The Rise of the Mystics

Pew Research Center has reported that from 2007 – 2014 the “unaffiliateds” (those who claim no religious affiliation), otherwise known as the “nones,” rose from 16% to 23%. This trend has been dubbed, “The Rise of the Nones.”  However, interestingly enough from 1962 to 2009 the number of people who said they’d had a mystical or spiritual experience that had a significant impact on their lives rose from 22% to 48%. At the conference I was at a few weeks ago, Diana Butler Bass suggested we’re focusing on the wrong trend… it isn’t the rise of the “nones,” but the rise of the mystics.

(For the full audio, click here.)

John Shelby Spong, when talking about the future of the church, said that we must end dualistic thinking, end the dichotomy of the Divine and human. It sounds almost heretical, but it is exactly what Jesus was preaching when over and over again when he said that he and God were one, and this ONENESS was the Way. The name of the game is opening oneself to discovering the Divine within and working toward living in that space of unity. That is mysticism.

Biblical mystical experiences abound. Pentecost, this last Sunday, is a great example of a direct mysticspersonal encounter with the Divine. And then there was the burning bush, all the angel appearances, Joseph’s (either one) dreams, the prophets who heard from God, Samuel responding to God’s call by saying “Here I am, Lord,” the resurrection stories… we could go on and on.

Wayne Teasdale, Catholic monk and Hindu sannyasi, in his book The Mystic Heart, has said, “[The] mystical tradition, which underpins all genuine faith, is the living source of religion itself. It is the attempt to possess the inner reality of the spiritual life, with its mystical, or direct, access to the divine… Everything stems from mysticism, or primary religious experience, whether it be revelation or a personal mystical state of consciousness… We need religion, yet we need direct contact with the divine, or ultimate mystery, even more. Religions are valuable carriers of the tradition within a community, but they must not be allowed to choke out the breath of the spirit, which breathes where it will.”


Yet, I think this is precisely what churches are doing – choking out the breath of the spirit – perhaps sometimes unwittingly, but doing nonetheless. Frankly, I think there are three reasons for this:

One, I’m not sure all pastors really believe in it. I think they’ve been convinced that what God wants is for people to simply follow the rules, worship, and be obedient. That’s what they call “making disciples of Christ.” But the disciples Jesus tried to create were mystics, like himself. He tried valiantly to get them past the constraints of Jewish laws, and occasionally succeeded. But this scared the Jewish authorities then, and it scares the church authorities now.

Two, churches are afraid of what they can’t control. You can’t control the spirit and you can’t control people’s experiences. So, it is better if they just don’t believe they were meant to have any. Let them believe all the amazing one-on-one encounters with the Divine ended when the Bible was finished being written. Diana Butler Bass told us a story about a pastor who went on a retreat and had a mystical experience during contemplative prayer that changed her life. After she shared this experience with her congregation, she was fired.

Three, they feel that if everyone can experience God on their own, then what do you need the church for?

Rabbi Rami Shapiro said, “Faith is the human capacity to awaken to the Divine Reality. Faith is a liberating phenomenon.” Here is mysticism again that brings us to faith. But not a faith of specific beliefs and behaviors, faith that liberates.

The experience of Pentecost as they awakened to the Divine Presence was a liberating one! The disciples stop hiding behind locked doors, or feeling the need to follow Jewish law, they go forth into the world and share the message they’ve been given – come hell or high water. It all finally clicks in their heads for good and they are no longer afraid of even death. They have experienced the reality of God with them, they are high on the spirit, and know that the loss of their physical body will not be the end.

Wayne Teasdale insists that “We are all mystics!” Let us rise, experience that oneness, and let it change the world, because that is exactly what it is doing.




Spiritual Revolution

I’ve been hearing this for a while now, that there is a spiritual revolution – or awakening – happening around the world. Last weekend at a conference on “Re-imagining Faith” for progressive Christians I saw the statistics to back this up. Basically, reports from the Pew Research Center reveal that over the course of seven years, from 2007 to 2014, the number of people in the U.S. who consider themselves “unaffiliated” to any religion increased 6.7%, from 16.1% to 22.8% of the population. The younger you are, the less likely you are to be affiliated to a specific religious group, plus these “unaffiliateds” are becoming less and less religious.

(For the full audio version, click here.)

The interesting dynamic to note is that while our country is becoming less religious, 89% of people still believe in God. And, more and more people say that they have had a significant mystical experience in their life (up from 22% in 1962 to 49% in 2009). Clearly, they are finding God in new and different ways that do not require an institution, and in fact, may be completely different from what they learned in the institution, thus making the institution irrelevant.

The bottom line is that this trend is continuing… more people are leaving organized religion, but more people are experiencing God in mystical ways, in ways that the church hasn’t traditionally taught. The church can not continue to do what it has been doing and expect to get these folks to come back, or come in the first place.

All three speakers at the conference this past weekend, Bishop John Shelby Spong, Diana Butler Bass, and Rabbi Rami Shapiro, advocated for a huge shift in theology, thought and language, in order for the church to keep up with this spiritual revolution.

Diana Butler Bass talked about the cultural, political, and theological divide between those who see the world, theology, and God vertically and those who experience it horizontally. Because of the ancient understanding of the three-tiered universe (heaven – earth – hell), Christian theology and structure has been vertical, top-down. It goes something like this: God, the Almighty Father in Heaven, is “up there” where He can mete out punishments and blessings as He finds appropriate. He sent Jesus down and required that Jesus die for the sins of worthless humanity, then Jesus ascended bodily back up into heaven where he is seated at the right hand of God the Father and will come again to judge the living and the dead. Then we have the hierarchy in the church (God – priests – man – woman – children – earth), and even the design of the sanctuaries that draw our gaze up to the heavens where God, Jesus and the angels (and people, too, if you were good enough) live.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro said to us that this God died in Dachau. How could this God of the Chosen People allow the execution of 6 million innocent Jews? Why wasn’t God protecting them? Where was God?Grounded

Now we want to know where God is amidst the rubble of the World Trade Center, the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, the tsunami in Haiti, human trafficking, ISIS, the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school. Where is God?

When the answers come we don’t buy the answers like “God killed those people because they liked homosexuals” or “God is waiting in heaven to judge them.” Diana Butler Bass, in her book Grounded, says that the most repeated answer in crisis situations today, and apparently the most comforting, is that “God was with them when they died.”

This is not a vertical axis answer, this is a horizontal axis answer.

What does this horizontal axis look like? First, and foremost, it is experiential and mystical. One does not need a priest or pastor to tell you who God is, or how you will experience God. The Divine of the horizontal axis is a presence, spirit or essence that is integral, interwoven and entwined with creation. Inclusion, equality, and justice are key words. The earth and her creatures are sacred and are part of the web of life. Science is embraced and integrated with faith. And, worship, ideally, would happen in a circle, not in rows of pews with a preacher looking down from their pulpit.

The Spiritual Revolution will not destroy the church, unless the church refuses to acknowledge it. It is time to take God out of the sky in our theology, our language, our prayers, our liturgy, our songs. It is time to listen for the whisper of the Divine everywhere, time to place our feet on the ground and recognize the sacredness of what we’re doing, time to see our relationships with all things as sacred, time to celebrate the cycles of the seasons and embrace the wisdom of other faiths and traditions. It is time to go back to the basic instruction of the commandment of Jesus, the Golden Rule and work for justice and equality. It is time to honor the earth and protect it. It is time to broaden our horizons instead of trying to climb the ladder. It’s time to rethink it all.

Peace, Salam, Shalom,