The Problem with Pietism: Why Nondual Mystics and Awestruck Atheists Get It Right
I don’t mean that I’m going to Atheist Meetup Groups to make new friends (though that would be fun, I’m sure); I mean that alot of my Christian friends are beginning to conclude that seeing God as an anthropocentric being ‘out there’ is no longer cutting it for them. They’re not (primarily) getting there via Dawkins or Dennett or Harris or Hitchens, though that might be side-reading. They’re getting there more via Dietrich Boenhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, or Pete Rollins’ The Fidelity of Betrayal or Insurrection – or Zizek or Badiou or Caputo or…you get the idea.
They’re also getting it from life – a lifetime spent doing the things that good (typically evangelical and charismatic, but also mainline and Catholic) Christians are taught to do. The virtue/prayer formulas taught in Deuteronomy or Proverbs (or even by Jesus) don’t seem to be working. The next thing you know, they start reading Mark’s gospel kinda like this, and Ecclesiastes, and voila! Atheist Christian.
What is an atheist Christian, you ask? Well, perhaps I’ll ask Ted Troxell to write me a guest post, but for now I’ll say this: An atheist Christian is a materialist who sees Jesus‘ (and, in many cases, Paul’s) ideals and programme under some soft of social-utopian lens, languaging a relational order in which all are given dignity. The theistic language that accompanied such visions is a necessary fact of the times in which they lived, but need not signify a core part of their ideology, as many of their other ideas (such as the smashing of idols, or the death of an incarnate God on a cross) are actually critical of and subversive toward overt religious claims.
I think I’d go so far as to say that I have more ‘atheist Christian’ friends these days than I do ‘uncomplicated’ Christian friends. How about you? Apparently this is not just a trend among emergent types, as even evangelical publishing house Tyndale has published The Christian Atheist: Believing in God but Living As If He Doesn’t Exist addressing this trend, though I’m not sure if Craig Groeschel‘s prognosis (which seems to be double-down and try more of the same) is really going to cut it with growing numbers of my friends. Atheist Christianity seems here to stay.
In many ways this trend disturbs me – too many of my atheist Christian friends have a nihilistic streak in them a mile wide. If “you shall know them by their fruits” is applied to their deconstruction of faith, well, in many cases their depression, anger, cynicism and disintegrating family life speaks for itself.
On the other hand, you have happy, well-adjusted atheists like Alain de Botton and Carl Sagan. To hear them talk they sound more like mystics, in awe at an interconnected universe. They don’t particularly believe that there’s an underlying, transcendent, conscious intelligence behind said universe, but they’re definitely reverent when it comes to What Is.
Compare this to the pietisms of the world – in Christianity, Pietism has Lutheran, Weslyan/Holiness, Pentecostal, charismatic and evangelical flavors. Puritanism is a close cousin of pietism too. Pietism says that God is a God “out there,” but if you please Him enough (through faith, devotion, good works, discipline, or any number of other requirements), you can feel God in you, transforming you.
Pietism is powerful – a lot of people report feeling God. In the same twentieth century that brought on the Death of God movement, birthed in an Atlanta pub that I’m sure hosts theological conversation to this day, there’s also been an explosion in Pietism as manifested in Pentecostal, charismatic, and indigenous ‘Spirit-filled’ churches throughout the global south and two-third world. Marked by passionate worship, fervent evangelistic preaching, ardent expectations of signs & wonders, (often) prosperity teaching and (usually) the Second Coming of Jesus, these churches are growing by leaps and bounds. It’s estimated that one out of two congregations on earth are one of these types.
I can see why. I grew up in them. There is much to commend about their palpable sense of the reality and goodness and availability of God.
And yet…there is trouble in Pietism.
I began to see this trouble when I started reading mystics when I took off for college, in the late 1990s, and started trying to do what they recommended doing – ie, savoring Scripture slowly in lectio divina, chanting Psalms, or sitting in openness before a God who’s rendered unknown at the very site of revelation. I’ve tried and fumbled at these practices as an individual, as well as in groups, ranging from Quakers to house churchers.
Now, at first blush, Christian mysticism is like Pietism on crack. If pop pietism can effuse ‘Jesus is My Boyfriend‘ Top 40-style worship songs, mystics can pen toe-curling erotic poetry to each member of the Trinity. If Pentecostals go to get their Jumpin’ Jehovah & Jesus fix twice a week (Sundays and Wednesday nights!), mystics expect some kind of daily encounter of the availability of God (though many are quick to caution against excessively showy manifestations, which they call ‘consolations’). But there’s a difference: In general, Christian mysticism or the contemplative path is far more subtle than Pietism, with its entire sanctifications, second blessings, and fast-tracks to an explosion of God’s palpable presence. The contemplative programme typically involves a lot of sitting, a lot of awareness, much letting go and a lot of quietly-cultivated love.
The end result of a life lived from this transfigured point of reference: A sense that God is everywhere even if God isn’t terribly overt; a weak God who looks like Jesus (strength made perfect in weakness) who is, nonetheless, All in all. A God in whom we live, move, and have our being – a ubiquitous God who defies description, even descriptors like ‘presence’ or ‘existence.’ It’s a deep ‘down and in’ consciousness of divinity, in which Spirit shows up disguised as your life.
Here’s where an extended quote from Jewish lawyer, activist, and spiritual teacher Jay Michaelson – author of Everything is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism – is going to be awesome: Because I’m thinking is that deep-rooted nondual mysticism and awe-filled atheism are practically the same – at the end of the day, a God who is nowhere and a God who is everywhere might be merely a difference in semantics – a joy-filled word-play that we can each have fun with, riding the dialectic to a happier and more connected life. So here’s Jay:
To many people, spirituality is about having certain feelings, and spiritual practices are those actions which bring the feelings about. Light the candles, and feel “connected.” Pray, and become inspired. One does these practices in order to have certain feelings, or mindstates, to which one may attribute a range of mythic or psychological meaning. Conversely, if a practice isn’t working for you – that is, if you don’t get the desired feeling – drop it.
Secular critics of this type of spirituality (which often is derided as “New Age”) complain that it is narcissistic. Essentially, it’s just another thrill – and one which is then overlaid with delusion. At best, these pleasant delusions are rather pathetic balms. But they may also be deeply counterproductive, as the happy spiritual practitioner blissfully ignores her own problems, and those of the world. At worst, if the spiritual practitioner actually believes Allah, or Jesus, or whoever, is speaking to him, the delusions of the New Age are little different from the fundamentalisms of our era.
Within religious circles, surprisingly similar criticisms are leveled against ‘New Age’ spirituality. First, religious critics argue that New Age spirituality puts the individual before God. Some argue that it improperly values experience over authority, or over ethics – it is immodest, indulgent, and perhapsjust too much fun.
A less common critique comes from within the world of spiritual practitioners itself. Here, the complaint is neither impudence nor egotism but theological error. From a nondual perspective, spiritual practice is not about having a particular feeling, but about waking up to the shocking reality that your conventional self only exists as an appearance, a mirage. Like the Big Dipper, it is “there” in some sense, but not in the deepest sense; it’s not a structure of reality, but merely a way reality appears when looked at from a certain way. Spiritual and contemplative practice, in the nondual view, exist to wake us up from that “certain way,” which also happens to bring about all kinds of suffering, selfishness, and violence.
To do so, nondual spiritual practice must be all-pervasive. If you suppose that God is only present in the pleasant stuff – on a summer’s day but not in a cancer ward, when you’re feeling relaxed but not when you’re tense – then you’ve still making the same dualist error: God is here, but not there. In fact, the best spiritual practice might be one that neither provides the allure of the present nor the expiation of the difficult – but one which is utterly transparent, colorless, and thus always available. (Much more here!)
Michaelson is one of the most fascinating spiritual/religious thinkers, practitioners, and teachers today, precisely because he’s asking how the Western monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam might be potentially just as nondual as eastern traditions of Taoism or Advaita Vedanta. Now, for my more traditionally-minded Jesus-following readers who might feel like I’ve completely jumped the shark, don’t worry – I’ll get to my lens and my caveats in a moment. But first, let’s come back to Michaelson, in another article, this one on Prayer and Nonduality:
Nonduality may be understood in at least two ways. First, and traditionally, it proceeds from the theological tenet that God is infinite (Ein Sof in the Kabbalistic locution). Logically, if God is infinite, then every thing is God. “Do not look at a stone and say, ‘that is a stone and not God,'” wrote the sixteenth-century rabbi Moses Cordovero, one of the greatest Kabbalists of all time, “for you have dualized — God forbid. Instead, know that the stone is a thing pervaded by Divinity.”
Nonduality may also be understood from the bottom up (from our own experience), as well as from the top down (from the perspective of theology). The bottom-up inquiry proceeds not from a theological tenet but from a very close observation of our perceptions. Where, for example, is the “essence” (Platonic or otherwise) of the chair on which you are sitting? Take it apart mentally: is it in the wood? The legs? Its property of holding you up — which, if you inquire more closely, has nothing to do with the “chair” and everything to do with molecular properties, strong and weak nuclear forces, and all sorts of other things you and I do not understand? Really, “chair,” and everything else, is an emergent property that usefully describes reality as we experience it, but doesn’t really describe its actual truth. As Joseph Goldstein likes to say, it’s like the Big Dipper — it describes something about how things look from a particular perspective, but we all know there is no Big Dipper really, right?
It’s possible, if the mind is quieted and slowed by meditation, to notice how thoughts pop in and out, how they are all conditioned by other things, and how the idea of the “self” in which all of us are so invested is, like the Big Dipper, just a useful label that describes how things seem from a particular perspective — not how they are. In actuality, to speak of chairs, selves, and other things as existing in their own right is useful but not entirely accurate.
But if there’s no self, what is there?
That question is where pantheism and atheism shake hands, where nonduality in its specifically religious forms becomes quite interesting. God, we might say, is what is left when the self is subtracted from everything else. A Buddhist would say everything is an empty play of conditions: your decision whether or not to keep reading is due not to some homunculus inside your brain but to a myriad of causes, including genetics, what else you have to do today, how well I’m writing, learned behaviors, and so on. A nondual Jew or Christian uses the word “God” to refer to those conditions. (emphasis mine)
If God is All there Is, we can stop looking for the miracle – life is the miracle. We can also stop trying to explain away truly extraordinary, unusual happenings like the spontaneous healings and spot-on ‘words of knowledge’ and bizarre manifestations I’ve witnessed – because everything is God. This does not mean that there is no room for improvement, or that genuine evil and atrocity do not ‘exist’. Indeed, as Ram Dass said, “The world is perfect as it is – including my desire to change it.”
Or as Ken Wilber said (and as we recounted right here on the blog last month),
If you are the One, and—out of sheer exuberance, plenitude, superabundance—you want to play, to rejoice, to have fun, then you must first, manifest the Many, and then second, forget it is you who are the Many. Otherwise, no game. Manifestation, incarnation, is the great Game of the One playing at being the Many, for the sheer sport and fun of it.
But it’s not always fun.
Well, yes and no. The manifest world is a world of opposites—of pleasure versus pain, up versus down, good versus evil, subject versus object, light versus shadow. But if you are going to play the great cosmic Game, that is what you yourself set into motion. How else can you do it? If there are no parts and no players and no suffering and no Many, then you simply remain as the One and Only, Alone and Aloof. But it’s no fun having dinner alone. (The whole piece is well-worth reading if you haven’t already)
Now – there’s only one piece of this that doesn’t work for me as a relatively ‘orthodox’ Christian. It’s not God being all-pervasive, which I think is compelling, nor is it the difficulty this entails with ‘the problem of evil,’ which I think all cosmologies share – no, it actually shows up in the subtle-but-huge difference between Wilber and Michaelson’s depictions of nonduality: For Michaelson, ‘God’ often seems like a descriptor we give to the All – ‘God’ is a figure of speech. Eastern paths – and Western paths that tend to be over-accommodating to them – tend to elevate the impersonal over the personal as the highest insight possible. But for Wilber – in this piece at least – God has agency, and personality.
For me – and perhaps this is a weakness of mine, or perhaps this renders my nonduality and atheist-friendliness to be the thinnest of artifices – God must be personal. And God must be ultimately good – or, love – in the ways in which our deepest intuitions imagine goodness and love to be. Which is why I’m so taken by Jesus, and the imaging of God he depicts – ‘the exact representation of the Father’s being.’ Owning that yes, of course ‘Father’ and even ‘Person’ are projections and anthromorphisms, I can affirm that whatever ‘God’ is,
God must be more than personal – but I can’t agree that God is less than personal.
How can I get all of this to hang, cosmologically? Well I’m not sure, but let me throw a sketch out there, that my most theologically-astute friends can hopefully help me or rebut me on: You know how in Walter Wink’s theology, there’s a ‘spirituality of institutions’? How he posits (in The Powers that Be and everywhere) that “the Angel at the Church of Sardis,” et al, is referring to the collective identity of a particular congregation, which has a kind of supra–personality that includes but transcends the sum of its parts? And you know how Wink proposes that ‘the demonic’ is similarly institutionally personal – an ‘Angel’ who has turned against its reason for being? So that everything from the U.S. Military-Industrial Complex to Coca-Cola to the Church of Peter, Paul, and Mary and #Occupy is a principality and a power – either angelic or demonic, for good or for ill? (If you aren’t familiar with this way of thinking about the biblical witness concerning ‘the powers,’ read Wink‘s books! They’re borne out of both personal experience with the demonic in helping end South African apartheid, as well as careful scholarship. They’re life-changers.) A corporation or a congregation or a popular mass movement seems to exert actions or behaviors that sometimes override the wills of individual members within it – even those who supposedly occupy influential or top-ranking positions within them. It’s as though the sum total of these groups have a will of their own, in a way that projects an aura of personality that transcends the organizational life of the collective.
Well, what if God is like that, relative to the Universe? If the universe is greater than the sum of its parts, the Personality thus generated is God. This could be a very specific God, revealed in one of the great world religions or philosophies, or perhaps fragments revealed in all of them – including atheism. (Sociologist Rodney Stark explores this possibility in Discovering God). This God could exhibit traits intelligible to humans, and could decide to manifest in one or more of any number of ways.
There are, as I see it, epistemological difficulties with this A-Personal-God-is-a-Projection-of-the-Universe idea. Namely the charge that this is simply pantheism writ large – God IS Reality, albeit personal (whereas most pantheists, like most deists, conceive God as most philosophers to – non-personal). Therefore, the pre-existence and transcendence of God is toast in this view. This need not be the inevitable conclusion, however. Because if time, as I understand Einstein, is a byproduct or co-extensive effect of space, then a God who transcends and includes the sum of the Universe’s parts need not be constrained by all of its strictures. Put another way, words like ‘eternity’ are themselves human creations, and we tend to associate ‘time’ with them when ‘depth’ is closer to their original meaning. Given all that we don’t really understand about quarks, super-strings, and holographic physics, we live in a strange and wonderful Universe that could bear or be borne by a strange and wonderful God.
This is not a ‘God of the gaps’ theory, relying on some sloppy appeal to ‘mystery’ and ‘what we don’t yet know’ to substantiate it. Ultimately, I’m deeply okay if God = The Universe (pantheism), or if God, even while being the personality generated by the Universe, turns out to be in some way outside its strictures and thus ‘transcendent’ over/beyond it (panentheism). Either way, God is All in All, as my Christian Scripture attests in its brightest moments. And either way, a God who emptied Godself in kenosis, and who died rather than seek revenge, who is resurrected nonviolently – this is a God whose ‘weak force’ is strength in a way where ubiquity might as well be non-existence, as ‘existence’ is a category too paltry to contain the Beloved. Instead, we have a Way who empties himself of easy certainty, a pathless path that is co-extensive with life itself. The realization of union with God (which need not come with bells and whistles – only the simple, trusting/experimental acknowledgment) yields a way of seeing in which God is everywhere, and manifest in everything – which might be the true meaning of Bonhoeffer’s ‘religionless Christianity,’ a path that is “utterly transparent, colorless, and thus always available.”
Pietism, then, is a frustrating half-measure – a God who is neither everything nor nothing, and is thus a bridge to nowhere – a dead-end of unmet religious longing leading to dangerous fundamentalism on the one hand and impotent liberalism on the other hand. Could it be that the God revealed in Jesus is a God willing to be broken and poured out , and in Pyrrhic resurrection negate into ubiquity, becoming tastable and handle-able by each of us, power distributed to the whole of us rather than a Power-Narrative all too easily abused by the strongest of us?
I can hope. Or at least, wonder.
Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words by Brian McLaren
Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening by Diana Butler-Bass
Integral Christianity: The Spirit’s Call to Evolve by Paul Smith
Not conincidentally, all three of these authors will be sharing at a most unique gathering: Co-Creation 2012: The Great Emergence & The Spirit’s Call to Evolve, hosted by the Servant Leadership School of Greensboro, North Carolina! They’ll be joined by world-class artists and musicians, as well as participants from across the country; come on out and see us this April 12-15th! Register here.
Other good reading on this includes The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See by Richard Rohr, The Wisdom Way of Knowing by Cynthia Bourgeault, If Darwin Prayed: Prayers for Evolutionary Mystics by Bruce Sanguin, and Thank God for Evolution by Michael Dowd.
Other Posts of Potential Interest:
Radical Incarnation: Thoughts on Nondual Spirituality by Matthew Wright
Nondual Week: Ken Wilber on ‘One Taste’
Nondual Week: Panentheism & Interspirituality – What’s Jesus Got to do With It?
Nondual Week: Panentheism – Perichoresis – Christology: Participatory Divinity
Nondual Week: David Henson on ‘How Hinduism Saved My Christian Faith’
The Way of the Heart – Cynthia Bourgeault Part 1: What IS the Path of Jesus?
The Way of the Heart – Cynthia Bourgeault Part 2: See What Jesus Sees; Do What Jesus Does
The Way of the Heart Part 3: Cynthia Bourgealt’s Four Proposals – Beyond ‘The Imitation of Christ’
The Way of the Heart Part 4: Heartfulness Practice Transcends & Includes Orthodoxy
The Way of the Heart Part 5: Upgrading Our Operating System
The Way of the Heart Part 6: A Rorschach Blot for the Mind
The Way of the Heart Part 7: When 20/20 Hindsight Becomes Blindsight
The Way of the Heart Interlude: Kenosis Hymn
The Way of the Heart Part 8: Heart Surgery
About Mike Morrell
Mike is the Communications Director for the Integral Theology think-tank Presence International, co-founder of The Buzz Seminar, and a founding organizer of the Wild Goose Festival. Mike curates contemplative and community experiences via Authentic World, Relational Yoga, the ManKind Project, and (H) Opp, taking joy in holding space for the extraordinary transformation that can take place at the intersection of anticipation, imagination, and radical acceptance. Mike is also an avid writer, publishing consultant, author coach, futurist, and curator of the book-reviewing community at TheSpeakeasy.info. He lives with his wife and two daughters in North Carolina.