Inviting Jesus into your aorta: Personal and Mystical Union at the White Horse Inn

Isaiah calleth heaven his “seat,” and earth his “footstool,” but not his dwelling; therefore, when we long to seek after God, we shall be sure to find him with them that hear and keep his Word, as Christ saith, “He that keepeth my Word, I will come and dwell with him.”

(Martin Luther, “Table Talk”)


God in Christianity is very personal: “You have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father (Romans, 8:15) and “they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me (Jesus’ prayer to hid father – John 17:20b). I often hear Christians say “Christianity is a relationship not a religion.” Trite but not complete tripe. More correct is it to say that the heart of the Christian religion is relationship; vertical first, between God and Christians, and horizontal second, between Christians. 

I focus here on the meaning of “personal relationship.” I draw on some thoughts from three sources on the issue: Calvinist Mike Horton’s White Horse Inn discussion “Your own personal Jesus”, John Piper’s lecture on Martyn Lloyd Jones, and Martin Lloyd Jones from his sermon on Ephesians 2: 6-9, where he explains what it means to be “in Christ.” 

People assume that sin is the absence of God, but it is the presence of God; of his judgments. For this reason, all of us are born into a relationship with God, and thus God is not separated from any human being. The question is whether for you God is a God of wrath or a God of forgiveness. 

Much of modern popular Christian culture is obsessed with self-discovery techniques where the church is set aside in favour of savouring one’s own personal Jesus. Christians do have a personal relationship with Christ but this depends on faith and trust in what Christ has done in history. Instead, we see personal relationship displacing knowledge: “I don’t wanna know about Jesus, I wanna know Jesus.’’ Such thinking is a disaster waiting to happen. It indicates that you know little Christianity. How in a future heaven or on this or a future earth can you have a personal relationship with someone you know little about? Knowledge, like books, is not everything, but it ain’t nothing. Indeed knowledge of the kind we are concerned with often comes from books, or someone bookish. 

Similarly with the mind. “The mind isn’t everything” doesn’t mean the mind is nothing. When it comes to living the Christian life, reading and listening (and thinking, of course) are important. As is very clear from the scriptures, minds can be darkened by more than a lack of information. For example, the Gospels are very clear that most, if not all, of the disciples, were “slow of heart” to understand Jesus. Peter got it most in the neck from Jesus. Jesus kept on telling the disciples that he was to suffer, die and rise again, but they couldn’t take it in because they didn’t want to; they were not expecting a suffering Messiah but a victorious one. 

So you’re determined to know nuttin because your (impersonal) noggin, you insist, will only get in the way of your snoggin (personal encounter with God). Religion, you say, is knowledge and stuff, which can only smother your time with God. Forgive, but you’re a silly ass. Don’t you know the basics, that the Spirit of God works through knowledge and religious practices, and so does not usually work immediately upon the heart. The Spirit of God speaks through tangible means such as the word, water baptism, the Lord’s supper. He confines Himself, generally, to these measures for our benefit. “Confine” makes us think “box.” “Don’t put God in a box,” you say. Scripture is only a box in the sense that your brain is a box. Are your thoughts confined to your neurons? Of course not. 

Here is an example from scripture of the connection between knowing God and knowing about God. A large section of the New Testament deals with explaining what is meant by “Jesus is the Son of God; for example, Paul spends much effort – mental, analytical effort – explaining what “Jesus the Son of God” means. Walking hand in hand with Jesus will have to also involve thinking about and trying to understand who he is. Our thinking is “analytical.” So walking with Jesus should also involve analysing Jesus (the concept) for ourselves and (unless we do it ourselves we can’t do it) explaining him to others. “Analyse” means use your reason to give reasons for the faith that you have received, and to defend the body of teachings (doctrines) that pertain to this faith. The Bible is clear: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” ( 1 Peter 3:15). There are many examples of Jesus and Paul reasoning (analysing, and synthesising) with their listeners. One important topic in this regard is the authenticity of the historical events in the scriptures. The Son of God mediates with the world through events – past, present and future. Without this knowledge there can be no trust, no personal relationship with God. 

Very close to the idea of having a personal relationship with Jesus is “inviting Jesus into your heart.” Where in the Bible does it say that? Inthe Bible we do see God pouring his love into unregenerated hearts, but that involves no invitation from the sinner to God, but is a unilateral sovereign act of God. It’s called amazing grace.

The general Reformed (Calvinist) position, represented by Mike Horton’s “White Horse Inn,” is that the relationship we have with Jesus is based on the premises that he has ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of  the  father. So, he is not with us in the same way  that people are together in a room. We don’t, says the White Horse Inn panel, see Jesus in a  face-to-face relationship. He has ascended on high, so if I am going to relate to him it is through the power of the Holy Spirit and my trust in his work for me. This trust in Christ, is granted by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit somehow unites me too a personal Jesus who is not even in the room. The “invite Jesus into your heart” people think, says a member of the White Horse Inn panel, that Jesus can take up “residence in your aorta” – the pipeline to your heart. 

Paul says the Spirit has been sent into our hearts to cry out “abba father”‘ (Romans 8:28). To be in the spirit, says Paul, is to be in Christ, and to be in Christ is to be in the Spirit. We don’t ask Jesus into our heart – dead hearts can’t invite; we trust in him that his work and mercy will  exchange our sin nature for his righteousness (making us right with God; 2 Corinthians 5:21). 

I think, though, that the personal relationship with Jesus has been largely ignored. Jesus says:

“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me” (John 15:4), and Paul tells of his “commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness— the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). This is the language of “mystical union” in Christ by the Spirit. Christ is not climbing down from heaven into our hearts. 

I now focus on the nature of this mystical union, where I take issue with the common Reformed (Calvinist) position – typified by the panel of the “White Horse Inn.” Within the Calvinist scheme, there exist two contrasting two paradigms; the first, the right view, the second the wrong one: 

1. The gospel is outside of me. Jesus Christ died for my sins and rose from the dead; a historical event. This view of the gospel draws me out of myself to the Body of Christ, the Church, and into a relationship with God in Jesus Christ.

2. Inviting Jesus into your heart  calls you away from the public, away from the Church, away from a communal relationship into an individualistic gnostic relationship. An example is the evangelistic call: “close your eyes; it’s between you and God.” The White Horse Inn panel says no, don’t close your eyes, keep ’em peeled. Look in the book of Acts. People were saved and baptised and brought to maturity through connection to other members of the body. Believe in Jesus, yes, but confess it publicly. Statements such as “invite Jesus into your heart” and “make Jesus your personal saviour” create, says the White Horse Inn panel, an atmosphere where the average Christian is not schooled on the substance of the faith. These statements become the substance. They need to be replaced with key biblical passages such as trust in Christ, and the significance of the resurrection. 

What stands out for me in the White Horse Inn discussion is their emphasis that God is most close to Christians through the body of Christ, that is, in communion with other Christians. In a previous post I asked whether a Jew can singly cleave to God in private, or is this best achieved in public, in community

There are relatively few Torah-observant Jews who believe he or she can meet God One-on-one in a personal relationship, because the majority of them follow the Oral Torah/tradition, which teaches that God only becomes fully present in community; the Jewish community. I once wrote (see above ) that the traditional Christian view, in contrast to the Jewish view, is that there is no true religion without a close personal relationship with the Father through Jesus Christ, his incarnate Son. I think I was wrong, because traditional Western Christianity up to the Reformation was embodied in the rituals of the Roman Catholic Church, where the ordinary believer got closest and most personal to God (and still does) in ”communion” – eating the literal body and blood of Christ (under the appearance of bread and wine), which suggests something more palpable than a mystical union. Not only does Jesus enter your aorta but your stomach as well. The point is that the more you go to communion the more you become like Christ, the more you eat Jesus’ aorta, the more present he becomes in yours. That is not the Protestant view of getting close to Christ, of the “mystical union.” The White Horse Inn Panel (chaired by Mike Horton) discussed above represents, I would think, the majority of the Reformed position, which is similar to the Jewish position that one gets closest to God through community. 

The Jewish position is that owing to the fact that God is a consuming fire (Rashi), it is wiser to approach God mediated through the community represented by the authority of the sages and their rabbinical disciples, who bind the community together unto God. The Reformed tradition (Calvinists) generally agrees that the best way to cleave to God is through communion with other Christians, but not (as in the Jewish case) because God is a consuming fire but because Calvinists (not all) are wary of experiential (”experimental,” the old term) intimacies with the divine, which may easily lead to ”Christ is everything; doctrine, nothing,” and further on to ”Christ is nothing, or only something, while God is everything.” And the next thing you know you’re praying before a Catholic tabernacle with a squatting Buddha atop.


But there is more to worry about. There’s all this ”God is my daddy and Jesus is my buddy” stuff. The holiness of God flounders around at the bottom of your shopping basket of ”he will supply all my needs.” That worries the Calvinist, and rightly so.

I return to the ”personal Jesus” in the light of another Calvinist, Martyn Lloyd Jones, who, although one of the most respected defenders of Calvinism (he’s the founder of the Calvinist “Banner of Truth” publishing house) does not fit into the usual calvinist mold. Jones agrees, as all Calvinists do, that unbelievers are indeed living with God; the God of wrath, not the God of love. ”All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath (”Ephesians 2:3). In an effort to shed the doctrine of ”radical corruption” (total depravity), there is the view that ”nature” here means ”second nature” (habit); so the text has nothing to do with original sin (what about ”all have died in Adam?”), but with personal sin accrued during one’s lifetime. But I digress.

Where Jones differs radically with the usual Calvinist position is that he believes that ”regeneration (always done by the Spirit) is distinct from the the Pentecost experience of ”Baptism of the Holy Spirit’,” which brings us into intimate communion with God, and which fans the flames of devotion and revival. Whereas the Jew, to avoid being burnt up in the raging fire of the divine presence, avoids a close direct communion with God and prefers to cleave to God by cleaving to the rabbis, Christians who believe in the ”Baptism of the Spirit,” as defined by Jones, pray that the fire will fall on them, burn in them. Jones says to the typical Calvinist, indeed to the typical ”evangelical,” ”Don’t quench the Spirit.” 

There is a close connection between a personal relationship with God and the gifts of the spirit, and I believe that calvinists see this as well. Perhaps this is why they throw the ”getting close and personal” baby out with the “gifts” bathwater. 

Jones distinguishes between ”customary assurance” and ”full assurance.” For Jones, unless one has a personal experience of Jesus, which the Baptism of the Spirit affords, one cannot have full assurance. Signs and wonders that accompany the Baptism of the Spirit are, says Jones, God’s way of strengthening the presence of God and the desire to evangelise. The stock Calvinist response is to denigrate post-apostic gifts of the Spirit, and trot out ”Jews demand signs, and Greeks wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:22-23). The reasoning is that “signs and wonders” serve merely as a captivating diversion from the real business of the Gospel. Such reasoning, though, is very simplistic; after all, Peter and Paul, didn’t think that the gifts took the edge off their witnessing. So, why should we think so now? 

Lloyd Jones was disillusioned with the Church’s negative attitude towards the gifts. He believed that the spiritual gifts are essential for revival, because they ”authenticate the truth of the Gospel to a desperately hardened world” (Piper). Piper quotes Jones: ”This is why I believe that we are in need of some manifestation, some demonstration of the power of the Holy Spirit.” Jones warned against being too interested in the exceptional. Yeah right, says the typical cessationist (gifts have ceased); the Gospel is something better. But, says Jones, better to be gullible than smug. 

And my view on the gifts? There is so much drivel today. Prophecy is one example. Once in a church I was attending – be careful not to be smug now – a bloke stands up and says, wait for it: ”We’re living in the end times.” The pastor of the church writes all prophecies in a book. So that one was added. That’s enough to make any Jewish Calvinist (moi) become a cesssationist. And miracles? All that Benny Hinn stuff. I attended one of his presentations. There were dozens of people in wheelchairs. None of them were healed, but there was lots of falling over – backwards, of course; they only fall forwards (Ezekiel, John the Apostle) in the Bible. Although I don’t practice the gifts – mainly, I suppose, because of all the silly stuff going on (woof woof), the jury, if not the Jewry, is still out on this one. (I was once a practising “charismatic”). 

As a counterweight to the typical calvinist aversion to “Jesus living in my heart,” let us now turn to Martyn Lloyd Jones’ sermon ”In Christ Jesus,” which deals with the personal relationship the believer has with Christ. Jones’ text is Ephesians 2:4-7: 

2 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh[a] and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

The ‘but’ (verse 4) is the transition between despair and the introduction to the Gospel, which is about hope, our only hope. Suddenly (sudden transition ”but’) we have this astonishing message. God has done this when we could do nothing. The Apostle Paul makes clear to us what God has done to us. Here – in verses 4-7 – we have one of the profoundest descriptions of what happens to a sinner. The essence of Christianity is union with Christ, to be seated in heavenly places. Not, in contrast to the Roman Catholic and the Jew, that we did anything to achieve this. The primary fact of Christianity is that when we were dead in sin, God raised us up and put us in heavenly places. It is not something we strive to do. It is what God has done to us, not what we have done to ourselves. So far, Jones is a kosher calvinist. 

Now here is where he tries to convince the kosher Calvinist (imbibers of the White Horse Inn, for example) that bacon can also be kosher; if it comes from Nazareth. Jones distinguishes between the ”objective” (kosher) and ”subjective” (bacon) view of ”raised in heavenly places.” These terms need explanation. There are two meanings of ”subjective” – 1. not real and 2. immediate personal experience. By “subjective” Jones means the latter. By ”objective,” in contrast, Jones means something not experienced yet, in other words, something that has not been taken up into the subject’s (person’s) experience; it is still outside himself. Jones beef with the traditional calvinist is that they like objective talk, but not subjective pork. Many Christians (not only calvinists) take merely an objective view of “raised in heavenly places,” which means that we will only be raised and share a life of glory later on – at the resurrection or when we die. So far, says our traditional calvinist, “raised in heavenly places” has only happened to Christ, whereas we have faith that this future glory will be ours as well. Jones says it is wrong to interpret this verse only in this way. The whole tenure of Ephesians 2:6 is something that has happened to those who believe. Paul is praying that believers may know what God is doing  now, not only in the future. 

Both the objective (future state of glory in the heavenlies) and the subjective (present state of glory in the heavenlies) are true. Furthermore, it is wrong to teach that in the now it is all in Christ and nothing in me at all. On the contrary, scripture always emphasises the subjective, the now in me.  And that brings us back to the White Horse Inn’s traditional calvinist view. Recall their position, which is that the relationship we have with Jesus is that he has ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of  the  father. So he is not with us in the same way  that we are together on earth; we don”t see him in a  face-to-face relationship. He has ascended on high, so if I am going to relate to him it is through the power of the Holy Spirit and my trust in his work for me, which the Holy Spirit gives me. The Holy Spirit does not, they say, unite me to a personal Jesus who is not even in the room, whereas, the “invite Jesus into your heart” types believe, they say, that Jesus does not only come into your room, he takes residence in your right ventricle. 

I wonder what they’re mixing with their White Horse at the Inn. To maintain that a believer, even an over the top “charismatic” believes that Jesus is living in their lub-a-dub-dub in the same way Jesus is physically present in the Catholic Eucharist, is wrong. It’s not a toss up between the physical and spiritual presence of Jesus, but the degree to which he is spiritually present; through the Holy Spirit, of course. What most calvinists don’t like in Lloyd Jones his view that born again Christians have been given now the fullness of Christ’s life and that what they need to do is appropriate it, that is, not make it a prop, but make it proper to them, that is, make it their own (Latin proper “own”), by experiencing it in their inner being. Most calvinists accept ”mystical unions” – what other way is their around ”we’re seated in the heavenlies – but are uncomfortable with mystical (that is, very personal) encounters with God. Owing to the excesses in mysticism, they do have a point. Christians, though, are meant to experience (feel) the presence of Christ/God here and now. That is no big stretch, because when we are born again, we are lifted up to the heavenlies (no not necessarily “up”). Yet we remain caught ”up” in this corruptible body, struggling, sinning, and groaning for the redemption of our bodies.

One of the most marvelous of all the Christian doctrines is our union with Christ (Romans 5 – 6; 1 cor 15:2). Our union is not only in Christ’s life but in his death: “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:19-20). Are these just “objective” words (outside of me) that I believe, or can they be a personal encounter with God? Both. 

”I am the vine, you are the branches (John 15) shows us how the corporate aspect of the mystical union comes into play between parts of the body with Christ as the head. This does not mean, though, that the believer only comes alive (to the presence of God) when he or she is united to other believers (the Church). When I am born again, I meet Christ, person to person, in a mystical way of course. Yet just because this meeting is not physical, this doesn’t mean that it is not personal, this doesn’t mean that Jesus is not taking up residence in my ”heart.” We are given, says Jones, a new power, a new direction, a new disposition – we’re seated in the heavenlies. This power is given by Christ, not the church. This power is consolidated by the church (fellow members of the body). The key issue, though, is that if anyone be in Christ, he is a new creature, a new person. Why? Because he has met the person Christ – in his “heart” – but (first) in his head. 

In summary, here is the “mystical union” in a nutshell (the “Truth Project,” Lesson 8): 

The Mystical Union between:

A. Husband and wife

B. Christ and His church

The Body of Christ – Making many One (i) Many members – we form one body with unique gifts and roles (ii) The Mystery of Christ – “… for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (III) Jesus’ vision for the church 1. John 17: 20-23 ” …that all of them may be one …so the world may believe that you have sent me …may they be brought to complete unity …”

C. God and the individual – the Unio Mystica 1. Colossians 1:27 “Christ in you” 2. John 15:5 “If a man remains in me and I in him” 3. John 14:16-17 “for he lives with you and will be in you” 4. 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 “God’s Spirit lives in you.” 

Section C was the focus of this discussion. All sections, though, are necessary for a proper understanding of the Gospel and the en-joy-ment of the Christian life. 

Time to get down (not completely now) off our high (objective) horse. And please let’s not be scared to ride our feelings. Side saddle, if you prefer.

The Night of the Senses: Belief and Understanding in John of the Cross


All translations (no matter the language) of the Hebrew of Isaiah 7:9b is “If you do not believe, you will not be established (you will not last, abide). In contrast, translations of the Septuagint’s Isaiah 7:9b (the GREEK translation of the Hebrew Bible) have the following translation, which John of the Cross quotes (in Spanish, of course): 9b “but if ye believe not, neither will ye at all understand.” The Church fathers, for example, Augustine of Hippo and Anselm used this Septuagint translation to coin 
credo ut intelligam (Anselm of Canterbury) “I believe that I may understand” and  crede, ut intelligas (Augustine), “Believe so that you may understand.”

The Greek word in the Septuagint that is the occasion (the cause are the translators) of all the trouble is SINETE. There are two possible translations of SINETE: the first (because the more probable?) is “being together” and the second “understand.” In English, we say about someone who has miraculously not made a hash of his life that “he has it together.” The (Latin) Vulgate (which is a translation from the Septuagint) is the same as the original Hebrew, namely, si non credideritis non permanebitis “if you will not believe, you will not stand firm,” where “stand firm” is the FIRST meaning of the Septuagint’s SINETE.
So, the Vulgate took the first meaning of the Greek (Septuagint) word SINETE “bring together (having it all together, established, stand firm), whereas John of the Cross (Spanish) and several English translations use “understand.”

NOW THIS IS WHERE THE Theological TROUBLE BEGINS. Edith Stein following John of the Cross uses the translation “if you don’t believe, you will not understand” to maintain that if you want to understand (God) you have to “turn off the light of your knowledge.”

Did John of the Cross intentionally ignore the Vulgate rendition of Isaiah 7:9b in order to establish his “night of the senses” upon the Septuagint version. If John had used the Vulgate instead of the Septuagint he might have ended up with a “day of the senses.” But then that may not be so good for monks.


Google “night of the senses.” Of the ten sites on the page, the first nine are about erotica. The 10th is my topic. 

I was reading Edith Stein‘s “The Science of the Cross,” which is a paraphrase of “The Ascent of Mount Carmel” of John of the Cross, when I came across this piece:

We can only accept, says Stein, what we are told by turning off the light of our knowledge. We have to agree with what we hear without having any of the senses elucidate it for us. Therefore faith is a totally dark night for the soul. But it is precisely by these means that it brings her light: a knowledge of perfect certainty that exceeds all other knowledge and science so that one can arrive in perfect contemplation at a correct conception of faith. That is why it is said: Si non credideritis, non intelligetis ‘If you do not believe. you will not understand.’ Isaiah 7:9.”

(Edith Stein is a Jewish convert to Roman Catholicism). 

Edith Stein, Breslau, 1926

I was not familiar with this translation of Isaiah 7:9, for all the English translations say “if you will not believe, you will not be established/stand firm” or something similar. So does the Vulgate; so does the Hebrew Bible say the same.

When I investigated the matter, which involved the comparison of translations of different languages and reading John of the Cross, the journey led me much further than linguistic meaning (linguistic sense) but to another sense of “sense,” into the deeps of John’s “Dark Night of the Senses.”

 Faith and understanding, God created both. Which is the cart, and which the horse, which comes first? Is it true that credo ut intelligam (Anselm of Canterbury) “I believe that I may understand?” Augustine of Hippo was more imperative: crede, ut intelligas, “Believe so that you may understand.” 

There are two kinds of believing: believing that (something is true/real) and believing in (something or somebody), that is, trusting. You can have the first kind of belief (belief that something is true) without believing in the second kind (trust), but you cannot have the second (trust) without first believing that what or whom you trust (believe in) is true. Believing that, therefore, logically precedes believing in (trust). 

Believing in” in Hebrew is called emunah. A Jew (or a Christian) does not have to prove  the existence of Him in whom he trusts. “In the beginning” (Genesis 1:1) should be enough, and if not, then the person doesn’t have a biblical bone in his body. “Biblical man, says Buber, is never in doubt to the existence of God. In professing his faith, his emuna, he merely expresses his trust that the living God is near to him as he was to Abraham and that he entrusts himself to Him” (“Two types of faith” 1962). (See my Faith and Understanding: the Biblical view). 

Is it true that traduttore, traditore :“to translate is to betray?”  Is Robert Payne, Chairman of the Translation Committee of the American PEN Organization, correct when he says: “The world’s languages resemble infinitely complicated grids, and the basic patterns of these grids scarcely ever coincide. [Except] on some rare occasions translation does succeed – beyond all possibility.” And:“Whenever we translate exactly and accurately it is a coincidence–in the sense of the purest accident. And the task of the translator is to move sure-footedly among these accidents, he cannot do it by logic.” (Payne, Robert. “On the Impossibility of Translation”, The World of Translation. New York: PEN, 1971, pp 361-4). 

If Robert Payne is right, this would mean that the structure of a language defines the structure of thought. There is much research, however, to show that traduttore, traditore “to translate is to betray” is not as radical as the Payne claims. I think there is a bigger problem than the translation between languages, which is the miscommunications and misunderstandings between people who speak the same language/s. (See my Translation, transflation and betrayal: Plato’s Gorg(i)as). 

In this article, I examine a few problems in the translation of a sentence in Isaiah 7 “If you will not believe, you will not understand” (Isaiah 7:9b) which is one English translation of the Septuagint’s (Greek) translation of the original Hebrew. The Septuagint – also called the LXX because it was purported to have been produced by 70 knowledgeable and pious Jews – was used by the majority of Jews between 250 BCE and 100 CE. Most Jews at that time used Greek as their lingua franca, and were like the majority of modern non-Israeli Jews, whose Hebrew knowledge is at best, middling and at worst, piddling. 

My intention is not merely to take a linguistic excursion into the minefield of translation, but to explore how one’s theological or mystical presuppositions can turn dark into light, and light into dark. The “one” I am referring to is, according to Edith Stein and many Catholics, the greatest mystical mind of the Roman Catholic Church: the medieval Carmelite monk, John of the Cross, whom Edith and her Carmelite Order refer to as “Our Holy Father.” I shall focus on John’s “Night of the senses” in his Ascent of Mount Carmel, which contends that God cannot be reached through the (five) senses, and so, in order to understand faith and the cross of Christ, we have to flee the senses, without, I presume, taking leave of our senses. 

In section 1, I briefly explain the difference between word meaning, sentence meaning and discourse meaning, and then in section 2, I examine translations of Isaiah 7:9b (quoted above), which is pertinent to Section 3 where I examine John of the Cross’s argument that sense experience is enemy of faith and the Cross. 

1. The meaning of words, sentences and discourse 

The meaning of a word within a sentence often cannot be established without consideration of the other words in the sentence, and indeed, without consideration of the larger context (discourse). 

Discourse occurs when sentences come alive and function in communication. A sentence in isolation is inactive; it only has the potential to function. It is this potential which has to actualised in discourse. For example, the sentence “I am reading” is understood by anyone who knows English grammar and vocabulary. This is called the “meaning” of the sentence, which you can derive from a dictionary and a grammar book. When, however, this sentence comes alive in a communication (that is, in discourse) we have more than the meaning of the sentence but also what the speaker/writer means by the sentence – how a person uses the sentence. I gave an example (in Jacob Neusner and the Grammar of Rabbinical Theology (Part 2), where I showed that the sentence “I’m reading” in answer to the question “What are you doing?” may have a wide variety of meanings; for example, 1.“Please don’t disturb me,” or 2. “Get out of my face.” 

Geoffery Leech (“Pragmatics,” 1983) explains. There is: 

the meaning of a X (a word or a sentence),

which is the semantic/sentence/grammatical meaning (the three terms are synonymous),


what you mean by X ,

which is the discourse/pragmatic/sociolinguistic meaning.

To illustrate the difference between 1 and 2, I shall be using Isaiah 7:9b quoted by John of the Cross in the section “The night of the senses” of his Ascent of Mount Carmel. Here is Isaiah 7:9b in its larger context:  

 1. And it came to pass in the days of Achaz the son of Joatham, the son of Ozias, king of Judah,there came up Rasim king of Aram, and Phakee son of Romelias, king of Israel, against Jerusalem to war against it, but they could not take it. 2. And a message was brought tothe house of David, saying, Aram has conspired with Ephraim. And his soul was amazed, and the soul of his people, as in a wood a tree is moved by the wind. 3. And the Lord said to Esaias, Go forth to meet Achaz, thou, and thy son Jasub who is left, to the pool of the upper way of the fuller’s field. 4. And thou shalt say to him, Take care to be quiet, and fear not, neither let thy soul be disheartened because of these two smoking firebrands: for when my fierce anger is over, I will heal again. 5. And as for the son of Aram, and the son of Romelias, forasmuch as they have devised an evil counsel, saying, 6. We will go up against Judea, and having conferred with them we will turn them away to our side, and we will make the son of Tabeel king of it; 7. thus saith the Lord of hosts, This counsel shall not abide, nor come to pass. 8. But the head of Aram is Damascus, and the head of Damascus, Rasim; and yet within sixty and five years the kingdom of Ephraim shall cease from being a people. 9a And the head of Ephraim is Somoron, and the head of Somoron the son of Romelias: 9b but if ye believe not, neither will ye at all understand; or: “If you will not believe, you shall not understand). 

I now examine some of the problems in the translation of verse 9b, where the main focus falls in the second part: “…you shall not understand.” 

2. Isaiah 7:9b, “If you will not believe, you shall not understand.” 

The English version of Isaiah 7:9b “If you will not believe, you shall not understand in John of the Cross, who writes in Spanish, is translated from the Septuagint. This English translation is not uncommon among translations of the Septuagint. Translations from the Hebrew text itself, however, such as English translations and translations into many other languages, rarely, if ever translate the original Hebrew as “…you will/shall not understand. Here is the original Hebrew of Isaiah 7:9b: אִם לֹא תַאֲמִינוּ, כִּי לֹא תֵאָמֵנוּ. im lo ta-aminu, ki lo tei-ameinu

 The triliteral (three-letter) root aleph-mem-nun אמן (as in aminu, ameinu), is a play on words. This root means to be firm, confirmed, reliable, faithful, have faith, believe; hence “If not ta-aminu (if you will not believe), not tei-ameinu (you will not be established, remain, stand firm).” 

Here is the Greek Septuagint translation of the original Hebrew of Isaiah 7:9b: 

καὶ ἐὰν μὴ πιστεύσητε οὐδὲ μὴ συνῆτε



μὴ NOT



μὴ NOT


 The bit we’re interested in is the final word (underlined)


 As we see, there are two possible translations of sinete: the first (because the more probable?) is “being together” and the second “understand.” In English, we say about someone who has miraculously not made a hash of his life that “he has it together,” “he has a firm grip on things,” “he stands on his own two feet.” Other translations from the original Hebrew text (English, German, French), however, do not have “you shall not understand.” Here are the French and English translations of the Jewish Mechon Mamre’s JPS 1917 Hebrew text:

 French Mechon Mamre – Et la tête d’Ephraïm, c’est Samarie, et la tête de Samarie, c’est le fils de Remaliahou. Si vous manquez de confiance, vous manquerez d’avenir. In English – If you don’t trust, you’ll have no future.

 English Mechon Mamre – And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is Remaliah’s son. If ye will not have faith, surely ye shall not be established.

 The Mechon Mamre English translation, “you shall not be established,”is the most common of English translations. Other translations have a synonym of “not be established” such as “not stand firm,” “not remain steadfast.” Luther’s translation is at its pithy best:Gläubt ihr nicht so bleibt ihr nicht, literally, “believe you not, then abide/survive you not.” I am reminded of another of Luther’s gems, in connection with Roman Catholic indulgences; over the top, but nevertheless very telling: Wenn die Münze im Kästlein klingt, die Seele in den Himmel springt. “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” 

Here is a French translation of the Septuagint by Pierre Giguet, 1872)Et si vous ne me croyez point, c’est que vous manquerez d’intelligence. And my English translation: “And if you don’t believe me, it’s because you lack intelligence.” 

How did Giguet arrive at that translation? I think the reason is this: συνῆτε sinete is a combination of two parts, sin “with” and ēte “put/send.” Somebody who is not “with it” is “out of it,” he is not “together,” he is at a complete loss, he doesn’t think straight, he doesn’t understand; he’s stingily endowed upstairs. So, the idea of “not understand” is contained in “lacks intelligence.” Also, not to forget that it is the person’s own fault that he doesn’t understand, or lacks intelligence, and not the fault of his genes or external circumstances such as parental neglect or a falling out of a tree when he was three. 

Edith Stein, in her “Science of the Cross” uses a Latin translation attributed to St Augustine, si non credideritis, non intelligetis “if you will not believe, you will not understand,

” which is also a possible translation of the Septuagint. The Vulgate, in contrast, si non credideritis non permanebitis “if you will not believe, you will not stand firm,” which is another possible translation of the Septuagint. Permanebitis is the second-person plural future active indicative of permaneō, stay to the end, hold out, endure; last, survive, continue, persist, persevere. devote one’s life to, live by. A modern Spanish translation ( is similar to the Latin of the Vulgate: “no creen en mí,
    no permanecerán firmes,” which is understandable because Spanish, a Latin (Romance) language, is relatively close to Latin. In the last two words, we can see the English words “permanent” and “(stand) firm.” 

In our main text (Isaiah 7:9b), there are two kinds of “establishing”: holding things together in 1. your noggin and in 2. your life. They are, of course, complementary: if you can’t hold your thoughts together, life falls apart; and if things fall apart, it could very well be (but certainly not always) because you’re a klutz – you’ve lost your senses; which brings us to our main (dis)course.

3. Understanding the Night of the Senses in John of the Cross 

Here is Edith Stein’s paraphrase (in her “The Science of the Cross”) of John of the Cross’s understanding of Isaiah 7:9b, “If you will not believe, you will not understand (which I cited in the introduction): 

We can only accept, says Stein, what we are told by turning off the light of our knowledge. We have to agree with what we hear without having any of the senses elucidate it for us. Therefore faith is a totally dark night for the soul. But it is precisely by these means that it brings her light: a knowledge of perfect certainty that exceeds all other knowledge and science so that one can arrive in perfect contemplation at a correct conception of faith. That is why it is said: Si non credideritis, non intelligetis ‘If you do not believe. you will not understand.’ Isaiah 7:9.” 

Here is John of the Cross in the same vein in his Ascent of Mount Carmel Chapter 3:3: 

The light of natural knowledge cannot inform us of these things, because they are out of proportion with our natural senses. We know them because we have heard of them, believing that which the faith teaches us, subjecting thereto our natural light, and making ourselves blind before it: for, as it is said by St. Paul, faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ. Faith is not knowledge that entereth in by any of the senses (italics added), but rather the ascent of the soul to that which cometh by hearing. Faith, therefore, far transcends the foregoing illustrations for not only does it not produce evidence or knowledge, but, as I have said, it transcends and surpasses all other knowledge whatever, so that perfect contemplation alone may judge of it. Other sciences are acquired by the light of the understanding, but that of faith is acquired without it, by rejecting it for faith, and it is lost in its own light. Therefore it is said by Isaias, ‘lf you will not believe you will not understand.’ 

To summarise John,  if you want to understand faith, you need to enter the night, the dark night, the dark night of the soul. (The only dark night most have heard of is the celluloid version, the Dark Knight). 

Theologians distinguish between three aspects of “faith” – information(notitia), mental assent to this information as fact (assensus) and belief (trust) in those facts. (See Two conversions: the mind (NOTITIA) and the heart (FIDUCIA) of faith in Blaise Pascal. John of the Cross would have no disagreement with that as long as the sense of hearing and seeing is confined to the cell of holy content; which is alright for a monk. What is more disturbing is what he says a little later: 

It is evident that faith is a dark night to the soul. and it is thus that it gives it light: the more it darkens the soul the more does it enlighten it. It is by darkening that it gives light. According to the Words of the prophet,’If you will not believe, that is, ‘if you do not make yourselves blind you shall not understand.’” 

In the discussion of “if you do believe, you shall not understand(Isaiah 7:9b) we were concerned with whether this was the correct translation. It now appears that John is using what he thinks is – and indeed seems to be – an acceptable translation of the Septuagint to promote his interpretation of it, namely, “if you do not make yourselves blind, you will not understand.” For John, unless you are blind, or rather, make yourself blind – to the natural world, you can never have any supernatural knowledge. The Bible, in contrast, says otherwise. There is no need to make yourself blind, for you were blind from birth, worse, dead from birth. Jesus comes to open the eyes of the blind because they cannot and don’t want to see unless Jesus makes them want to see. “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind” (John 9:39). That is why faith is an unmerited gift of God: 

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:4-10 ESV). 

In support of his “If you do not make yourselves blind, you will not understand” John quotes Romans 10:17: 

So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” I don’t see anything here related to “if you do not make yourselves blind, you will not understand.” Even less so when Romans 10:17 is read in context (verses 14-17): 

14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?[c] And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. 

When Isaiah 7:9b is seen in the larger context of the whole of Isaiah 7, the Targum gets it right, even though it adds words to Isaiah 7:9: 

If ye will not believe; the Targum adds, ‘the words of the prophet;’ surely ye shall not be established, or remain; that is, in their own land, but should be carried captive, as they were after a time; or it is, ‘because ye are not true and firm’; in the faith of God, as Kimchi interprets it; or, ‘because ye are not confirmed’ (that is, by a sign).” (Targum).

Someone on the translation panel of the English Standard Version of the Bible liked Kimchi. Here is the ESV: “If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.”

 And John Calvin (on Isaiah 7:9b):

Hence we ought to draw a universal doctrine, that, when we have departed from the word of God, though we may suppose that we are firmly established, still ruin is at hand. For our salvation is bound up with the word of God, and, when this is rejected, the insult offered to it is justly punished by him who was ready to uphold men by his power, if they had not of their own accord rushed headlong to ruin. The consequence is, that either we must believe the promises of God, or it is in vain for us to expect salvation. (Commentary on Isaiah volum e 1 p. 183 – 184). 

Assume that the sentence “If you will not believe, you will not understand” is a good translation of the both the Septuagint and the Hebrew, this still doesn’t justify using it to change the larger (discourse) context of the passage, which is not about throwing your senses (in both senses of the term) out of the window of your blind soul,making it even blinder, but about the dire judgements of God on those who do not believe God’s promises. 


Earlier we read in John of the Cross that “Faith is not knowledge that entereth in by any of the senses.”  Sense” has at least two senses as in “physical senses” and in “making sense.” If we don’t understand the larger (discourse) context of “If you will not believe, you will not understand” (Isaiah 7:9b), we may end up getting our theological wires crossed. It would, however, be foolish to write off John of the Cross or the mystical element in religion, for how else to describe union with Christ other than as a “mystical” union? John shows us, in the words of A. W. Tozer that man “has become a parasite on the world, drawing his life from his environment, unable to live a day apart from the stimulation which society affords him.” ( “The Great God Entertainment,”pp. 22-25. In Jeremy Walker). 

Our senses have indeed become parasites on the world, sucking the lifeblood out of its environs, unable to exist a day without the stimulation the world affords our senses. This fact, however, should not encourage us to flee, as occurs in all kinds of mystical systems, the world, for to do so is to flee from the historical, from the incarnation of God in history, God in the flesh, who did not teach us to shuck off our mortal senses but rather to use them in the way Christ and the Apostles make so clear – to me, at least. The bugbear of mystics, whether Christian, Buddhist or Sufi, is that “their yearning after God Himself can never endure the trammels of the historical.” (Wilhelm Herrmann, 1906,“Communion with God”). It’s not through the senses, of course, as John of the cross makes clear that we fulfill the deep “sense” of our need, but through faith in Christ and its corollary – “take up your cross and follow me.” It’s not, however, the use but the abuse of the senses – sight, taste, touch, hearing, smell – that drags us away from the light into the darkness. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (Colossians 1:13). But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).

As far as the senses and the sense of God are concerned, I think another saint had it just right; Augustine’s “Confessions,” Book 10:

But what is it that I love in loving thee? Not physical beauty, nor the

splendor of time, nor the radiance of the light–so pleasant to our eyes–nor the sweet

melodies of the various kinds of songs, nor the fragrant smell of flowers and

ointments and spices; not manna and honey, not the limbs embraced in physical

love–it is not these I love when I love my God. Yet it is true that I love a certain

kind of light and sound and fragrance and food and embrace in loving my God, who

is the light and sound and fragrance and food and embracement of my inner man–

where that light shines into my soul which no place can contain, where time does

not snatch away the lovely sound, where no breeze disperses the sweet fragrance,

where no eating diminishes the food there provided, and where there is an embrace

that no satiety comes to sunder. This is what I love when I love my God.

And what is this God? I asked the earth, and it answered, “I am not he”;

and everything in the earth made the same confession. I asked the sea and the

deeps and the creeping things, and they replied, “We are not your God; seek above



Of mysticism, cooking and them goose bumps

Teresa of Ávila, Ulm, Germany

St. Francis of Assisi (circa 1182-1220)
St. Francis of Assisi (circa 1182-1220) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This morning, a good friend, whom I haven’t seen for more than 20 years, phoned me from Belgium. I asked a variation of my pet question, which I used to ask a phalange of friends my daughter used to bring home from school: “Have you read any good books lately.” The insult – not that her friends were aware of the insult (there I go; another insult) – was double: not merely books, any books, but good books. I would, of course, never ask my friend – or an adult, unless I was very mad, or mad at him or her – such a double-barbed question; not even the single barb alternative (Have you read any books lately?). Besides I know he loves books. So, I simply asked, “What are reading?

He said St Francis of Assisi, especially the classic biography. “The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi” by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Hang on a mo….there, click, click, I’ve downloaded a free pdf into Goodreader on my ipad.

Also Teresa of Avila and a few others were mentioned. In my “Catholic” days, I loved reading how the arrows of divine love pierced Teresa’s heart and made her swoon. There’s nothing wrong, indeed there can be everything right about swooning. I’m not the typical Calvinist who advises you, if you show symptoms of “mysticemia” or any kind of religious experience, to repent or see your doctor.

One atypical Calvinist is Martyn Lloyd Jones – respected by all Calvinists – who in the early part of his sermon series on Ephesians (somewhere between Ephesians 1 – 3, I forget) says that it’s silly (my word for what he respectfully said) to imagine that if God comes to live in those born of God that the regenerated person cannot, indeed should not, feel a thing.

I want to specifically address my Calvinist brethren: There’s a TV advert for shampoo or whatever where a pretty girl says, “It’s all about feeling – AND feeling.” She is, if course, not distinguishing between two kinds of feelings, but merely emphasising that it’s all about feeling; life is all about feeling – “Let’s get physical, physical, I wanna get physical, let’s get into physical, Let me hear your body talk, your body talk, let me hear your body talk.” In the spiritual domain, there are also two kinds of feeling, which requires discernment. There’s goose bumps AND good bumps. The one kind will cook your goose, whereas the other may provide deep insights into what’s cooking. Mysticism does not necessarily, as someone said, begin in a mist and end in schism.

The Jew as a piece of God? What do the scriptures say?

The only reason Israel was a elected by God was because God wanted it that way. The traditional Jewish view, in contrast, is that God’s elect is a “piece of God above,” and consequently has a higher soul than the non-Jew. The Hindu also believes in this “piece of God” concept but he would be more democratic and say that all men including Jews are a piece of God. What, however, does the scripture say?

“The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deut 7:7-8).

God chose Abraham, a Gentile, not for anything good in him, but because He wanted to choose him. The traditional Jew believes in a divine oral Torah. The guide to his perplexed mind (as Maimonides could have said) is not the scriptures but the Talmud – and commentaries on it such as Maimonides’ “Mishneh Torah.” The Talmud, for the pious Jew, is his guide to understanding Deut 7:7-8 (above). The Talmud claims to dig deep below the surface text to reveal the SOD (the hidden secrets) of the mind of God. I find this view not only a linguistic aberration but, more reprehensible, an esoteric falling away from the word, from the commandments, of God. The commands of God are not difficult to understand but often difficult to do; for example, Deuteronomy 30:11-14:

11For this command which I am commanding thee to-day, it is not too wonderful for thee, nor [is] it far off.

12It is not in the heavens, — saying, Who doth go up for us into the heavens, and doth take it for us, and doth cause us to hear it — that we may do it.

13And it [is] not beyond the sea, — saying, Who doth pass over for us beyond the sea, and doth take it for us, and doth cause us to hear it — that we may do it?

14For very near unto thee is the word, in thy mouth, and in thy heart — to do it.

Jewish mysticism and Absorption into the Universal Soul

Christianity teaches that God created the world out of nothing. It bases this doctrine on the first words of the Hebrew Bible: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In Genesis 1:26, “God said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness (Hebrew root dama, from which we get ADAM).

What does the Bible mean by man being created in the image, in the likeness  of God? What is certain – if we accept that God is Spirit (in Christianity, when the Word was made flesh, the picture changes, of course) –  is that man is a composite of spirit and flesh, while God is pure Spirit. Genesis 1:26 does not specify what it means by man as the “image of God.” When a Christian examines the rest of scripture, the following human attributes emerge, which man shares with God: creativity, power to reason, power to make decisions, moral conscience and personal relationships. These are called the communicable attributes of God. The attributes that God does not share with man are God’s incommunicable attributes, for example, his omniscience (all-knowing), omnipotence (all-powerful) and eternality (no beginning), immutability (unchanging).

Traditional Judaism of which a large part is mystical Judaism (Kabbalah, Chassidim) teaches that man’s soul (neshamah) is a piece of God. Some parts of the Talmud say that only the Jewish soul is a piece of God. Most Jews maintain that the Talmud says no such thing. But see here. Reconstructionist Judaism, in stark contrast to traditional Judaism, says that traditional Judaism has got it all back to front. So, to put the record straight, a little reconstruction is needed: Man is not a piece of God; God is a piece of man (God is a human construction). (See Logotherapy, Torah Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism: God, man and God-man).

I’d like to focus on two prominent rabbinical scholars of Kabbalah: Rabbi Jacob Immanuel Schochet and Rabbi Akiva Tatz. In his “Mystical Judaism,” Rabbi Schochet sets his sights on donkey scholarship:

“The sterile type of life and ‘scholarship’ of the “donkey loaded with books,” unfortunately, is quite symptomatic of the modern age and its method of alleged rational inquiry, of ‘logical positivism’ and its atomizing games of linguistic analysis. The mystical dimension forcefully counters this and bears a pervasive message of special relevance to modern man. With this message we are able to extricate ourselves from the contemporary mind- and soul-polluting forces that threaten to stifle us, and to find ourselves. For it is the tzinor, the conduit connecting us to ultimate reality. It is the stimulant causing “deep to call unto deep” – the profound depth of man’s soul calling unto the profound depth of the Universal Soul to find and absorb itself therein. Thus it brings forth and establishes the ultimate ideal of unity, of oneness, on all levels” (p. 36).

 For Rabbi Akiva Tatz, the tzinor does not only connect human beings to ultimate reality, but every else in the universe as well. In his Thirteen principles, part 5, 45th minute:

“The worlds above are like water, sometimes described as light…but if you take the world of water in the upper spheres. Water is undifferentiated, all the parts look the same. Imagine water in a bath. Underneath the bath there are small holes. What happens is inside the bath the water is all one, but outside it is flowing in specific channels, which are called tzinorot (צינורות) … a pipeline. You have the undifferentiated oneness in the higher world, but it comes into this world as specific differentiated channels that bring it down. Each channel is bringing an object into existence, or an event or a phenomenon. And of course you don’t need to look at the object, you can look at the channel and you will know more or less how the object will be or what will happen.”

All religious systems, by definition, assume a close connection between “ultimate reality” (Schochet) and the universe, which consists of human beings, objects and other (invisible) beings. Schochet and Tatz derive their views from the Kabbalah/Zohar, of course. While Schochet’s tzinor (pipeline, conduit) connects the human soul to the “Universal Soul to find and absorb itself therein,” Tatz’s tzinor connects ALL created beings to “the world of water in the upper spheres,” which is a different description of Schochet’s “Universal Soul.” The two descriptions – ”Universal Soul” and “the world of water in the upper spheres,”are metaphors for the “Endless One” (En Sof).

Schochet’s “Universal Soul to find and absorb itself therein,” is Buddhism – or Pythagoreanism – without idols. Kabbalah and Pythagoras have much in common. This does not necessarily mean that Pythagoras, or a similar system, influenced Jewish mysticism, for what is more expected than human beings wanting to become absorbed in the ”Universal,” or “Upper Waters.” Jews often insist that Greek and Jewish thought are poles apart. On the contrary, Jewish mysticism, Greek mysticism, Eastern mysticism, or any other kind of mysticism all sing the same absorbing universal tune.

Thomas Merton’s “I intend to become as good a Buddhist as I can”: All roads, including to Rome, lead Home

I was speaking to a Christian who does Yoga – I’ll call the person C.Y. He says he only does the physical part, the Hatha part. Hatha Yoga is purification of the body, and so its focus is on exercises and breathing, which are intended as the preparatory stage for meditation. “Hatha Yoga brings about the Unity of the mind, body and spirit. Through this practice, the body is toned, strengthened and healed so that a transformation in consciousness can occur.”

C.Y. said that he doesn’t go into the spiritual side of Yoga – that side is reserved for Jesus. Having practised Hatha Yoga and meditation myself as a young man, I remarked: “When you do the breathing exercises, you feel very relaxed and at peace.” “Yes, he said beaming, and I find that this peace is a great opportunity to witness to my non-Christian Yoga friends. I tell them that the peace they feel, they can have it more deeply if they knew Jesus.”

The fact is that the Yoga breathing exercises are not merely physical. C.Y. proved it with his claim to find through these breathing exercises the door to inner peace. I can see why C.Y. fell for this deception. After all, didn’t the Lord Jesus say much about peace. I don’t, however, believe that Yoga peace and Christian peace are compatible, because the peace found through Yoga creates the conviction that the answer to life’s problems is all about finding peace, which is not the Christian message at all. The Christian Gospel is about sin, repentance and Jesus Christ as a substitutionary sacrifice who pays the penalty for the believer’s sin. Christianity is about becoming a child of God, a God who is distinct from His creatures. Christianity does not teach that “we share a common Self, and that inner peace and Love are in fact all that are real…” (Gerald Jampolsky). From personal experience, I know that when you do Hatha Yoga (you don’t have to go into any deeper kind of Yoga), you have the experience of sharing a common Self (with a capital S) – a deceptive form of “The Kingdom of heaven is within you.” But then, many Yoga practitioners will tell you a similar story. And this search for inner peace is the force that drives so many, including many Jews,among them many young Israelis who “leave the army and go to India looking for wisdom, so that they can make sense of the spiritual world.”

Where there is peace, there is love; and love and peace are believed by many to be the goal. One cannot, the gurus say, achieve peace nd love without a transformation of conscioussness.  This transformation of consciousness is the foundation of Eastern thought systems such as Buddhism and Yoga, which has become a key ingredient in Western psychotherapy. “Hatha Yoga brings about the Unity of the mind, body and spirit. Through this practice, the body is toned, strengthened and healed so that a transformation in consciousness can occur.” The ultimate aim of this transformation of consciousness is, in the Jewish psychiatrist’s words, is a “search for a better way of going through life that is producing a new awareness and a change of consciousness. It is like a spiritual flood that is about to cleanse the earth. This transformation of consciousness is prompting us to look inward, and as we explore our inner spaces, we recognize the harmony and at-one-ment that has ALWAYS (Jampolsky’s emphasis) been there. As we look inward we also become aware of an inner intuitive voice which provides a reliable source of guidance…listen to the inner voice and surrender to it…In this silence…we can experience the joy of peace in our lives” (p. 11. my underlining).

I now elaborate on the mystical strivings of Eastern thought and it’s influence on Christianity with  specific reference to the “Catholic Buddhist,” Thomas Merton, who has had a massive influence on “universalist” thought in Catholicism. By “universalist” I mean “all paths, including Rome, lead Home.” In the 1940-60s,  many Catholics joined monastic orders under Merton’s influence.

In the previous post, I examined the Catholic Carlo Carretto’s mystical musings on universal love. In what he calls his “mystical” communion with God, Carretto says, “love and all becomes logical, easy and true.” (Carlo Carretto, “I sought and I found, 1985, Orbis Books, 1985, p. 64). Carretto describes his visit to the “the temple of Kamakura, some hundred kilometres from Tokyo. It was a marvellous morning. And for the Japanese it was the day the birth of life was celebrated. Prospective bridegrooms were escorting their brides-to-be before the great Buddha…I was enchanted by all this beauty, and by such throngs of people at prayer…such vitality, such hope. Look how many ‘are finding’…How many have found! See how they love one another! See how they hope! Don’t be afraid! God is the living one!”

Religions share many common features such as faith, hope and love, and many other features. For example, certain parts of the Bhagavad Gita, a core Hindu text, resonate well with other religions, as well as with all philosophies, even materialist ones. Here is a verse from the Gita:  “One cannot remain without engaging in activity at any time, even for a moment; certainly all living entities are helplessly compelled to action by the qualities endowed by the material nature.” (Chapter 3, verse 5).

You don’t have to be religious to appreciate that living creatures can’t help it: they always have to be doing something. But, the Gita is saying more than this. It is this frenzied compulsion to action that is the cause of much human misery. All religions agree on this. The first chapter of the King Solomon’s book “Ecclesiastes”  (1:1-3) begins:

The words of Koheleth son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, said Koheleth; vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What profit has man in all his toil that he toils under the sun?”

(Koheleth is Hebrew for “gatherer”, “assembler”. Koheleth is the Hebrew name of the book of Ecclesiastes).

There are other verses in the Gita that resonate with the Bible.

From the Gita: “But if a man will meditate on Me and Me alone, and will worship Me always and everywhere, I will take upon Myself the fulfilment of his aspiration, and I will safeguard whatsoever he shall attain. (Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 17).

From the Bible:  “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me….. If you keep My commandments, you shall abide in My love, even as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. I have spoken these things to you so that My joy might remain in you and your joy might be full” (John 15:4-11).

The Gita says: “I am the source of all; from Me everything flows,” and  “Of all the creative Powers I am the Creator…” (Ch. 10, The Divine Manifestations). The Hebrew Bible and the Christian Gospel say similar things to the Gita. There is, however, much chalk in the Gita that clashes with the cheese of the Bible. One overarching  difference is the nature of the divine being. Here is just one verse that shows the difference:

Know that among horses I am Pegasus, the heaven-born; among the lordly elephants I am the White one, and I am the Ruler among men.” (Ch. 10 “Divine Manifestations”). Who is this “I am”, this individual consciousness? It is my Self, THE Self, Ultimate Consciousness. The “divine manifestations” pervade everything.

When I was a devout Catholic, I read the great Catholic mystics such as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. I was still wet behind the mystical ears, and had no idea that you could be a good Catholic and a good Buddhist at the same time. According to Thomas Merton, Buddhism and Catholicism are two sides of the same same Koinona (communion); they participate, according to Merton, in the same communion of divine fellowship where each is a different door to God, human solidarity and brotherhood. Yet, Christ said: “Truly, truly (that is, I am telling you the absolute truth), I am the door of the sheep. All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers: but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.” ” If Merton’s – and Carretto’s – universalism is right, then surely this must mean that Christ is wrong.

Merton’s classic work is his autobiography “The Seven Storey Mountain” (1948). The title of the book refers to the mountain of Purgatory in Dante’s “Divine Comedy”. When young, Merton was exposed to nominal protestant Christianity.  Like many others, he found little satisfaction in academic study and political commitment. In 1938, at the age of 23, he had a dramatic conversion experience, and found his ultimate truth in Roman Catholicism.

Merton’s struggles of the flesh and his eventual conversion, related in “The Seven Storey Mountain,” have been compared to the “Confessions” of St Augustine. Whereas Augustine kept on stressing how depraved he was, he doesn’t provide any salacious detail. Merton, in contrast, did go into some detail. His superiors of the monastery would not permit publication of “The Seven Storey Mountain,” (1947) until he had lopped off the bawdy bits.

I had converted to Catholicism at the age of 19, in 1960, in my second year at the University of Cape Town. Contrary to Merton, I found great satisfaction in academic study. It was the brilliance of Thomas Aquinas, the lucidity of French Catholic writers like Etienne Gilson and Gabriel Marcel, and the apologetic aplomb of Bishop Fulton Sheen that compelled me to bow the intellectual knee and acquiesce to Rome.

Soon after publication of The Seven Storey Mountain, the book had a great influence on vocations to the priesthood and to the monastic life. Many of those entering the religious life arrived with a copy of The Seven Storey Mountain tucked in their suitcase. Together with their Bibles? Albert Nolan, the well-known South African Dominican priest, was greatly influenced by Thomas Merton to enter the religious life. Albert entered the Stellenbosch priory in the early 1960s. I encountered his gaunt radiance often when I stayed at the priory.

When I read Merton’s story in the early 1960s I also got caught up in the majestic sweep of the book’s all-encompassing spirituality. I went on frequent visits to the Dominican priory in Stellenbosch, and spent weekends and even part of the university holidays living the life of an honorary monk.

Merton entered the Abbey of Gethsemani  as a trappist  monk in 1941. Over the next 20 years he wrote on a wide range of topics from contemplative prayer to economic injustice. He was one of the first Catholics to not only commend Eastern mysticism but to absorb Eastern philosophy and practices into Catholicism. What made Merton so attractive was his universalism. He embodied the glorious quest for unity and compassion among men.  If he were alive today, he would have been, as was Mother Teresa, a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. And like Mother Teresa, won it.

Some of the things that Merton said make it very difficult to understand how he can reconcile his Catholicism with Buddhism. Merton wants to be both a Buddhist and a Catholic. He says: “I see no contradiction between Buddhism and Christianity. The future of Zen is in the West. I intend to become as good a Buddhist as I can.” “And not only now and zen”, as Issy, my father, would have said – if the penchant had arisen to become a Buddhist; a Jewish Buddhist; “Jubu.”

Was Merton, a Catholic Buddhist or a Buddhist Catholic? Without doubt, he wanted to be both a good Catholic and a good Buddhist. But what mattered most to Merton was to become a saint . “Saint” and “holy” connote the same idea. “Saint” comes from the French “saint” through Latin sanctus;  “holy” comes from the Germanic halig, heilig.  Merton wanted to become a saint more than anything. The problem, he recognized, was that if you try to become a saint, the trying itself disqualifies you. If I want to be a saint,  I musn’t try to be one. If I see myself becoming holy, I must hide it; not only from the world, but from myself. It is hard to square the idea of “not trying” with the Catholic and Buddhist notion of works of purification; of climbing the ladder of perfection, of purification – in short, the ladder of sainthood. Not is there only the unbiblical problem of works as a condition of salvation, but there is also the hard job of trying to keep the works for God’s eyes only.

The Biblical view is that if you thirst for holiness, it is because God gave you that thirst. The natural man hates God and, therefore, is totally unable to love the things of God. Man’s nature is to love himself and to hate God. Is there anything that the natural man hates more than God, and will fill him with fury? I think there is: he hates more than anything to be told that he hates God. It’s not only natural man that hates to be told that he is dead – totally dead – to the things of God. Many Christians also block their ears and fume at the “blasphemous” idea that in Christian salvation, there are no ladders to climb or even little fingers to wiggle.  All flee from God; unless He calls:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;

I fled Him, down the arches of the years;

I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways

Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears

I hid from Him, and under running laughter.

“Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,

I am He Whom thou seekest !

(“The Hound of heaven” – Francis Thompson)

Christ gives the believer a new nature, a holy nature. There are two parts to becoming holy (sanctification). I have mentioned the first part. The second is that we grow in holiness. That is what the Bible means by “Be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16). This does not mean that we must now try to finish the job that God “merely” kick-started. Much effort and suffering is often involved: “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling”. Don’t, however, forget to read the next the word in the sentence “for” , and see what it is there for: “for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” It is God who works in his children, through his children. In the Bible, I don’t see any striving, any travailing, any climbing of ladders of perfection, any ascetic purifications in pursuit of God. But then I’m a sola scriptura (ok, solo scriptura if you’re a Catholic and also like jokes) man.

Universalism, Love, and the Mystical Desertion of the Gospel

In Christian theology, there are two kinds of “universal salvation.” The first kind  is described in one of the documents of the Second Vatican Council, “Nostra Aetate,” which is the Declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions proclaimed by Pope Paul VI, October, 1965. Nostra Aetate rejects the papal (infallible) bulls of previous centuries by stating that salvation can be attained in other religions if adherents remain faithful to their beliefs and follow universal moral laws of love (See my Buddhism, Judaism and Catholic Nostra Aetate).

The second kind of universal salvation states that every human being will be reconciled to God, no matter what their beliefs or non-beliefs or their (im)moral behaviour. This was the belief of Carlo Carretto. Carretto was the leader of the Italian post-World War II youth movement known as Catholic Action. In 1954, He resigned from that position and joined the Little Brothers of Jesus at their novitiate in the Sahara desert. The Little Brothers of Jesus movement was inspired by the life and writings of Charles de Foucauld.

In 1983, five years before his death, Carretto wrote “I sought and I found,” which was a response to Augusto Guerriero’s (Ricciardetto) “I sought and I did not find.”  When Ricciardetto died, Carrretto said of him, “Now he is in the light.” Carretto writes:

Word of his death reached me in Japan one sunny Sunday while I was visiting the temple of Kamakura, some hundred kilometres from Tokyo. It was a marvellous morning. And for the Japanese it was the day the birth of life was celebrated. Prospective bridegrooms were escorting their brides-to-be before the great Buddha…I was enchanted by all this beauty, and by such throngs of people at prayer. And if Ricciardetto had been there with me, he too would have been moved to behold such vitality, such hope. Look how many ‘are finding,’ I would have told him! How many have found! See how they love one another! See how they hope! Don’t be afraid! God is the living one!” (Carlo Carretto, “I sought and I found, Orbis Books, 1985, p.7 – Translation of the Italian edition published in 1983).

I spent more than 20 years in the Catholic Church (age 19 to 41) and all the relatives on my wife’s side are Catholics. My impression, after wide exposure to Catholics and reading modern Catholic literature (like Carretto), is that a large number of Catholics believe, with Carretto, not only that God is love but that love is God, that is, if you are loving towards another, you are a child of God, a child of the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. These Catholics regard the following papal Bulls – ex cathedra (infallible) declarations – as a mystical heresy:

We declare,say, define, and pronounce that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” (Pope Boniface VIII, the Papal Bull ” Unam Sanctum”, 1302 A.D.)

The most Holy Roman Catholic Church firmly believes, professes and preaches that none of those existing outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics, can have a share in life eternal; but that they will go into the eternal fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless before death they are joined with Her. ( Pope Eugene IV, the Papal Bull ” Cantate Domino”, 1441 A.D.).

Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus, outside the (Catholic) Church there is no salvation.”The Catholic Church is the Vine , you the branches: he who abides in the Catholic Church, and the Catholic Church in him, the same bears much fruit, for without the Catholic Church you can do nothing. If anyone is not in the Catholic Church , he shall be cast forth like a branch and wither, and they shall gather him up and cast him him into the fire, and he burneth” ( John 15:5-6).He who is not with the Catholic Church is against the Catholic Church; he who gathers not with the Catholic Church scatters” ( Matt: 12:30).Neither is there salvation in any other. For there is no other name – than the Catholic Church – under heaven given to men, whereby we must be saved  (Acts. 4:12).

In a loving nutshell: “Love and all becomes logical, easy and true.” (Carlo Carretto, “I sought and I found, 1985, Orbis Books, 1985, p. 64). This view of love (for others) fills much modern Jewish thought as well; for example, Gerald Jampolsky and Jerry Weintraub whom I discussed elsewhere. Towards the end of his book, Carretto says: “The grandest thing I can say about God is that he is merciful, and I believe in universal salvation” (p. 133). What, however, does the Lord Jesus say?

16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).

Carretto would say, like the majority of professing Christians, that “world” means everyone in the world. But then come the verses that contradict Carretto’s “universal” salvation view.  “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God (John 3:18).

I mentioned above that when Ricciardetto died, Carrretto said of him, “Now he is in the light.” Not so, according to the next verse: “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light… (John 3:19).

About Jesus loving universally (everybody in the world), Jesus prays in his “unity” prayer:

“[6] I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. [7] Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. [8] For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. [9] I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours (John 17:6-9 ESV, my italics and emphasis).

God’s love and mercy – and light, – infuriatingly, for universalists and many others, are only for those the Father gave (from eternity) to Jesus out of the world. These are those who “believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

There is the further question of how those whom the Father gives the Son come to believe. Simple – for God, but not simple for the human ego:

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44). And those who come will certainly be sanctified and glorified and raised on the last day:

For those whom he foreknew (which means “foreloved,” of course) he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:29-30 ESV). Now, “do not grumble among yourselves” (John 6:43) over God’s sovereign choices.

Universalism finds its greatest supporter in the “mystical” experience of being close to God. One of the greatest mystical heroes in Roman Catholicism is Thomas Merton. Carretto was, like Thomas Merton, a Catholic mystic who believed that other religions such a Buddhism was a valid path to salvation (See John 17 and Catholic Universalism: That they may be One – (Reformed) Protestants need not apply). Indeed, Buddhism to Merton was not merely another way to union with God.

There is a growing number of contemporary Catholic monasteries and parishes that hold Buddhist retreats and workshops. A Jesuit priest come Zen master, Robert E. Kennedy, holds Zen retreats at his “Morning Star Zendo”. Kennedy asks “students to trust themselves and to develop their own self-reliance through the practice of Zen.” ( I’m not recommending Kennedy’s Zendo, but merely citing my sources, which  I like to do not just now and zen, but often).

Some of the things that Thomas Merton said make it very difficult to understand how he can reconcile his Catholicism with Buddhism. Merton wants to be both a Buddhist and a Catholic. He says: “I see no contradiction between Buddhism and Christianity.”It’s difficult to understand how one can be both a good Zen Buddhist and a good Catholic. It seems Kennedy was more interested in converting Catholics to Buddhism than in Catholicism itself. “The future of Zen is in the West,” he says.  And the future of Catholicism? That was too limited in scope, too Roman; not universal enough, not catholic enough. The future lay in the emergent union to be born out of the merger between East and West. Merton had the backing of his illustrious and saintly predecessor, St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, who proclaimed: “All that is true, by whomever it has been said, is from the Holy Spirit.” Could we also say “all that is deep, by whomever it has been said, is from the Holy Spirit.” Merton was influenced by Gandhi who advocated that the way to finding the deeper roots of one’s own religious tradition is by  immersing oneself in other religions, and then returning “home” to see one’s own traditions and beliefs in a clearer light.

The Catholic Church, since Vatican II (1961), has radically changed its attitude towards inter-religious dialogue. Merton and other Catholic devotees of Eastern thought had a significant influence on changing Rome’s attitude to non-Christian religions. The papal encyclical Nostra Aetate (“In Our Time”) states: (Nostra Aetate is the Declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions proclaimed by Pope Paul VI, October, 1965)The Church therefore has this exhortation for her sons: prudently and lovingly, through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, and in witness of Christian faith and life, acknowledge, preserve, and promote the spiritual and moral goods found among these men, as well as the values in their society and culture” (Nostra Aetate 2). (See Buddhism, Judaism and Catholic Nostra Aetate).

Mother Teresa, another universalist, would never have dreamed of bringing the Gospel to the sick and the dying:

We never try to convert those who receive [aid from Missionaries of Charity] to Christianity but in our work we bear witness to the love of God’s presence and if Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, or agnostics become for this better men — simply better — we will be satisfied. It matters to the individual what church he belongs to. If that individual thinks and believes that this is the only way to God for her or him, this is the way God comes into their life — his life. If he does not know any other way and if he has no doubt so that he does not need to search then this is his way to salvation.” (Her Life in the Spirit: Reflections, Meditations and Prayers, pp. 81-82).

In the biography Mother Teresa: Her People and Her Work, she is quoted by Desmond Doig as follows: “If in coming face to face with God we accept Him in our lives, then we are converting. We become a better Hindu, a better Muslim, a better Catholic, a better whatever we are. … What approach would I use? For me, naturally, it would be a Catholic one, for you it may be Hindu, for someone else, Buddhist, according to one’s conscience. What God is in your mind you must accept” (Doig, Mother Teresa, Harper & Row, 1976, p. 156).

At the beginning of this piece, I mentioned that Caretto joined the Little Brothers of Jesus at their novitiate in the Sahara desert. Carretto writes:”The desert – the real desert, the one made out of jackal howls and starry nights – was the place of my encounter with God…No longer did I wish to discuss him. I wanted to know him…I sought the God of all seven days of the week, not the God of Sunday…It was not hard because he was there ready waiting for me. And I found him. And this is why I say with joy, and dare to testify to my brothers and sisters in the Spirit: ‘I Sought and I Found’” (p. 10).

The desert is a favourite locus for mystical encounters of universal love, where one can become so absorbed into that love that it is easy to forget – or to ever consider – that “whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son”(John 3:18) – a forgetfulness that is a desertion – of the Gospel.