A Skeptic and a Mystic Walk into a Bar

Part I – The Personal Side of Mysticism Resistance

I am meeting more and more thinking people, who surprise me, by saying that their Christian faith has now taken them into mysticism. I’ve always known the unthinking types who preferred the mystical approach to faith. Those that would feel God, hear God talking to them very directly, even in real, audible words, or having emotional experiences that defile explanation. They would see the face of Mary in a cloud or the shape of a cross in a water stain on a rock and know that God had put it there just for them.

I, personally, have dabbled in mysticism. It happened during my junior year of college when the charismatic movement was sweeping through our campus. I was involved with a chapter of The Navigators and historically, they had not had a charismatic leaning. But like all trends of culture, eventually, a popular idea penetrates deep into the crevasses of all of the society (in this case, Christian society). It is hard to hold back a wave of the sea with such momentum.

My experimenting was a strange fit for me. Indeed, I may have been the very last person in our group to take this path. It was only when the social pressure became overbearing did I take the plunge. The reason that it was not a natural fit is that I’ve had some type of unusual wiring in my brain, that has always rendered me as the most skeptical person of any group I’ve been a part of. I can remember even in elementary school, being pointed out as a non-believer. That was specifically, as a nonbeliever in Christian things (which was heretical in the Bible belt), or in general things, like Big Foot’s existence or UFOs.

I suspect that I have some, yet un-named, position on the spectra of Asperger’s syndrome. I excelled in things that required reason (I got to teach a high school class in earth sciences when I was only 13 and won the physics category of the regional science fair), but did poorly in language (spelling, grammar) and in social skills. I’m not trying to make myself sound special and we all are on some spectra of personality and rationality. My point is that I’ve always been extremely rational and I think it was genetic more than learned. I also have children who have these same traits. In other words, we relate, in a very personal way, to the Klingons of Star Trek.

My mystical experience as a junior happened during my night-time sessions of walking and praying. The walking and praying at night was a habit of mine when I was with The Navigators. I would do this every night for up to an hour. But before my mystical detour, I would pray rationally. I would pray about things in the world and in my life, seeking God to resolve them, using clear English.

One day my spiritual leader, who by nature was on the polar other end of personality from me, very social and mystical by nature, suggested that I seek a new, higher level with God. He pointed out that it would need to be non-rational—if not anti-rational—in the approach. Tom emphasized that if I had this experience, it would make me more spiritual. I wanted to be spiritual. There was a great peer pressure to be spiritual. I remember one by one of our group would come to the breakfast table in the cafeteria describing their mystical experiences from the previous night. As they told their stories, the others in the group would be very impressed. I wanted to impress people too.

I felt uncomfortable with my quest for the mystical, at least at first. But I started to pray, in my rational voice, that God would do something supernatural in my prayer experience. I wanted to be special too.

Then I started to try and stir myself up emotionally, into a frenzy.  I started to pray and speak gibberish (voluntarily) and continue working up my emotions in a corkscrew pattern, into higher and higher levels of bliss. Because I was doing this from social pressure, I was happy to report back to my peer group that I, too, had a supernatural experience. I could read the smiles on their faces of approval.

My mystical Christcharismatic_chaos08ianity did not last long. In my heart of hearts, I knew it was fake. I’ve always been an honest person, at least to myself. I understood human emotions enough (I was working on a degree in psychology at the time) that I was aware of how easy self-deception can be constructed when there was a will to do so. We all had such a resolve to have that construct. We all wanted to be spiritual.

The climax of my mystical endeavor led me to an off-campus “Full Gospel” group. One of the Christians in my dorm had been asking me for months to come with him. Finally, I went. I will summarize here by saying it was horrible orgy of emotional masturbation, self-deception, and the manipulation of others. To me, it was an anti-spiritual experience. I sensed God was more distant and more obscure to me immediately after that meeting. The details of this experience are in my book, Butterflies in the Belfry.

I felt a period of discouragement as my peers continued down this path and I stepped off the charismatic train and waved goodbye to them. I think each of them ended up in one form of disillusionment or another. Several eventually left Christianity altogether because the corkscrew of experiences–following the law of diminishing returns–took them to higher and higher planes, but left wanting. A couple, by no coincidence, leaped from charismatic Christianity into LSD and other hallucinogenic substances (which they had experienced before their conversions). One of them had been the leader of the local Campus Crusade chapter. Others went down the rabbit holes of various peculiar cults and the most just returned to normal, secular life with no spiritual interest whatsoever. I have never had a desire to seek the mystical since that experience.

In my present church, there is a broad cross-section of thinking. But even here, there is one group that has charismatic tendencies. I was in a small group (very small) and a reasonable option was suggested that we combine with a much larger group. It was during my first meeting with this larger group that the conversation quickly turned into the mystical.We had just had one of those terrible high school shootings and it became clear within the thinking of some in the group, that the motivation of the shooting had nothing to do with the rational particulars. These specifics include the fact that the boy was being abused at home, was being abused at home, just had a painful betrayal of a girlfriend (per the shooter’s perspective), and had readily access to unpermitted weapons. But members of this group cited the fact that rumors had spread that the community (it was a native-American community) had been dabbling in the occult and they were sure the shooting was the result of demonic oppression.

I had a problem with that perspective because when you have mystical causes to problems, you cannot find rational solutions. The finisher for me was moving then into a session of tongue-speaking and other mystical experiences.

I left this group, but with kind words for them. I simply made it clear that I love them, want to be their friends, but it was not the right fit for us. I said nothing else. Yet, I received a couple of e-mails that suggested that maybe I was not the right fit because I was not a spiritual person. That is the typical reaction in these situations.

I’m going to pause at this juncture before I move away from my personal stories and continue in the broader thoughts about the history of mysticism and why it is so popular again today. But first I want to clarify why I am writing on this topic. I am not writing this two-part post just to be critical of the mystics. I am not writing it just to share my story as if I need a place to vent. I don’t. My goal is to communicate to those, like me, who feel uncomfortable with mysticism so they know that they are not alone and to know that mysticism is not a higher run on a spiritual hierarchical ladder, to which they must aspire.  Mike


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