New Zealand blogger Glynn Cardy, an Anglican vicar who goes by the name of "Lucky Bear", has a wonderful way with words, and he has just posted in the last two days a couple of entries that I particularly enjoyed. The most recent one, titled "Religious Experience and Sacred Writings", addresses head on the problem of finding our way to a well-constructed theological foundation for religious belief. He points out that neither mystical experiences nor sacred writings are in and of themselves sufficient for developing a robust and ethical theology. Mystical experiences, for example, do not necessarily grant us an ethical or theological foundation for producing a religious system. In response to that, some might claim that these required but missing elements of developed theology can be supplied by the holy scriptures. But he rightly points out that this can lead to a naive literalism.: "To fail to bring all our whole self, including our critical and academic faculties, to our reading is to not take the Bible seriously." He also notes that "All sacred writings, including the Bible, are written by people. The authors are people with foibles, as well as insights....Just because sacred writings are old does not mean they are right. Just because church councils have said they are inspired by God does not make them free from error or relevant to our world today."
Mystical experiences may not alone provide any foundation for an ethical system or a theology of social justice. Jesus was, in the words of Marcus Borg, a "spirit person", but he was more than just that. Mysticism alone does not define ethical religion.
I suppose the suggestion that mystical experiences alone are not enough to grant us any kind of definitive window into a single theological truth should be self-evident. It must be recognized that people around the world from a variety of cultures and faith traditions have had mystical experiences, but have interpreted them quite differently; this speaks to the fact that mysticism provides a direct, unmediated window into a Sacred and Infinite reality, while finite human mystics must then try to make sense of those experiences. The way we make sense of such things is colored by our personalities, our cultures, and our preexisting ideas about God and the universe. That is why there are so many religions in the world, and that is how different religions can provide different conduits to the Sacred.
The Bible, as Glynn Cardy points out, is also a human product. Not only were the writers of the Bible human beings, but so were the members of the church councils that decided what went into and what didn't go into the Bible. For a long time, during the early history of the faith, the question of what constituted New Testament "scripture" was up in the air. Early Christian communities created collections of works that they considered authoritative and scriptural at the time, and these collections weren't always the same with each other and in many cases they didn't exactly match what made the final cut. The Didache? The Epistle of Barnabas? The First Epistle of Clement? Modern Christians do not include those works in their weekly lectionary, but some of their predecessors treated those works as scripture. Meanwhile, some works, such as the epistles of Peter, largely made it into the canon on the mistaken belief that they had apostolic authorship. The fact that the first several generations of Christianity didn't have the same definitive canon that modern Christians have doesn't sit well with the idea that the Bible serves as the final arbiter of religious truth. It also calls into question the idea of a rigid delineation between canonical and non-canonical.
The idea that God is more expansive than our finite, human ability to capture Him or Her through interpretations of mystical experiences or through scriptural writings relates to what Glynn Cardy has also written in his other recent posting. He points out that the notion of God as a Cosmic Superman is one of the most common ways that many Christians conceive of God. Ironically, by constructing this Cosmic Superman, a sort of man-of-steel in the sky with great powers, humans have actually provided a limiting way of conceiving of God's infinite nature. As a paradigm for God, it is in some ways comforting to humans, because it imagines God as a Divine Fixer of Things, a controlling intervener, much as we love stories of superheroes in our comic books; but it represents a kind of limiting, anthropomorphic representation of God's infinite reality.
He closes the blog posting with a bit of masterful prose:
In the Bible this moulding of God repeatedly happens, and repeatedly the spirit of transformational love iconoclastically breaks those moulds. God is bigger than anthropomorphic constructs. It is easy to read the Bible and collect all the references to prove that supergod exists. It is also not that difficult to read the Bible and find the ongoing iconoclastic tradition. We need to expel the cosmic superman back to the Krypton of our needy imagination.