneath the apparent contradictions, brokenness, and discord of this everyday world lies a hidden unity.” If so, I’m a mystic after all (although not a “big-time” one).

Twenty-five years ago, I regularly sang in an Episcopal church choir. Since the church was the cathedral of the diocese, the music was slightly better than garden-variety church stuff, but the choir was still pretty much a mixed bag. choir.fe[1]There were five or six sopranos and an equal number of altos, including one close-to-professional quality ringer in each section. We had only two tenors, one a fellow over seventy years old who probably once had a good voice when he was younger and a much younger fellow who sang with gusto but was tone-deaf. The baritones (my section) were more numerous, usually at least four or five. I don’t have a good solo voice, but I am a good choir singer because I read music well and have good pitch. I was the guy all of the other baritones crowded around with a new piece in order to get things right.

One Easter season, our primary Easter Sunday piece was going to be Randall Thomson’s Alleluia. The words are easy—all you sing is “Alleluia” all the way through with one “Amen” on the end. The notes are moderately challenging, but this was by no means the most technically difficult piece the choir had ever sung. The piece is sung a capella; for it to work, the singers need the same sort of “oneness” that Gregorian chant requires—they have to become one voice, rather than fifteen or so individual ones. Furthermore, they have to stay in tune for five minutes without accompaniment. 200606The_Vision_of_Isaiah57x72in_canvas[1]And it wasn’t happening. After several mediocre attempts in rehearsal Charles, our organist and choirmaster, yelled “STOP!” After regaining his composure, he said “the Bible says that around the throne of God, the cherubim and seraphim continually sing ‘Alleluia’ in never-ending praise. For the next five minutes let’s plug into that eternal song, joining ‘with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven,’ just as the Sanctus from mass every Sunday says. Begin.” And for the next five  minutes, that’s where we were. We left our individual, fragmented and discordant existences and joined “all the company of heaven who forever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name.” I get chills as I remember and write about it, more than twenty-five years later. As we ended Alleluia with a hushed “Amen,” our tone-deaf tenor said it all: “Whoa! Where did that come from?”

To my ears, there was nothing mystical or magical about our Easter morning performance a few days later. We were in tune, we didn’t embarrass ourselves, but we were not inspired. Afterwards, though, I overheard an old parishioner say to two of my fellow choristers that “you sang like angels today.” Maybe so, I thought. I know that we did at least once—maybe on Easter morning, she was the one who had “ears to hear.” As Rabbi Kushner, I have the gnawing suspicion that this transcendence is there all the time. I’m grateful when, every once in a while, I can say “surely God was in this place” and mean it.Alleluia-5[1]

Spiritual Punctuation

In my life-long spiritual journey, the decade of my twenties was the charismatic decade. No, that was not when I began to develop my current charismatic personality—that’s when I first encountered the Christian charismatic movementpentecostal[1]. For the uninitiated, the charismatic movement was (and is) marked positively by an infusion of divine energy into churches and denominations that had for too long lived out the negative side of Paul’s observation that “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” For those whose whole experience of the Christian faith has been defined by rote repetition of stale and worn out practices and observances, the exuberant and often unpredictable energy of charismatic worship can be both exhilarating and frightening.

hmp2860a[1]My Baptist minister father, who for better and worse was my most important spiritual influence growing up, always considered himself a “maverick” in the McCain and Palin tradition, part of the Christian denomination into which he was born and then ordained, but also an outlier pressing against the envelope from inside. This regularly caused problems for him with both the faculty of and the monetary contributors to the small Bible school he had founded and of which he was President. The Bible Institute of New England was barely keeping its head above water in the summer of 1974 when my father and I drove 2300 miles from Vermont to New Mexico as he delivered me to my first semester at vt18_450[1]St. John’s College in Santa Fe. He frequently fretted about the financial instability of his Bible school, wondering how much longer it would last.

After leaving me at school, he stayed within a couple hundred miles of Santa Fe for a few days in case I got homesick and didn’t want to stay. During a hike in a Colorado meadow one of those days, he asked God for guidance and peace—in response, as he described it, he received a vivid vision and began ecstatically speaking in a language he did not understand. In charismatic language, he had received the gift of tongues—a powerful sign of the infusion of the Holy Spirit. Not surprisingly, the faculty and financial supporters of the Bible Institute of New England were not ready to get on board with an already-maverick-turned-charismatic President. BINE soon closed its doors and morphed into a retreat/conference center slash place for spiritual misfits to hang out called Winterhill.

I experienced Winterhill for the first time a year later when I returned to Vermont for summer vacation. The get-togethers at Winterhill looked like a tiny version of Woodstock, with hippie-ish twenty and thirty-somethings sitting in a large circle, strumming guitars, banging on drums, shaking tambourines, singing music offensive to my classically trained ear, eyes closed and hands raised, regularly violating the Apostle Paul’s directive that worship should be done “decently and in order.”P7180794-580x435[1] Worship was interrupted regularly by words of prophecy, speaking in tongues, laying on of hands for all manner of prayer and healing—all benevolently overseen by my father and a few other leaders.  It looked just like a sixties love-in, without the drugs and sex (I think).

Winterhill lasted for only a couple of years, but my fringe relationship with the charismatic movement continued for years, from time spent at a large charismatic church in Florida where my father was one of the “elders” to St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Laramie, Wyoming, where I experienced for the first time the dynamic but volatile relationship between charismatic spiritual energies and traditional Episcopal liturgies. Top it off with being introduced by my parents to a Jeanne singingbeautiful red-haired force of nature whose dynamic spirituality was shaped by the Catholic charismatic movement in the seventies, and the tension between charismatic life and my own introverted personality and love for traditional liturgy and worship was here to stay. Jeanne is a daily reminder of the power and beauty of charisma at its best, while I carry within me a lived history containing many examples of how the charismatic movement can injure and go wrong.

The charismatic movement takes its name from the Greek word meaning “gift” or “favor,” referring to the gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned on several occasions in Paul’s letters, including the passage from First Corinthians read at church this morning. Depending on where one looks, there are as many as nine of them, ranging from prophecy and healings to tongues and their interpretation.GIFTS%20OF%20THE%20SPIRIT[1]In my experience, as soon as people start talking about the gifts of the Spirit, they start ranking them in importance (although Paul does not) and accordingly create a pecking order, seeking as humans often do to harness power by containing it. I have been witness to many arguments between people trying to make sense of what Paul says—churches and denominations have split over this.Tthe problem is that Paul was writing letters, not theological treatises. He’s not always consistent, and much of what he writes is crafted specifically for the people to whom he is writing.

After more than thirty years of struggling with charisma and the life of faith, I’ve come to think that the greatest value in thinking and talking about the gifts of the Spirit is psychological rather than doctrinal. Paul always mentions the gifts in the context of the larger community, making clear that no one has all of the gifts, that an individual should not be judged for lacking any of them, but that just as a healthy body needs the active contribution of many parts, so a healthy community of believers requires the active infusion of all of the talents and abilities referenced as “gifts.” Each person’s abilities and talents are uniquely theirs, a part of their spiritual personality.  The important question for each of us to ask is: What do I have to offer?

punctuation-marks[1]Because I spend most of my life, at work and outside, with words, I’ve started thinking about spiritual gifts and abilities in terms of how we organize and structure our language–punctuation marks.  Each punctuation mark plays an important and unique role in the structuring of the written and spoken word. In Writing Tools, Roy Peter Clark offers this quick and snappy reminder of the roles played by the major players:writing-tools[1]

If a period is a stop sign, then what kind of traffic flow is created by other marks? The comma is a speed bump, the semicolon is what a driver education teacher calls a “rolling stop”; the parenthetical expression is a detour; the colon is a flashing yellow light that announces something important up ahead; the dash is a tree branch in the road.

I leave it to you to decide where the question mark [ ? ] ellipsis [ . . . ] and exclamation point [ ! ] fit in this driving analogy.

Now think about yourself: your personality, your strengths, your weaknesses, what you are the “go to” person for, the things that you know you need help with. If you were a punctuation mark, which one would you be? Which punctuation mark best captures your special contributions to the whole? Think about yourself alone, at work, with your friends, your family, your faith community if you have one. Just as the variety of punctuation marks serves a vast panoply of words and meaning, the vast range of personal strengths and weaknesses, talents and foibles, contribute to the beauty of the human whole. What is your special contribution? Which punctuation mark best captures you?

P.S.: I am a semicolon.semicolon[1]