Book Feature Sunday: A Journey with Two Mystics – Conversations Between a Girardian and a Wattsian by Matthew Distefano and Michael Machuga

The best theology is that which enfolds us and assures us that we are immersed in unconditional Love. The best friendships do exactly the same thing. A Journey with Two Mystics is a testimony to the God who so loves us as to create us from love and in love for relationship with God and each other. It is a correspondence not only between two mystics, but two best friends. Matthew Distefano and Michael Machuga write with honesty, warmth, humor and thoughtfulness, drawing readers not only into the exploration of their questions and answers, but into the experience of their friendship and their unfolding discovery of life, love, and God. No theology book could more effectively demonstrate the relationality of God and the dance of life than this literary perichoresis!

This book truly is a dance of ideas between two friends who are not simply communicating their own wisdom, but truly listening to each other and being formed by one-another’s insights and questions, finding their footing in the unfolding reality of their relationship built on trust and joy. As an unfolding correspondence – an encapsulation of relationship – the form of A Journey with Two Mystics perfectly complements its content: a perspective on humanity, salvation, God and the meaning of life drawing on the wisdom, not just of Matthew and Michael, but their gurus, René Girard and Alan Watts.

If you are new to the philosophies of Girard and Watts, or if the names of philosophers on books feels somewhat intimidating, fear not! The worldviews of Girard and Watts are presented in this lucid correspondence simply and beautifully. Rene Girard’s mimetic theory that we are interdividuals, formed by our relationships, corresponds beautifully with Alan Watts’ assertion that, “Society is our extended mind and body.” The philosophies of Girard and Watts, while not completely aligned in all respects, are in many ways complementary, and Michael and Matthew’s exploration of humanity, life and God illuminate the truths of Girardian interdividuality and Wattsian’s live-in-the-moment, “the whole point of dancing is the dance,” philosophy. For this correspondence is epistolary interdividuality in the immediacy of the literary present, and as such, the reader is privy to the building and living of the author’s friendship. The philosophies of Girard and Watts are thus not only explained but lived out by Matthew and Michael within these pages.

The two friends first explore what it means to be human, so as to build an informed awareness as a foundation for probing the further mysteries of God, heaven, hell, and the meaning of life. Matthew explains interdividuality and the dependency we have on others for our desires. In other words, to be human, Matthew argues, is to be a creature of relationship beyond instinct. Or, we are able to desire beyond our most basic needs precisely because we learn from and feel emotion in relationship to others.

Michael articulates self-consciousness as the distinguishing characteristic of being human, an awareness – beyond the perception of our experiences by our senses – of a “Self.” While Michael warns of the pitfalls of indulging self-consciousness – confusing our perceptions of who we are with all of our narcissisms and anxieties with our full “Self” — if I understand correctly, the benefit of self-consciousness, or simply being aware of what is happening concerning ourselves, is an appreciation of our experiences in the moment, a deepening of feeling, a joy of life.

Relationality and self-consciousness may seem to have little in common on first glance. Yet, reading the conversation between Matthew and Michael made me contemplate how my understanding of who I am depends both on my relationships with my family and friends and the experiences I have lived through. Relationality to others informs how I experience any given moment, and yet the person I have become through my relationships is simply part of the backdrop to the present moments I experience. We live life to the fullest when we – shaped as we are by the people who make up our lives in an intricately interconnected network of humanity — are fully awake to the now. Through the conversation between Matthew and Michael, I believe I have come to a deeper awareness of what it means to be human, made in the relational image of God for a life of presence and awareness in this magnificent world.

Grounded in this understanding of humanity, Matthew and Michael go on to discuss heaven, hell, and the meaning of life. Through Michael’s affinity for Buddhism and Matthew’s Girardian lens on Christianity, the two friends muse on a heaven that is at hand, a salvation that consists of knowing life is not a test to be taken carefully but a gift to be lived fully. What we are saved from is not a divine torture chamber but our own violence, violence born from competing for our shared desires as well as a fear of our mortality, a fear that would be rendered moot if we knew ourselves to be eternally loved. What we are saved for is simply living in the fullness of Love. Though Matthew and Michael took (and continue to take) separate (but intertwining) faith journeys, they both started from an understanding of Christianity that salvation is limited, acquired either through correct belief or a particular way of living, and that those who are not saved are damned. Readers see why and how they leave that understanding behind for a Universalism that is informed by tradition as well as experience. God’s justice and mercy, problems of suffering and violence and the nature of heaven and hell are all discussed with wisdom and sensitivity. Though Matthew and Michael both believe in an inevitable Universalism, a joy we cannot yet fully comprehend, neither are dismissive of the challenges, pains, and horrors of this world.

I could relate to the theological conversations between Matthew and Michael because I came through a similar journey from anxiety to peace that surpasses understanding. And like Matthew and Michael, it was often in conversations with good friends – sometimes of a different denomination and sometimes of a different faith tradition altogether – that I allowed myself to explore questions that fascinated and terrified me. My understanding of God as love comes as much through the experience of loving conversation with my friends as it does through what we said to each other and all the reading and prayer and experiences that informed our conversations, because God speaks to us through Love. And God is certainly speaking through Matthew and Michael in this book, both through their inspired words but also through their friendship. In the end, the love between these two friends is the book’s greatest testament to a God of Love who made us to love and enjoy Godself, each other, and this amazing gift called life.

 

Editor’s Note: A Journey with Two Mystics: Conversations Between a Girardian and a Wattsian is available via Wipf and Stock Publishers and on Amazon in kindle and paperback forms. Exploring the mysteries of what it means to be human, who God is, the meaning of heaven and hell and the nature of reality, it would make for some deep and powerful Holy Week reading!

Image: Photo of Matthew Distefano and Michael Machuga courtesy of Matthew Distefano; Screenshot of A Journey of Two Mystics.


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