In the last year or two, in the face of an almost continuous series of natural disasters worldwide—to say nothing of my approaching seventieth birthday and hints of looming decrepitude—I have begun to identify a little more closely with our ancestors. In short, we are no more able now than we were thousands of years back to deal with natural disaster. Perhaps our ability to predict them has in some cases improved, but when a Christchurch earthquake, a Japanese tsunami, or a flooded Mississippi, a Hurricane Katrina, or an Australian bushfire strikes, we are just as helpless as we have always been. And in this helplessness lies one of the two principal paths of religion—that of appeasement. The other element is mysticism, and they make strange bedfellows.
For a period after my first mystic experience, I did not even characterise it as "mystical" It was an event that had occurred during a primal therapy encounter group. As far as I tried to make sense of it, it was inside the framework of humanistic psychology that prevailed in the late sixties and seventies, with a nod or two in the direction of the New Age - Rajneesh and Da Free John.
When I did begin to find out about mainstream mysticism, first in Joel Goldsmith's The Master Speaks, and later in Evelyn Underhill's Practical Mysticism, and Walter Stace's Mysticism and Philosophy, I put the experience, and others which had happened along since, into a biblical framework, and it dawned on me that much of my early "Christianity" made a lot more sense if I saw Christ as a mystic. To me it seemed in fact that he was modelling mysticism, and preaching in a way that often did not readily make sense outside of mysticism. Well, outside my perception and experience of mysticism anyway.
And mysticism was to be found everywhere: in every religion there appeared to be a thread of mysticism, even in Buddhism, which acknowledged no Deity. Joel Goldsmith remarked that most mystics had more in common with the mystics of other faiths than they did with their own orthodox fellow-believers.
If there was a vital core to religion, then mysticism seemed to be by far the best candidate, no matter that in my limited experience it was probably the only candidate. It was a conclusion that I later found echoed in Evelyn Underhill, and in the writing of Walter Stace.
The corollary to all this was that in these terms, the crucifixion and all the subsequent palaver seemed to make no sense at all, certainly in terms of the life and teachings of Jesus, even as limited as we have them, transmitted and filtered by the early Christian fathers.
Heaven wasn't somewhere else that we went after we were dead if we'd been good, or if we had "believed in" Jesus Christ. Heaven, the Kingdom of God, was right here and now in that mystical experience of oneness, of pure love, of the Kingdom of God in fact—and in the awareness that never thereafter left me and changed for me what it meant to be alive.
Heaven in mystical experience didn't appear to be something that required the crucifixion of Jesus before we were acceptable. We weren't saved, once and for all, by virtue of Jesus being tortured for hours and dying horribly, isolated, in agony, forsaken of God. Big puzzle. In the Presbyterian Church I was raised in, the crucixion was IT, where all the action was in religion.
Let us pause for a moment and consider some of the implications of the crucifixion:
It seems likely on best predictions that there might be at least a million or so planets and likely more, that could conceivably host or generate human life.
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Did every one of them have to crucify the only son of God so that it's inhabitants might be saved for Heaven. "Aw, Dad! Not again!"
Come on, now!
Well, I could see that for many of the great Catholic mystics, the crucifixion seemed to present no problems at all, and I decided for the time being simply to stay with what I knew so far and form no firm beliefs at all about crucifixions until my own spiritual experience seemed to give me a basis for them.
I came to the conclusion that the crucifixion, resurrection and so on formed a magical component of religion, drawing on much older traditions of sacrifice and redemption, alongside of the mystical component manifest in Jesus' life and teachings. (See Mysticism and Magic)
At least as far back as records exist, one of the functions of the priest was to manage the relationships between his immediate flock and the great forces that were at large in the world, generating earthquakes, floods, droughts, hurricanes, tidal waves, volcanic eruptions on the one hand, and seasonal changes, from spring through winter, the movement of game, and so forth.
The awesome power unleashed in these events was conceived of as the work of a supremely powerful being or beings. Early societies sought to make peace with them, and they made peace in a characteristically human way, by offering a gift to the "gods" to ensure their good will. This process became increasingly complex as it became obvious that the simple action of making a gift was by no means a guarantee of safe passage or good harvest. Hence the rise of the specialist, the priest, whose role, long before John Milton, was to justify the ways of God to men.
The theology around the crucifixion of Christ, and all that goes with it, seems to me to be an example of this, part of the aeons old tradition of sacrifice and redemption, of trying to appease the vast forces that man found accompanying him in his Darwinian universe and trying to manage the uncertainties around death.
Alongside the total abandonment of self of the mystic, "sacrifice" as practised was at best a parody of the mystics' relationship to the divine, a hopeful offering of some "scapegoat" instead.
The paradox of course is that in that act of total surrender came a union with God that made sacrifice as such irrelevant. There was no need to"manage" a relationship with God when the "otherness" implied by the word "relationship" no longer existed.
The teaching around the crucifixion is largely Paul's doing. Christ was a mystic. Who else but such a mystic could have said, summing up the entire message of the Sermon on the Mount, "Resist not evil."
Who else would have told the story of the Good Samaritan, widening beyond any possibility of approval, the concept of "neighbour". Samaritans were the end.
Who else but a mystic would have told of the Prodigal Son, setting out from his Father's house with his "separate-self" inheritance to explore the limits of his personal power, and, bankrupt and hungry among the swine, surrendering that separate self to rejoin his Father.
Who else but a mystic would have said, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."
For the ordinary person, effectiveness meant power, and, principally, temporal power.
If Jesus was indeed the Messiah, how then to accommodate the reality of his ministry, his felt presence, with its ignominious end? How indeed to accommodate his message that God is Love to a population that believed, insisted, that God is Power?
And the Christian Church, like any other that was largely composed of ordinary non-mystical human beings, took shape in terms that they understood, in terms of power, in terms of sacrifice and appeasement/redemption.
Jesus ignominious death was re-interpreted in terms of sacrifice and redemption. God, like the old gods, required a sacrifice and Himself, out of "love", provided it. This was something that people understood.
God's love as Jesus the mystic knew it and taught about it largely vanished from public view, accessible only to that "little flock" of mystics who knew what he was talking about, who had been awakened and who in themselves awakened others down through the centuries.
The Christian Church took shape in a world of raw power, of Charles Darwin, and as long as there has been life on this earth, this is the way it has been. No question—at least as far as I am concerned. The crucifixion as it has come down to us is appropriate to that Darwinian world.
The question that remains, then, is "Why should the most consistent report from thousands of mystics, over thousands of years, over thousands of kilometres and hundreds of cultures have been of an experience more "real" than their everyday existence. How do we accommodate the "reality" of the mystics in a Darwinian universe in which there is no obvious place or time for it?
Of what does the "reality" of the mystics consist, that it invariably strikes those who experience it as more "real" than Darwinian existence?