Why Mystics Love the Song of Songs

The Erotic Poetry Mirrors the Mystic’s Yearning for God.

I sometimes wonder how the Song of Songs made it into the biblical canon. It is lushly erotic poetry. Bible translators often label the lovers in the poem the bride and the bridegroom, but it is not crystal clear that the lovers are indeed married. The poem may be celebrating pre-marital, not marital love.

The poem, with its slightly risqué flavor, does not seem like something sober rabbis and church fathers would find appropriate in holy Scripture. Yet there it is, with images that are so evocative of sensual pleasure.

One reason why it did get included in the canon is that many of those rabbis and church fathers read the poem as allegory. The real theme of the poem, they contend, is the passionate love between God and Israel, or between Christ and his church, or between God and the awakened soul.

Many modern scholars dismiss this allegorical interpretation as simply eisegesis, an interpretation that reads a meaning into the text that simply is not there. Yet we must deal with the fact that spiritual writers, especially of the mystical sort, have been drawn to this text from almost the time it entered Scripture. Through the centuries, spiritual writers, especially monastics and mystics, have written scores upon scores of commentaries on the Song of Songs. It could vie for the most popular book in the Bible during the Middle Ages.

Why? What is the connection between the text and those who are intense in pursuing the spiritual journey?

The Evocation of Desire

One of the striking things about the Song of Songs is that it says almost nothing explicitly about the sexual act itself. In verse 8:5, the poet writes, “Under the apple tree, I awakened you.”

If this is a reference to the act of sexual union, it is a highly allusive one. It hints, but does not describe. It leaves a lot to the imagination. This contrasts dramatically with all the explicit descriptions of sexual acts that we find in modern novels.

What we find instead in the Song of Songs is repeated description of erotic desire. The lovers are constantly searching for each other, longing to be together. And when they do seem to meet, almost immediately one of them, usually the male lover, mysteriously vanishes away.

Here is one example from chapter 5:

I slept, but my heart was awake.

            Listen! my beloved is knocking.

            “Open to me, my sister, my love,

            my dove, my perfect one…

My beloved thrust his hand into the opening,

            and my inmost being yearned for him.

I arose to open to my beloved,

            and my hands dripped with myrrh,

            my fingers with liquid myrrh,

            upon the handles of the bolt.

I opened to my beloved,

            but my beloved had turned and was gone.

            My soul failed me when he spoke.

            I sought him, but did not find him;

            I called him, but he gave no answer.

What makes the Song such powerful poetry is this ability to evoke the experience of desire, intense desire that lovers can feel for each other.

Spiritual Experience as Desire

This is the feature of the poem that so draws mystics to the Song of Songs, I believe. For in the lovers’ intense erotic desire for each other, mystics see mirrored the similar intense desire they feel for God. They long for God with deep longing. And the best analogy for this deep spiritual longing is the erotic longing the lovers feel in the Song.

The psalmist uses a different analogy to describe this intense spiritual longing. In Psalm 42, we find the psalmist writing:

As a deer longs for flowing streams,

            so my soul longs for you, O God.

My soul thirsts for God,

            for the living God.

When shall I come and behold

            the face of God?

My tears have been my food day and night,

            while people say to me continually,

            “Where is your God?”

In the psalm the longing for God is compared to a basic physical need. In the Song, the longing takes on a more deeply personal character. But both texts highlight the ever-continuing experience of desire, a desire that has yet to be consummated.

This is what attracts the mystic to the Song, as a moth to the shining light bulb. Desire lies at the heart of the mystic’s experience. So much so that the mystic’s experience can often be described as a never-ending search for union with the divine.

In fact, the early church father Gregory of Nyssa believed this spiritual longing will never be completely satisfied, even in the next life. In the fourth century, he wrote, “This truly is the vision of God: never to be satisfied in the desire to see him.” [Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, Paulist Press, 1978, page 116] Whether Nyssa is right or not, he highlights that central place desire has in the spiritual journey of those who have developed a particularly close personal relationship with God.

So it may be eisegesis for the mystic to read the Song allegorically, but does that really matter? For the Song of Songs lays bare the dynamic of the mystic’s experience with God.

 

Parables and the “Zen” of Jesus

If you think that Jesus told his parables to make his teaching clear, simple, and relevant, then I recommend you read this blog posting “Parables and the ‘Zen’ of Jesus.” It is written by Michael Jinkins, President of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. After reading it, I will never think about Jesus’ parables in the same way again.

The Question that Christians Need to Stop Asking

We are not the judge at the Last Judgment. God is.

Note: This posting continues a discussion I began in my last posting, Where Does Jesus Fit in Inter-Religious Dialogue? You may want to read it first.

In my last posting, I argued that we cannot understand the animating spirit of historic, orthodox Christianity if we limit Jesus to being just a great teacher or a great prophet. We have to broaden our minds to grasp the historic Christian proclamation that Jesus is the Savior of the world.

Saying that fundamental tenet of our faith, most Christians then go on to presume that only explicit Christians will be saved at the Last Judgment. Only Christians (whether baptized or born-again, depending upon how different denominations define Christian) will enter into the Kingdom of God. All others will be cast into the fiery pit of Hell.

This means that one of the most common questions Christians are constantly asking of themselves as well as of others is: Are you saved? Where will you spend eternity?

The Pastoral Distress of the Question

I believe the time has come for Christians to stop asking this question. It has caused untold emotional and spiritual distress, if not abuse, through the ages. I believe we need to excise the question from our Christian speech.

It has caused great anxiety for countless Christians themselves. What evidence is there, they ask of themselves, as to whether I belong to God’s elect or not? Was my born-again experience genuine or not? Or, if we are Catholic, have I committed a mortal sin that will invalidate my baptism? What if I don’t feel happy as a born-again Christian is supposed to feel? Does that call in question my salvation?

I have seen this worry intensify the grief of families mourning the loss of a family member who showed no interest in Jesus or the church, or even vehemently rejected them. Grieving a death is bad enough, but grieving when you think your loved one has gone to Hell is agony for such families.

The presumption that only genuine Christians can be saved has also caused constant tension in Christians’ relations to other religions of the world. Other religious people find such Christians arrogant and judgmental. Christians, on the other hand, obsess about saving their lost friends, neighbors, and all of humanity.

Commenting on this obsession, Leslie Newbigin, a prominent, 20th century missionary in India, once said: “In the debate about Christianity and the world’s religions it is fair to say that there has been an almost unquestioned assumption that the only question is: ‘What happens to the non-Christian after death?’ I want to affirm that this is the wrong question and that as long as it remains the central question we shall never come to the truth.”*

To Leslie Newbigin, I say, “Amen.” I have come to the same conclusion through my own life experience and discussions with many others in inter-religious dialogues.

Why It’s the Wrong Question to Be Asking

It consider it the wrong question for three reasons.

First, when most Christians ask that question, “Are you saved?”, they presume an anemic understanding of salvation. They assume that salvation means that you will go to heaven when you die.

But when we soak ourselves into the whole message of the Bible, we find the concept of salvation we meet there is far deeper and broader than just that one limited meaning. Salvation is a very expansive concept, not a restricted one. It involves healing, reconciliation, harmony, prosperity, and unity as well as life after death. It is the experience of God’s creative and redemptive purpose coming to its fulfillment at the end of the age.

I have tried to expound upon this more expansive meaning of salvation in my blog posting of April 21, 2014 titled “Spacious Salvation.”

My second reason for considering it the wrong question is related to the first reason. The question keeps the focus of salvation on the individual person and his or her fate at the Last Judgment. This keeps the focus on me and my ego needs and worries.

Individuals are important to God. Jesus assures us that if God has all the hairs of our head numbered, then we need not worry that God cares about each one of us individually. But salvation is not all about the saving a vast mass of isolated individuals. It’s about the saving of individuals within God’s creative and redemptive work within all the cosmos.

For the apostle Paul, the kingdom of God is about nothing less than the unifying of the whole cosmos—the natural order as well as people–under the lordship of Jesus Christ. (See the first chapters of both Ephesians and Colossians.) Our salvation is our being brought into our own special place in this grand and glorious order. None of us can experience salvation in its fullness until the whole of the universe experiences it as well.

If we are going to ask, “Are you saved?”, then we need to raise our sights to include more than our individual fate at the Last Judgment. Let us seek to understand our individual place within the social and cosmic order that the Kingdom of God will be.

The poet Dante got it right in Canto 100 of the Divine Comedy. There he has a vision of the triune God as the unifying center of a vast cosmic rose composed of the myriads upon myriads of saints and angels, all facing and praising God, and reflecting the glory of God. We, too, must raise our vision of salvation.

The Criteria for Judgment at the Last Judgment

And three, I consider the question “Are you saved?” the wrong question to ask, because none of us is ultimately the judge at the Last Judgment. None of us is ever in any position to answer that question definitively for either ourselves or for other people. God is the judge. And we can never presume to know how God will decree.

The gospel message is that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. As a Christian minister I believe that and I preach that. But I am in no position to say just how precisely everyone is to believe in him.

The gospel references to the Last Judgment make clear that there will be lots of surprises at that moment. People who thought they were safely in will find themselves on the outside. And those who thought they were on the outside will find themselves welcomed into the Kingdom.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is very clear that just calling Jesus “Lord, Lord,” will not guarantee entrance. It is those who do the will of his Father in heaven who will enter in (Matthew 7:21-23). And in Jesus’ parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25, both the sheep and the goats are surprised by the judge’s judgment. There the decisive factor is not the creed the individuals profess. It is whether they did acts of compassion for “the least of these my brothers [and sisters].”

A Different Slant on a Reformation Principle

In both passages, the decision about individuals is based primarily upon the individual’s actions, not his or her words. The acid test is doing the will of the Father. This raises troubling questions for a Protestant like myself raised on the Reformation principle of salvation by faith alone. We are saved by faith, not good works.

Yet these passages suggest that if we are to retain the Reformation principle, then we must rethink the meaning of faith. Faith must mean more than reciting a creed or making a personal decision for Christ. It must be understood in the way that Paul describes it in Galatians 5:6: “For in Christ Jesus…the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” In some way, faith and works must be understood as one integral whole.

That’s why I don’t trouble myself unduly with the eternal fate of the non-Christian. God can be merciful to whom God wants to be merciful. I take seriously what the apostle Peter says to the Roman centurion Cornelius in Acts 10:34, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

Does this undercut Christian evangelism? No, not in my understanding. We can truly believe that in the gospel we have a message of good news that applies to all people. I’ve always loved the way the Ceylonese evangelist D.T. Niles expressed the character of evangelism. “Evangelism,” he said, “is just one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.”

We can be confident in sharing what we believe and have experienced. And we can trust that the God we have experienced in Jesus will be merciful to us when we come to the Last Judgment, for we have the assurances of the Bible to give us hope. But we are never given the infallible certainty that allows us to pronounce God’s judgment on ourselves or on any other people in advance.

It is perfectly appropriate to share the good news of the gospel with others and to invite them to share in its liberation by becoming a disciple of Jesus. What we can’t do, in my opinion, is browbeat people into commitment by a heavy-handed use of the question “Are you saved?” Most of us cannot ask that question with humble compassion. And because we cannot, we undermine the very good news that the gospel is.

—————

* Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989. Page 177.

 

Where Does Jesus Fit in Inter-Religious Dialogue?

Jesus does not fit the usual categories for a founder of a religion

I have been involved in a number of inter-religious dialogues. In these exchanges adherents of different religious traditions share their beliefs and practices. Often the motive is to advance tolerance. We seek to discern beliefs and sometimes practices that different religions share in common.

One of those attempts to find commonalities is a tendency to characterize the founders of world religions in one of two categories. They are either supremely inspiring teachers, like the Buddha, Confucius, or the many gurus who have molded Hinduism. Or they are powerful prophets, spokesmen for the divine, like Moses, Zoroaster, Muhammad or Bahá’u’lláh.

Where does Jesus fit? A common answer is that he is either a great teacher or a great prophet. For some he is both. He is seen as a typical specimen of a founder of a religion.

When we read the gospels, we do indeed encounter a Jesus who is a great teacher. The gospels tell us Jesus is constantly teaching, both his disciples and the crowds who follow him. He is a provocative teacher both in style (take the parables) and in content (take the Sermon on the Mount).

At times in the gospels we also find people acknowledging Jesus as a great prophet (see Matthew 16:13-14). In fact, his followers come to believe he is the great prophet that Moses had proclaimed that God would raise up to carry on Moses’ work (see Deuteronomy 18:18).

The Distinctive Role Christianity Assigns to Jesus

But if you limit your understanding of Jesus to just a great teacher or a great prophet, you are going to have a hard time understanding the animating spirit of Christianity. The Jesus of orthodox Christianity does not fully fit either category.

For example, the orthodox creeds of Christianity (the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed) say nothing at all about Jesus as a teacher or a prophet. Their focus is not on what Jesus taught or preached. Rather they focus is on who Jesus is and what he did.

I note this because I want to contend that in orthodox Christianity at least, the central role of Jesus is his role of Messiah and Savior of the world. It’s why the name of our religion is Christianity, a name based upon the title Christos, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Messiah.

Behind the title Savior is the concept of liberator, a concept with deep roots in the Old Testament. God saved or liberated Israel from bondage in Egypt in the Exodus experience. And the Exodus story is the governing paradigm for salvation in the Bible.

For Christianity Jesus is the liberator not only for Christians, but also for the whole world. This Christian understanding of Jesus is given expression on the lips of the Samaritans in John 4:

They [the Samaritans] said to the woman, “It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” [John 4:42]

Jesus sets us and the whole cosmos free not primarily through his teachings, but through his actions—his life, his death, his resurrection, and his ascension. These are exactly the actions the creeds give their attention to.

Now this makes it difficult to place Jesus in the usual categories when one is comparing world religions. What is supremely important for Christianity is not what Jesus said (important though Christians take his teachings and his words), but what he did. It is through those actions that he liberates the world.

Although I am not a deep scholar of world religions, the concept of savior does not seem to me to be a common category when talking about the religious leaders of other religions. From what I have read about the concept of the bodhisattva, Mahayana Buddhism may be envisioning something close to the Christian concept. But as I said, the concept of savior does not seem to be a common one in other religions.

The Practical Implications of Christianity’s Understanding of Jesus

Yet if you are to understand Christianity, you need to pay attention to this element of how Christians understand Jesus. It’s how we understand the very character of a Christian. Let me show how practical that is for my own Presbyterian faith tradition.

According to our Book of Order (our denomination’s governing constitution), the Christian Church “consists of all persons in every nation, together with their children, who profess faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and commit themselves to live in a fellowship under his rule.” *

I call attention to the exact wording of this statement. The Christian is the one who professes faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The profession of faith is not primarily in a teacher or a prophet, but in one who is acknowledged as Lord and Savior. That profession of faith is accompanied by a commitment to live under Jesus’ rule within a community of faith (a fellowship, meaning a local community of believers).

In the New Testament this profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is given visible expression in the action of baptism. In the classical baptismal liturgies, the one who is to be baptized renounces sin, evil, and the devil, and one professes faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior. One makes a decisive break with one’s past and enters into a new future. That future is now defined as allegiance and commitment to Jesus as Lord and Savior.

Baptism is a comparable experience to the naturalization ceremony new American citizens undergo. They renounce an old citizenship in order to adopt a new one. And that new citizenship for the Christian is lived out in the community of a local church, which might also be described as a colony of the Kingdom of God.

In the Christian community you find people understand how Jesus saves in different ways. Yet as a community of faith, we continue to use this terminology of savior and salvation in talking about Jesus. This strikes me as something distinctive about Christianity, which tends to complicate inter-religious dialogue with other religious traditions.

I am not trying in this posting to disparage people who cannot see Jesus as anything but a great teacher or prophet. They honor Jesus in this level of respect that they accord him. My point is that if we try to limit a discussion of Jesus to the two categories of teacher and prophet, we will never understand the distinctive character of the Christian faith. Nor will we understand the deep, emotional devotion many Christians give to Jesus.

If others who are more knowledgeable about world religions contest the generalizations I have made in this posting, I welcome your comments of correction or clarification.

________________

* This was the language traditionally found in paragraph G-4.0100 in all versions of the Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) until the latest version adopted in 2011. That the language has been dropped from the latest version of the Book of Order is a serious deficiency, in my opinion.