Christian history, Truth, and mysticism
The history of Christian thought is quite varied, especially the early history. Until the First Council of Nicaea in 325, Christian thought was not regulated at all – people with widely disparate views called themselves Christians. Even the earliest Christians – most notably Peter, James and Paul – had quite divergent views of the meaning of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. At first these dissenters were out in the open; but later, when the church became almost synonymous with the government, these people either had to go underground, tread lightly, or (in some cases) find themselves the guest of honor at a roast.
Modern scholarship, especially the archeologic finds at Nag Hammadi (circa 1945) and (to a lesser extent) the Dead Sea Scrolls (circa 1946-1959), has enabled us to access much of the early thought that was considered for many years to be lost for eternity. From this we can see that many “heresies” (Greek for “choices”) were not always the small movements that the Church tried to present them as, but were instead sometimes large movements that dominated entire regions. The systematic destruction of the primary works of these movements, along with the attempted destruction of the beliefs themselves, kept this information unavailable to most people for centuries.
The ideas kept breaking through, though. Some taught in secret, some were able to keep themselves just within the bounds of what the Church would accept, and some oscillated between being declared a saint and a heretic. Some of these folks were mystics.
A mystic is a person who has direct experiential intercourse with the divine – in Christian terms, with God. There are mystical traditions from pretty much every cultural and religious group throughout human history. Although I am specifically interested in Christian mysticism here, I do liberally quote from non-Christian sources, especially The Tao Te Ching. In my view, there is nothing contradictory in quoting the Tao Te Ching in reference to Christianity – Truth can be found in many quarters.
A prevailing view in many groups (especially academic) is what is variously called post-modernism or social constructivism. Although we will delve into this in more detail in another post, a short description of these views would contain the notion that there is no thing as Truth (with a capital T), there are only varied opinions. This differs from the notion that there is such a thing as Truth, but that no one has a guaranteed lock on it. Only a crazy person thinks that he knows the one and only Truth — but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t one!
The one and only thing that a person knows for certain is their own experience. Thus, someone might report that “I saw what appeared to be a ghost” as opposed to “I saw a ghost” – the first report is unassailable unless you just think the person is flat out lying. A philosopher named Ludwig Wittgenstein used the example of a slap to your face – if you felt the pain, you could not deny that it exists. I’ll discuss much more about Wittgenstein at another point, but for now, let’s agree that there are aspects of your experience that you can’t deny.
Well, if you experienced God directly, probably you couldn’t deny that either! The problem comes when the mystic tries to put the experience into words — words can never capture the essence of God — how could they? — and so sometimes the descriptions of these experiences are hard to understand or even believe.
 According to the updated pronunciation, this is pronounced “Dao De Ching” and thus often written that way now. However, most of the books I’ve found use the “T” version, and this is what I “grew up on” (so to speak) and so I use that spelling throughout this book.