Practicing Mysticism: Jews, Christians, and Muslims

James Buckley
Loyola College in Maryland

The central question raised for me by our topic (Mysticism: Jewish, Christian, Muslim) is this: what is the relationship between the particular, material forms of life and thought we call Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the more general, spiritual phenomenon we here call mysticism? In asking about “the relationship between” these particulars and the more general, these materials and the more spiritual, I expose my presumptions that such things are not necessarily opposites between which we must choose—but also that we should not presume that “mysticism” provides a common ground that transcends our material particularities. These questions are in the back of my mind as I raise some other questions about Ford’s and Wolfson’s essays.

David Ford makes use of Peter Ochs’ pragmatic hermeneutics to offer a post-supercessionist reading of the claims to pleroma in epistle to the Ephesians. (The word “supercessionism” here is mine, not Ford’s. I simply mean the claim that Christianity has replaced God’s election of Israel. Post-supercessionist Christians like Ford and I are among the many Christian theologians nowadays who simply deny such supercessionism.) It seems to me that Ford has nicely begun the crucial task of testing Ochs’ proposal from the Christian side. The result is a reading of Ephesians’ pleroma that emphasizes respectful dialogue, the Jewishness of “the basic plot”, “the infinite dynamic abundance of a God of love”, etc. With virtually all of this I am in agreement. However, I raise two questions. First, from this Christian post-supercessionist viewpoint, “the basic plot” (as Ford puts it) is Jewish: the Jew Jesus is Israel blessing the nations. But does our version of the basic plot look Jewish to Jewish thinkers like Ochs? At some point, it seems to me, it has to stop looking (sounding, feeling, tasting) Jewish. Where is that point? And, if the basic plot is Jewish, does this distance non-supercessionist Christians from Muslims? The issue on this score (as Bruce Marshall has suggested in his essay in the Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine) may turn on the identity of the God of Israel (Hashem) and the God of Jesus Christ.

Second, pragmatic post-supercessionism is going to want to discuss the particular practices that make up a community full of Jews and Gentiles but now at pleroma-peace. Ephesians is chock full of suggestions of such practices. I would raise up just one set: the practices called for with regard to wives and husbands (5.21f), children and parents (6.1f), slaves and masters (6.5f). Christians need to ask how such passages get read in the light of Ford’s reading of the Christian pleroma. But another question would be: how do the different/similar practices of Jews and Christian and Muslims in regard to men and women, parents and children, slaves and masters embody different/similar “mysticisms”?

Elliot Wolfson’s essay on Kemper’s version of Christian Kabbalah was splendid news to me. Here’s my question, arising out of a deeper ignorance than previous questions I have asked here. Does such Christian Kabbalah make the problems of Christian supercessionism more or less intense? This question is partly historical: does Wolfson think Kemper implicitly or explicitly found in the kabbalah a mode of Christian living with the Jewish people that transcended the supercessionism ingredient in previous Christian readings of Hebrew Scriptures and the Talmud? But the question is also contemporary: does Christian kabbalah open up and/or close down relations between Christians and Jews (and Muslims)? Wolfson sometimes speaks of Kemper as a hybrid, one who lived in both worlds, holding them in “dialectical” tension. Is this a hybrid that points the way beyond Christian supercessionism, or does the hybrid actually disguise it, making it all the more difficult to deal with? Quite frankly, I suspect the latter: the “meaning” of Israel in some of Kemper’s texts cited by Wolfson appears to be “spiritual” (mystical, I am tempted to say) in contrast to material.

Let me ask this question in yet another mode. I read one dictionary article that said Kemper became a Muslim at the end of his life—another that he was “forced” to convert. Is the latter reading correct, or is it because Jews and Christians continue to have a hard time imagining conversion to an ummah that holds together particular and universal in ways that overlap as well as compete with Torah and Gospel?