Study Two: The Beloved Disciple's Thought

As we turn now to spot and then explore what may be the central insight of the Fourth Gospel, nothing demands that we identify the Beloved Disciple as Lazarus. Feel very free to either accept or reject this idea. However, it will be helpful to continue thinking of that Beloved Disciple as a Jewish rabbi scholar with much more education and sophistication than is represented by the Galilean Twelve.

It will quickly become apparent that the frame of reference for this study is what we earlier designated as the Fourth Gospel's "divine communication" (how it is that God's blessing can be communicated from his sphere of "the eternal heavenly" and made accessible to us in our sphere of "the earthly sinful"). The surprise will be that the Fourth Gospel itself deliberately contradicts what the church has regularly understood to be the Fourth Gospel's own answer. The communication happens through anything but human religious experience--what the old hymn ("The Church's One Foundation") calls "mystic sweet communion."

Actually, we will discover, the Beloved Disciple is taking a bead on the total phenomenon we call "Christendom"--as that has existed from his own day in the first century right down to ours in the twentieth. However, in his crucial passages the "Christendom issue" is focused on the particular question of "sacrament," and even more particularly on the matter of the Eucharist, the bread and cup of the Lord's Supper. So it seems wise for us to run our argument the other way: start with "sacrament" and show how that characterizes Christendom at large. Eventually, then, we will bring the Beloved Disciple back into the act.

Sacrament as "Mystery" Thinking

The only way to begin now is with a careful scrutiny of that word "sacrament." It is a Latin derivation built upon a root referring to a pledge or an oath and carrying strong overtones of the sacred or holy. Most significant, the Latin "sacrament" is successor and close equivalent to the Greek word "mystery"--the two words carrying much the same sense.

The Greek predecessor "mystery" is used a number of times in the New Testament, although never in reference to (or even in conjunction with) baptism or the Lord's Supper. Also, these New Testament occurrences consistently lack any note of appreciating mystery for its own sake, any attributing of religious significance to the human sense of mystery. Indeed, regularly (and perhaps even invariably) the gospel is valued precisely for the fact that it demystifies "mystery." This is indicated throughout the New Testament by the terms accompanying the word "mystery": "been given to know," "made known," "make all men see, "understand," "insight into," "now disclosed," "I tell you," "impart," "proclaim." Most typical is Colossians 1:26 with its reference to "the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but now been revealed to his saints." Completely contrary to the "sacramental" interpretation, Scripture values "mystery" only in its ceasing to be mysterious.

What this means, then, is that Scripture played no part in Christendom's decision that its baptism and Supper should be called "sacraments." That wasn't done even in reference to Scripture, let alone in an effort to be biblical. It was a later decision made by the church on its own--and, I think, largely under the extra-Christian influences of paganism. Clearly, both before Christ and since, "world religions" have been very much given to ideas of mystery and sacrament. These have always been understood as the proper modes for "divine communication."

Yet, unfortunately, the word "sacrament" does serve as a quite accurate description of what the church proceeded also to make of baptism and the Supper--namely, matters of "mystery" and "mystical experience." And it is not just baptism and the Supper that have been treated so. Right down to the present day we can trace Christendom's tendency to "mysticize" that faith which the New Testament originally presented in totally demystified form.

We need here to define "mysticism" in the broadest possible terms, so I am using it to denote "that which human agents have it in their power to do in the way of putting themselves into contact with, and gaining some experience of, the transcendent mystery of life and all being." Notice particularly that the mystical approach is not at all interested in "breaking" mystery--in fathoming it or having it revealed so that it is no longer mysterious. Quite the opposite. Mystery is here approached precisely that it might be enjoyed--and that one might be edified and enriched by it. It is only as mystery (as mystic experience) that it amounts to "divine communication."

The human hunger for mystery seems to be culturally and religiously universal, though we now mean to confine our attention to Christian mysticism--that is, those forms of mysticism appearing within the Christian church and its tradition. "Sacramentalism" is just one of these forms, and we need to develop the broader context in the process of getting at this one type. The listing to follow will run from the "higher" forms (more sophisticated and elitist) to the "lower" forms (more everyday and garden variety). And our conclusion will be that New Testament Christianity is in basic opposition to any and all moves toward "mysticism."

Intellectualist Mysticism (Gnosis)

We here refer to the penchant that at least begins with those philosophers and philosophic theologians (among whom the Beloved Disciple is regularly included) dedicated to explaining Christianity in the intellectualist terminology of systematic reason, conceptualization, and idea. Invariably, the first move is to reconceptualize "God" away from the quite specific, down-to-earth, anthropomorphic, and what are considered "primitive" metaphors in which Scripture presents him. The intellectualist way, rather, is to define him (or "it") in terms that are ever more general, abstract, theoretical, specious, ambiguous, esoteric, ethereal, mysterious, and unbiblical.

The move is underway when even ordinary, non-intellectualist Christians (including pastors) show a preference for addressing or describing God in the grandiose (but empty of specific content) language of liturgy: "World Spirit," "Creator," "Power of Love," "Ultimate Reality," "Light," "the Eternal," "the Word" (Logos), etc. (I have deliberately included some Fourth Gospel usages that we will want to come back to.) And, of course, the current feminist insistence that no gendered language be used for God-this only aggravates the tendency.

However, among the philosophic theologians themselves, the move is that of extending intellectual comprehension as far as it will go--always pushing "God" ahead and into the incomprehensibility that lies just beyond. Most often, that which is just beyond comprehension is indicated by calling God "Being" (though never "a being," which specificity lies on the wrong side of the line), "Being Itself," or "the Ground of Being." And the first thing to be noted about these terms is that they refer to sheer mystery, that about which nothing whatever can be said. If one were capable of saying anything specific about "Being," it would not be the highest concept possible. An idea about which "nothing" can be said (because it transcends thought, understanding, and experience) is obviously a higher idea than one about which "something" can be said.

To call God "Being" is to identify God (and here one dare not use a personal pronoun or even an impersonal one), but it identify God as sheer and utter mystery. Indeed, "God" is now categoucal mystery--which to "break" or to "reveal" would be, in effect, to ruin as God. And for proponents of this school of Christian thought, religious experience (divine communication) consists in our sense of confronting "Being Itself," finding ourselves acceptable to Being and accepted by Being. Yet that very experience will have to be as mysterious as all get-out. Even the language used to describe it must, of necessity, be more specific-anthropomorphic than actually suits the case. My "being accepted" (in any truly human sense of the phrase) assumes a person-to-person relationship that simply cannot be made to apply to "Being Itself" (about which nothing specific dare be said, remember).

Although most of modern theology stops short of this God of Being (God as Ultimate Religious Mystery), the theological trend of our day clearly is to move away from the Bible's quite specific God (who even bears the proper name "Yahweh") and toward the mystery of abstraction and theoretical idea. Nevertheless, Karl Barth argues directly against this stream in his exposition of the Lord's Prayer in The Christian Life:

Father as a vocative, whether expressed or not, is the primal form of the thinking, the primal sound of the speaking, and the primal act of the obedience demanded of Christians.... This word gives the required precision, the appropriate fullness, and the authentic interpretation to a word that in itself is indefinite, empty, and ambivalent, namely, the word "God." God himself, the one true and real God, obviously does not need this in order to avoid indistinctness, emptiness, and ambivalence. But the word "God" in all human languages does need it, for it can mean everything for some, this or that for others, and even nothing at all, or a mere illusion, for others. (Pp.51, 53)

Here, where intellectualist mysticism wants to take the word "God" still further to the left, Barth insists that, for the Bible, even the word "God" is not good enough but must itself be taken further right. And it should be pointed out that, on this point, Jesus was even more of a rightist than Karl Barth. When the disciples asked Jesus how they should pray to God, according to Lk. 11:2--which stands the best chance of having it right--Jesus responded, "Just call him 'Father'-anything fancier than that is a showing off of your religion, not a glorifying of him." And some scholars think that, in the mouth of Jesus, even that "Father" was actually "Abba" (the Aramaic "Dear Daddy" term that is about as simple and down-to-earth as one can get). I think Barth is correct about Scripture's aversion to "divine mystery," and so, in a bit, I will let the Beloved Disciple (of all people) clinch the case.

If to move toward mystery is this unbiblical, why should Christendom always want to be doing so? What is the tendency, the motive pulling things in this direction? I don't know that I have the full answer, but let me try the insight I have:

The more specific, close, real, down-to-earth, and personal God is, the better is his position for exercising his particular functions of lordship, authority, judgment, command, discipline, counsel, and direction--as also his particular functions of love, grace, forgiveness, resurrection, and salvation (very much "person" terms, one and all). Conversely, the further God is pushed into the passive realm of mystery, the more room that leaves us to take over as our own lords, authorities, and counselors--and at the same time, to eliminate any need for grace or forgiveness (there being no one there who could call us guilty in the first place).

The device is what is known as "kicking the boss upstairs." By promoting God to the realm of awe, adoration, and mystery, we effectively get him off our backs. Certainly I need have no fear that a God of Pure Being (about which nothing specific can be said) can get itself specific enough to demand anything specific of me--or to express untoward opinions of me and my behavior. A God of Mystery is the easiest possible divinity to live with.

We need at some point (and no better spot than here) to interrupt ourselves long enough to make clear that there is a Christian use of the term "mystery" lying entirely outside the present argument. Time after time, of course, the thoughts of God and the ways of God run quite beyond our comprehension. Thus, for instance, it is perfectly proper to suggest that it is a real "mystery" that God has loved us while we were yet sinners. Technically, that isn't even an identification of God with "mystery"; it's an admission of our own limited comprehension. Yet, more significantly, it is by no means a suggestion that "God" is "mystery itself"--namely, a concept totally unspecific, devoid of cognitive content, one about which nothing can be said. Not at all; regarding the mysterious love of God, there are a great number of very specific things that can be said. The only problem is that there is so much cognitive content that the human mind is swamped by it. Clearly, our present critique of "mysticism" has no intention of being negative toward this other (and biblical) concept of "mystery."

Ecstatic Mysticism

This form is still highly specialized, though not necessarily on the basis of intellectuality. It names the classic type commonly referred to as "mysticism," the practitioners of which are known as "the mystics." In this case, "God" is approached much more experientially than intellectually (as with our previous class). "God" is that which is experienced as the culmination of one's highly prescribed and disciplined program of devotion, meditation, and spiritual ascension. Many of the classic mystics may also have had close, everyday communion with the "specified" Dear Daddy of Scripture--but that, if we may say so, came to them through avenues other than their mystical experience.

When the mystics describe their mystical exaltation, their accounts of God are very much couched in terms of "mystery." Their interior experience is highly valued as spiritual ecstasy--an altered state of consciousness often described as a merging into God, a losing of one's own sense of self-identity, a becoming one with God. Yet the God into whom they merge is hardly identifiable as that very much specified God of the Bible. Thc mystics usually come away from an experience without being able to share any cognitive content, any insight about who God is or what is his specific will or command. The God of the mystics is, for the most part, as incomprehensible, impersonal, and nonspecific as that of the gnosis-seeking intellectuals. Through their techniques of spirituality, these people approach the Ineffable Mystery and then come away with the Mystery just as ineffable as it was to start with.

The current, again, flows directly contrary to that of the New Testament. That document--with its strong emphasis upon "by their fruits you shall know them "--shows no particular interest in programmed spiritual disciplines pointed toward ecstasies of inner experience. And its most relevant comment is probably Paul's opinion on "mysteries in the Spirit":

For those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody understands them, for ... they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, those who prophesy speak to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.... So with yourselves; since you are eager for spiritual gifts, strive to excel in them for building up the church. (1 Cor. 14:2-3, 12)

However, Paul's most effective treatment of "mysticism is probably 2 Corinthians 12:1-10. Clearly, at this point in time Paul had had about as much as he could take of smart-aleck Corinthian Christians claiming grandiose mystical experiences. So, if boasting was to be the name of the game, he could outboast them without half trying. Why, he knew a guy (himself, as it turned out) who, as long as fourteen years ago (before the Corinthians had even heard of Christianity), had been caught up to the third heaven, where he had heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. (Paul nicely supports our point about the ineffability, the fruitless incommunicability of divine mystery as mystery.)

So Paul could be (and had been) as mystical as the best of them. Yet he had never talked about it, never encouraged his people in that direction, would not have brought up the matter now except for having been goaded into it. And why not? Because such experience is of no particular Christian value. Indeed, the one consequence Paul attributes to his "abundance of revelations" is that they got him "too elated," got him thinking too highly of himself: And so, in order to correct Paul's spiritual misuse of ecstatic experience, God had to harass him with a thorn in the flesh, a messenger from Satan.

And (read Paul carefully here) he says that that ornery thorn proved a much more effective vehicle of "divine communication" than all his mystical experience put together. He never claims that any positive "fruit" has come from spiritual ecstasy as ecstasy, though he does not deny that, on occasion ecstasy has accompanied content-bearing communications from' God. But the measure of Christian experience has to be the "cognitive content" involved and not the degree of "spiritual thrill." Accordingly, the "fruit" of his thorn experience was a very specific and practical insight--namely, the understanding that, in the depth of our human weakness, the grace of God is wonderfully sufficient in bringing us through and making us strong. And of course, this was a fruit that Paul could (and did) share all over the place and put to very good use in the building up of the church. But the New Testament never promotes mystical experience as a value in and of itself.

Peak-Experience Mysticism

This may be nothing more than the amateur, "anybody can do it" version of the mysticism just discussed. The concept and practice, we will discover is pervasive in Christendom--though I am here pegging the theory to the researches of a widely influential psychologist of religion, Abraham Maslow. Being a scientist, Maslow set out to present a scientific description of religion.

  1. His first premise was that, whether the subject be Christianity, other of the world religions, or even secular and unformulated faiths, they all represent the one phenomenon of human religiousness," and therefore one can properly do analysis without discriminating between them. "Christianity" is one way of doing religion; "Islam" is a variant form for doing the same thing.
  2. Maslow's second premise was that scientifically, of course, there are no data enabling an investigator even to have an opinion about whether there actually exists a God, a god, a divine being, or anything else superior to the sphere of scientifically verifiable reality. Accordingly, the study of religion dare not even address that question but must confine itself to the human phenomenon--namely, to what human subjects say religiousness feels like and what it does for them.

Given Maslow's chosen parameters, it is not surprising that he should come to the conclusion that "religion" consists wholly and solely in the psychology of what he calls "peak experiences" and that the significance of these experiences lies entirely in the subject's internal feeling about them. Because no consideration can be given to "objective content" (for instance, to whether the subject spoke meaningfully and truly when he said he had been filled by the Holy Spirit), the only possible measure is the subject's testimony that he experienced an altered state of consciousness he would call "peak." And in Maslow's judgment all peak experiences are religiously the same-no matter how they are induced or with what mythical content the subject imbues them.

If you will, then, notice how close a "peak experience of disregarded cognitive content" comes to what we have been calling "mystery." Whatever an individual happens to believe about divine agencies causing or communicating themselves in his experience--all that is entirely incidental, the one reality being the "mystery" of his altered state of consciousness.

According to Maslow, "religiousness" is a constant and universal factor in our human makeup. There is absolutely no room for talking about "true religion" and "false religion." Everyone by nature is equally religious--the only possible distinction being that what we ordinary people call "peak experiences" the mystic specialists of our former categories would know to be only molehills.

Yet, for Maslow, "God" has now become so mysterious as to be nonexistent. Scientifically, of course, Maslow does not (and cannot) outlaw the very possibility of God's existence. What he does do is argue that the question of whether or not God exists does not affect human religiousness either one way or another. If we believe that a God exists, that belief can be as effective for inducing our peak experiences as his actual existence and presence would be; his actuality would give us nothing we don't already have. So this God who maybe is and maybe is not (no matter either way) is as mysterious as can be. And "religion as peak experience" is of a piece with our other mysticisms that move God (even Yahweh) away from his biblical specificity and leftward into the realm of the vague, impersonal, and mysterious.

My impression is that there are comparatively few theologians who publicly identify themselves as being both Christians and followers of Maslow; that would constitute too plain and obvious a contradiction. At the same time, I think there are many contemporary liberal theologians who--if they be carefully read and attended to--will be found intimating this very contradiction (i.e., suggesting that religion is an entirely human phenomenon to which the existence of a biblically specific God is completely optional). It is not for me to say whether these thinkers simply have failed to see what they are doing or whether theirs is a deliberate effort to undermine biblical Christianity.

However, my greatest concern is not with these theologians but with the church at large. And that "church at large" takes in all varieties of Christians scattered throughout our churches and all varieties of churches, from fundamentalist to ultraliberal. Thus, all through modern Christendom (even where Strict attention is given to maintaining an orthodox theology regarding the biblically specific God), the church nevertheless performs primarily as a purveyor of the mysteries of religious peak experience. The churches are every bit as sensitive to their Nielsen ratings as the TV networks are to theirs. If our Christianity were to be tested by how we use it (rather than by what we say about it), we would be found standing foursquare with Maslow: the sole function of religion is to provide its constituents with peak experiences. Like the Nielsen polls, the churches ask one question: "Are our shows appealing--are they giving people the satisfactions (the satisfactions of spiritual experience) they seek?" It is my conviction that the great mass of church goers today actually think Christianity exists to no other purpose than to provide them spiritual ecstasy. And the churches are quick to play up to that opinion.

It may be that churches think more in terms of a continuity of what might be called "good experience instead of just exceptional "peaks of experience." And it may be that churches tend more to call it "quality of life"--and thus cherish this good experience not alone for its individual members but also for the faith community as community and even the human race as a society. Yet the Maslowian premise still holds: religion is a phenomenon valued for the sake of what humans see to be their own benefit and enjoyment. Thus, once we look beyond its theological professions and ask why a church acts as it does, what it is trying to accomplish, it becomes apparent that every form of church "success" (and particularly "church growth") hinges upon one question: Are we providing our people customer satisfaction, what they find to be "good experiences"? Do they come away feeling good about themselves and about the church? Can they then relate their sense of well being to the well being of all humanity? Are our religious efforts building toward a situation in which all people can have the peak experience of feeling good about themselves?

This approach to the faith is what John Howard Yoder calls "instrumental." A line from William Henley's familiar poem expresses it well: "I thank whatever gods may be / For my unconquerable soul." The poet's interest in religion--in whatever gods may be--extends only as far as will feed his own sense of "unconquerability." And so often, like Henley, we are happy to settle for the mystery of "whatever gods may be" because our one true interest centers sheerly on the peak experience of feeling our souls unconquerable. So don't even ask whether there really is a God or whether our souls actually are unconquerable; as an end in itself, the experiential feeling is everything. It follows that we seek only as much of God as can be of instrumental help in pleasing us. Indeed, we humans have created religion to no other purpose. And apparently we aren't really open to the idea that things might be exactly the other way around: that God created us to be pleasing to him, whether or not we happen to find blessing and have a good experience in the process.

So, no matter how orthodox our professions of the biblically specific God, if it is yet the case that we call upon him--hear and heed him--only insofar as serves our human self-interests, then we are no closer to the gospel than we would be with Maslow's mysterious "maybe-and-maybe-not God," the sheer idea of which will do as much to give us good experience as his actual existence would. In any case, it will bear some thinking about: that the proudly orthodox Christians of the evangelical and conservative churches may be just as guilty of moving God leftward into the realm of inconsequential mystery-experience as are the despised liberals.

Ecclesiastical Mysticism

It is under this heading that we are to look particularly at the sacraments. However, whether regarding the sacraments or any other church-sponsored "worship experience," we are in trouble just as soon as the service stops addressing God (in order to glorify and hallow his name) and becomes more interested in providing meaningful experience for the worshippers (in order to help them feel good about themselves and go forth as better persons). As Soon as "religion" takes over with its concern, God is no longer being served as an end in himself (the end of all that is) but is himself being used as a means by which humanity serves its own self-interests.

Of course, God does regularly, time and again, offer to serve us in our human need. Yet that always happens in his freedom, at his discretion, and according to what he perceives to be our need--something quite different from his relinquishing the God role to us, that we might use him for our purposes.

We now center on the sacrament--but we need to make it quite clear that our critique is addressed not at all to the biblical institutions of baptism and the Supper but only to Christendom's later "sacramentalizing" of the same. Yet, in truth, the "sacraments" are well named for what we have made of them; we use them indeed as "mysterious procedures the church can perform on behalf of individual believers, thus as much as guaranteeing God's mysterious response in changing their spiritual status and transforming them into better persons. The question, of course, is not whether God can and does transform people at the time and in the ways of his own choosing. No, the only question is whether the church has been given the sacramental power to use God, manipulate his mysteriousness, and extract peak experiences from him-at the church's own beck and call.

Quite early in Christian history (as is still the case in large sectors of the church today), undergoing baptism made it as much as certain that, as of that moment, the baptized one was "saved" and guaranteed a place in glory. And that such could be accomplished through a properly done sprinkle, or bath, of water--well, that is a great mystery for sure, a matter surpassing all knowledge or comprehension. Quite early in Christian history (as is still the case in large sectors of the church today), the Supper was called "the medicine of immortality," the ingesting of which sacramental food had the actual effect of gradually deifying, divinizing, or immortalizing the one who partook. "Divine communication" is definitely what was taking place. And that such could be accomplished through eating a bit of bread and drinking a sip of wine--well, that is a great mystery for sure, a matter surpassing all knowledge or comprehension. And it should be said that, customarily, both the physical accouterments of the service and the liturgy attending the sacramental practice itself played up the ineffability of the transpiring mystery. That the sacraments, then, came to bear the actual name "mysteries" was an entirely predictable occurrence.

Yet even today, when major segments of the church have massively scaled down and reinterpreted their sacramental claims regarding baptism and the Supper, the strong note of mystery remains. The accouterments and the liturgy still sound the note. The belief still is widely held that, in some mysterious way, these rites do indeed help one become a better person and feel good for having been present (and very often the service is pitched to just this end). And even if, as Maslow would have it, the rites can be at most an effective means of inducing peak experiences in those susceptible to them, that variety of mystery is still involved--even to the point of it making no difference whether the biblically specific God actually exists or not, as long as the worshippers get the religious feelings they covet. Thus, whether interpreted according to a high sacramentalism or a low one, "sacraments" is still an appropriate name for what we have made of baptism, the Supper, and a great deal more of Christian worship.

And thus we have the biblical priority pretty well reversed. Instead of making such "worship aids" our means of coming to God in order to recognize him for who he is (consequently to be judged by him, giving ourselves to him that we might be made conformable to his will and useful in his service), we have perverted them into aesthetic psychological therapies for promoting the self-affirmation and self-enhancement of self-serving peak experiences. And notice, too, that all four of the types of mysticism here described assume that divine communication happens through our seeking experience, through our techniques of "making contact" with the divine, rather than by letting God take the initiative in contacting us.

It needs to be noted that this critique of "sacramentally mysterious worship" in no way desires to eliminate the experiential component of "emotion/feeling" from the total action of Christian faith-confession. Kierkegaard, for instance--with his prominent use of the terms "subjectivity" and "passion"--was emphatic that this interior side of faith belongs and belongs absolutely. At the same time, however, he was entirely clear about how the feelings must relate to, and what role they must play within, the overall act of faith.

Christian "passion" is the right (and even necessary) subjective by-product of a person's full-fledged response to an entirely objective, specific, and essentially unmysterious manifestation of God's grace. Of course, the primary (though by no means only) such manifestation was God's giving his Son to die for us. And an objective, public, historical "action of God" of this sort is what, as we shall see, the Fourth Gospel refers to as "the flesh of Jesus." Christian passion is quite proper, then--yet only as an integral component of the quite specific and fleshly transaction in which an entirely human-fleshly individual makes a down-to-earth commitment of discipleship in response to God's gracious action in the flesh of Jesus (there being nothing mysteriously "spiritual" involved). And in such case, ours is a "passion of thanksgiving" and has significance--not as something that "feels good" to us but simply as a witness (and, for us, a necessary witness) to the fact that we truly appreciate and feelingly desire to be appropriated by this fleshly manifestation of God's grace.

So neither the Fourth Gospel nor this study has any intention of denigrating Christian passion. As long as it maintains its focus upon and derives its content from the objectivity of God and his fleshly works of grace--and as long as it is valued for God's sake, as a witness to his wonder, majesty, and love-Christian passion is entirely biblical and right: However,just as soon as it trades its focus on the objective "flesh-taking God" for a focus on a subjectivistic "God of mystery"-and as soon as that passion becomes an end in itself, becomes self-interested religious enjoyment-at that point it becomes unbiblical and wrong.

Copyright (c) 1987