Image from the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue Website (monasticdialog.com)

In response to my post yesterday of Annemarie S. Kidder writing on the relationship between postmodernity and the rediscovery of mysticism, one commenter writes:

Her insights resonate with me, both in words and practice. What I wonder though, is what kind of church this individual movement will form. How will the creeds be written or will creeds be simply experienced in similar ways? How will be able to share with the youth from our own inward experiences? I understand where we are, but I feel our commitment to sharing this way with the younger folks around us. Ideas?

Great questions. One of the basic functions of any kind of religious organization is to pass on the wisdom of the faith community to the next generation. This is why Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, Church Camp, and ministries like Campus Crusade for Christ or the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (as well as Life Teen or Catalyst) have always been so essential to the life of the church: they’re all about shaping children and youth to be the Christians (and Christian leaders) of the future.

So how do we pass on the wisdom of our faith, if that wisdom is experiential rather than dogmatic in nature? It’s one thing to have a prescribed set of teachings in written form (the Bible, the Catechism, the “Four Spiritual Laws”) to give to the next generation to read and digest. But once we train our focus on what goes on inside of us, the waters of subjectivity and individuality rapidly get pretty deep indeed. After all, one of the reasons why many Christians have historically been uncomfortable with mysticism is because of the idea that subjective religious experience is subversive of Christian doctrine — and, therefore, subversive of good order. “Mysticism begins with mist, is centered on the ‘I’ and ends in schism” as the old saying goes, linguistically horrendous but accurate in describing the traditional evangelical pushback against interior experience.

I certainly can’t claim to have all the answers here. But I think we lose our way if we approach the mysticism vis-à-vis dogma question as an either/or matter. If we set up a dogfight where the only way for doctrine to survive is to crush mysticism — or the only way for mysticism to be accepted is to reject dogma — then I think both experience and tradition lose. I don’t want to be part of a religious community that is so invested in protecting its teachings that it attacks its adherents for experiencing the presence of God. But neither do I want to be lost in a consensual fantasy-world where spirituality is nothing more than feelings and impressions and that I am the only person who gets to comment on what happens in and to my body and mind. A spirituality where only experience matters may seem superficially attractive to our lone ranger society, but the long term ramifications of such boundless, solipsistic subjectivism could easily undermine community and ethics to the point where Christianity as a means of fostering love among people effectively ceases to exist.

Okay, I’m being a bit dramatic here. But my point is the both hyper-dogmatism and hyper-experientialism fail to work as meaningful, effective models for religion. I believe the point behind religion has always been to both foster personal relationship with the Divine and to create a communal forum where such relationships can be nurtured (and, if need be, challenged). To make a tomato plant grow you don’t just water it — you also fasten it to a stake to give it support. Likewise, religious teaching — at its best — is designed both to foster and support internal experience; but sometimes this support, like the tomato’s stake, functions as a challenge, a limitation, a boundary. Likewise, just as the ongoing collective wisdom of our faith community can both nourish us and provide us with structure as we seek our own experiential contact with God, so too the enlivening experience of each new generation of God-seekers will shape the tradition anew, hopefully in creative ways that will bring blessings to those to come. In other words, spirituality at its best means that tradition shapes experience, but experience shapes tradition. And on and on it goes.

My favorite analogy here is that of the jewel and the setting. Mysticism is the jewel; dogma, doctrine and tradition (of any religion, not just Christianity) is the setting. A setting without a jewel is meaningless. But a jewel without a setting is soon lost. We need both. And (to return to Kidder’s comments) if our postmodern age marks a period in which experience has gained ascendency over doctrine, so much the better — for the jewel really is, in itself, more valuable than the setting. But the jewel needs the setting, just as the setting is incomplete without the jewel. So we who are engaged in the conversation about mysticism’s ongoing relevance for Christians in the third millennium need to remember this, and not be too quick to dismiss what is valuable about the tradition, the stories, ancient teachings and wisdom, collected lore and discourse, of our faith community.