Relevant Faith: A Transpersonal Orientation to Christian Doctrine

By: Alexander Ciurana

A few months ago I was engaged in a conversation about Christian doctrine and whether or not certain teachings were true; that is to say real. It soon became evident that religious ethos is always accompanied by pathos. In other words, Christian doctrine evokes, and is inseparable from feeling among the devout. Therefore, a clean and tidy break between religious teaching and religious feeling is unrealistic. And, if this is granted, then religion and psychology meet without any firm boundaries.

Although a richly intellectual and systematic approach to theology has been dominant for much of Western history, it has proved less than satisfying in fostering existential meaning and celebration of mystery. Instead, many cardinal doctrines serve religious exclusivity, thus isolating people of faith from each other and from the common image of God (imago Dei) within themselves. A transpersonal orientation to Christian doctrine may serve to bridge this gap without sacrificing Christian uniqueness. Five areas of doctrine will be examined: sin (hamartiology), salvation (soteriology), the Trinity (theology proper), the second coming of Christ (parousia / eschatology), and the canonization and inspiration of the Bible (bibliology and pneumatology). These five are chosen because of their potential to create deep rifts between world Faiths, and even among Christian denominations. A transpersonal approach to these doctrines — while perhaps not satisfying the most fundamentalist of minds — can bring much peace and ecumenism among faith groups corporately and within the hearts of persons individually.

Sin

Sin is often viewed today as an obsolete moral vestige: a feeling of guilt made especially palpable by the wagging, bony finger of a church member or parent. It is imagined that in these enlightened days each person may roam the jungles of ethics in a rather isolated, to each his own sort of way. But even a slightly deeper glance at the matter yields a pervasive, multi-layered dynamic: “The reality of sin comes clear to us…when we reflect upon the intractability of our own and of our companions’ capacities for self-righteousness and destructive hatred in dealing with each other” (Fowler, 1981/1995, p. 210). Thus, sin—though it carries much autocratic religious baggage—is nonetheless “personal, corporate, and cosmic in character” (Fowler, p. 210).

Yet, in transpersonal studies, sin is rarely given mention. When it does receive attention, it is usually too quickly demythologized. As examples, consider Louis Janssen’s doctoral dissertation “Transpersonal Psychology: A Christian Perspective” (1981) and Patricia Moorehead’s dissertation “The Experience of Transformation in Christian Mysticism: Interviews with Nine Roman Catholic Contemplatives” (2001).

Sin, in Janssen’s treatment, is already forgiven by God and spiritual health largely rests upon the realization that the Divine condemns no one (pp. 136-139). Moorehead dismisses traditional views of sin, preferring Jungian shadow work as a method to “increase the freedom and responsibility…of decision making” (p. 352). With sin so speedily made innocuous, Jansen moves on to mystical encounters such as Meister Eckhart’s idea of the soul’s journey back to God (pp. 186-187) and the parallel Eastern notion of involution and evolution (p. 187).

Morehead’s emphases are similar in her qualitative research among nine devout Catholics (three of whom were priests) already fairly trained in mystical encounters: speaking in “tongues” (p. 324), divine silence (p. 337), and non-duality regarding right and wrong, good and bad (p. 351) round off some of the experiences the participants related. To Moorehead’s credit, she does include a section on the transformative power modeled in the Eucharistic ceremony (pp. 358-360). This is a valuable aspect of her research since many transpersonal orientations tend to exclude the so-called “institutionalized” acts of spirituality in favor of more individualistic, nearly hermitic mysticism.

Janssen and Moorehead are certainly to be commended for their thought-provoking coalescence of Christian practice and transpersonal psychology. In many ways their work demonstrates that Christianity still has the necessary goods to engage the modern person with wholistic depth. Yet, without detracting from these benefits, I see a peculiar tendency that deserves some attention. It would seem that within transpersonal psychology a general dismissal of sin, in its traditional and classical understanding, is too hastily accomplished. Transpersonal studies have an affinity for higher states, full integration, and divine oneness, and so may sometimes overlook the hell a Christian is experiencing in the here and now. While a good case may be made for the mystical forms of Christianity to be the most potentially transformative, one does well to remember that there are approximately two billion Christians on the planet and the vast majority of them are not mystics. Therefore, if transpersonal studies are to be of any explanatory or therapeutic help to most Christians, it cannot remain isolated in esoteric caves. It must also be about the task of demonstrating the transcendent within traditional Christianity—no matter how slight that transcendence may be. In so doing, transpersonal psychology may offer developmental lines that are incremental, meeting the person where he or she is, and this involves engaging Christianity in its traditional milieu.

Sin in Clinical Settings

It is perhaps needful at this point to note that Christianity is psyche affirming. It is not necessary to infuse or otherwise sneak in some foreign element—be it psychological or spiritual—to make Christianity sufficiently introspective. Its roots were deeply soul affirming, and this heritage is still alive today. Ellen Charry (2006) provides good commentary to this end:

Classical Christianity is thoroughly psychological because it is based on a biblically inspired understanding of the psyche, the self, the soul…It offers an analysis of the soul’s strengths and weaknesses, and suggests means for strengthening, repairing, and cultivating the soul. This is to say that Christianity is fundamentally and thoroughly a therapeutic offering, once known as the cure of souls, perhaps today more gently put as the care of souls. (pp. 576-577)

A great impetus for this Christian psychology came from Saint Augustine of Hippo sixteen centuries ago. His musings on the doctrine of the Trinity formed the basis of a tripartite human makeup, today often termed body, soul, and spirit. But Augustine’s favorite analogue was the inner workings of the human psyche itself. In De Trinitate (“On the Trinity”) his model comprised three stages, “the resulting trinities being a) the mind, its knowledge of itself, and its love of itself; b) memory or, more properly, the mind’s latent knowledge of itself, understanding…and c) the mind as remembering, knowing and loving God” (in Kelly, 2003, pp. 277-278). An earlier construct of Augustine involved the triad of human “being, knowing, and willing” (Confessions, book 13.2); and his idea of “disordered love” as the basis of sin influenced Freud’s psychopathology although, of course, Freud did not use these terms (Charry, 2006, pp. 585, 587).

The need for psychologists to understand the traditional Christian is an important one. Mainstream psychology has a tendency to pathologize religious sentiment and, as we have seen, transpersonal psychology may unwittingly favor mysticism. Specifically the doctrines of sin and grace can be quite pivotal for the overall progress of a client. And, conversely, to neglect these aspects can have negative results.

Removing notions of right and wrong may provide some temporary relief from guilt, but in a Christian worldview it also precludes the possibility of grace. Properly conceived, a Christian theology of sin does not leave a person in a state of despair or distress, but points toward a gracious God who offers forgiveness, acceptance, and love. Therapists who strip away the language of sin from Christian clients may…be taking away a source of peace and hope by foreclosing the possibility of forgiveness and grace. (McMinn, Ruiz, Marx, Wright & Gilbert, 2006, p. 296)

A Psychospiritual and Developmental Interpretation of Sin

How may a transpersonal, psychospiritual approach interpret key Christian doctrines such as sin? It seeks to affirm the real nature of a doctrine, insofar as it is part of ones phenomenological experience. In other words, I am not claiming that there is ultimate ontological extension to the idea of sin in its traditional Christian context, but what I am proposing is that such doctrines have psychological power over the devout, thus sin and other doctrinal tenets may feel as real as any other existential state. This calls for compassionate listening and wise counsel on the part of a therapist, or even a concerned friend.

In addition to the psychological reality of doctrines, there is an evolutionary, sociobiological component. Patricia Williams (2001) expounds on this very palpable element of every human being’s constitution in regards to sin.

The doctrines of original sin tell us about sin. Sin springs from concupiscence. In modern American usage, concupiscence is desire, especially strong desire…According to Orthodox and Catholic doctrine, concupiscence is natural, and it is neutral in regard to sin, being neither sinful nor good in itself. Only inordinate desires for temporal goods are sinful…Sin is a theological term, and sociobiology cannot proffer a definition of it, but it paints a clear picture of our desire for temporal goods. We want them. If we are to survive and reproduce, we must want them. We must desire resources and reproduction because we are mortal. Without them we would die and our species would become extinct. (p. 148)

Now we are closer to being able to affirm the somatic, psychic, and spiritual power of doctrines and how, if not understood on these levels, each can be a source of pain.

I will take up a generalized interpretation of sin with these three levels in mind. In my psychospiritual model (Figure 1) these three are developmental stages: animal, human animal, and divine human animal. In the animal stage of human life there is no awareness of sin because the ego has not fully emerged, therefore the self-reflective faculties and necessary category divisions do not yet exist for the sense of moral oughtness. As one progresses in early development—excepting the possibility of severe retardation or psychosis — the ego emerges and self-reflection is inevitable with the categorical divisions that come along with it. Sin may now be indoctrinated and thought of as a moral offense to God. This, of course, is colored by the religious meta-ethic and meta-narrative. It is the emerging mythic membership of the individual, not the raw biology of the human organism — although in nuanced fashion the two are never totally separate. Notwithstanding these things, what are the potential natural developmental causes of sin awareness? The causes may be found in the urges and desires of the previous animal stage still pressing in on the human animal in ways that cause feelings of guilt, especially when juxtaposed with the prevailing mores of institutionalized Christianity (not unlike Freud’s relationship between the id and superego, with the ego mitigating between the two).

In the divine human animal stage — which is not reached by merely natural capacities but involves spiritual growth — sin may be more appropriately seen as indulging one component to the detriment of another. In this way, a type of sin for the divine human animal would be to indulge the rational aspects of beingness to the detriment of spiritual aspects. Thus, sin may still be employed as a weighty term within the Christian tradition, albeit no longer requiring the eternal damnation of souls. Sin is simply the sensed developmental tension between an emerging higher stage and its previous stage. Again, that faculty which served one well in the previous stage may become a stumbling block in the next.

Salvation

In a similar fashion, salvation may also receive developmental explanation. Each successful development from one stage to the next—via the purgative, illuminative, and unitive, thresholds (Figure 1)—is a salvific adventure. This is not meant in just a religious way, but quite literally—for development saves”, preserves, refines, and perfects each previous stage of human development. For example, when one moves from the pre-egoic animal stage to the egoic human animal, the animal aspect of the human person is not lost, but purged. Our earthiness is refined in such a way as to become a better servant to our wills, rather than a despotic master. This refinement may continue upward through the illuminative threshold where a dual-refinement is encountered: now animal (urge and instinct) and hu man (ego and rationale) must make room for the divine (spirit). This is the stage of initial transformative Christian experience, whether it be acquired within mystical practice or traditional encounters of repentance and forgiveness through Christ’s atonement.

Moving from the divine human animal stage to the unitive threshold is a salvation of greater rarity—for mystics and traditionalists. In fact, there is no full stage of differentiated personhood beyond the divine human animal. As long as one remains what Boethius described as “individual substance of a rational nature” (in Geddes, 1911), there will always be a degree of abiding duality. Meister Eckhart’s writings describe this spiritual vacillation eloquently.

A saint says: “Sometimes I feel such a sweetness in my soul that I forget everything else—and myself too—and dissolve in thee. But when I try to catch it perfectly, O Lord, thou takest it away. Lord, what do you mean by that? You entice me. Then why do you withdraw? If you love me, why do you run away? Ah, Lord, you do this because you want me to have a lot of experience with you!” (1941, p. 145)

This is the foretaste of the soul returning to the Source. It is the Godhead whispering to scattered bundles of divinity. It is often unexpected yet ever immanent: “Where is this God? In eternity. Just as a man who is hiding clears his throat and thus reveals his whereabouts, so it is with God. Nobody could ever find God. He has to discover himself” (Eckhart, 1941, p. 145).

Another soteriological matter which deserves some attention is the scope of salvation. In traditional Christianity the scope is rather small. Theologian, John Killinger, humorously reflects back on this dynamic from his own conservative upbringing,

For years, if someone said he or she was “lost,” I thought immediately of that person’s spiritual situation, not of the possibility that they were geographically challenged and trying to relocate themselves in relation to recognizable landmarks. And “finding Christ” was the antidote to being lost. Christ didn’t find you; you somehow managed to find him. When we moved to Birmingham, Alabama, only a dozen years ago, my wife on her first visit to the supermarket was encountered by a woman carrying tracts who confronted her with the question, “Have you found Christ?” “I’m sorry,” said my wife with an innocent look, “I didn’t know he was lost.” (2002, p. 69)

And so it is that the straight and narrow is thought to be but a small slice of divinely favored humanity, rather than the honing and refining of all creation toward the image of God. But this need not be, even in a soteriology that is centered in the Bible. Neal Punt (1980) maintains that a biblical universalism (i.e., salvation for all, or most) is provided for particularly in the writings of Paul (viz., Romans 5). And one of the earliest commentators on the Bible, Origen, is well known for extending salvation not only to all humanity but to the devil and fallen angels as well (McGuckin, 2006). Such formulations seem irresponsible to conservative and evangelical Christians, given the many references to hell and judgment in the Bible. Much of the confusion here is rectified when one understands that the biblical Hebrew and Greek words for hell do not carry the same connotations of a very hot place of eternal torment, rather ancient Near Eastern peoples, including the Hebrews, viewed hell (sheol, hades) as merely the place of the dead (Johnston, 2002). This realization alone sets the Christian on more balanced and hermeneutically accurate ground.

A basic proposition may also provide for confidence that God is indeed able to rescue all humanity. Here the idea of the good is helpful and compelling. Pseudo-Dionysius, an enigmatic 5th or 6th century Christian neo-Platonist, develops the divine good as basic to existence itself (not unlike Saint Augustine’s treatment of the good in the 4th century, see Confessions bk. 7).

All beings, to the extent that they exist, are good and come from the Good…that which is totally bereft of the Good never had, does not have, never shall have, never can have any kind of being at all. (in Luibheid, 1987, p. 87)

Pseudo-Dionysius goes on to argue that intemperance, anger, and disease, although distortions of the Good, nonetheless find their existence in relation to the Good. All distortions have a “being of minimum presence” only made possible by “the Good in some measure however small” (in Luibheid, p. 87). At first glance this may appear to make God out to be the author of evil, but when seen from the human predicament of sin and the need for salvation, this construct becomes the very blueprint for salvation.

Whatever is good in some respect and not in some other is in conflict with a particular good but not with the totality of the Good. It is protected by having within it some participation of the Good so that the Good gives substance to what lacks itself precisely for the [eventual] full share of itself. (in Luibheid, p. 88, brackets in original)

This is a profound thought and a great boon to those tormented by fears of divine wrath and hell fire. In short, it is an a priori argument showing that existence is inevitably destined for perfection. No evil is so removed from the Good that it cannot be and will not be redeemed! For it to be unredeemable, it would have to not exist, thus having no part in the Good. But that which does not exist does not exist absolutely, whether in mind or nature and therefore is of no concern for soteriological consideration. With this foundation, the salvation of all becomes a simple ontological matter—the beingness of the created is ultimately inseparable from the blissful perfection of the Beingness of the Creator.

The Trinity

The Trinity is perhaps the monarch of Christian peculiarities. It may be defined as, “God is one in essence, but in this one essence there are three distinct Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” (Mueller, 1934, p. 117). The idea that God is three persons in one essence has been a distinctive doctrine of Christianity for over 1500 years; yet some basic questions always accompany its contemplation. Are Christians tritheists or monotheists? How can three be one and one be three? Daniel Webster hailed the doctrine as “the arithmetic of heaven” (in Lockyer, 1964, p. 121), while Thomas Jefferson railed against it as “an unintelligible proposition of Platonic mysticisms” (in Buzzard & Hunting, 1998, p. 5).

Even today, these two views form a fairly accurate cross section of both popular and scholarly discussion on the topic. But both sides, pro and con, view the doctrine as something scientific: as good science it is a divine arithmetic; as bad science it is unintelligible mysticism. But a transpersonal approach considers the possibility that the idea should be understood relationally. The visions of Mechthild of Magdeburg reflect a vibrant, relational and self-sacrificing understanding of the Trinity, albeit set in a traditional patriarchal context.

Then the Eternal Son said with great politeness: “Dear Father, my nature, too, should bear fruit…Let us pattern mankind after Me, although I foresee great sorrow since I must love man eternally.” The Father replied, “Son, I, too, am moved by a powerful desire in my breast, and I hear the sound of love in return…I will create Bride for Myself who shall greet Me with her mouth and wound Me with her look; only then will love begin.” And the Holy Spirit said to the Father: “Yes, dear Father, I will bring the Bride to Your bed.”…Then the Holy Trinity leaned over the creation of all things and created us, body and soul, with untold love. (in Ruether, 2002, p. 35)

This relational view of the Trinity frees it from obscure philosophizing. God is not relegated to the nebulous world of impassible essence or substance, but is Personhood in Community. As such, human person and human community become the microcosm of the divine. In this way the Imago Dei is restored to the understanding of our own significance.

The triune symbol thus understood is a model of the highest ideal for humanity. It lays the foundation for a liberated society of equal brothers and sisters, critiques patterns of unjust domination, and offers a source of inspiration for change. (Johnson, 1992/2002, p. 208)

Three-in-oneness now forms a wonderfully mysterious foundation for an all-in-oneness. If God is to be understood and related to with omni glory in mind, then a fitting contemplation is not three in one or one in three but all in one and one in all. Christ becomes the supreme model of this as the “first fruits” (1 Corinthians 15:20) of a union with God that others may enjoy as well. Thus, in the end, the Trinity is understood as a microcosm of divine inclusiveness—for every being shares in God’s glory and image.

The Second Coming (Parousia / Eschatology)

If the Trinity is one of the most perplexing of Christian doctrines then, undoubtedly, the second coming of Christ is one the most disheartening when understood in a literal manner. For since the inception of the church and the earliest writings of the New Testament, the faithful have been looking for the soon return of Jesus, each successive generation believing theirs to be the last days. This hope was not without authoritative precedent. Seemingly, Jesus forecasted his triumphant return in his twelve disciples’ lifetimes (Mark 8:38-9:1; Matthew 16:27-28) and Saint Paul further prodded parousial hopes during his travels (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).

The conviction that Jesus will return visibly, bodily, and bring the whole earth into subjection and messianic peace has left many lives shattered both in finances and faith. Consider the Great Disappointment of 1844, when thousands of Americans from various Christian denominations sold their lands and goods and followed the predictions of William Miller, announcing the return of Christ by October 22, 1844 (Festinger, Riecken, & Schachter, 1956, p. 22). The date came and went, essentially destroying the movement overnight and, with it, the confidence of many Christians in God and the Bible. End-of-the-age frenzy is not isolated to just this case, but has been a hallmark of various Christian sects such as the Seventh-day Adventists[1], Jehovah’s Witnesses, and many modern Pentecostal groups. Books and movies about the rapture, the rise of Antichrist, and other end-time notions have also enjoyed great popularity. Apocalyptic texts of the Bible are read side-by-side with the morning newspaper, looking for hues and clues concerning God’s timetable for humanity’s fate. But all of this comes at a price.

Continued Impact of Eschatology

One subtle effect that pervades most concepts of a soon coming Christ is a general disregard for ecological realities. The earth is often thought of as only a temporary dwelling, for the sweet-by-and-by awaits right around the corner. As an example of this in popular worship, consider the following hymn.

Just a few more weary days and then,

I’ll fly away.

To a land where joys will never end
I’ll fly away.

 I’ll fly away oh glory
I’ll fly away
When I die hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away (Brumley, 1929)

 Much of modern Christianity has been infected by this false duality: that heaven is holy and eternal while the earth is a fleeting, lesser abode. As a remedy to this sickness, the Christian does well to rediscover some of the great saints and their ideas of the interconnectedness between God and nature. Francis of Assisi is a prime example. A brief excerpt of his “Canticle of the Sun” will suffice.

All praise be yours, my Lord, through all that you have made,              

And first my lord Brother Sun,              

Who brings the day; and light you give to us through him.                             

How beautiful is he, how radiant in all his splendor!              

Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.                

All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Moon and Stars;              

In the heavens you have made them, bright              

And precious and fair.                                

All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,              

And fair and stormy, all the weather’s moods,              

By which you cherish all that you have made.               

All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Water,              

So useful, lowly, precious, and pure.                

All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brother Fire,              

Through whom you brighten up the night.              

How beautiful he is, how gay, full of power and strength.               

All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Earth, our mother,              

Who feeds us in her sovereignty and produces              

Various fruits and colored flowers and herbs.  (St. Francis, Fordham University)

Fortunately, a realization that Christians are called to be sacred custodians of the earth and participants of her glory is not merely a sentiment of long ago. A resurgence of earth-friendly theology is being felt. One seminary professor equates the earth to God’s body: “we struggle for ecojustice because we are deliriously in love with God’s body, this greening and vivid earth (Wink, 1993, p. 477).

Perhaps the most immediately felt repercussions of eschatology gone askew may be found on the mission fields. In areas where Christianity is outlawed or tightly controlled by the government, many have be jailed, tortured, and executed, not solely for their faith in Christ, but because they were duped into thinking no serious harm could come to them before God provided a rescue by way of the rapture (MacPherson, 1975). In China, this occurred by the thousands, where converts were influenced by pre-tribulation rapture[2] missionaries; in contrast, those Christians of more sensible training were warned of impending threats and “fled to the mountains where they have been able to continue witnessing for many years” (MacPherson, p. 103).

A Responsible Eschatology

Where does all this leave the Christian? A suitable initial response would be for every conscientious Christian to entertain the idea that literal interpretations of Jesus’ return may be inaccurate. If nearly 2000 years have passed and it hasn’t happened, perhaps ideas concerning how it will happen need revision? Of course, most branches of Christianity made such revisions long ago, siding for social justice emphases or a hopeful era of universal peace through interfaith dialog and cooperation. It would seem that only the conservative evangelical and fundamentalist sects still have their necks strained and eyes cast upward. But both developments (the revised and the literal) have their pitfalls. The first is prone to become simply social and academic in nature, forgetting that the Church must retain a sense of the divine to be a unique voice. The second is overly reliant on the miraculous and thus gets very little done of earthly good. Somehow a proper balance of the two is needed. Carroll (2000) strikes this balance well and so is quoted here at length to close this topic.

The central New Testament image of the triumphant return of Christ need not be interpreted literally, as if Jesus would actually ride the clouds back to earth in a show of glory and power visible to all. But this potent symbol of Christian hope must be taken seriously, for it points to the completion of God’s work of life and salvation for this planet and all who call it home. In the meantime, people of faith will wait in patient hope. Yet they will not wait passively, relinquishing any concern with the shaping of human life. God’s sovereign purpose will bring all creation to its intended flourishing, but, as ever, God will co-opt persons and communities of faith to participate in the difficult work of making it so. (p. 197)

Canonization and Inspiration of the Bible

Since the dawn of the scribal arts, humankind has expressed an innate desire to record encounters with the divine. Writings manifesting themselves in sacred lore, fanciful tales, mythical-nationalistic histories, wisdom proverbs, apocalyptic imagery, poetry and various other genres have found a special place in the hearts of millions. In time, most religious traditions compiled certain texts, preferring some to others, and ascribed authority to these texts for official and/or devotional use. Today, most major religions have writings considered more or less authoritative. Some religions, however, maintain or have maintained a perpetual stream of holy writ, whereby writings of more modern times are considered worthy of special status. This dynamic is typically known as open canon. In contrast, other world religions have adopted the concept of closed canon, whereby writings of modern times are never viewed as scripture because it is believed the divine action of inspired literature has come to completion. Simply put, an open canon provides borders that expand; a closed canon has fixed borders.

Christianity is governed by closed canon dynamics. Although the number of books considered canonical differ from Protestant (66) to Roman Catholic (80), they both share the conviction that their canon is complete—that sacred literature is no longer being breathed forth, or inspired by God. For the Catholic, this is an open-and-shut issue with no foundational inconsistency. The councils, the synods, select writings of the Early Fathers, and papal decrees all form a body of guidance equal to that of scripture. This is known as the dual authority of scripture and tradition. And so, a certain degree of tidiness is ensured within Catholicism: where the Bible does not authoritatively speak (or, perhaps, does not provide the desired response), Church tradition does. Such tidiness is not the privilege of the Protestant, however. Operating by means of its Reformation heritage, Protestantism rejects the dual notion of authority and sides with scripture only—sola scriptura.

Yet nowhere in the Bible does it state that God stopped inspiring sacred writing.[3] This biblical silence, however, does not stop the Church from teaching time and again that the canon is forever closed. But on what basis can such a claim be made? Protestants simply cannot establish a closed canon via sola scriptura and so must, quite embarrassingly, kiss the pope’s ring confessing that they too need tradition to uphold Church dogmatics. This shortcoming should be no surprise.  For not only is scripture silent in closing the canon, but it was also powerless to form the canon in the first place.

The Protestant church, born in the Reformation, maintains that its norm is the Bible alone: sola scriptura…The Protestant then faces the dilemma that the canon could not have served as a guideline as the church debated the problem, since the canon did not yet exist! In other words, the church was not able to abide by the principle sola scriptura in deciding what should or should not be canonical. At the time canonical Scriptures were unknown, and the church’s decision could in no way be “according to the Scripture.” (Marxsen, 1972, p. 16)

Besides the disharmonious clang between sola scriptura and closed canon, a simpler observation may be noted. Namely, Christianity would never have produced or compiled the New Testament writings if the early Christians were proponents of a closed canon—believing that God stopped inspiring writings at the end of the Old Testament prophetic age. It is quite ironic that the doctrine of closed canon, which seeks to protect the scriptures, would have squelched the New Testament in its inception if the same conviction was held then.

This should cause every Protestant a bit of head scratching. Why is it that the modern Christian is somehow handcuffed, prohibited to reach out for fresh inspiration of either a personal or corporate (ecclesial) sort? If there is little or no scriptural mandate for such restrictions, then the restriction is artificial; a tacitly held sentimentality with no divine authority or precedent. Marxsen (1972) presses further, “Why shouldn’t the modern church have the same right of making its experiences normative as the fourth century church? Or were those fourth century experiences in some way special?” (p. 17)

Rethinking Closed Canon

Now we are met with an intriguing concept, namely, that religious experience and theological preference contributes to what is considered inspired and, in turn, what is eventually canonized. Therefore, is it outlandish that the modern Church also needs the freedom to affirm the creative acts of God, be they found in literature, or art, or collective experience? Would not such freedom cut the tethers of potential “Scripture-alotry”[4] which suffocates God’s continued revelation in these modern times?

A proper view of the Scriptures does not lead to an either/or position, able to find God in the Bible but nowhere else, or at least not so strongly and palpably in other places. It does not teach us to shy from the world of art and letters, philosophy and mathematics, science and technology, but to thrive in it, and to pursue the knowledge of God in all these areas, confident that the God who could create a world can continue to reveal himself in every facet of that world, through every vessel who loves and appreciates it, and even some who don’t. (Killinger, 2002, pp. 26-27)

Some may think that the idea of an open canon is too drastic and constitutes a complete change from present operations of church life. This is simply not so. Every Sunday millions of Pentecostals and Charismatics gather for worship, and quite often a message is declared to the congregation that is received as very authoritative. A message may be packaged in the form of an ecstatic utterance (tongues), a word of knowledge, or a sensational sermon. Whatever the outer form the message takes, it is normally received as a word from God in Pentecostal and Charismatic circles. This is not to suggest that such happenings are necessarily genuine revelations from God. These phenomena are noted merely to illustrate that in many Christian circles the canon is already open in practice, despite its officially closed status.

Yet another benefit to fresh inspiration is its inherent relevancy. It basically goes without saying that C.S. Lewis is more accessible to the modern mind than the first century Paul. Lewis lived during the twentieth century and wrote as a modern man. One can read and understand his works without the necessity of first digging deep into the social, economic, political, and religious climate of his day. It is not so with Saint Paul, or any other ancient author. In fact, the hermeneutical task has become all but overwhelming and increasingly out of reach for the modern layman. Consider how many specialized books the student of the Bible needs to study the scriptures: language lexicons, books on idioms used in the Bible, manners and customs references, atlas of Bible lands, variant manuscript texts, guide to literary forms, Hebrew and Greek word studies, and background studies in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Greece, and Rome. One textbook designed for college use states the following in its conclusion.

You might now better appreciate the theological problem that has faced Christianity over the past two millennia. That theological problem has been and continues to be how to make known the Good News of Jesus in terms of the ever-kaleidoscoping cultural scripts that cover the world like a crazy quilt. (Malina, 1981, p. 153)

If making the basic gospel message within the Bible digestible for the present culture has been a daunting task to trained clergy for 2000 years, how does one expect the layperson, sitting in an easy chair, King James Version in hand, to glean real understanding from the entire corpus?

This conundrum is largely solved once the grammatico-historical method of biblical hermeneutics is no longer viewed as requisite for spiritual understanding or Christian growth. This is not to dismiss the value of scholarly interpretation and criticism of literary texts. It is only to maintain that spirituality is about spirit, not syntax. A layperson with no formal training in literary criticism may open the Bible and glean existential meaning and transformative ideals from its pages. In this arena, an open heart is more important than hermeneutical skill. Of course, when the two are combined an impressive combination of scholarship and spirituality may result. James Fowler (1981/1995) recounts how his seminary training was vivified by an ancient practice involving as much heart as head.

Instead of my reading, analyzing and extracting the meaning of a Biblical text, in Ignatian contemplative prayer I began to learn how to let the text read me and to let it bring my needs and the Spirit’s movement within me to consciousness. (p. 186)

Inspiration of the Person

Up to this point, the basis for inspiration has only been hinted at. It is one of those matters that are nearly undeniable once realized, but quite invisible and silent until then. All manifestations of inspiration, all masterpieces, all offerings of sublime quality, every bit of selfless love, each captivating brush stroke or ink blot must live and blossom within someone. Inspiration does not reside in a book or a painting, or any other inert object. These are the results of inspiration. To say that the Bible is inspired is to leap over the most crucial basis for its divine value—the inspired authors. The first lesson the Bible teaches is that the Divine partners with the human. Heaven touches earth and this intimacy births all that is beauteous and good, so how odd and sad is it to think that God suddenly ceased this loving way and now blithely mandates all humanity to venerate love-acts of the ancient past? Not so; human spirit is the same as it was long ago. The Bible is the evidence that personal inspiration is not only possible, but continually fluttering about our ears, eyes, and fingers. It is upon our lips and quietly percolating in our hearts. Within mainstream Christianity, it is difficult to find formal expression of this. And perhaps the only ones to do so with charming simplicity are the Quakers.

The “Word of God” is Christ, not the Bible…the Scriptures are profitable in proportion as they are read in the same spirit which gave them forth…Nothing, I believe, can really teach us the nature and meaning of inspiration but personal experience of it. That we may all have such experience if we will but attend to the divine influences in our own hearts, is the cardinal doctrine of Quakerism. (Griffin & Steere, 2005, p. 121).

 EXCELLENT EXCERPT FROM WHITMAN (IN SCHIMIDGALL, P. 16) ON A FRESH HERMENEUTIC, ONE NOT IS NOT BOUND TO LOOKING “THROUGH THE EYES OF THE DEAD.”

                                                                    Conclusion          

Five areas of Christian theology, typically only handled together in systematic or dogmatic works, have herein been augmented by psychological, interpersonal, ecological, and existential considerations. The cumulative power of these considerations generates a transpersonal orientation to Christian doctrine; the goal of which is to breathe new life into some very old concepts, making them relevant for authentic living, without discarding the conventional Christian framework by which these topics are understood by millions today. A brief summation of this transpersonal view is:

  1. Sin is the sensed tension between an emerging higher developmental stage and its previous stage. This often brings feelings of guilt which should be neither repressed nor casually explained away, but caringly and patiently viewed as part of a sacred path to spiritual maturity.
  2. Salvation is the preservation and refinement of each stage of psychospiritual development and, in its most universal action, brings all creation into the ultimate triumph of divine Good.
  3. The Trinity may be related to as the microcosm (consider “macrocosm”) of divine inclusiveness in which all persons participate.
  4. The Second Coming of Christ, responsibly understood, enlists the Christian in the divine act of restoration and peace making, while simultaneously trusting in divine grace for the renewal of all creation.
  5. The Inspiration of the Bible is a powerful precedent for embracing the divine presence in each person, with the potential for a powerful, creative union with God.

A Two-Year Devotee of the Transpersonal

I came to ITP essentially a seminarian, holding Bachelor and Master Degrees in theology. Theological study was all consuming for me. I loved reading about various movements in theological development, be they about the Trinity, or the nature of Christ, or disputes about the justice of God, or hundreds of other topics. I still enjoy these discussions, and to this day spend too much money stocking up my library with voices from every age on every theological tidbit that tickles my fancy. But beginning about six years ago, the glory of such exploits began to dim. Before this point I, like the unnamed conversation partner from the introduction, took theological statements as having potential for ontological extension in the world—that is, I believed them to be really real to varying degrees, based on a few criteria[5], concerning the nature and plan of God. This is no longer so for me. I presently view theological discourse to be mainly mental (and sometimes heart) calisthenics, with no necessary reason for its being real or right in some objectively verifiable way. Such a position is fine for a professor of philosophy, a sassy agnostic, or militant atheist; but for a pastor within a conservative Christian denomination, this is unorthodox to say the least.

What happened to me, I believe, over the course of formal study, contemplation, and exposure to other worldviews, was an incremental yet thorough undermining of nearly every theological conviction I held. One by one my pillars of faith transformed into tottering dominoes. And, strangely enough, I took a certain pleasure in nudging their toppling procession along. These little play things that once served as firm foundations now were but isms and ologies, all too easily dismantled.

Particularly ironic is, when I was a sincere believer and staunch defender of Christian orthodoxy, I could not land a pastorate at any church to which I applied. Later, with palatable heresies slipping from my lips, safely couched in third person referents—’Well, interestingly, Origen believed that all would be saved’—I became a specialist in theological anomalies and subtle rhetoric, and had little trouble receiving offers from congregations near or far. But this merely allowed me to keep a vocation that I genuinely enjoyed. It was not authentic living. This is who I was when I entered ITP.

And I pretty much still am this person, with one important difference: I’ve got some new glue. All the pieces of isms and ologies that I destroyed — I still juggle them about, now more for fun than for serious ontology. But before ITP, I had no way of seeing them wholistically. I had no way of creating a mosaic of the pieces to fit within the human person. In other words, I had no way to make theology and anthropology (the divine and the human) hold together in a way that was experientially satisfying. Rather, my over-analyzed ideas just floated about in cerebral ether, always foreign to the whole of who I am. I am not saying that I will ever be able to construct a worldview, be it theological or transpersonal or a mixture of both, I would wholly follow. If I did construct such a worldview, I suspect that it would not be long before I set out to destroy it. This is something I think has just crystallized since being a student immersed in the transpersonal: namely, that if I create it, it is not and never can be representative of the Whole. The ideas I communicate, the sermons I preach, the essays I write (including this one), are my joyful calisthenics. They are my play; they are my poetry; they are my little morsels of wholeness offered in communion with other people’s morsels. My creed is much different now than it was several years ago, and different than it was when I entered ITP. In fact, when I entered ITP I had nothing to affirm; I was only skilled at the negative. Now I have a bit of both. Therefore, though it is doomed to transience, here is my credo.

Whether the ultimate nature of reality is something or nothing, it is grand regardless.

The Grand Something or Nothing is evident in knowledge and ignorance.

Knowledge and Ignorance play together.

Play is Knowledge perfectly ignorant and Ignorance perfectly knowledgeable.

Everyone is both knowledgeable and ignorant.


Augustine, St. (1984). The confessions of Saint Augustine. Westwood, NJ: The Christian Library. (Original work, 4th century)

Brumley, A.E. (1929). I’ll fly away. Available from brumleymusic.com

Buzzard, A.F. & Hunting, C.F. (1998). The doctrine of the Trinity: Christianity’s self-inflicted wound. Lanham, MD: International Scholars.

Carroll, J.T. (2000). The return of Jesus in early Christianity. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

Charry, E.T. (2006). Augustine of Hippo: Father of Christian Psychology. Anglican Theological Review, 88(4), 575-589.  Available from ProQuest Religion. (Document ID: 1166807001)

Eckhart, M. (1941). Meister Eckhart: A modern translation (R.B. Blakney, Trans.). New York: Harper & Row. (Original work, 14th century)

Festinger, L., Riecken, H.W., & Schachter, S. (1956). When prophecy fails: A social and psychological study of a modern group that predicted the destruction of the world. New York: Harper & Row.

Fowler, J. (1995). Stages of faith: The psychology of human development and the quest for meaning. New York: HarperOne. (Original work published 1981)

Francis, St. (n.d.). Canticle of the sun (no Trans.). Retrieved October 7, 2009 from  http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/stfran-canticle.txt

Geddes, L. (1911). Person. In The Catholic encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved May 24, 2010 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/1425a.htm

Griffin, E. & Steere, D.V. (Eds.) (2005). Quaker spirituality: Selected writings. San Franscisco, CA: Harper Collins.

Janssen, L.A. (1981). Transpersonal psychology: A Christian perspective. (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. DP14211)

Johnson, E.A. (2002) She who is: The mystery of God in feminist theological discourse. New York: Herder and Herder / Crossroad. (Original work published 1992)

Johnston, P.S. (2002). Shades of sheol: Death and afterlife in the Old Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Kelly, J.N.D. (2004). Early Christian doctrines. Peabody, MA: Prince Press.

Killinger, J. (2002). Ten things I learned wrong from a conservative church. New York & Berkeley, CA: Crossroad.

Lockyer, H. (1964). All the doctrines of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Luibheid, C. (Trans.) (1987). Pseudo-Dionysius: the complete works. Mahwah, NY: Paulist Press.

MacPherson, D. (1975). The incredible cover-up: The true story on the pre-trib rapture. Plainfield, NJ: Logos International.

Malina, B.J. (1981). The New Testament world. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press.

Marxsen, W. (1972). The New Testament as the church’s book. (J.E. Mignard, Trans.) Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press.

McGuckin, J.A. (2006). The SCM Press A-Z of Origen. London: SCM Press.

McMinn, M.R., Ruiz, J.N., Marx, D., Wright, J.B. & Gilbert, N.B. (2006). Professional Psychology and the Doctrines of Sin and Grace: Christian Leaders’ Perspectives. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 37(3), 295-302.           doi: 10.1037/0375-7028.373.295

Moorehead, P.C. (2001). The experience of transformation in Christian mysticism: Interviews with nine Roman Catholic contemplatives. (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses database. (UMI No. 3011297)

Mueller, J.T. (1934). Christian dogmatics. St. Louis, MO: Concordia.

Punt, N. (1980). Unconditional good news: Toward an understanding of biblical universalism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Ruether, R.R. (2002). Visionary women: Three medieval mystics. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Williams, P.A. (2001). Doing without Adam and Eve: Sociobiology and original sin. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Wink, W. (1993). Ecobible: The Bible and ecojustice. Theology Today, 49 (4), 465-477.

[1] The Seventh-day Adventists are the largest of Christian denominations that trace their beginnings to the Millerite movement.

[2] Pre-tribulation rapture refers to the teaching that Christ will return to the earth’s atmosphere, transport faithful Christians to himself, and take them safely to Heaven before a seven year tribulation engulfs the remaining inhabitants of earth.

[3] Revelation 22:18-20 is often used as support that the canon is closed.  However, the context of the passage is clearly a warning to not “add” or “take away” to/from the content of the book of Revelation itself, displayed by the qualifying phrase “this book.”  Furthermore, such warnings were common in works of antiquity to protect against textual tampering; see commentary on Rev. 22:18 in The New Jerusalem Bible.

[4] That is, being guilty of idolatrous affections for the Bible.

[5] Logical cohesiveness, explanatory scope, and biblical support were my main test criteria concerning a claim’s truth/reality.

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