Or otherwise, the reasons I would make a terrible mystic
As part of an agreement, I am reviewing the book: Answering The Contemplative Call by Carl McColman in exchange for a free e-book copy of this text.
Disclaimer: I decided to get out of my comfort zone and read a book on spirituality and the contemplative life.
What I Enjoyed About This Book: As a Christian who is most of the time, narrowly focused on justice issues (I’ll admit it), the book was informative about Christian mysticism. It is a good introduction to a history of Christian mysticism. I agree with McColman that:
“I believe a truly contemplative spirituality needs an activist dimension (just as a peace-and-justice-oriented spirituality requires a contemplative dimension).”
Churches need both the spiritual, silent priestly side of religion as well as the prophetic, confrontational side of religion. While I liked the privileged position that the Christian mystics were given in this book, the author’s admittance that these persons was limited by their contexts and life experiences, goes even more appreciated (that is, they do no hold up as universal authorities):
“Moreover, just as not all mystics speak to all people, neither are the mystics infallible. Their writings are shaped by their own limitations and eccentricities. Some are dull, overly abstract, excessively penitential, hostile to those who see things differently, and marred by such ongoing problems as sexism, hatred of the body, and irrational fear of the devil. Of course, no one is perfect, so the errors of a mystic do not render his or her other ideas worthless—but we need to use discretion and careful reasoning when we read the writings of the mystics, so that we can embrace their wisdom while gently laying aside teachings that lead nowhere.”
Lastly, I liked the few citations of the Church Fathers. Not really the application of their theology, but a few quotations here and there, even one from Clement of Alexandria. That, and at the conclusion an emphasis on Scripture, and the acknowledgement of differences between kataphatic (revelation/declarative sayings about God) mystics and apophatic (negative/”God is not” sayings) mystics was helpful.
What I Did Not Enjoy In This Text:
Two Words: Cultural Appropriation, or rather four: White Liberal Christian Hegemony.
As I have written about on this site before, the notion of Orientalism is the idea that objects and concepts from “The East” are things to be consumed (without context, without pointing out particularity)by Westerners. For example, problematic renderings of Buddhism such as:
“Waking up, whether gently or abruptly, is a classic way of describing the launch of a meaningful, intentional spiritual life. This is not just a Christian metaphor, either. The word Buddha literally means “the awakened one.” “
“If you have been exposed to non-Christian meditation practices like Zen, you will know about the use of cushions and sitting on the floor in a lotus or half-lotus position (or even just with your legs gently crossed).”
Those are only two examples of cultural appropriation in the name of religious mysticism. To be awakened, let’s say in the Christian tradition is connected to stories in Scripture, from Elijah raising the widow’s son to the prophet’s encounter with angels in exile. There is no universal human experience or gaze with which we can speak. Christianity has a theistic understanding of what it means to be awakened, Buddhism doesn’t. Even the nicest sounding of religious pluralist can manipulate stories and narratives that consume others’ stories, taking away their inherent dignity and worth.
Also problematic is the treatment of First Nations’ culture:
“While core shamanism may not be a perfect way to
understand and enter into the wisdom of the shamans of the world, it nevertheless has helped to ensure that shamanic practices are studied, practiced, and appreciated in the post-indigenous cultures of the world, hopefully for generations to come.
For the Christian mystical tradition, the “indigenous culture” is found in monasteries, convents, friaries, and hermitages.”
Um what? There’s something called “indigenous culture” that can be culturally appropriated by convents and monasteries? And we can talk about these “post-indigenous cultures” without talking about what exactly makes them “post”? You know, history….reservations…..Trail of Tears…War…Christopher Columbus….rape culture….empire….but I digress.
That’s not to say that mysticism itself is culturally exclusive. A number of books, for example, have examined the life of Howard Thurman, Howard Thurman: The Mystic As Prophet, and Mysticism and Social Change: The Social Witness of Howard Thurman.