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Back to the faith’s mystic roots

30 August 2019

A philosopher and a psychotherapist discuss whether Christianity has lost touch with its wellspring


The Vision of Christ, by William Blake (1757–1827)

The Vision of Christ, by William Blake (1757–1827)

A NEW book by Dr Mark Vernon, a psychotherapist and former parish priest, suggests that “something is going wrong with Christianity”. A Secret History of Christianity argues that “standard mystical theology” — the idea “that your life springs from God’s life and that this truth is yours to be discovered” — has been lost in the past 500 years.

The following is an abridged conversation between Dr Vernon and Jules Evans, policy director at the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary University University of London and the author of The Art of Losing Control


Jules Evans: It feels like, while you have been researching this book, you’ve found your way back to some slightly closer relationship with Christianity.

Mark Vernon: At least two things have made the difference to me. One is rediscovering a way of talking about mystical Christianity, by which I mean the inner life of Christianity, the wellspring. As Meister Eckhart puts it, the most important thing about Christianity is not actually the incarnation that happened 2000 years ago, but what that unleashed for all of us. It’s the incarnation that’s happening now that really matters.

I think that one of the things that, certainly in modern Christianity, has sort of quietly put people off is that it presents Christianity as something that is done to you, that you’ve got to say yes to, somehow kind of get into your head, believe, rather than something that can emerge from within you, that can be part of your own journey, and that you can own.

JE: How did Owen Barfield help you to that?

MV: He gave me an account of the figure of Jesus that I could really own at last.

I’m one of these odd liberal Christians who finds the figure of Jesus quite an awkward character, because I never really felt I had a direct personal relationship with Jesus, as some Christians will testify. . .

What Barfield showed, through his interest in words . . . is that Jesus was so important, certainly around the Mediterranean, because he kind of brought together a perception of what it was to be human that was unfolding from the ancient Greeks and the Hebrews prophets, too. He kind of brought it together — people saw it crystal clear in his life and then reflecting upon his life, and then that launched this new dispensation that became late antiquity then medieval Christianity.

Seeing Jesus as a figure in history . . . making a difference in history that is part of — not just my salvation in some sort of external sense, like I’m in trouble unless I get Jesus — but as something that is part and parcel of my inner life. St Paul got on to this when he talked about being co-workers, working out our own salvation, when he realised that he was taking on the mind of Christ.

For various reasons, we don’t do that so keenly now. The Reformation, the Enlightenment, the scientific revolution: we have grown to distrust inner life. You see it in the emphasis on apologetics: trying to prove Christianity, almost as if it is some sort of physics. For me, that is completely mistaken.

JE: I think I have been searching for wholeness and a sense of connection to myself, and to others, and to God. I was very much helped by ancient Greek philosophy; but, after a few years, I felt that it was too rationalist and too individualist. I had been initially healed from a period of emotional problems when I was a teenager by a near-death experience, which was like a connection to some higher power, after a bad accident.

So, I knew that there was something more than rationality that could be very healing. I started to look for those spiritual experiences, those epiphanies that can lift us out of our habitual damaged egos and connect us to this higher power. I wanted to know how do we find that in Western culture? And why do we have this problematic relationship to those kinds of ecstatic experiences in our culture?

We have real problems with surrendering control. And we also have had 200 years of psychiatry and philosophy telling us that ecstatic experiences are mad, that they are delusions. So we both yearn to go beyond our egos — but we worry: if we do, will we go crazy? Will people laugh at us? Will we lose our jobs? Or will we be able to come back to our lives?

I ended up converting to Christianity after I had an ecstatic experience in a place called Ffald-y-Brenin, this highly Charismatic retreat centre in Pembrokeshire. . . I raised my hand and committed my life to Jesus.

Then, after about a year, my reservations about Christianity hadn’t gone away; so, having publicly declared myself a Christian, it then kind of dwindled away, the charisma. That was a pretty awkward 12 months or so; painful.

MV: You described, in your book, Charismatic Christianity as giving a kind of ecstasy that is surrounded by love, and it happens on a Sunday morning rather than late on a Saturday night, which is surrounded by quite a lot of risk. It can sound as if it is demeaning Christianity, but I don’t think it is . . .

One of the genius insights of Christianity, which it got, I think, from the Ancient Greeks, was the insight that Jesus embodies the logos, this kind of deep pulse that runs through all of creation. One of the mistakes that Christians make today is getting too hung up on the name of Jesus — as if, if you don’t quite nail it in that way, you’re not getting it.

If Christianity could relax about its own language a bit, it might help a lot of people discern the deeper spiritual path, [the] mystical path.

JE: There are quite a few people, like me, who are definitely seeking meaning and wholeness, and they are also drawn to altered states of consciousness, because of things like the psychedelic renaissance, this big boom in interest in psychedelic drugs, and because of the contemplative revival. But those people are tending to do it completely outside the Church.

They are either getting drawn to Buddhism or secular mindfulness, and then, for psychedelics, they are getting drawn to forms of paganism or imported indigenous spirituality, like Amazon shamanism; and often there is a naïvety there about the dark side of those traditions, because every tradition has dark sides.

I suspect that there is going to be a big revival of interest in Christianity because of the breakdown of the Religion of Progress. They don’t need so much consolation and something transcendent beyond the material when materialism offers quite a good deal . . . But I think, the next 30 years — I suspect we are already seeing that model of the materialist good life being really challenged by environment conditions and emergencies.

MV: Another element that the Church needs to recover is, . . . to put it negatively first, getting over its own spiritual materialism. At the Reformation, they lost touch with the spiritual dimension to life and became very focused on the immanent, material dimension of life.

I quite worry that the leaders of the Church don’t really have a very keen sense of that. It’s collapsed rather on to either a sort of very narrow appreciation of Jesus, or, indeed, a narrow appreciation of God in rather clunky iterations of Trinitarian belief that collapse very quickly on to material imperatives, like social concern.

The number of sermons I have heard which are kind of commentaries on the headlines of the last week: they are not bad things in themselves, and there are real concerns in the world we live in; but the Church should be standing for something that is more than just that.

JE: I yearn for more connections between “Christianland” and “Spiritualityland”, as in people who are not Christian, but are seeking. In Christianland, sometimes, they see seekers as “poor seekers”. There is kind of a mixture of contempt and pity for them; but, actually, there is tremendous richness in that world, and vitality.

And, on the other side, in New Age Spiritualityland, there is often a bit of contempt and ignorance of Christianland — which is a big pity, too, because there is a lack of appreciation of all that tradition and infrastructure, and real community, which I think is often a weak point of New Age spirituality.

We need each other, because we are in a culture which, on the whole, doesn’t even think about transcendence. . . We are on the same side.

MV: From a Christian point of view, if the Spirit is at work in the world, then we should perhaps trust that a bit more and look for where it is working.

It is hard for Christians, often, because they have very preconceived ideas about where the Spirit should be working, but . . . maybe it is working in the New Age supernova of spiritual experiment, so going there and trying to discern what’s true and what can be reconnected.

If I speak about Christianity — not, as it were, as a self-contained system that comes as a package — you just feel people backing off, because they think it’s going to diminish their life, not enhance their life.

But when you try and present it as a part of an unfolding of the human story, that has an absolutely key place and key insight . . . always keeping an eye on that which is bigger than any one religion, or any one Church, then people feel the expansion again, to some degree at least, [and think]: “Maybe there is something that can really take me somewhere.”

Listen to the full conversation on the Church Times Podcast.

A Secret History of Christianity: Jesus, the Last Inkling, and the evolution of consciousness by Mark Vernon is published by Christian Alternative at £14.99 (CT Bookshop £13.50).

The Art of Losing Control: A philosopher’s search for ecstatic experience by Jules Evans is published by Canongate at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9).

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