Dogmatic and mystic approaches to religion

In the literary supplement of August 24, 2007 to one of our main Belgian newspapers, De Standaard, a K.U.Leuven colleague, Rik Torfs (Faculty of Canon Law), reviews Guus Kuijer‘s book: Het doden van een mens (Killing a human being). Rik Torfs particularly highlights one idea: the difference between dogmaticians (who think that religion can be understood as a system that humiliates human beings into respect towards God) and mystics (who emphasize love and the soul’s capacity to unite with God). The church today often presents itself from its dogmatic side, and that is the reason why people turn away from it, not because of their being concerned alone with themselves and not with God.

I agree with this view up to a certain point, but it also appears to me as to easy an interpretation of today’s reality and as to simple an opposition (between dogmatic people and mystics). Mysticism that is referring merely to an interior experience falls short – I think – of the profoundly community (and, therefore, ecclesially) oriented aspects of the Christian faith. Are Christians not called to believe precisely that life in common is a real possibility in view of the Reign of God? Is that not an important part of the Christian faith, much more than an interiorly satisfying psychological certainty about God’s existence? When the latter does not contain in itself that reference to the profound connectedness of all with all in God, then I fear there is something wrong with describing the experience as mystical. Even what we consider our most profound inner experiences can egoistically lure us away from the real encounter with God – the more profound our interior experiences are (and they may be experiences of desolation as with Mother Teresa), the more we are in need of thorough discernment along the criterion of commitment to life together.

This is not a plea, of course, for a “dogmatic church”, the structures of which would do away with the in depth experiences of commitment. But I am convinced that in the Christian perspective at the heart of the mystical experience lies the desire of God in us to spread out to the whole of creation, an ecclesial desire that spreads its wings to explore the whole of reality with which one is connected. Reducing and confining religious experience and the church to mere rules and structures is in danger of forgetting the burning bush at the inside of the world’s ecclesial desire – there is a danger, then, that the church and our faith fall prey to authoritarian abuse and ideologically covered-up flight from our responsibilities in the world. Forgetting that the mystical experiences brings us in touch with our creational and ecclesial belonging by reducing it to a mere private peak experience, is just as dangerous.

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