Mysticism, emotions and the occult

A few weeks ago I watched The Green Lantern. In that movie, there are a bunch of people who have the power to just think things and make them happen. They do it using the power of will which is the greatest source of energy in the universe (who knew?). Also, it’s green. Except their enemies use the power of fear, which is the other greatest source of energy in the universe. And it’s yellow.

When one of the characters is considering getting hooked up with the evil yellow energy, he is told to surrender to the feelings of fear within him, to let them overwhelm him. It reminded me of the moment in Star Wars when Luke is urged to feel the hatred within him and surrender to it as a means of gaining more power. In both case we have (essentially) magical powers that are wielded by surrendering to strong emotions.

This is actually all really interesting stuff. Why is it that so many stories connect magical powers with really strong feelings? It’s nearly archetypal.

I think one reason is simple. No one really knows what it would be like to have magical powers, and storytellers want to portray magic-wielders in a way everyone can identify with. Strong emotions are an easy substitute. If we can see an actor scrunching up his face in agonized concentration as he battles with the enemy, we feel as though we know what it would be like to be him, doing what he is doing. When Luke has to resist being swallowed by his hatred, we know from our own experiences what that struggle is like, and that knowledge makes it easier for us to imagine being tempted by the dark side of the Force.

I think there’s more though. I think when fear or hatred overwhelms us, if feels to us like we lose ourselves a little. We feel possessed by our emotion, controlled by it, drowning in it.  It seems transcendent, bigger than life, bigger than us. It feels a little magical, a little supernatural.

Which brings me to an odd fact about the portrayal of the Holy Spirit in the Bible.

In the Old Testament, the word for “spirit” is used in three different relevant ways.

  • First, when people were chosen by God to serve Him in some special way, the Holy Spirit would fill them to inspire or empower them for that service.  For example, Samson gained supernatural strength when the “Spirit of the LORD came mightily upon him”. Others were given the ability to prophesy or do miracles or even design the tabernacle.
  • Second, demonic and angelic beings were referred to as spirits. For example, according to 1 Samuel 16, when David was anointed as king by Samuel “from that day on the Spirit of the LORD came upon David in power”, but at the same time “an evil spirit” began to torment Saul.
  • Third, the spirit of a person is portrayed as the seat of strong emotion in the Old Testament. For example, people who get angry are “enraged in spirit” and people who are encouraged “revive in spirit”.

Often the senses are combined in one passage. Someone is said to be stirred up in spirit when the Spirit of God begins to work in them.

Skeptics of the supernatural assume that in ancient times people simply confused the feeling of being overwhelmed by emotion with possession by a supernatural being. If we accept the Biblical claim that there really are supernatural beings though, then the picture we are left with is that the strong emotions of the human spirit are a channel through which the spirits transmit power to the human. Perhaps surrendering to intense fear or hatred really is a little closer to literal demon possession that we would like to think. Maybe that’s partly why the moviemakers instinctively portray things that way.

That wouldn’t mean that emotions are bad or even that spiritual openness to the supernatural world is bad. The Old Testament warns people to stay away from the occult, but not so much because it is dangerous as because it is idolatrous. It doesn’t imply that we should remain spiritually closed and stay safe but that we should be looking to God in everything. The ideal Christian is not ultra-rational, emotionally cool, and opposed to mysticism — although he is self-controlled. He is passionate, sensitive to the mystical realities of life, and spiritually disciplined.

I’ve become convinced in the last few years that we have a deep hunger for a mystical connection with the supernatural. I’ve also been sensing God pushing me to be more open to Him emotionally, more emotionally vulnerable to His supernatural activity in my life. I wonder if that would increase my mystical connection with Him in a real way. Although a couple of my Christian friends are convinced that mysticism is wrong for Christians, I’m don’t think it’s wrong if God is the source. As Eric said today in my Sunday School class, that hunger comes from God, who has “set eternity in [our] hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3:7). I don’t want to fake it, though, and I don’t want anything that doesn’t come from God, no matter how it feels.

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