Monday, October 25, 2021

The Conversion Experience: Radical Union with God

The conversion experience is to feel in one’s innermost being a peace and joy of mystical union with the beneficence of creation. I believe this is the essential joy of St. Francis of Assisi. As Richard Rohr draws upon in his teaching, writing and ministry, it is to become one with the incarnation of God in creation. This sense of “oneness” with the incarnation of creation defines St. Francis and unlocks the mystery of his sanctification. This incarnation began with the Big Bang creation of the world almost 14 billion years when God breathed his Spirit into creation, as told in Genesis, into the fullness of creation that we now know as the universe. For Christians, Christ then astonished humanity 2000 years ago with the incarnation of God’s Spirit into humanity. Christ enabled humanity to see the face of God. The conversion experience may not be the first time to have this encounter, but it is the most intense and lasting, the most transformative in our innermost being.

For a moment, one escapes oneself, the old is gone and the new has come; one is indeed in the new creation of Christ.

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 2 Corinthians 5: 16-19

One’s very way of seeing the world is changed. No longer are we bound to the objectifying relationship with the world that is demanded by our subjective self, that is inevitable in the very act of looking outward from the thinking ego, the “cogito ergo sum” of Rene Descartes. We of course need and delight in this rationalist world of logic and “clear and distinct ideas” that flow from a direct empirical understanding of reality through the senses. And yet we have a deep disquiet and yearning that something is missing, that there is a greater truth beyond the grasp of our reason and senses, and even beyond our imagination. This is the realm of poetry and art, the mystery and miracle of love, empathy and human solidarity. It is the collective effervescence in our very cells, a creative spiritual energy, that we are indeed part of something that far surpasses human understanding. This is to tap into the great variety of religious experience through faith. Christians consider this the gift of God’s grace that we know when we surrender completely in utter humility before God and receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  To me, this metanoia, this divine spark of insight, is simply to regain our consciousness that Christ is within each and every one of us, that we are each made in the very image and likeness of God, and that we now see the world through the eyes of Christ– glorious, magnificent, wondrous, beautiful, a creation full of God’s joy, hope and love.

After the deep, ego-shattering experience of spiritual conversion, one begins to feel freedom from this subjective self that falsely places one at the center of creation. We begin to free ourselves from self-consciousness—that morbid sense of the self as fundamentally cut off and separate from others and creation. This self-consciousness is of course essential to what it is to be human and it is in our depth of humanity that we have a pervasive awareness of existential alienation and social anomie. This is both the exaltation and the prison of the ego. Conversion is often the first lingering glimpse of the spiritual reality beyond the distorting prism of the ego. It is a first taste of the pure consciousness or consciousness of unity with God, creation and humanity that is love. Our dissociation as an alienated ego, the dualistic split between subjective self and objective other, our epistemological re-creation of the world through our own particular way of seeing—all of these human bondages have dissolved in the amazing and astonishing liberation of our true holy self by, in and of God.

Christ in fact calls us to free ourselves from this dualistic split in the Sermon on the Mount!! For it is our enslavement to our alienated ego, its desires and fears that compel us to the frantic striving after and fearfully tight possession of ego identity, success, prosperity, health and admiring reputation of others. This self-centeredness causes us in our innermost being and consciousness to believe foremost, desperately, with all our heart, mind, soul and body, in the blessedness of the rich in spirit and rich. As human beings, we simply cannot accept Christ’s truth of the blessedness of the poor and the poor in spirit. It is radically and incomprehensibly against the very grain of our nature. Surely, it is the rich and rich in spirit who are blessed, and we live our faith and relationship to God and others and creation within this distorting prism of the ego as subject, defining, seeing, creating reality as out there, to be possessed and held as a mirror of our own image. To truly accept the blessedness of the poor in spirit, and thereby to receive and live in the kingdom of heaven, one must transcend one’s ego and its dualistic subject-object split of reality. All of reality, spiritual and material, is one. We flourish according to our divine nature as we are in perfect communion with God, and all of creation. This is the meaning of Christ’s most important commandments to his disciples and followers: to serve and love God, and to serve and love others as ourselves. This service and love is simply our abundant and overflowing new life through the transformation of conversion.

The human mind, however, is largely and necessarily dualistic and we naturally return to this state in order to make our way in the material world. This dualism is inherent in the very nature of language. Thus we use language to at once make sense of the world and to limit it. We have the medium of language to give the world order, to organize it with purpose and meaning, so that we can seek to hold dominion over it, and yet in this dominion we also confine and limit it from the fullness of God’s creation. In true conversion, the subject-object split is overcome at least for a moment. And while there are many ways to return to this state of unity, through prayer, contemplation, service and love, immersion in nature, transcendence through the arts, you cannot maintain and live this non-dual state. One must ever return to dualistic thought to function pragmatically in a world of rational choices and distinctions. It is also to live in a world that is highly mediated by discrimination, division and oppositions that are highly mediated by history and culture, and therefore can lead to human separation from each other, the politics and social life of exclusion, alienation, the condemnation and judgment of group against group, and the violence of war and injustice.

And so we find ourselves in a difficult dance, living in both these worlds, the one of divine unity and the one of human duality. This is the wisdom behind Barth’s idea of being in krisis: the believer in Christ is in the creative tension of the polar opposition of full humanity and full divinity. This is the “jolly relativity” of the dialogical thinking of Mikhail Bakhtin. Paul expresses this when he decries and is grateful for the thorn in his flesh, that though he has ascended to the third heaven, he remain humbled by his human nature that prevents him from perfect unity with God. This is to experience the chasm between man and the fullness of God as at once agonizing in seeing the great distance yet to cross and ecstatic in knowing that Christ is ever greater, ever growing, ever surpassing our present faith, hope and love. In merging Barth with Paul, I see the polarity of being as, at one pole, being human is simply recognition of this practical necessity of dual consciousness and, at the other, being divine, living in the kingdom of heaven given by Jesus to the poor in spirit, is the unitive consciousness of being in the mind, heart, body and soul of Christ!! This is the teaching of Jesus and all the disciples. And it is the radical astonishing reality of the cross—its mystery, miracle and paradox—that this perfect union with Christ is made possible by Christ’s incarnation of God into the world as confirmed by his life, death and resurrection. The wholly new covenant is written on our heart, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Before Christ, mankind was still left to struggle with God and faith (Israel means to struggle with God) for sin—separation from God, living in the dualistic split—was the primary existential and indeed, epistemological reality even for God’s chosen people.

But now, in the conversion experience, maybe for the first time, you know there is something more and you will always long to return there.

Now we can alternate between being poor in spirit, yearning for greater fulfillment in the fruition of perfect love and communion with God, and being rich in spirit, overflowing with the riches of the Holy Spirit. In the received Christian narrative, which may change dramatically as God’s truth become more revealed, the Israeli people were as a whole neither rich nor poor in spirit, and their faith was abiding but tenuous, for God only came directly to the elect and few, those like David who had a “heart after God,” though still ruled by sin. They lived and exemplified a magnificent faith in their devotion to Yahweh as their only God, but needed the mediations and instruction of the Mosaic Law and the prophets, and all the customs and rituals of strict adherence to religious and cultural identity, to guide them in their relationship with God. Only those written about in the Old Testament as leaders and prophets, as directly chosen by God, are clearly lifted up by the invitation of the Holy Spirit. In an ancient world of division and hierarchy, an extremely harsh and often cruel reality for the great masses of people, we are left to wonder did the ordinary believer in Yahweh have this spiritual sense of unity with God. Did they know the conversion, the metanoia through the Spirit that fills the heartfelt praise and anguished lamentations of David’s Psalms? Were they yearning for God in their poverty of spirit for centuries and even millennia before Christ? I believe there were many, not just those who felt excluded within the Jewish world—the poor, the despised, the lepers, the dangerous or unhealthy “others,” but those for whom the richness of their faith was still insufficient, who felt “poor in spirit” and were just ready to receive Christ and his Sermon on the Mount. While these questions may be intriguing, the more important question is, “Am I ready to receive and live the Sermon on the Mount?” Can I embrace and grow into the krisis, the simultaneity, of human and divine being?

To refuse or resist this invitation of Christ to live, here and now, in the kingdom of heaven, might be the core meaning of biblical “hard heartedness” or sin. Once you’ve experienced any true union (conversion, the beneficence of creation, the collective effervescence of a righteous crowd, radical acceptance of oneself and others, surrender before God, prayer, all authentic love), you know that you are truly a child of God and created to freely love God, creation and others. We fall in love again, that dizzying, intoxicating experience when we forget ourselves and live through another. Similarly, having a baby often reorients one’s whole life to be completely absorbed and focused on the needs of another. We experience our center as outside ourselves. This is what it is to fall in love with Christ, to live life through him. And this center, the body of Christ, is the entire church of the children of God; it is the entire church, the entire body of God Himself—radically inclusive, loving, compassionate, creative and courageous.

In the unity with God, I transcend myself and am never more myself than when I do. I heal the wound of individuality without undermining the privilege, as C.S. Lewis has written.

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