Coleridge, the Charismatic (Mystic), and the Call to Learn

By: Dale M. Coulter
Thursday, September 12th, 2013

220px-SamuelTaylorColeridgeThe charismatic movement has pushed the envelope on private revelations much more than classical Pentecostals did. Through espousing forms of private revelation like a word from the Lord, a prophecy, a “picture” (to use the British designation), a vision, etc., the charismatic movement has taken mysticism into mainstream Christianity.

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.




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Dale M. Coulter
This entry was posted by on Thursday, September 12th, 2013 at 8:57 am and is filed under Church History, Renewal Studies, Spiritual Formation, Theology, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

4 Responses to “Coleridge, the Charismatic (Mystic), and the Call to Learn”

  1. Brian says:

    Would you all mind adding a twitter handle to the posts to its easier to share them? This post is just SO good. Lol.

  2. Thank you for this insightful post. I agree wholeheartedly that “crazy for craziness’ sake” is a growing and (in some camps) celebrated phenomenon. Among some charismatics (the list of whom cannot be relegated to ‘Charismatic Churches’ exclusively), this type of behavior is often the standard and not the exception. I would like to offer an opinion and then pose a question with regard to your statement on requiring explanation for the symbols and symbolic gestures in worship.

    I am of the opinion that the mystery of the experience is efficacious and can be explained away if we are not careful to discern the “hidden catechesis” that is taking place in the lives of worshipers during seasons of corporate worship. While I realize there needs to be common understanding at a basic level to even get the whole of the community on the same proverbial page, I think that swinging the pendulum too far toward explanation may take away from the riches of mystery. Do you believe that some of what is accomplished sacramentally would be lost through explanation? Or, can the community ascertain the meaning of symbol and gesture in a reflective exercise, after the work of the Spirit has been accomplished in them?

    As a pastor of a local church, The Lord knows I am not advocating for craziness in worship, or parking lot prophecies, or general weirdness in the name of the Spirit. I just wanted to tease out some of your insights into what I perceive to be a pastoral tightrope between educating people for worship and allowing the worship to educate the people.



    • Johnathan,

      Thanks for the comments. Yes, symbols are multivalent and we should not attempt to exhaust their meaning. That said, we should supply the “boundaries” of meaning. I think this means two things: 1) we provide a framework of interpretation by setting these symbols within the larger narrative of the gospel; 2) we seek to clarify as private interpretations arise.

      When people tell me about their dreams, visions, inspirations, etc., I tend to interpret them in light of the gospel narrative. In this way, I bring their private revelation up into the broader framework of the work of Christ and the scriptures. Most of the time this gives them the language to understand what they have experienced, which affirms and guides.

      As you know, if the pastor is doing his/her job of supplying a solid framework through preaching, then it will rule out a lot of craziness. But if the pastor is going crazy and finding meaning every time the wind changes direction (to use an extreme example), then people will tend to get crazy too (or leave).