The idea of communing with God is a central, key theme throughout the Scriptures, with various references to being in Christ, being partakers of God, having fellowship with God, etc. Corresponding to these references is the way that Christ and the Holy Spirit are said to be presence in believers. These descriptions of the Christian life are key, critical components to understanding how the first Christians understood the Christian way of life lived in faith and submission to God, all of which can be summed up in the basic idea that God has drawn near to humanity. I would go so far as to suggest that the fundamental ‘logic’ of the Christian life in the New Testament is bound up with the concept of communion with God. However, if there is one distinction that I feel is of vital importance theological importance for our long-term, spiritual well-being, it is being able to make a sharper distinction between the divine presence and human experience.
When the New Testament was written, the presence of God would have been understood primarily through a social, corporate lens. Being in Christ, being partakers, and having fellowship with God is primarily understood through the shared experiences of believers together. Similarily, when one talks about the inhabitation of Christ and the Spirit in us as persons, the prime emphasis of these discourses is describe the change of our relationships with God and with each other. For the New Testament, the communion of believers with God is the ‘metaphysical’ construal of God’s presence and activity that provides an explanation for the new and reconstituted social identies and realtionships that believers have with God and with other people, particuarly fellow believers.1 Communion is understood through the the more corporate, social construal of identity in the ancient world, where the personal is to be understood as constitued by their ‘memberships; and relationships.
On the other hand, communion is not to be understood as a description of some sort of personal, mystic experience that one has in the presence of God. Internal, religious ‘experience’ was not the central purview of the New Testament authors. Rather, the outward signs and fruits of a person who God has called and drawn near to in the Spirit were of immense social importance, helping people to identify the spritually maturing, the spiritual child, and the outsider.
However, with the modern, Cartesian-inspired turn towards the individual and their cognitions and experienceas as the fundamental building block for understand personhood, there has been a sharp predilection to try to understand communion with God vis-a-vis the individual experience. Consequently, there is a real interest in the idea of mysticism that can become evident among Christians who seek to grow deeper in their faith.
Before proceed forward, I think it is important to say that I don’t think we should rule out all theological and psychological accounts about experiencing God simply because the New Testament does not directly address. If there is a real presence and activity of God that the New Testament desribes and refers to, then the possibility and actuality of God’s activity and how it manifests itself in our lives is not contingent upon our understanding it through the social, communal lens of the New Testament authors. We should still be able to undersatnd God’s activity through more individualistic lenses.
However, we should be careful about reinterpreting and resituating the specific language and symbols of communion with God of the New Tesatment in the context of modern individualism. Being “in Christ” is not a description of personal, mystical experiences of God but the way that believers are related together with each other and God in the very way that Christ trusts the Father and loves us. Being partakers of the Holy Spirit is about the empowerment God gives people to live part this reconstituted community, not some reference to some part or moment of our internal experience that we can securely say “That was God and not myself.” Instead, we can understand our individual experiences of God through the lens of some solitary figures inspired by God, such as the prophet Elijah who recognized God in a calm, quiet voice, which evokes more mystery about the activity of the divine presence in the human life than it does give real clarity. Yet, if we take the confession about Christ in the New Testament seriously, we can not simply look at our experience of God as the telos and purpose of the Christian life, but we must consider how our internal experiences of God are instrumental in our reconstituted social identites and relationships according to the cruciform pattern of Jesus Christ.
The danger that can manfiest itself if we are not careful about how we think about individual experience of God is that we may inculcate a sense of the divinization of human experience, as if we are experiencing God in some direct, not-mediated way. While we can not reduce theological reality to the body, we see nothing in the Scriptures that suggest we reguarly experience God in any specific type of fashion or form other than in and through our bodies. The rare cases that we get glimpses at possible, non-bodily experience and revelation of God, such as 2 Corinthians 12, it is something that is only mentioned briefly and not given further explanation and significance. The normal, regular experiences of God that the Scriptures refer to is the experience of our bodies under the work of divine agency, and what we experience is the effect of God’s presence and agency upon us and not the presence and agency of God in an unmediated way.
Unfortunately, when the New Testament language about God’s presences and communion with Him is colonized and exploited by the focus on the individual, there is a sharp tendnecy to imagine how the symbols and language used to describe communion with God are descriptive of the inner experience of God. For instance, the bridal metephor in describing the relationship of the Church to Christ in Ephesians 5.29-33 has been the source of unending speculations of religious experiences in the form of a love relationship, sometimes evne of a somewhat erotic form. What is missed, however, is that Paul uses the image of Christ and the church in union as a way to comprehend how husbands are to relate to their wives, not as some basis for understanding internal, religious experience.
Certainly, people who understand their religious experiences through the lens of such symbols and metaphors may very well experience a profound change in their life and experiences. We need not automatically attribute this to the experience of God, however, but rather the way that we frame our experiences through various symbols, metaphors, images, words, etc. can have substantive effects in the shape of our experiences by impacted giving cognitive frames that allows us to (a) integrate our various interior and exterior senses into a conscious, coherent whole and (b) direct our attentions to specific senses and how we comprehend those senses. In other words, that we believe a symbol defines our experiences can make us susceptible to novel, even powerful experiences which may make feel as if we have experience God because it is unlikely anything else we are ever felt.
There is nothing inhernetly wrong with the way symbols, even Christian symbols, can modify the way we experience. I would go so far as to say that the concern for attention to God’s word and instruction is actually what is responsible for the process that allows God’s word to alter and reconfigure our own experiences in such a way that we become more open to the will and activity of God in our lives, particuarly through communities and social relationships. The problem, however, is when we treat novel and powerful experiences at any single point of time as ‘divine’ or ‘revelation,’ as if this experience provides some critical idea or paradigm for understanding the Christian life. The potential result of the divinization of human experience is that we go off on some rabbit trail that takes us away from God’s purposes for us in Jesus Christ and towards some esoteric, idiosyncratic obsession. By understanding the language about communion with God in the New Testament through the lens of individual experience, we risk pushing away from the reconstituted social community and relationships and into an illusory world of one’s own making where we project our own selves onto God.
This is, in fact, part of the reason why I am increasly cautious about theological concepts such as ‘revelation’ and the ‘apocalyptic’ understandings of Paul, even as I recognize their necessity in some fashion in orthodox Christian theology and responsible exegesis, as both of these theological concepts can have have the risk of veering us off into some eostericism by somehow masking us from the human, embodied context in which we normally understand and comprehend God. Any theological understanding of God’s agency in the world, no matter how pious it sounds to highlight God’s activity over human activity, that does not take seriously the embodied status of believers in their trusting God, following Christ, and being lead by the Spirit and which somehow expects to nullify and escape the expectation and demand of a critical discernment of these matters in virtue of it being “revelation” and “apocalyptic” is at risk of going off down a rabbit trail away from God’s purposes for us in Jesus Christ.