The Anatomy of a Spiritual Experience

The story of Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus in John 1:45-51 can be read as a parable about the divine-human encounter.

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth. Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:45-46a)

Nathanael is skeptical and dismissive. The brilliant Johannine scholar R.E. Brown points out that this saying may have been a local proverb reflecting jealousy between Nathaniel’s town of Cana and nearby Nazareth. Certainly it reflects some bias against Nazareth.

Is Nathanael’s reaction not the typical human reaction? Are we not all bound by convention and custom? Are we not all influenced by the biases we have acquired from being conditioned, socialized, and indoctrinated into our particular systems of thought and behavior? And this, of course, can become a huge impediment to spiritual growth.

Philip said to him, “Come and see” (John 1:46b).

This is an invitation to confront the biases of our cultural, social, and religious conditioning. It is an invitation to push back, to give ourselves some space to question and explore alternative possibilities. Closed systems cannot tolerate such questioning. A closed system, whether political, social, or religious abhors self-critique and demands conformity. In a closed religious system the major concern is about performing the right rituals and believing the right doctrines.

When Jesus saw Nathaniel coming toward him . . . (John1:47a).

Let’s salute Nathanael for his willingness to “come and see.” He was willing to take the first step. Many Christians today are not. They think the first step is “a slippery slope” that could begin the slide to their demise. They fail to consider it could be a pathway to a whole new world.

When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:47-49).

It’s hard to know exactly how this interchange brought Nathanael to his “aha” moment, though it is fairly clear that Nathaniel felt Jesus really knew him.

When Jesus says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit” he may mean something like, “Here is one worthy of the name of Israel.” What he doesn’t say is, “Here is Nathaniel a poor, wretched sinner.” 

Maybe this is the first revelation/epiphany necessary for a “breakthrough” encounter that can lead to profound transformation. Namely: The realization that before all our failures at love, before all our blunders and mistakes, we are loved, and the divine love by which we are loved is not diminished by our failures and blunders.

The first and foremost thing about us is not original sin, but original blessing. We are saints, before we are sinners. We are worthy of love, not because we earn it, but simply because we are. When a mother holds her newborn baby in her arms, that beloved child hasn’t done anything to earn the mother’s love. The mother just loves and loves. In such moments we are very close to God’s kind of love. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are not worthy of love.

When Nathanael encounters Jesus he trusts his own “inner authority.” If we could ask him, “How do you know,” he would say, “I just know.” We, too, must be willing to trust our own “inner authority” if we hope to move past a second-hand faith.

A second-hand faith is what most Christians have. This is not something necessarily bad. It can be bad, but it can also be very good. A healthy second-hand faith can supply some good structure and principles to live by. It can help us become decent persons, and there is something to be said for becoming decent persons – that’s not insignificant. In fact, we would be far better off in our world if more Christians adopted and practiced healthier versions of the Christian faith that are more inclusive, gracious, credible, and oriented toward compassion and restorative justice. 

But there are limits. A second-hand faith alone cannot radically transform us at a deeper level or cause us to fall in love with God. It can move us in that direction, but we need something more. We need our own personal experience of the Divine. 

There is no one, single, uniform, or exclusive way into such encounters. There is no Roman Road or Four Spiritual Laws or Seven Habits that will lead to highly transformed people. So there is a great deal of mystery involved.

In my little book, Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls), I tell about the conversions of Malcom Muggeridge and the professor of Paul Tournier.  For Muggeridge it was the life of Mother Teresa that drew him to God. He wasn’t impressed by any of the historical, philosophical, or theological arguments for Christianity, but when he encountered her life he said, “If this is it, I’ve got to have it.”

For Paul Tournier’s professor it was different. Tournier was visiting his medical school after he had written his first book. This old professor whom Tournier admired very much wanted him to read some selections from his book. When he finished reading, Tournier looked up and his professor was wiping tears from his eyes. The professor said, “Oh, Paul, that’s a wonderful book. Everyone of us Christians should read that.” Surprised, Tournier replied, “Professor, I didn’t know you were a Christian. When did you become one?” He said, “Just now as you read from your book.”

The ways we enter into deeper experiences of the Divine Love (Lover) who indwells us are diverse and varied. There’s no single way. Nor can we control or manipulate or manufacture these experiences. (In chapter three of John’s Gospel Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Spirit is like the wind - it blows where she will.) But while we can’t predict or produce at will these experiences, we can be open and receptive to them.

Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:50-51).

The allusion here is to Jacob’s vision at Bethel where in his dream heaven opened and a ladder stretched from heaven to earth with angels ascending and descending. Here the Son of Man replaces the ladder. Son of Man is the designation for Jesus as the representative or archetypal human being. What this means, I think, is that in our humanity we are connected to God and can experience God.

Jesus is the stand-in for all human beings. What is true of Jesus as Son of Man is true or at least potentially true of all God’s daughters and sons. If Jesus in his humanity is the locus of divine glory, the point of contact between heaven and earth, then we too share in that glory and heaven and earth connect in us. The divine and human connect in our humanity. We are children of heaven and children of earth.

I love the way Gerald May expresses our intimate connection to the Divine,

“All human beings are created in and from the love of God, with an inborn love for God that continually arises from God and constantly seeks God. This love is meant for all people and for all creation. This is our true human nature. It is who we are.”                                                                                               The Dark Night of the Soulp. 51

If that is true, and I believe it is, the more we are open to experiences of love – the more we engage in giving and receiving love - the more we are open to God. The more loving we are the more full of God we are, and that is true whether we are aware of God or not.

When we know that we are held in a Great Love, we are more apt to let down our defense mechanisms and less likely to cling to our insecurities and fears. We are then free to be led by the Spirit into new experiences of God that can change us in profound ways.   


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