Here is part two of the interview with Jerry Sittser, author of Water From A Deep Well.
Question 1: For those of us who feel entrenched in our materialistic world, what are some easy steps to explore the world of the mystics? i.e. meditation
Mediation is such a slippery term. Richard Foster has a chapter on mediation in his book, “The Celebration Of Discipline” where he makes the distinction between an eastern form of mediation that is only self-emptying and western mediation that, at its best, includes not only self-emptying but also filling up. So I would keep that in mind.
The basic premise behind mysticism, healthy or not, is the assumption that reality is more than we think it is. And what we have tended to do in the West in the last two or three hundred years is gradually make our faith more subject to the dominant reality of the material world. We do this in a lot of ways. The ‘Health and Wealth’ movement is basically a material turn in Christianity. “I know God exists because He makes life better for me.” Or some kind of politicized movement. “I know God because he changes the world for better in some specific way.” So everything is understood in worldly terms. God becomes almost an abstract idea. And the Christian faith has set up principles that apply to this world. But what we lose is the capacity to recognize that there is another greater reality that envelops and impinges this one. Its not the opposite of material, its greater than.
I mean, even the resurrection is a material phenomenon. Jesus wasn’t raised as a ghost. He was raised as a material being that was greater than this world can comprehend. So its not as if spiritual and material in the Christian faith are opposite of each other. But spiritual means that there is a greater reality than the one that we can see and taste and touch and smell and experience from day to day. That’s the kind of instinct we need to cultivate.
Meditation can do that in the sense that it trains your soul to recognize that there is more going on than meets the eye. Meditation trains you that there is a story going on that I can’t always see or understand. Its bigger than the one thats apparent right before me. God’s power is at work in the world in ways that might not be immediately obvious, but in the end will be more influential than purely material forces. At the end of life, when God’s kingdom returns, its not as if God will eliminate the material. God is going to envelop it so that it is something bigger than itself.
Question 2: The evangelical movement, with its emphasis on a personal conversion, has had an immediate and lasting success in providing an avenue to the presence of God. However, in recent years the term “evangelical” has at times been associated more with the political right. What advice would you give to Christians who subscribe to the evangelical values but are worried about the specific term?
I’ll answer it this way- I don’t know. (laughter) I call myself an evangelical. I call myself a member of the great tradition of the historic christian faith with a leaning that is more reformed and evangelical. But in the end, I’m just Christian.
David Bebbington, a British historian, defines Evangelicalism in four ways. Evangelicals emphasize personal conversion, the cross, the Bible and they are activists. I actually disagree with that because the Reformation emphasizes the cross and the Bible too. So I would say Evangelicalism focuses on conversion as the means by which you become Christian. Experience, more emotive experience, authenticates the conversion. That’s why Evangelicalism has been more subject to emotivism; a kind of experience that’s really obvious. Maybe given more toward dramatic expressions.
Evangelicals have always been entrepreneurial. They would rival Catholic religious orders in, say, starting non-profits. Evangelicals are just this flurry of creativity. And the reason why is they kind of want to help God out in bringing authentic faith and renewal to people. The Wesley’s started all kinds of enterprises. William Wilberforce was involved in 69 different non-profits or, back then, voluntary societies.
The second thing I want to say is that I’d define Evangelicalism as thin tradition. Now that’s not negative. By thin I mean its not a very robust tradition. You don’t find in Evangelicalism a very defined view of politics, or culture, or art, or of the sacraments. Its not as holistic as Roman Catholic doctrine or Reformation or even Anabaptists. Its not terribly liturgical, right? It hasn’t produced a lot of great texts. If you developed an Evangelical reading list it would be pretty thin.
But what it has done is it has a power of renewing. When Evangelicalism gets attached to a more mature movement in Christianity it tends to be at its best. If it becomes too separatist, it tends to become too subject to fashion…or subject to other movements or ideas that might not be as rooted in the Christian tradition. Politics, for example. Now we are all subject to that to a degree. Nobody is spared that. But Evangelicalism can move in a errant direction quite quickly. Whether its a healing movement, like Christian Science. Or Health and Wealth. Or positive thinking. Or conservative politics.
Now mainliners have been doing that too, more to the left, but that’s because mainliners have abandoned their tradition. Its a byproduct of the abandonment of the historic Christian faith in many cases. And to maintain relevance they tend to become more politicized. Well Evangelicals are doing the same thing. So I don’t really know what to do at this point except to try my best to represent a more positive Evangelicalism and explain the movement the best I can when I’m around people who are opponents or doubters or whatever it might be. And hope like crazy, this is my primary prayer, that God would raise up a generation within the moment that would not be subject to the same type of political compromise as say Franklin Graham has been or Jerry Falwell Jr. They’ve really hurt the movement a lot. Especially, its pretty clear in supporting Donald Trump, and you can have rational reasons for supporting Donald Trump…I don’t think Christians are automatically Democrats anymore than I think they’re Republican. But boy, in a lot of politics we have to hold our nose as we do it. And the kind of uncritical endorsement of Trump just seems to me like a power grab, and that’s really hurt the movement.
Russell Moore has been a better example, or Ed Stetzer who writes for Christianity Today all the time. These guys have been a little bit truer to what I think is the better and richer heritage of Evangelicalism than some of these others. Its a problem all of us are facing right now.
Thanks Jerry for the insights you shared with us about church history through Water From A Deep Well. It is indeed a deep well of knowledge and experience to draw from. This concludes our book club until next summer!