A Report from the March Round Table

Lazarus Saturday (East); Holy Saturday (West)

LIKE EVERY first Tuesday of the month, on Tuesday, March 6th, a good, close group of about fifteen souls gathered at the Ladder for our monthly Round Table dialogue. We sat down over some pints and snacks to discuss whatever topics were on our minds, as well as the chief topic chosen at the previous Round Table. After tallying the votes, our three questions for discussion were announced: 1) What are the pillars of Western civilization? 2) What is orthodoxy and what is heresy? 3) How should Christians regard mysticism?

1. What are the pillars of Western civilization?
This first question was posed with the suggestion that a belief that man is created in the image of God has historically been central to Western thought and culture. Another quick suggestion was the Western natural law tradition, although this raised a question of the relation of this tradition to more modern enlightenment-based ideas of natural human rights and freedom. Maybe the Western natural law tradition in its youth already contained the seeds of some of the problems of our modern era, or perhaps that belief in the divine image is the crux which separates a law built on what it means to be truly human from a law based on more arbitrary concepts of right and wrong.

Discussion then turned to try and define what exactly is meant by 'Western civilization'. Is it restricted to a certain period of history in Europe and its colonial spread? It could be argued that Greek culture and ideas could be either included or excluded, but the influence that Byzantine migration had on the European Renaissance was noted.

As a whole it seemed rather difficult to distinguish the good of Western civilization without also including in that term many evils. Of course this makes it difficult to establish any particular 'pillars', when we're talking about something broad enough to include both the spread of Christianity as well as great religious persecutions, both economic and political freedoms as well as brutal slavery, both the great benefits of modern science and medicine as well as the rise of secularism. Is the current state of Western culture a natural outgrowth of its pillars, whatever they may be, or is it a corruption of these principles? Perhaps Western civilization has not been good so much as successful, and a success not primarily driven by great ideas, but by more material factors.

2. What is orthodoxy and what is heresy?
The second question of the night was explicitly a challenge of definition. Its background was explained as originating from a past presentation at the Hall of Men, in which that evening's hero of the faith was described as 'orthodox', while holding some seemingly unorthodox views of important Christian doctrines such as baptism and the eucharist. So what exactly is meant by the term? Is it enough to simply recite the Nicene Creed?

We noted the distinction of 'Orthodox' and 'orthodox', the former a proper noun referring to the Eastern Orthodox churches, and how this is similar to the distinction between 'Catholic', referring to the Roman Catholic Church, and 'catholic' referring to the universality of the Church. However, this comparison creates its own problems, as it is the lower-case 'catholic', or universal, which is used in the creed to refer to the one, holy, catholic Church, but many of us use that term to refer to different things. Do we just use both 'catholic' and 'orthodox' as a broad umbrella including most or all Christian groups?

As we turned to discuss heresy, the challenge was to define a line between true heresy and simple error. We referred to St. Basil, who spoke of a distinction to be made between heretics, schismatics, and unlawful assemblies. It might be that heresy is reserved only for the core, fundamental doctrines like Christology, but then comes the difficulty of distinguishing which doctrines are not fundamental.

We also discussed how the ancient councils defined heretics, and whether an anathema from such a council is necessary to really make a strict determination. Many might regard someone like Joel Osteen as a modern heretic, but could we say so without a modern council? And should a council be called today for such a purpose? It may be that a real ecumenical council today would be more concerned with issues of gender, marriage, and sexuality. It might mark these as important enough subjects for a false teaching to be heretical, since they refer to the nature of Christ and His bride, the Church. But if that is the case, couldn't every point of doctrine be grounds for heresy, since all theology is really Christology?

3. How should Christians regard mysticism?
Our final and headline topic for the night also began with some work of defining the terms. We set up a loose, working definition of 'mysticism' as an immediate experience of the divine presence, with an example given as someone who says 'I hear from God'. We recognized that this was a somewhat different phenomenon than various aspects of Christianity being mysterious or supernatural. We wondered whether the idea of 'I felt led by God' fits this definition, and while it is certainly a bit different from the initial example of 'hearing from God', it did seem to still be mystical, in that it deals with a sort of immediate experiential way of interacting with the divine.

The concern was raised, and continued to drive the rest of the discussion, that this sort of mysticism risks ascribing feelings and experiences to God that very well may not be of God at all, and that this lands us in a kind of idolatry. This led to the question that if we have to doubt our experience as a genuine relationship with God, how can we distinguish what really is God. One response claimed that, although a spiritual experience may be genuinely profound, with such internal experience being so subjective, the only way to really have certainty of that relationship is to ground it in the external, objective side of Christianity.

At one point Luther was referenced as being somewhat mystical in his accounts of such experiences as throwing inkwells at the devil, but this was answered with a quote from Luther himself which seemed to thoroughly rule out the kind of mysticism we had been discussing: "We must insist that God does not want to deal with us apart from the external Word and Sacraments." The initial concern regarding mysticism was pressed further by noting that the very concept of immediacy in our definition is problematic, since nothing is really immediate, but everything spiritual comes mediated to us through the Church. However, it was quickly objected that in the life to come we will have an immediate communion with God.

It was asked whether Scripture rules out any mystical experiences so strongly, with a variety of experiences occurring, though very rarely, over the course of biblical history. James 4:8 was cited: "Draw near to God and He will draw near to you." A response suggested that, especially to the original audience, 'nearness to God' would have meant a physical nearness to the Holy of Holies in the Temple, rather than something internal or mystical. So it seems that James might really have been directing his listeners to go to church! Another objection arose that we can't disregard the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which is surely something internal. But it was argued that even this indwelling comes about through the external means of the Church.

In the end, though we came to the official conclusion of our Round Table, spirited discussion continued into the night. We hope you'll join us next month as we sit down to discuss, among other things, our headline topic chosen this week: “Is the world getting better or worse?”

 Kyle Nelson is an aspiring Lutheran seminarian, beginning at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana in the fall of 2018. He is a husband and soon-to-be father, a trained composer and marimbist, and a lover of the true and purer antiquity.


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