New on Desk #99 — Subjective Christianity

The content recipe for this newsletter is to basically write about my week, with an emphasis on the creative process. So that takes us to some weird places sometimes.

Summarizing religion

The following is probably easier to follow along if I clarify first that I’m not religious myself, just spiritual. Religious reading is so partisan that it’s probably just confusing for most to read musings about religion without knowing which camp somebody belongs in. Call me an atheist if you must.

I was reading some Internet dross about religion, as I’m sometimes wont to do. People struggling with the everyday challenges of philosophy. Much of it is old hat, always, for a fully grown philosopher, but there can always be some fresh viewpoint in such, or your own reflection can lead somewhere interesting.

So in this case, while reading some tedious sophomore dickering over biblical minutiae, it occurred to me to wonder about Christianity as a mystical religion. That inspired a gloss… I guess I’ll just try to write down my idea, it’s easier to present it than to explain the gist analytically.

Mystic Christianity

“Religion” is a system of living. “Mystic experience” is the subjective sense of the numinous. These two concepts are related, but only remotely. And because religion is always so very, very much more important to society, the practice of mysticism is always secondary to the infrastructure of religion. And because religion is foremost about social control, about individual humans harmonizing their acts and speech to be of one mind, that makes the discipline of Christianity be specifically a religious discipline: a system of laws, doctrines, sophistry and faith.

So what would the “discipline of Christianity”, or “act of being a Christian” look like if you reversed that? It would be existentialist and focused on spiritual practice, developing the human relationship with the divine, with doctrinal clutter about things like “what is true” a distant second. But is there a mystic core to Christianity distinct from some generalized practice of mysticism? Here’s a handy-dandy guidebook to how to practice mystic Christianity.

Credo (what you believe as a mystic Christian)
Humans have a spiritual hunger for God. Conversing with Christ in prayer provides a numinous connection that fulfills the spiritual need. It is a good thing to engage in this practice because the spiritual hunger cripples the human in the long-term, twists them and makes them less. By practicing Christian spirituality the human finds balance and answers, an ability to take their place in the divine plan.

What’s Christ (how this differs from generalized mysticism)
Christ is the subject of your adoration, a human-who-is-also-god. Focusing on Christ, your imaginary pal, is the key to the mystic experience of God because the narrative conceit allows you to simultaneously maintain an abstract and anthropomorphic image of God. The particular identity narratives about this “Christ” are intellectual clutter, so think that he’s say a carpenter if you feel like it, but practice-wise that’s only important if it helps you form a mystic relationship with Him. You can also call your mystic insight the Holy Ghost (God as a force, basically) to be in line with a historical tradition of Christianity.

Intellectual Clutter (this is common to all mysticism, Christian or not)
Religion is eager to channel and control the budding mystic’s patterns of thought and behavior. There is so very much to be distracted by if you want to “learn more about Christianity”. Like, ever wonder about the Problem of Evil? Or how about it, was there ever a King David? To the mystic this is all so much hog-wash, because the mystic is not engaged in religious empire-building. What people think or believe is not important, the important thing is your spiritual growth and ability to live the life of a Christian. Religious conniptions about true faith and correct practice are not useful for that. The religious tradition is only useful insofar as it can provide tools of spiritual awakening and growth. And it is a particularly profound truth that only your mystic insight can confirm claims of doctrine: not the bishop, not the pope, not the Bible can be true if it is not confirmed by Christ, your pal whom you converse with regularly.

Practice (what you’re doing as a mystic Christian)
The goal is true reality, release from existential suffering, finding certainty and purpose. The means is prayer and contemplation. The mystic Christian believes that they are in supernatural contact with Christ, a human-shaped Godhead interface. Practicing prayer helps strengthen this connection, which can then be used to enshrine some thoughts and ideations in the mystic’s mind with divine authority. Basically, Christ will tell you what’s true and what’s not if you would only listen. You can bring Christ clues and hints to speed yourself along in figuring things out, like read some old wisdom literature and then ask Christ to confirm or deny. If you practice prayer correctly, you’ll get an answer.

Skeptical Application (again, applies to all mysticism)
The nature of mystic insight is very subjective, and a sane, reasonable mystic isn’t somehow oblivious to that. It’s easy to get deluded by your own mind, erroneously attributing your own ideas to Christ. What if you’re stressed or have some brain issues that bias the subtle spiritual connection? Or you might even believe that there are demons whispering at you in addition to Christ, so that’s a concern as well. For these reasons, when you receive mystic insight, you write it down and then reason about it, perhaps with other travelers, compare it to prior insights and return to it with Christ over time. As time passes, you will learn more about the will of God, and will have greater confidence in your mystic insight.

What I described as mystic Christianity there isn’t a new phenomenon, arguably this is pretty much what historical Christian mystics have concerned themselves with. The fundamental conceit that makes a spiritual practice into “mysticism” is the belief in the possibility of personal spiritual connection to the other side. You’re a mystic if you believe that you, yourself, hear God (or ancestors, or rocks and trees, or whatever). I’m sure you’ve encountered Christian sects that at least claim to believe in personal mystic experience; there are also those that either deny it being possible (only prophets have mystic experiences!) or deny it being useful.

The religious institutions tolerate such spiritual exploration, even if I don’t think it’s really the “same religion” in any sense except that the mystic is unlikely to disagree with the bishop in public, so might as well leave them be. Certainly the true mystic does not “believe” in the Nicene Creed or some such group-unity declaration of commitment to some story or other, because they have something else they believe in in the form of their own subjective experience. The essence of mysticism is the subjective experience of the spiritual journey, not some belief in sky faeries, so better hope that the direct personal experience backs up the fairy tales. With that “we all must confess to the same religion!” obsession being something of an evergreen social concern of religiousness, mysticism is always a bit fraught in how it gets presented as a totally legitimate and loyal daughter of the Church. You don’t want to go up to that bishop and outright tell them that you can take or leave the Bible and the received tradition, or the authority of the bishop for that matter; even if the mystic doesn’t mind, the bishop certainly does.

Needless to say, one of the major attractions of mystic Christianity is that it’s a doctrine that very much allows you to pick and choose about what’s true in the religion taken as a whole. If you actually believe in the numinous connection, that Christ can tell you what’s true and what’s not, then the entire received tradition is conditional, and that allows you to create a Christianity worthy of your loyalty. What matters the jealous and petty god of the Bible, or the self-serving decrees of bishops, if prayer allows you to communicate with Christ and receive even just general indications of which direction the truth lies. It’s a way out of paradox of blind loyalty that the Church claims as its due.

Notably, many historical sects of Christianity would agree with the specific precepts of mystic Christianity as presented here, if not perhaps with the mystical lifestyle itself. It’s fairly common for Christian religions to affirm that you can indeed converse with Christ in prayer, and that humans have a yearning for divinity, and that being a practicing Christian makes you a better person, and so on. The main doctrinal difference between mysticism and religion is that where mysticism says that you must develop your personal spiritual skills, religion says that you must have faith and be obedient.

As I understand it, historically speaking Christianity has been a very doctrinaire religion in part because dickering over doctrine is a method of social control (by forcing others to agree with you about sky fairies you affirm yourself as the boss socially as well), but also because people have superstitiously believed that mystic experience is somehow real outside your own head, and there’s like this magical invisible reality out there where you have to plug yourself into the correct sky-channel. So it’s very important that your God is tri-partite and died on a cross and was a carpenter, and you gotta get baptized and receive communion and obey the bishop, or otherwise a devil might crawl into your ear and mess up your prayer life. Up to you whether you find this entire scenario at all credible, the idea of the Church as a sort of cryptography key for tuning in on the right sky-channel. The mystic alternative to religion has its own ideas, as you can see above.

Other mystic practices

So you might realize that “mystic Christianity” is sort of generic. That’s on purpose, I only wrote up the essential credo and praxis there: I think that in terms of real spiritual practice those are the only parts that matter. The important thing is the guru veneration in prayer, that specific technique is what makes it Christian mysticism instead of any arbitrary other type of mystic meditation practice. I cannot find any spiritual practice grounds for believing that e.g. historical Jesus or your exact understanding of the doctrine of trinity or anything like that really matters. Not unless you believe that there are devils trying to whisper at you, and somehow focusing on the historical Jesus as a narrative idea helps quiet down the devils and allow the real divine voice to come through. (Just, doesn’t seem that credible to me strictly as a mystic practice thing. Doesn’t accord with experience.)

This incidentally means that mystic Christianity and mystic Bahaism are the exact same discipline, only differing in the specifics of intellectual clutter and some superficial meditation technique particulars. Same goes for all “mystic religions” that specifically advice forming an anthropomorphic imaginary friend whom you contemplate and converse with in prayer. What happens in practice, as far as I know, is that the individual practitioner forms their own cultural idea of the Christ (as I’m calling this focus of contemplation here), whatever fits their specific psychology best. Basically: if two mystic Christians aren’t imagining the exact same person anyway when they picture Christ, then what’s actually different from a Baháʼí contemplating Baháʼu’lláh.

Of course in the real world religious organizations and institutions are supremely invested in you dressing in the right way, performing the rites in the right way, praying at the right times in the right places with the right technique. Mystics have always been more lax about that sort of thing, even being fairly willing to cross boundaries to touch base with mystics from other religions. That makes a fair bit of sense when you remember that the core of the mystic credo is about existentialist practice: your task is to discover the spiritual heart of the universe, so as to know how to live. That’s a concern that’s not at all limited to Christianity.

But, other religions… so how about Buddhism, isn’t mystic Buddhism again just mystic Christianity except with a different historical Christ? With full understanding of how complex large religions are, the answer seems to be yes and no: I absolutely don’t think that there is any particular unique insight in folk mysticism that treats Buddha as, well, a Christ. If your mystic practice basically amounts to thinking really hard about Buddha in the hopes of gaining some divine insight, that’s just mystic Christianity all over again. (Or mystic Christianity is guru-focused Buddhism, either way.)

However, with Buddhism we also encounter a religion that actually has different ideas about mysticism as well. The “Buddha is a guru” thing is fairly common in Buddhism-as-practiced, I understand, but there are also other firmly attested variations on Buddhist mysticism that don’t advice contemplating a guru. So that’s a different mystic religion, right? They’re not all the same!

To be specific, there’s again several of these, but consider Zen Buddhism as a clear example: Zen itself is a mystic practice instead of a religion (or alongside being a religion, whatever), so that simplifies perceiving its mystic teaching. Said teaching in a nutshell is that by sitting and staring at a wall long enough you can become capable of hearing yourself think, and this is the key to mystic enlightenment. For our purposes the significance in this very technically precise rendition of the Zen teaching is that it specifically shies away from imagining a Christ. In Zen that would, to my understanding, be considered meditating wrong.

But still, I’m sure you can see how, when we reduce spiritual traditions to their mystic cores, even the differences that remain don’t seem so very great as to go to war over. The Christian thinks that they can perceive the face of God by imagining a Christ, the Zen Buddhist thinks that they can perceive quantum reality by disassociating from their ego illusion. The mystic goal of plugging that human unsatisfaction and becoming a happy, purposeful person is the same even if their particular doctrine of mysticism is different.

Islam has been bothering me in this study of mystic religions. There is historically attested mystic Islam, of course, that’s not at question, but I’m wondering whether the mystic doctrine is basically the same as in the Christian version… that is, should the muslim mystic imagine God as a person when contemplating and communing with God? Is that in accord with the essential core cosmology? If they do, it’s technically again the same exact doctrine as in mystic Christianity, just with the guru figure imagined as an ahistorical transcendent person instead of somebody historical. But it seems to me that Islam is just diffuse enough in this regard to allow you to go in different directions as well. (For real historical mysticism you can just read up on the doctrines, that’s not difficult. I’m more musing about what the culture of Islamic practice boils down to in its mystical essence. Is God a person you imagine interacting with?)

What makes me such a mystic authority here?

In case you’re wondering, I’m as secular as they come myself, but I’m interested in the function of the human mind. So the mystic practice (that fairly obviously arises from the specific structure and function of the human brain) is interesting just for that. I also have a long-held pet theory about artistic inspiration and religious inspiration being basically the same order of thing; it just gets interpreted in cultural context. Basically, mystics will call their rush of inspiration an encounter with the divine, while artists call theirs “artistic inspiration”. It’s not such an unimportant mental phenomenon for materialists either, after all. And I’ve honed my inspiration my entire life, so insofar as that’s at all applicable I think I might understand a thing or two about how the mystic experience works.

For an illustrative example of what artistic inspiration is like, consider this little essay about the big picture of mysticism in Christianity. If I was a mystic instead of an artist, I might tell you that supernatural revelation came to me and explained to me how mysticism works. But because I’m not a mystic in that cultural sense, what I say instead is that my mind started wandering, and I started wondering, and these ideas started pestering me until I had to release myself from them by forcing them into words.

Monday: Coup de Main #66

So I returned to GM our Monday Coup after the lengthy hiatus. The current plan is that we’ll keep messing with some simple dungeoneering at the Castle Greyhawk megadungeon until Tuomas finishes his move, at which point the campaign focus swings back to Gnarley. Sort of keep the ball rolling all along.

As I discussed in the last newsletter, we already had a nice adventure hook to focus the new delving a bit: the Elfquest is a brave, romantic affair wherein eladrin prince Viusdul Daro is leading an expedition to recover the Oracle of Zagyg, a strange item of divination that should help him locate where the fair elven princess Sarana has been spirited. This entire affair has crossed over with the campaign earlier in a convoluted way that doesn’t really matter for the current concerns: the important part is that there’s a McGuffin in the form of the oracle somewhere in the Castle, and there’s like 6k XP hanging on helping Viusdul Daro retrieve it.

I think that Castle Zagyg (the adventure module I’m using for the Castle here) is a bounteous opportunity for maneuver in general, the way it’s constructed; it’s a bit like the classic Caverns of Chaos, with lots of cave entrances to consider. A great setup for allowing the players to take hold of their own destiny, and the very opposite of a linear dungeon.

This maneuver freedom shows up beautifully in how the Elfquest is developing compared to our last expedition to the Castle, the saga of the Barbican Bandits: the dungeon (in a fairly general sense of the term, considering the massive size of the installation) is the same, but with the elves having a slightly different purpose in the Castle, and slightly different sociopolitics, they didn’t end up entering the Castle in a remotely similar way to the Barbican Bandits. Instead of going through the titular barbican (now occupied by Selintan Rangers after the PC adventurers handed it off earlier), the Elfquest focused on divining a way into the Castle through the cavern entrances looming in the Castle buff, the great rock upon which the Castle itself rises. The Mouths of Madness, as they’re so charmingly called.

I haven’t been gaming at all over the last few months, busy as I’ve been writing, so I was not the most facile with the campaign practices. We got by, and fortunately the session’s actual content proved to be fairly innocuous, mainly relating to a bunch of doors. The adventuring party was very paranoid about doors this night for whatever reason, so most of the playtime was about carefully approaching and observing those. There was also an encounter with seemingly pointlessly random blue mice, but overall the session’s main contributions were strategic: we now have a fairly good sense for how the Elfquest gets to the Castle, what kind of base camp they have, where they’re trying to go, and so on.

All in all, we have a solid situation lined up. As long as Tuomas keeps busy adulting for a couple of weeks, who knows what we might yet achieve here.

Session #67 is scheduled for tomorrow, Monday 22.11., starting around 16:00 UTC. Feel free to stop by if you’re interested in trying the game out or simply seeing what it’s like.

State of the Productive Facilities

The Muster manuscript is now 10k words long, so apparently I wrote 8k words of that stuff this week. Not bad for a late iteration draft that feels like it’s going to get into the book! I suppose I could write more about the particulars, but maybe I’ll save that for later. In a week or two I’ll have a full manuscript if all goes well.

4 thoughts on “New on Desk #99 — Subjective Christianity”

  1. I’m no expert on Christian mysticism, but I think you downplay the need for Christian tradition. If I understood you right, a mystic Christian is a practitioner of “the guru veneration in prayer”. But if the particulars of the said guru are meaningless, what makes it “Christian”? Isn’t it just a mystic?

    If we look at the mystic tradition in Christianity, it’s very much rooted in the Christian tradition. For an example, the meditation of the suffering of the Christ is a key element and wouldn’t work if there was no weight to the historical matter. Of course you could say that this is an example of mysticism tamed by religion, but I don’t know how else you could call it “Christian”.

    That is to say, there’s definitely Christians who have set aside the Christian tradition and focused on their own inner mystic experience. However, isn’t it incidental that they happen to be Christians? They could be Baháʼís or Sikhs or spiritual people without any religious background just as well.

    1. I guessed that insofar as anybody’s reading these, that would come up. (Thanks for asking!) A few words on what a mystic gains from a religious tradition:

      Mystical contemplation occurs over a set of cognitive ideas that a human has. When I defined “mystic Christianity” there, I was attempting a reductionist, essential definition: the important core of what differentiates this set of mystic ideas from another set. What I ended up with was the “guru meditation” thing where you imagine an anthropomorphic figure that you interact with in prayer.

      However, of course practical mysticism also involves more details than that. As you say, contemplating Salvation is historically big in Christianity, to the extent that some spiritual teachers consider it the defining feature of Christianity. Other examples of cultural history that exists and is available for a Christian mystic to consider include all of the Biblical and church history storytelling cruft (all of it, just pick whatever if you feel like it), the mystery of the Eucharist, martyrdom gore/victim fantasizing, and more.

      The reason I stripped away all of that in my observations about mystic Christianity (which I’m sort of treating as a suggested mystic discipline here rather than a historical phenomenon, right?) is simply that if you take the mystic premise seriously and prioritize personal mystic practice, then you have to distinguish between method and topic: the method is contemplation/meditation/prayer, the topic is Salvation/Eucharist/martyrdom/St. Brigit’s boobs. And, the specific suggestion about how mystic Christianity further classifies among the set of mystic practices: it claims that the key to enlightenment is contemplation of the God-Man-Teacher, the Christ. That can of course be a subject matter of mystic practice, you can contemplate the person of Christ specifically, but it can also be the method of mystic contemplation.

      The gist of what I was saying in that piece is, I guess, that there is a technical difference between impersonal Zen state contemplation where you’re trying to observe your own thoughts, and personality-directed prayer contemplation where you’re talking to an anthropomorphic imagination buddy and getting mystic feedback from them. So that’s why it’s specifically “mystic Christianity” and not just “definition of what mysticism is”. There’s a “Christ”, an imagined guru, involved.

      To be clear, I think that most historical Christian mysticism has been mystic Christianity in the sense presented here: the mystic prioritizes their own spiritual practice (instead of e.g. keeping a level head and listening to the priest), and that spiritual practice is guru meditation in the form of prayer. I also included the principle of confirming mystic insight via “skeptical application” in my description of the spiritual practice of mystic Christianity in there, but I admit that I did that as an earnest recommendation more than as a logically necessary part. There are plenty of historical mystics who have, by most apparent measures, been led astray by their contemplations because they didn’t check them against external measure. Just because an idea pops up into you head during prayer should not mean blindly believing in that idea for a sane, healthy practitioner of mysticism.

      Finally, a bit more about Salvation: if I didn’t pick “personal relationship with Christ” as the defining feature of mystic Christianity, my second pick would definitely have been Salvation contemplation. The two are independent variations over the field of spiritual practice in that you can be Christ-mystic without being Salvation-mystic, and vice versa. I mainly chose to focus on describing Christ-based mysticism here because I think it’s more feasible as a mystical practice than Salvation contemplation. The latter produces narrow, humanly destructive insight that would and should be denied by the principle of mystic confirmation. Basically, the only reason that Salvation mysticism is even a thing in Christian cultural history is that the religious practice of doctrine causes loopholes where you are allowed to transmit hate as long as it’s orthodox hate. A spiritually committed (mystically oriented?) religious organization would not brook all the brouhaha over the doctrine of salvation.

      In comparison, Christ-contemplation is to my understanding a fairly harmless, possibly even positive mystic practice. Focusing your mystic meditation and prayer on understanding and learning from the god-man-best-pal-full-of-love is likely to produce mystic insight that passes the sanity check, which is something you can’t say about the “only the elect will be saved, repent now!” stuff you get by accepting mystic insight about the mystery of Salvation. If I was the Pope, I’d just simplify this entire business by forbidding good Christians from pretending that a) salvation matters to their lives and practice, and b) they have the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and are therefore qualified to obsess over the matter. The mystic Christian would, and should, call bullshit on that entire authority-hierarchy approach to the idea of the Christ. Ask Christ in prayer, and he’ll tell you that you’re saved, no worries buddy. I’ll wait.

      (In case it’s not clear what I meant there about Salvation and hate: Salvation contemplation works by the mystic first convincing themself about their own total depravity, which forms the axiomatic background for understanding the doctrine of salvation. It’s basically a practice of mystifying your own self-hatred. By its fruits you should know that nothing good comes of that.)

      And one more thing, because clearly I have a lot to say about this: I would certainly be interested in more ideas about what it is about Christ that makes them a distinct and different guru to contemplate on, practically speaking. Is it just the cultural historical cruft that is different? Like, when you contemplate the Baháʼu’lláh, you view a picture of them as an icon and light some incense, which then produces a different mystic experience than when you contemplate Christ like a good protestant and don’t do those things. I’m pretty sure it’s not the carpentry, at least; there’s no special merit to that occupation that makes a guru more effective to contemplate on. It could be the Salvation, but as I discussed above, that doesn’t seem to accord with my mystic understanding, and it seems fairly common for mystics-who-are-Christian to basically treat that as a non-concern; it may be the case that Christ Died for Your Sins, but that doesn’t seem to be essential to building a mystic relationship in prayer with the Great Teacher. Also, all of these other guru meditation practices practically treat the guru as a savior, too, even if it’s not an explicit cosmic-grade doctrine. (And for Buddhism it totally is, so… same mysticism?)

      1. But then again, while it does seem to me that Salvation is secondary to Christ-in-Love for efficacious mystic Christianity… historically Salvation has clearly been a hell of a drug for Christians, mystic and otherwise. It’s a cultural obsession that at times seems to swallow the entire religion. It is an inspiration replete with hate doctrine and bad spiritual practice, but it is also what historical Christianity is. So maybe I shouldn’t be calling “mystic Christianity” that without acknowledging and incorporating the Salvation?

        And furthermore, for all that I rag on Salvation (strictly as a mystic spirituality practice, you understand), it has one thing speaking in its favour in mysticism: the feelings of inadequacy and yearning for salvation may, in moderation, act as a motivating factor that encourages spiritual practice. So even if I don’t think that the substantial doctrines and ideas involved in Salvation contemplation are healthy, a small dose of Salvation doctrine might be practically useful in getting a person to start spiritual practice. As long as they end up contemplating Christ instead of contemplating Hell, that could work out and end up in a positive place spiritually (by the mystic subjective measure, I mean; theologically speaking all these mystics go to Hell because they don’t believe in the right sky fairy tales, of course).

        But I wouldn’t characterize that as Salvation being essential to mystic Christianity, I’d just say that human feelings of inadequacy are one of the many reasons why humans get interested in spiritualism in the first place. So it’s not that I think that contemplating Salvation is particularly useful, just that sometimes being encountered by the idea of Salvation seems to introduce people to Christ. From the mystic perspective of practicing constructive, healthy spiritualism, we could say that the mystic-in-prayer should be a person who is not plagued by feelings of total depravity, and to get there you might need the idea of Salvation. But that’s not the same as making Salvation a cornerstone of your contemplative practice. The difference is fairly clear: somebody who accepts Salvation (perhaps after a religious ritual experience, like Baptism or whatever!) and is thus able to move forward is helped in building a healthy self-image, while somebody who contemplates Salvation is stuck in a poisonous spiritual practice. So don’t contemplate/pray over your own worthlessness kids, that’s not a fruitful use of your time. Rather drop mystical practice until you get your head screwed in straight by whatever means, then come back to contemplation when you can feel good about yourself.

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