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A Midwife for Ordinary Mystics

My new book ReImagine: Preaching in the Present Tense was just released by Wood Lake Publishing. Here's how it begins:

Last night there was a shooting. A masked gunman entered a mosque and opened fire killing six people at evening prayer. The attack wasn’t in my hometown, but it wasn’t far away. It was in a place I know well, where friends and family live. There is a feeling of helplessness that comes with such news. I turn on the television. I scan the newspapers. I pray. I go to a vigil. These responses I hold in common with others. But then I open the Bible and turn to the scripture readings that will be read on Sunday. For I am a preacher, and on Sunday the people with whom I gather to worship will be asking the question, “What does this mean?”

The sermon is the one place in our worship where people have every right to expect engagement with the question, “What does this mean?” In churches with a tradition of biblical preaching, the word “this” in that question refers, in the first instance, to the biblical texts that are proclaimed. As preachers, our task is to open up the scriptures and to reflect on them, to tell people what we have seen and heard in the text and to say what we believe about it.[1] But the question of meaning goes beyond the world of the biblical text. People want to know what this means for them, for us, today, in the context of all that is going on in our lives and the world around us.

Preaching, in other words, must operate in the present tense. If preaching is to matter, it must speak in and of the present. Thomas Long, in his book Preaching from Memory to Hope, laments the “curious loss of the present tense in much contemporary preaching.” Then he puts his finger on what he believes is the problem: “the reluctance of preachers to name the presence and activity of God in our midst.”[2]

This reluctance has a history. In pre-modern times, it was much easier to name the presence and activity of God in our midst. The presence of God in the experience of someone dwelling in Europe in the year 1500 was practically undeniable.[3] The cosmic order testified to divine purpose and action, and the great events of the natural world – floods, earthquakes and the like – were understood to be acts of God. The social structures of both kingdom and church were grounded in divine authority and interwoven with religious ritual. Our ancestors lived in what has been called an “enchanted” world, a cosmos of meaning and spirits, of demons and moral forces that impinged on human life. In such a world, in such a “social imaginary” to use the language of the philosopher Charles Taylor, it was almost impossible not to feel God’s presence.

The disappearance of these modes of God’s felt-presence in much of the world over the last 500 years has allowed for what sociologist Max Weber called “disenchantment.” Disenchantment is the modern condition that favours reliance on scientific investigation and a rational understanding of events. The result is that the context for belief has changed in our secular age. Some people have simply ceased believing in the divine. Even for those who continue to believe, God may seem distant. For deists, God is remote and no longer involved in the affairs of the world. For interventionists, God is equally remote but will intervene from time to time as needed. But neither a deist nor an interventionist view does justice to the biblical understanding of a God who is intimately involved in our lives, in history, and in creation. Both the deist and interventionist perspectives would corroborate a diminished sense of God in the world rather than seek to restore our awareness of the divine.

An alternative is to develop anew our perception of God’s presence, not by retreating and trying to restore modes of social imagination that existed 500 years ago, but by becoming attuned once more to the divine in-dwelling in our midst.

One example is the “ordinary mysticism” suggested by the theologian Karl Rahner, who predicted in the 1970s that “the devout Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic,’ one who has experienced ‘something,’ or he will cease to be anything at all.”[4] To be human, according to Rahner, is to be open to the possibility of God’s self-communication. God is experienced in ordinary life.

The preacher’s task, then, is to articulate this experience, to name the presence and activity of God in our midst, and in so doing become something of a midwife for ordinary mystics.

The Ottawa Book Launch for ReImagine is on Saturday Nov 18, 7.30pm, at St. Albans Church, 454 King Edward Ave. in Ottawa.

[1] Anna Carter Florence, Preaching as Testimony (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), xiii.

[2] Thomas G. Long, Preaching from Memory to Hope (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), xv.

[3] Here I follow the work of Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2007), 25–27.

[4] Karl Rahner, “Christian Living Formerly and Today,” in Theological Investigations VII, trans. David Bourke (New York: Herder and Herder, 1971), 15, as quoted in Harvey D. Egan, Soundings in the Christian Mystical Tradition (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010), 338.


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