Thinking Through the Creed, Part 3.1

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,

"The Christian of the future will be a mystic, or he will not exist at all."--Karl Rahner, S.J. (1904-84).

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Evangelical Christianity gets many things wrong, at least from my perspective.  But there is one thing that they are absolutely correct to insist on, and it is something that the more hierarchical and liturgical churches need to recover.  Heck, it is something that the evangelical churches themselves often lose sight of, and need to remind themselves of their own core commitments.

What evangelical Christianity gets right is that, at its most basic level, Christianity is not about doctrine (let alone any particular doctrine) and it is not about church (however church is understood) and it is not about the Bible (which is where evangelicals often lose the thread of their own teaching).  No, Christianity is at its most basic level about a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.

But this statement, in turn, raises a host of further questions.  Who is Jesus Christ?  And what does it mean to "encounter" Jesus?

Let's start with the idea of encounter.  The analogy that makes the most sense for me is the beach.

The beach is the place where the land buts up against the ocean.  If you stand at the place where the waves break on shore, you are standing both on the land and in the ocean.  The land is your normal environment, the place you live every day and conduct your life.  The ocean, fundamentally, is an alien and hostile world, one that is fundamentally inaccessible to us terrestrial creatures.  And yet, by standing at the beach, you can experience a part of that reality in a manner that still allows you to remain rooted in the familiar world of the land.  The beach, then, is a place of encounter.

Extending this analogy out, the land is our normal, every day physical reality.  The ocean, by contrast, is the reality beyond the physical reality.  And the beach is the place where we can encounter that reality beyond the physical, while still remaining rooted in the normal, physical reality that sustains us and with which we are familiar.

Places of encounter need to allow us to maintain that connection with the familiar, physical reality, for our own sake.  If for some reason we were to be dropped out of a helicopter into the middle of the Atlantic, that "encounter" is not going to end well for us--it will be certainly terrifying, and likely fatal.  This sort of "shock therapy" raw encounter is how I understand the terror with which the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures described their encounter with God.  Sinai is the equivalent of being dropped out of a helicopter in the middle of the Atlantic in the middle of a storm.  In such a situation, the ocean is utterly and truly terrifying.

What most of us need, instead, is the much more limited and controlled experience of the ocean that you can get on the beach.
The experience of the ocean at the shore may indeed be more controlled and more limited than in the middle of the Atlantic, but it is still "really" the ocean.  The thing you are experiencing when you sink your toes into the sand is an indivisible part of the whole of the ocean, not some sort of substitute.  Being at the beach is not like (at the risk of stretching this analogy to the breaking point) swimming in a swimming pool, or a pond, or even a big lake.  No matter how big those bodies of water are, they will always be fundamentally different from the ocean, whereas even the most placid beach waves are the same with the larger ocean.

On the other hand, while the beach may provide an authentic encounter with the ocean, it will never be a full encounter with the ocean.  The ocean is so almost incomprehensibly vast that the encounter we have will always be limited and contingent.  We cannot fully wrap our minds around the enormity of the ocean.  Everything we say about the ocean must be expressed, on some level, in couched terms, because we are not creatures of the ocean.  We speak as outsiders, and so our perspective is necessarily that of an outsider.

There is a perennial temptation to take our experience of the ocean at the beach and generalize it to the entirety of the ocean, but that is always a mistake.  The person or system that tells you they have the ocean completely figured out is the person or system who doesn't know what they are talking about.  The ocean will always be a mystery to us, at least on this side of the line (which is a discussion for a later post).  All of this super-structure that we think of as "religion"--Scripture, doctrinal statements, councils of various sorts, pastoral guidance, etc.--ultimately represents people attempting to record and explain the encounter with the ocean.  These accounts are necessarily constrained both by our limited comprehension and the limitations of human language.  As a result, none of these accounts, no matter how inspired or conscientious, are ever able to fully describe and reproduce the experience.

For this reason, the religious super-structure can only help us understand the encounter, but can never be a substitute for the encounter itself.  "Helping to understand the encounter" is certainly not nothing--we don't just let little kids wander around the seashore without close supervision.  But we always have to keep in mind that all of this superstructure is at least one, and likely several, levels of remove from the core experience of encountering the divine.  Moreover, because the personal encounter is always primary, idiosyncratic presentations of the encounter are inevitable.  Different folks describe these encounters differently.  Does that represent an authentically different experience?  Is that a function of differences in human perception?  Is it a language issue?  It could be all of the above.

So, I think we can define the "place of encounter" as the experience where the full reality of the divine is experienced in a circumstance under which we can (in part) comprehend it and process it in our existence as finite, physical creatures.  But what does that mean in everyday terms?  What is an encounter with the divine like?  The biggest mistake people make is assuming that this encounter with the divine is some massive, world-shaking event.  But these encounters are often far more subtle than the burning bush.  74% of Americans report that they experience a sense of spiritual well-being at least once a month; 62% of Americans say they experience a sense of wonder about the universe at least once a month.  You can have an encounter in nature, and you can have an encounter in the context of interacting with other people.  To me, all of these represent authentic divine encounters of the type I am talking about.

In fact, one of the great benefits of the Ignatian spiritual tradition (i.e., the spirituality developed by Ignatius of Loyola and practiced by the Jesuits) is its laser-like focus on the very subtle indications of a divine encounter over the course of day.  Ignatian spirituality recognizes that we may be encountering the divine without actually recognizing or realizing it, and so we need to learn to be attuned to these subtle encounters.  We are often walking along the shore, and we don't even know it.

But what's the point of all of this?  Why should anyone care about whether they are interacting with the divine?  Ultimately, an encounter with the divine is a site of personal transformation.  If I may finally beat the beach metaphor to death, we get wet from standing or swimming in the ocean--a bit of the divine stays on our skin.  Again, these encounters can be very subtle, so the corresponding transformation is equally subtle.  But I think that life is better as a result of these encounters.  How, exactly, it is better is again idiosyncratic and necessarily individualized, but I think it is real nonetheless.

So, that's how I understand the idea of "encounter."  But what does any of this have to do with Jesus?  That's for part 2.

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