Formation

Jeremiah vs. Augustine: What Mysticism Says About Goodness & Depravity

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I came to love you too late,
O Beauty, so long ago and immaculate.
I searched the wide earth’s reach and go.
But what, of that grace did I know?
I could not look into my proper heart or body,
Yet you were in me.
– St. Augustine

This quote from St. Augustine reflects a common sentiment among the Christian mystics, both past and current. Their writings speak frequently of a deep inner knowledge; of our innermost selves being the seat of the Spirit, the fountainhead of wisdom, the key to understanding who we are in the world.

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Jeremiah vs. Augustine?

Meanwhile, many in contemporary Evangelical culture better identify with Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Who can know it?” Thus, a severe distrust arises of any internal wisdom.

The differences between these two views spark perpetual debate: at our core, are we basically good or basically evil?  If we’re good then sure – there’s no problem with looking to ourselves for wisdom, clarity, etc.

If the heart truly is “desperately wicked,” then by all means – do not trust yourself! While the mystics make a lifestyle out of deeper internal understanding and knowledge, the other camp insists that true holiness and knowledge of God can only be found outside ourselves.

What if these two positions aren’t mutually exclusive?

We are both basically good and basically evil. Our human heart, left to its own devices, may in fact be desperately wicked. But none of us are left to our own devices! We are all image-bearers of God, infused with God’s divine spark and called to develop and share that spark.

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I think contemporary Evangelical culture has a lot to learn from the contemplative style of the mystics, without giving up our quest for better understanding and relating to God. In fact, I think inner contemplation is crucial to this journey.

Why So Serious?

Christian mystics—those who seek the transformative presence of God through contemplation and experience—turn their focus inward because they believe so completely in God’s infusion of spirit. Inner contemplation then becomes the best way to do what we’re called to do as Christians.

Meanwhile, my life-long experience of Evangelical culture shows me a deep suspicion of this inward focus. Evangelicalism heavily emphasizes a personal relationship with God, but pursuing this relationship often includes an external focus. This can make it difficult to “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). We in the Evangelical world know that stillness, peace, trust, and wisdom are important Christian virtues but we shy away from meditation, contemplation, self-care, and getting to know ourselves.

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Perhaps this stems from a Puritan austerity; perhaps our distracted, fast-paced culture plays a role. Perhaps, in a segment of Christianity that heavily prioritizes scripture, we take passages like Jeremiah 17:9 and Proverbs 3:5 (“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding”) to extreme conclusions. The Bible is clear that everything good – wisdom, peace, and all virtues – are gifts from God (James 1:17). But we need not expect that the divine/human relationship is a one-way street with us ever focusing our efforts on perfecting an external relationship because we are intrinsically wicked.

What evangelicalism gets right is that God does, also, exist outside of ourselves. God’s spirit infuses our world as well, thus we are not called to withdraw but to remain active in our corners of the world. As Christians, we are calling upon God to actively supplant any negative or selfish nature and replace it with more of God’s divinity – both in our personal, internal lives and in the lives and existence surrounding us.

Where Does Our Goodness Come From?

So are we basically good, or basically evil? Yes.

A theology of total goodness doesn’t tell the whole story. It doesn’t account for the sin and evil in the world. There is no denying that pain, suffering, wickedness are prevailing corruptions throughout creation. Conversely a theology of total depravity comes up short as well. Above, I referred to the “spark” of God’s divine nature that we all have within our being. This is God’s fingerprint upon humanity. This is the “basic goodness” intrinsic to each person. This is what we are turning toward when we look inward for what we need.

So we are not basically good in the sense that we – our own self-created egos – carry with us, independently, what we need. We are good in the sense that God is good, and has marked humanity with God’s image.

I invite you to explore the idea that we find God precisely when we look inward because God’s image is a part of our very being. Then take this growing divine self-knowledge and breathe its existence into the world around you!

 

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Resources:

A book of short poems and meditations from Christian mystics that I’ve found helpful:

For Lovers of God Everywhere: http://www.amazon.com/For-Lovers-God-Everywhere-Christian/dp/1401923879

For getting started with meditation, I use the app “HeadSpace” https://www.headspace.com/

A great podcast on meditation and mindfulness, a conversation with Tim Ferriss and Tara Brach: http://fourhourworkweek.com/2015/07/31/tara-brach/

 

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