Monday, August 04, 2008

A Recovering Modernist

Believe it or not, you can learn a lot in Baptist Sunday school. One week ago yesterday I taught a class and yesterday I was the participant in another class. Although the topics were very different, I detected a common thread.

The class I taught was based on I Corinthians 14. The passage deals with the chaotic worship of the Corinthian church. The theme of the lesson was that we should avoid creating barriers in worship that would exclude newcomers. Of course, we spent a good bit of time talking about glossolalia—speaking in tongues. In writing to the Corinthians, Paul never says that they should not speak in tongues. In fact, he testifies that he has the gift himself and often uses it in his private times of prayer. His point is not that the gift of speaking in tongues is not a valid gift but that it is a spiritual gift that needs to be used properly to build up the body of Christ. Paul embraced the mystery of the work of the Spirit of God.

The more recent class was the concluding presentation on the book of Job. In the discussion, one class member pointed out that Baptists were rationalists who rejected the mystical in the ordinances of the church. In keeping with good Baptist tradition, he argued that these are symbolic acts without any power or “saving grace.” They are not sacraments. (I won’t go into the explanation of what this has to do with Job. Remember, this is a Baptist Sunday school class.) I understand the concept and have articulated it myself from time to time, but this rejection of mystery made me a bit sad.

Baptists are certainly children of the Enlightenment. Although the pendulum swings from one extreme to the other, our approach to “doing church” has very often been associated more with the head than the heart. We have tended to be thoroughly modern in the philosophical sense. Having grown up in a Baptist church, worship has often been an intellectual exercise for me rather than a mystical encounter. In recent years, I have realized that the rational approach to worship is not enough. I look to Paul as an example. He was certainly a learned man, but he was also a mystic. The one did not exclude the other.

In my worship, I am seeking more of the mystical. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, I hold the bread before me and take a moment to think on the mystery of the Word made flesh. Before drinking the juice (“fruit of the vine”), I consider the mystery of the blood of Christ shed for me. Are these elements transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ? No. I am more “saved” after I partake of them? Perhaps I am. I hope by celebrating the mystery of the body and the blood that I have moved further along in the Christian journey.

I am not ready to speak in tongues, but I crave the mystical more than ever.


Chris Schelin said...

Hello Ircel,

I found this post through a link on Darrel Pursiful's blog. Thank you for your thoughts.

I would like to think we Baptists aren't so much children of the Enlightenment as much as we are its unfortunate adoptees. After all, our origins predate the Enlightenment and our forebears have exemplified spiritual, communitarian, and yes, sacramental traditions. E Glenn Hinson, for example, noted similarities between Baptist and medieval spirituality in an article for Cistercian Studies Quarterly some 20+ years ago. Other such explorations of non-Enlightenment Baptist throught have been made in books like Ties that Bind: Life Together in the Baptist Vision, Baptist Sacramentalism, and Recycling the Past or Researching History?.

Are you familiar with the Christian Reflection series that the Baylor Center for Christian Ethics publishes for free each quarter? If you go to you can follow the links to online versions of CR and read their issue on mysticism. That might be a good place for you to go as you continue your reflections on worship and the balance of the rational and mystical.


Ircel said...

Thanks,Chris. This is helpful.

Steve Edmonds said...

I too, am in that place in my spiritual life where I am craving more of the mystical experience. Thank you for your insight, encouragement and affirmation that there are other Christians, some even in the Baptist faith, who are seeking such spiritual growth. I have beeen re-reading Glenn Hinson's book, A Serious Call to A Comtemplative Lifestyle and also Brother Lawrences', Practicing the Presence of God. I enjoying using the journal, Weavings, for lectio divine. Blessings as you go.