Bishop John Shelby Spong ~ June 16, 1931 – September 12, 2021
Bishop Spong provided a much needed place for those of us who did not connect with traditional theology. We love you Bishop Spong. You will be missed! Funeral services will be held at St. Peter’s, Morristown, NJ and at St. Paul’s, Richmond, VA. Dates and times will be announced as soon as they are available

Paul, a Jewish Christ Mystic

 

Both Jesus and Paul were mystics, as, indeed, were most of the prophets.  The insights and experiences of Christian mystics are important to any evolving understanding of Christian faith.  Mysticism (mystical experience) reveals the significance of imagination, feelings, and intuition in the human spirit as human beings continue to explore the wonder and mystery of relationship to the Spirit.

Looking at the relationship between mysticism and God (the Spirit), the role of the imagination must be stressed.  To even have conversation about mystical experience, we must use symbols, tools of the imagination.  This is the only way we have of probing the mysteries of mysticism.

Mysticism reminds us that our minds, our logic and reasoning can only take us so far.  Over the centuries, mystics have used the creativity of poetry, art, music, dance, fiction, story telling, painting, sculpture, and architecture to express this reality that transcends concepts.  Mysticism opens the human spirit to the depths of a deeper experience of God.

Mystics have experiential knowledge of God.  As we look at Paul, he wasn’t just a mystic.  He was a Jewish Christ mystic.  Throughout his life, Paul never ceased being Jewish.  However, he became a Jewish Christ mystic in his enlightenment experience of Jesus as the risen Christ.  After Damascus, as a Jewish Christ mystic, Paul understood his Judaism in light of his revelation experience of Jesus as the living Christ.

How mystics know God.  Mystics know God in ways beyond the theoretical or the cognitive.  It is a knowing beyond words.  Mystics assume that all creation is capable of revealing the divine at the depths of their being.  While this would seem to be an optimistic reading of humanity, still, for the mystic, the path for knowing is there; it exists in all of us.

The knowing of mystical experience requires the intuitive and feeling part of the minds and imagination.  Feelings and intuition take us beneath the cognitive and the rational.  The knowing on this level is beyond what our words can express.  Again, it cannot be measured; it can only be experienced.

For mystics, the knowing of God and the sacred is deeply personal.  It is notably subjective.  Each person is on a journey into the wonder and mystery of God and the sacred.  For the mystic, God is found in the depths of life–working in and through the being of this world–where all creation is called into the transcendence that reveals the depths of our humanity.

A new “seeing” and a new “knowing.”  While the experiences of mystics can be profound and at times life-changing, their experiences do not lend themselves to being measured and cannot generally be described in ordinary language.  Still, for the mystic, they are very real.  They constitute a new “seeing” and a new “knowing.”

Mystics see differently because of what they have seen.  What Paul has seen at Damascus is the post-Easter Jesus, the Jesus of faith.  He has see the risen Christ, and him crucified.  In Paul’s “seeing,” he saw Christ’s wounds, just as he experienced his glory.  Unalterably, this was a powerful, transformative moment.

Towards the end of the book of Job, Job has an illumination experience, a “seeing” in a new way:

Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me which I did not know.  … I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.  (Job 42:5)

Job had been locked into an old way of seeing.  Through all of his losses, he had been deeply frustrated and, in relation to God, he had been tempted to think he had the spiritual high ground.  But, now, in this new “seeing,” illumination has come.  And with a humble spirit, Job saw in a new way.

This new “seeing” enables the mystic to come to a new “knowing” as well.  The “knowing” is very personal and highly intuitive.  In the mystic’s experience, they don’t just believe in God; they move from believing in God to “knowing” God.

Mystics have experiences of “knowing” that evoke none-ordinary states of consciousness.  In these experiences, there is an overwhelming sense of knowing God.  The experience, the ecstasy, transcends the mystics capacity for explanation.  The mystic can only talk abstractly about the experience.  He/she can never explain it.  It is in the realm of the ineffable–an experience beyond words.

Paul as a Christ mystic.  As a lifetime Jew, at the core of Paul’s identity was his becoming a Christ mystic in his Damascus Road enlightenment.  Paul did not suddenly become a mystic.  He had been a mystic.  However, he did suddenly become a Christ mystic.  Hearing the voice of the living Christ cry out to him in the “flashing light from heaven” and seeing Jesus in and through the light were, for Paul, utterly transforming.  Paul’s actual experience of this transformation cannot be over emphasized.  Indeed, what must it have been like?

Based on what Paul says later to the Corinthians about knowing “nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified,” we have to ask ourselves: In his enlightenment experience, what did Paul see?  Paul says he saw Jesus’ wounds as well as experiencing his glorification.  Christ crucified is what Paul experienced in his enlightenment experience.  For him, this remained a critical part of his identity as a Jewish Christ mystic.

 

The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Frantz is a retired United Church of Christ minister.  He had long term pastorates in San Diego County and in Miami Lakes, Florida.  His service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Panama in the late sixties spurred his commitment to social-justice ministries and to a spirit of ecumenism as a local church pastor.  He holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from Pacific School of Religion. He is the author of The Bible You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In and his just published book: The God You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In. Dr. Frantz and his wife, Yvette, are now retired and living in Boynton Beach, Florida.

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