Friday, August 27, 2010

Mysticism in the SED: Part 5, Closing the Door

Therefore, mindful of our duty (we know this has been divinely commanded to us) we think that we should apply ourselves diligently to the work of attacking the false teachings that have been spread in our provinces and realms. Such teachings are gradually gaining favor for themselves in the manner and familiarity of the people. We should see to it that the subjects in our government may persevere in the straight way of godliness [Hebrews 12:13] and in the truth of the heavenly doctrine (Preface to the Book of Concord).
We concluded Part 4 after reviewing quotations from some of the authors the SED (Southeastern District of the LCMS) recommends. These authors speak about conversations with “God,” altered states of consciousness, and an embrace of eastern practices and beliefs. These seem like things that are unlikely to entangle a bunch of generally non-charismatic Lutherans, but are they?

Luther warns us in the Smalcald articles that “it is the devil himself whatsoever is extolled as Spirit without the Word and Sacraments.” The fantastic claim is made in the SED workshops that people contact the Holy Spirit through such means as journaling, or contemplative prayer, or dreams. Since these techniques are done without the Word or the Sacraments, the responses received while practicing these techniques are not from God, they are from the devil. When God is sought where He does not promise to be found, you are at best creating your own idol via a theology of glory, and at worst, you may be carrying on a conversation with Satan. For example, sitting in silence while trying to avoid conscious thought will open your mind to contact by Satan’s demons rather than the Triune God. What evidence is there of this in the case of the SED? The facilitator of the workshop that Frank Gillespie attended, SED Director for Spiritual Life Rev. Arthur Umbach, may be used as an example.

Rev. Umbach related to the workshop attendees the following encounter, as reported by Frank Gillespie, who taped the workshop:
After recounting a visit from Christ who told him that He will always [sic] with him in everything he does (we were assured that this was indeed Scriptural) in one of his dreams the presenter recommended [38:47] that the easiest way to remember our dreams might be to start journaling and after some practice we could learn to remember our dreams. The presenter recommended [40:25] several books for our reading in the hope that we might not limit God in how he communicates with us. He said that dream work was next to impossible alone and recommended we seek out a spiritual director.
Regarding journaling, Rev. Umbach made the following statement:
You do this in a time of prayer. And when I look back at some of those dialogues after I’m finished, I don’t remember writing what God said. I can not explain that, but God sometimes basically takes a hold of it, my hand and writes what is there, I believe that. Now I can’t explain it at all. But Ben (the presenter’s spiritual director) encouraged me to do that as well with my dreams.
These things are not of God, they are of the devil. God does not communicate with us through dreams. He doesn’t grab hold of your hand during an altered state of consciousness and cause you to involuntarily write down what He’d like you to know. There’s a dictionary definition for this demonic activity – automatic writing. The Encarta Dictionary defines it as “the production of writing while in a trance or similar state as an attempt to make contact with the writer's unconscious or telepathically with a supposed spirit.” (For a more adventuresome look at automatic writing, check out the discussion at Creepy Hollows Forum.) There is no Christian form of automatic writing. Shouldn’t this be obvious to a Lutheran?

Pastor Bryan Wolfmueller, during a recent appearance on Issues, Etc., had this to say about mystical practices:
Do you hear the voice of Jesus in this mystical experience…? Well that’s not the voice of Jesus. …It’s not this mystical experience, this mysticism, which is a kind of form of Gnosticism, and it’s just rampant in Evangelicalism. Everything is internalized. And it’s terrible. It’s not just wrong, it’s soul-destroying wrong, because now, I mean I go around listening for Jesus and these mystical experiences, and this, I don’t think is just, is not only open to the deception of our own emotions and our own state but it’s open to the deception of the devil, because if the devil can get you believing that you hear the Lord’s Word when you feel something, then oh man, this spiritual destruction that can result from that is just catastrophic.
Remember the door in Part 1 that the SED is opening? The mystical one? Unlike The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling, who posited that there was a land of both shadow and substance, things and ideas beyond the door, this “Christian” mysticism attempts to move beyond the realm of words and ideas, as mystic Thomas Merton points out:
Personally, in matters where dogmatic beliefs differ, I think that controversy is of little value because it takes us away from the spiritual realities into the realm of words and ideas words there are apt to be infinite complexities and subtleties which are beyond resolution.... But much more important is the sharing of the experience of divine light.... (A Time of Departing, p. 60)
One gets the feeling that all of these reconstituted “spiritual disciplines” are nothing more than ways to keep us busy and proudly point to what it is we’re doing for our own sanctification. The words of Reformed theologian Friedrich Wilhelm Krummacher provide a helpful reminder:
     It would be natural to suppose that those who have been thoroughly humbled in repentance and faith, are not likely any more to be puffed up with self-righteousness and vanity. But experience shows that this is a mistaken notion. For the “old Adam” is never entirely dead; though dying as a crucified malefactor, he can still revive and do unutterable mischief. Yea, many a one, even after his conversion, has built anew the things which had been destroyed: he has permitted himself to increase, and Christ to decrease. To mention only a few examples of this falling away—one increases by his ascetic exercises; another, by the enlargement of his knowledge; another, in self-complacency, borrowed from his own influential popularity, or the extent of his beneficent exertions; another thinks much of his own devotional feelings, and of I know not what besides. In such things a man insensibly grows so pious and holy in his own eyes, that these things become gain to him, and are no longer accounted loss for Christ.
     Are we not, then, to increase in sanctification? Yes! Grow as the palm tree; but in self-estimation we must ever be only as the hyssop on the wall; we must daily become less and less, weaker and weaker in our own eyes, feeling more and more in want of the Lord’s staff for our support; otherwise we have set out in a wrong direction.
To get back to basics once more, Professor John Pless has this to say about prayer:
In the Scriptures God has spoken and still speaks to human beings, but in prayer human beings speak to God. Prayer is not a means of revelation.
Pastor Don Matzat comments on meditation:
In contrast, when Christians meditate upon the Word of God, this does not involve maintaining a blank mind. Rather it means filling the mind with the Word of God.
In order for the Holy Spirit to effectively open your eyes, strengthen your faith and affect your heart and mind, you must prayerfully focus your conscious, undivided attention upon the words you are reading or studying. Working out with the Word of God means taking the time to think about the Word and promises of God. This is what it means to meditate. We give the Holy Spirit time to work with us.
Dr. John Kleinig remarks:
A person who meditates therefore listens attentively to God's word as it is spoken personally to him. He concentrates exclusively on it; he speaks it to himself again and again; he reads and rereads it; he compares what it says with what is said elsewhere in the Bible; he chews at it, like a cow with its cud; he rubs at it, like a herb that releases its fragrance and healing powers by being crushed; he concentrates on it, physically, mentally, and emotionally, so that it reaches his heart, his core, the very center of his being. He receives what God says to him and gives to him in His word.
We can see from these quotes that meditation does not take a super-Christian, or a multi-day workshop on spiritual formation. So what should our response be to those who insist on leading fellow Christians astray with non-Scriptural practices? Dr. Francis Pieper provides the answer:
Scripture thus declares all those to be theologically incompetent and disqualified for the Christian ministry who are not willing to take their doctrine exclusively from Holy Scripture, but in addition set up other sources, such as alleged private revelations (“enthusiasm”), the so-called “Christian consciousness,” “faith consciousness,” “the regenerate Ego,” “the Christian experience,” the decretals of the Pope and of “the Church,” “history,” and so forth. (Christian Dogmatics, Vol. I, p. 48)
But before we get too smug in our own self-righteousness, Dr. Pieper also reminds us:
To remain properly humble while firmly rejecting all erroneous teachings regarding the means of grace, we should remind ourselves how even Christians who teach and, as a rule, also believe, the correct doctrine of the means of grace, in their personal practice very often lose sight of the means of grace. This is done whenever they base the certainty of grace, or of the forgiveness of sin, on their feeling of grace or the gratia infusa, instead of on God’s promise in the objective means of grace. All of us are by nature “enthusiasts.” Instead of listening to and believing God’s declarations of love in the Gospel, in the means of grace given by Him, or, in other words, instead of fixing our gaze on God’s reconciled heart which – thanks be to God! – is a present reality through Christ and is revealed and offered to us by God in the Gospel and the Sacraments, we look into our own heart and seek to gauge God’s feelings toward us by the thoughts and moods we find in our heart. But that amounts to a practical denial of the fact that God has reconciled us to Him through Jesus Christ, and hence to a practical denial of the means of grace, in which God acquaints us with this completed reconciliation. (Christian Dogmatics, Vol. III, p.131)
The door of mysticism is one which should be considered to be guarded by cherubim and flaming sword, sealed with seven seals. We have no need of it, and are prohibited from opening it. Christ has not left us to grope in the silence, stumble through labyrinths, or look for Him in our own dreams. Let us instead look to the true unio mystica. In the Divine Service, the intersection of the heavenly and the earthly occur. There, the viva vox Christi, the living voice of Christ, tumbles from the faithful pastor’s lips as He proclaims the life-giving Word of the Gospel, the living voice of Christ is joined to the waters of Baptism as He places His holy name upon us, and the living voice of Christ proclaims that His body and His blood are physically present, given and shed, for you, to forgive your sins. This is the cradle of the devotional life. From the very beginning, these are the mystical means by which Christ has nourished His Church.

We have no need to search for Christ in the shadows of silence. Instead, Christ comes to us, filling heaven and earth with His glory, forgiving us and renewing us. Here, in the Divine Service, Christ tabernacles with us in an ineffable union. The saints throughout history, both living and dead, join with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven to praise His name for what He has done. All we need do is come with empty hand, trusting in His promises. “But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’--” (1 Corinthians 2:9 ESV). This is the way Jesus Christ wishes to communicate with us. “So Jesus again said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly’” (John 10:7-10 ESV).

photo credit: Bill McIntyre

“And what I do I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds” (2 Corinthians 11:12-15 ESV).

You can download all parts of this series here.


Robbie F. said...

This dream stuff reminds me of a prayer journal my Mom used to keep. She was brought up Presbyterian, grudgingly underwent adult confirmation as a Lutheranism, then apostasized all the way to Wicca & was on the rebound toward Evangelicalism when she started writing a question in her diary, opening the Bible to a random page, poking her finger at the page and writing down whatever verse her finger landed on. The Bible as Ouija Board. I wonder who was talking to her through it.

Funny thing is, the "answers" she got this way (which she also wrote in her journal) read like an enchiridion of textbook Calvinism. Which, remember, was where she started. Which sort of fits in with my theory about Ouija Boards, that the devil doesn't so much answer us through them as deceive us into unconsciously answering ourselves...

soma said...

A Christian mystic being anyone who lives a deep spiritual life with his reality rooted in God. In the deepest part of his interior life the mystic becomes enchanted with even the most ordinary events and objects as coming from God and shinning in the light of God.

Scott Diekmann said...

Yes, I guess that would be a pretty good way to say it soma. And if you took the word "Christian" out of the sentence, it wouldn't change a thing. A Muslim mystic or a theist mystic or a Mormon mystic would give the exact same working definition! It would also fit the guy who says "I'm not religious but I am spiritual." The true spiritual life is a life of repentance.