Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrestled with the challenge of these forms of Christianity. He identified a central problem for mystics of all stripes (including charismatics) and then pointed toward education as part of the solution. Christians are called to learn because they are called to explain the message they have received.
Language: The Central Problem
The challenge for mystics has always been the sometimes extreme language and behavior that accompanies these private experiences of revelation.
- They use symbols from Daniel and Revelation (apocalyptic metaphors) in which to couch their messages and draw upon the patterns expressed in the symbols to talk about God’s action in the world, in this case, primarily judgment
- They use sexual imagery to describe their experiences of revelation and union with God
Coleridge thinks the challenge is twofold here: 1) describing what is essentially a private revelatory experience in ways that others can understand; 2) blurring the lines between what is personal to the mystic and what is meant for the public, between what they should keep to themselves and what they should share in a public forum (say a worship service)
This twofold problem boils down to finding the language to describe and discern the revelation.
Illustrating the Problem
Coleridge wants you to imagine a person walking in the desert with a lamp who suddenly stumbles upon an oasis.
After hanging the lamp on a tree, the person begins to look at the flowers, the colors, etc. Before getting a good look, an animal cries out in the night causing the person to pick up the lantern and race out of the oasis back into the desert. While making a fast exit, the person glances here and there at the objects he passes.
The next day the person stumbles upon a traveling caravan and then attempts to explain what was seen the night before. Since the person only got a glimpse at the environment of the oasis, which was clouded by the shadows and dream-like atmosphere of the night, the explanation is full of holes. It remains incomplete and partial; and the temptation for the mystic is to use the imagination to fill in the gaps. What results is a kind of “madman’s tale.”
Now, imagine another person who comes across the same oasis at night with the same experience. Yet, this person has natural gifts of intelligence that have been shaped by learning and education. In short, this person has expanded the range of vocabulary and images and thus is better positioned to explain what was experienced. Because the person understands more of his experience, less is left to fanciful creations of the imagination.
What is the difference between the lower-order mystic and the higher-order mystic?
It’s not that they have received a different vision; it’s not that one vision is true and the other is false; rather, it’s that the higher-order mystic has the capacity to understand and explain the vision in a way that makes sense to others. This increased understanding also helps the higher-order mystic keep from blurring the lines between a private revelation and a public response.
Why all charismatics must heed the call to learning and education
At its best education is about expanding the mind’s capacity to investigate, understand, and explain. It is about penetrating beyond the surface and finding the deeper meaning.
Charismatics are no different than anyone else who has experienced something. Everyone must use the language they have to explain it.
- If your language is limited, then your capacity to investigate and understand (discern) your own experience is limited
- If your language is limited, then your capacity to explain (describe) your own experience is limited
Most of the time charismatics like to throw out all kinds of symbols, some belonging to scripture, some taken from Judaism, some belonging to nature. And, they like to use symbolic actions like blowing a shofar or having people do something. Truth be told, most actions in worship are symbolic. Raising hands, walking to the front of the church to pray, getting down on one’s knees are all symbolic acts designed to facilitate a posture of worship.
All of these symbols, however, require explanation if they are going to be intelligible. And, they require that we move beyond the surface to their deeper meaning. To do this, we need to understand how these symbols relate to the Christian message, which requires that we understand the Christian message.
Coleridge himself wrote prose and poetry precisely because he understood the value of symbols and the necessity of explaining them.
I find that the people who cannot explain the symbols struggle with the temptation to assert control. They are tempted to say things like,
“You don’t need to know why, you just need to obey”
“This is not me speaking, this is from God”
The pages of history are littered with such megalomania by people who cannot discern the difference between their own voice and God’s voice, between the private and the public.
Don’t be crazy for craziness’ sake
The problem is much of the time people cannot explain what it is they have experienced or what they want you to do very well. They have had this spiritual experience of walking in an oasis at night, but their explanation of it comes across as “craziness.”
It’s not that they lack the mental capacity to explain it, but they have never developed that capacity through education and learning.
And, let me be clear here, the answer is not, “well, I’m just going to be crazy for Jesus. This is what the prophets did and people thought they were crazy.”
This mindset turns “insanity” into an ideal. It makes obfuscation a virtue. It equates depth with incoherence as though, “It must be God because I’m confused and can’t explain it.” As Paul said to the Corinthians, God is not the author of confusion.
If I have heard it once, I have heard it a thousand times that education takes the anointing out, meaning that expanding the mind through learning and education means that you close off the mind to God’s actions. No, it takes the mindset of being crazy for the sake of craziness’ out. It closes you off to explanations that are so convoluted they come across as a “madman’s tale.”
There are enough people out there who already think Christians are crazy. Even though we recognize that the clearest explanations do not always persuade, the obligation of clarity remains. This means that you must know what you’re talking about.
Expand your mind through education and you will discover that you actually increase your capacity to have visions as well as your capacity to discern and describe them to others. You can begin to discern how the private fits with the public revelation of scripture and thus can begin to unlock meaning rather than to obfuscate it.
Education does not destroy the anointing, it facilitates it. God calls us to learn all that we can precisely because he wants us to understand how deep his messages are to us.