From Mysticism to the Internet

January 21, 2018 — Rev. Ned Dougherty
Lessons: Jonah 3:1, Psalm 62: 6-14, Mark 1:14-20


My wife says that I may be trying to cover too much territory in one sermon, so I thought I would summarize it one sentence: From mysticism to the internet age in 15 minutes. Here goes.

How many of you would consider yourselves Mystics? Or have had some kind of mystical experience?  A few.

Frankly, the idea of being a mystic scares the Hell out of me, which is, I guess, what it is supposed to do.

Still, I don’t want God speaking to me and telling me to go to Nineveh any more than Jonah did. If you remember the full story of Jonah, when God spoke to him and told him to go to Nineveh to speak against the people there who were doing wicked things, Jonah ran away in the opposite direction. He found a ship going to Spain to get as far away from Nineveh as possible. But the Lord was undeterred and sent a strong wind on the sea to break up the ship and caused a large fish to swallow Jonah and spit him up on the shore so the next time God spoke to Jonah he obeyed.  I guess I would too but reluctantly.

I think I would feel the same way if some stranger came along while I was fishing and said follow me.  Unlike the first disciples Jesus called, Andrew and Simon, I am not so sure I would drop my nets and follow a stranger who told me to fish for people instead of fish.

These Biblical encounters with God are pretty frightening.  Look at Paul who was knocked off his horse and blinded when he had his first encounter with the divine? Or St. Francis who left his prosperous family and spent the rest of his life in cave talking to the birds. Most of the time when we think about mystical encounters with the divine, they are terrifying and life changing. The common, stereotypic view of mystics is that they are people who flagellate themselves, live as hermits, eat locusts and honey.  Their goal is to gain salvation for themselves in some future realm and the way they do that is abuse their body and deny themselves anything of material value.  If this were true then it is not at all what I want, especially at my age.

But there is a different way of thinking about mysticism that I think is important to our understanding of Christianity, especially in this day and age.  It might be easier to think about mysticism as being more about human transformation in this life, than as a way to gain salvation in a future realm.  It might be helpful to think of mysticism as an ancient form of spirituality or as a path of life-transforming contemplation.  Contemplation allows us to experience the reality of the divine in ourselves and to seek it in others here and now.

We all participate in some mystical tradition without knowing it if we spend time doing spiritual exercises or practicing contemplation. To my way of thinking mysticism is more about shifting our thought processes away from some future salvation to focusing on the immanent presence of God in our lives and in the lives of others. It has more to do with how we see ourselves and other people as embodying a divine presence. Mysticism involves seeing the close relationship between the human and divine rather than seeing a separation between the two. It is moving from a dualistic world view to a unified world view.

When we talk about finding the divine within ourselves or finding it within other people, we are using mystical language that goes back for centuries.  Whenever we experience acts of loving kindness, either as recipients or givers, we are encountering the divine, and that is the essence of a mystical experience.  It is a matter of experiencing God within ourselves and within others.

Some of you may remember a sermon I gave here last year that talked about the immanence and transcendence of God and how that played out in congregational churches like this one, and liturgical churches like the Episcopal or Roman Catholic churches.  I said then that the congregational churches place more emphasis on finding the divine in fellowship, and following the second great commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. While the liturgical churches place more emphasis on a transcendent God, finding the divine in the liturgy and emphasizing the first great commandment to love God with all your heart, mind and soul.  It is important to note that this difference is a matter of emphasis and that both traditions have element of transcendence and immanence.  The two great commandments are not an either/or choice but both/and together.

As I look at the history of religion and the concept humans have of the divine there seems to be an ongoing dialogue between these two elements of immanence and transcendence that changes with cultural circumstances.  There are times when we are overcome with a sense of Awe that comes from a transcendent reality, the ultimate source of being, the creator and redeemer of the world.  I think this is especially true when we feel the chaos of the world is too much for us to bear alone, or more especially when we feel we may have contributed to that chaos by harming others, either intentionally or inadvertently. The problem here, is that that transcendent God can get so far away from humans that He/She becomes too remote and abstract and too uncaring.

At other times there is a need to bring God down to earth and imagine an immanent God who is within us and within others.  There are times when human touch is what we need.  That in many ways is the message of the incarnation. The divine power has come down to earth in human form to give us the message that God is within us, not a distant judge or monarch. The danger here is that an immanent God can become too human, too much like us. We can make that God into our own image supporting our own prejudices and opinions.

The great question we now face is what conception of God speaks most directly to the need of our current situation?  Let me focus on just one aspect of our situation that seems to me to shape a great deal of our life, and that is the way we communicate with one another. I might ask for one more show of hands to demonstrate the importance of this factor by asking how many of you have a cell phone in their pocket or purse, or at home? Almost everyone.

Electronic means of communication via the internet may be the most important single factor influencing our life together and influencing our religious life together in ways we are only just beginning to understand. There are two factors about how the internet affects our communication. First, it allows us to select what information we want to believe is true.  We choose what to believe based on what supports our identity and our own world view. If we believe the world is being infiltrated by aliens from outer space, we can easily find evidence to support that view. Second, the internet puts us in touch with hundreds, if not thousands of others who may share our views. This possibility divides us into a multitude of tribal groups, each of which is fighting to establish its own identity, often in direct opposition to other groups.   We can create a vast network or even a political movement based, for example, on our fear of aliens from outer space. We can even get the government to spend money on researching information about those aliens.

I think a strong case can be made that the God of the mystics offers a possible alternative to meet the needs of the internet world. First, it brings our concept of God down to earth, down to a personal level, and second, it gives us an opportunity to unite all of creation and link human beings together in a unified whole rather than dividing them into tribal groups.

Let me briefly expand each of those two points.  First, virtually all mystic traditions emphasize that the way to connect with the divine is through subjective experience as opposed to rational processes.  While we may not want to be swallowed by a big fish like Jonah or thrown from a horse and blinded like Paul, they both testify to the fact that encounters with the divine happen at the gut level of experience. It is not something we encounter through reason or logical thought processes. For most, this encounter with the divine is not so dramatic as Jonah’s or Paul’s, but it is something that comes through a gradual awakening and in quiet contemplation revealing the divine within ourselves and within others.  At the same time, this awareness of the divine in ourselves and others requires intelligence, discipline and self-criticism, if we are to avoid the danger of making God into our own image.

Second, awareness of the divine in all of creation breaks down barriers and divisions between us.  Looking for the divine in everyone moves us beyond tribal identities. If we see all of creation united by the divine image, then we are given a new identity that embraces all of creation.  We no longer need to prove ourselves as unique and separated from others when we can envision ourselves as children of God united with one another.

So, in closing, let me suggest that perhaps those first disciples Jesus called to follow him were able to see the divine presence in that man and it awakened the awareness of the divine presence within each of them so they had no trouble laying down their nets and following Jesus.

Second, let me suggest that we put down our internets; our cell phones, tablets, and lap-tops and spend a few minutes each day contemplating our union with God and looking for the divine with each other. Amen