‘Discernment and the Paschal Mystery: St Paul and Desert Spirituality’ by Mark McIntosh

In Discernment and Truth: The Spirituality and Theology of Knowledge (New York; Crossroad, 2004: 127-148)

Epistemology – the study of how we know stuff –  is not everyone’s cup of tea!  But for me, it was the very reason I set aside 2011 to study.  This chapter by Mark McIntosh inspired clarity in my own thinking and produced an essay for the MTh in which I articulate an epistemology which has been jostling to emerge for quite some time.  I’ve put a link to the essay up on the writing page if you’re interested to read the result.

MM explains how “the paschal mystery seems to recreate human perception and understanding” because “the transformed disposition of the knower… [ is] …crucial to the functioning of discernment.”

As a ‘Mystical’ Theologian, drawing equally on the Dessert Fathers and the Apostle Paul to illuminate the Jesus narratives, MM fuses intellectual knowing with experiential knowing in a way most Modern Theological traditions seem incapable.  That does not mean that he is disinterested in rationality but rather,  as the Apostle Paul suggests, there is an alternative Christian rationality which emerges from a person’s encounter with the Resurrected Jesus.  The cross has the uncanny ability to reveal our self-idolatry, or in the Girardian terms which MM prefers, the cross “grounds the mind in reality free from the distortions of fear, envy, and anger.” It presents a mirror to our very selves and we see not just our suffering but also our sin.  All of us, at one time or another, are guilty of allowing another to be ‘sin for us.’   “The ‘mind of Christ’ (1 Cor 2) is not an alien rationality that displaces native human reason, but is rather a pattern of rationality constantly held open by faith to the wideness of God’s mercy.”  Hence, real knowledge results in real love – of God and neighbour.  “This freely self-giving love of Christ becomes, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the very structure of a new kind of talking and thinking and being with one another.”

“So knowing with the mind of Christ is not simply an acquisition of truths but [as James Alison writes in The Joy of Being Wrong,] ‘an expanding possession of the believer by the Father and the Son creating eternal life in the midst of this world through the creation of an imitative adhesion’ by the believing community to the practices that identify Jesus’ relationship with the Father.”

For those who are interested in the rearrangement of the outdated evangelical and liberal categories in the emerging Radical Orthodoxy movement, which tends to be ‘conservative’ on Christ but ‘progressive’ on human morality issues, understanding this subtle integration of head, heart, soul and strength is important.  These are not ‘Modern’ categories of rationality.

My sense about Easter Knowing is not identical to Mark McIntosh. (I prefer Bernard Lonergan’s analogy of ‘conversion as being-in-love’ to Rene Girard’s ‘mimetic theory’.)  If you are interested you can read my essay here:  Why is the Resurrection the epistemological key to Truth and Knowing in Theology?  Here’s the introduction which gives you a summary:

The Passion is at the centre of the Christian faith.   It is the focus of the liturgical year, the preoccupation of the gospel writers, the ‘miracle’ upon which all other miracles depend and the key to constructing theologies about the person of Jesus and the Trinitarian God whom we meet through Jesus.   “The whole New Testament is unanimous on this point: the Cross and burial of Christ reveal their significance only in the light of the event of Easter, without which there is no Christian faith.”(Balthasar 1990, 189)  Moreover, this essay argues that the Resurrection and the events surrounding it, are the key to understanding the epistemology of Christian theology.  When we meet the Risen Lord Jesus we encounter someone who is both like us and yet totally unlike us.  The inevitable human process of ‘projection’ initiates an opportunity for transformative self-knowledge.   Seeing ourselves with complete honesty allows us to see the ‘Other’ (i.e. God, life & the universe).  Jesus as wholly other, a dead-now-living person, is key to this psychic and intellectual disturbance because he does not conform to any of our previous experience or socially constructed explanations of ourselves and the world.  It pulls us up short and sends us into psychic surprise.  It initiates a moment in which to pause and think.  It is “how the paschal mystery seems to recreate human perception and understanding” (McIntosh 2004, 127).

‘Spirituality and Theology’ by Mark McIntosh

Chapter 1 in Mystical Theology: The Integrity of Spirituality and Theology (Oxford; Blackwell, 1998: 3-34)

There is a hightened interest in the ancient wisdoms of Mystical/ Spiritual/ Aesthetic Theology in the Academy just as there is a hightened interest in spirituality in Western cultures. It is instructive that there is a congregation of creative, postmodern theologians and pastors exploring contemplative theology and practice who have previously been formed in a great range of modernist traditions.  Catholics and Evangelicals alike are discovering the passion and possibilities within Mystical Theology.

Mark McIntosh is a prominent Anglican Theologian in this field who is easy to read and inspiring to reflect upon.  The particular task of the Mystic is ‘contemplation’ and hence is the particular method of Mystic Theology.

“contemplation is not like normal thinking only muddled and tentative, on the contrary it is seen as an activity in which the mind is liberated to perceive clearly, freed from the usual constraints of distraction, self-preoccupation or prejudice.”

“the more classical notion of mind [as opposed to Enlightenment preoccupation with linear, empirical rationality] refers to the desire of our whole being for deep understanding and relationship with all that is intelligible.”

what the mind is fixed upon in clear vision by an act of suspended wonder is ‘the manifestation of wisdom’… [Hence] it is in contemplation that theology and spirituality meet.”

These concerns echo a recurring theme in all the theologians I have been reading this year!  McIntosh warns that there is a danger with postmodern fascination with spirituality that is becomes self-absorbed and self-serving.  Wisdom (theology) moves us in a direction away from unhealthy spirituality which, as with everything else human, has the capacity to harm as much as it does to bless.

It is the discussion about definitions of spirituality in this chapter which helped me clarify something that has been slowly evolving in my mind.  First,  McIntosh is particular about a definition of spirituality within the realm of Mystical Religious Experience:

“spirituality… is inherently oriented towards discovery, towards new perceptions and new understandings of reality, and hence is intimately related to theology”

“the spiritual is that dimension of life which is engendered and empowered by God.. [and] is connected with the active presence of God and not primarily with extraordinary inner experiences”

“personal experience is not in itself the goal of spirituality”

He favours a ‘God-centric’ definition of spirituality as opposed to a Human-centric definition.  Contrast this with the opinion he cites from Sandra Schneiders (US spirituality ‘expert’):

“just as one says that a person has a certain ‘psychology’, a shape or pattern to their psychic life, so one could well say that every human being has a spirituality, that is, a ‘fundamental dimension of the human being’ … [i.e.]… that dimension of the human which is oriented towards self-transcendence

“[there is a distinction between] ‘the lived experience which actualizes’ one’s spirituality … [and the] … inherent feature of human existence.”

“[the academic discipline of spirituality is] the experimental and theoretical study of human efforts at self-transcending integration and to the pastoral practices aimed at fostering the spirituality of individuals and groups”.

Personally, I favor Schneiders definition, but the contrast in itself draws an important distinction between the ‘Mystical Experience’ (of particular persons) and ‘Basic Human Spirituality’ which should not be lost as it has important implications for both mission and ministry.  (McIntosh shows how they result in quite different academic disciplines.)   The Christian Gospel contains both particular declarations about God and generic declarations about Humanity.  There is ample ground for working together with others in our community to develop healthy human spirituality without any compromise the particularities of Jesus for professing Christians.

Universal human spirituality, as a definable characteristic independent from ‘The Proclamation Of The Gospel’, is a theological anthropology at the heart of emerging church models of missional community and the Cof E ‘fresh expressions’ and we who consider ourselves proponents of experimental forms of missional church would do well to be more articulate about it.  We might differ on how they go together but I don’t think we will disagree that they are distinct.  I do wonder whether misunderstanding this at the heart of Davison & Milbank’s For the Parish, but that is on my bookshelf waiting for the end of term!