Think on These Things Articles

Mysticism - Part 1

(January 2005 - Volume 11, Issue 1) 

Mysticism, a Way of the Past, the Wave of the Future

I am often asked what I see as the next important challenge facing evangelical Christianity. Such questions are asked in the wake of major movements that have changed the face of evangelicalism in the last two decades, including the market-driven church and the closely related “Purpose Driven Life” (PDL) campaigns that have so greatly impacted God’s people. The legacy of both of these movements will not be that the church discovered new ways of worship, or new methodologies to replace the outdated. Instead, I fear that they will be remembered by future generations for their undermining of the authority of Scripture. To be sure these movements were not the genesis of the lack of confidence in God’s Word – there have been many forerunners. Actually they have capitalized upon this trend and have taken it to a new level. It is not that everything the church growth experts and PDL espouses is wrong; it is that the authority for what the church now believes has shifted. It has shifted from the infallible Scriptures to psychological and sociological experts, opinions of the masses, trends of the moment and the philosophy of pragmatism. This shift has been subtle, which has made it all the more dangerous. Few have bothered to deny the Bible itself, they just misquote it, abuse its meaning, force their opinion on it, and if necessary mistranslate it to give the appearance that the Scriptures are backing their claims. The affect of all of this scriptural manipulation is to both erode the authority of God’s Word and to give the appearance that what Scripture has to say isn’t really important. It is only a short step from here to a Christian community that no longer has much use for the Bible. As a matter of fact, if the increased popularity of people coming to church services without their Bibles, sermons being reduced to PowerPoint presentations and sermon note taking digressed to fill-in-the-blank outlines, are any indication, we may be there now.

Such Christianity is devoid of the majesty of God and the wonder of His Word. It is only a matter of time until true believers grow tired of this insipid brand of evangelicalism with its 7-11 choruses (seven words sung eleven times); its dramatizations; its dumbed-down Bible teaching; its latest fad that promises to change lives but does not; and its “me-centered” orientation. When (and as) they do, they will turn in a number of directions. Happily, some will come back to the Word and to churches that faithfully proclaim it. Some will head to Roman Catholicism and Orthodox for more liturgical, traditional and authoritative expressions. Still others will write off the faith and declare that “it doesn’t work for me.” As we might expect, we are seeing these things now, and will increasingly in the future. But many thirsty believers, wanting something more, something deeper than has been their experience, are also becoming infatuated with two other overlapping fads. One of these is ancient, harkening back to premodern times (mysticism). The other is new and considers itself postmodern (the emerging church). They have in common disdain for modernity, a distortion of Scripture and a rejection of much that conservative Christians hold dear. Despite these flaws both are rapidly gaining popularity, especially among the young, which seems to be the targeted demographic.

Let me be very clear about what I am trying to communicate in these next few papers: There is only a superficial link between the market-driven church (including PDL) movement and mysticism and the emerging church movements. And while the market-driven church is not a direct conduit to mysticism and postmodernism, it certainly has opened the door. By hollowing out the core of biblical substance and replacing it with superficial theological fluff, the movement has created a hunger for true spirituality. One can only live so long on cotton candy before a steak, or at least a hamburger, is craved. As more and more Christians tire of their spiritual diet many are turning to even more unhealthy alternatives. It is these alternatives that we are describing.

The trend which I will address first is the one embracing mysticism which has its roots in Medieval Roman Catholic monks and hermits (the desert Fathers). This mysticism promises to bring us into contact with God in ways not experienced by most believers, and is especially appealing to those tired of fluffy Christianity. The other leaning is toward postmodernity. Many, including myself, have referred to the market-driven church as postmodern, and while they have some characteristics of this worldview, they would not consider themselves to be postmodern by the normal understanding of the term. As a matter of fact they would strongly deny that they were postmodern and would give evidence of their similar doctrinal beliefs to historical evangelicalism. But a truly postmodern “evangelical” movement has arisen, which boldly affirms its postmodern understanding of life in general and Christianity in particular. This movement, which for now calls itself the “emerging church,” is extremely popular on college campuses and among twenty-somethings, although its leaders are middle-aged. But before we tackle the emerging church we need to spend considerable time dealing with mysticism. Our starting point will be to grasp the meaning of mysticism in a Christian context, and then examine how it was practiced in ancient times. This will help us get a handle on why it is becoming all the rage today.

Mysticism Defined

The first obstacle encountered when discussing mysticism is trying to define it. When I once declared in print that Henry Blackaby is a Christian mystic, a young man wrote his master’s thesis challenging my claim and proving that Blackaby was more in line with Pietism than classical mysticism. His point was well taken when using, as he was, a formal definition of a mystic. I was using the term more loosely as represented by this quote from John MacArthur, “The mystic disdains rational understanding and seeks truth instead through the feelings, the imagination, personal visions, inner voices, private illumination, or other purely subjective means.”[1] By this rather loose definition Blackaby is indeed a mystic. This type of mysticism, which I believe to be a functional denial of sola scriptura, is running rampant throughout the Christian community with devastating consequences. But in the more technical, official sense MacArthur’s definition is inadequate. Classical mysticism, which is now making a strong return to Christianity, goes far deeper. Someone has said mysticism “begins with a mist and always ends in schism,” and that is not far from the truth. Mysticism is the search for unio mystica, personal union with God.[2] But what does this union encompass and how is it attained? Here things get sticky for as Georgia Harkness tells us in her book, Mysticism, there are at least twenty-six definitions of mysticism by those who have studied it carefully.[3] Winfried Corduan, in his Mysticism: an Evangelical Option? boils it down to the essentials when he writes, “The mystic believes that there is an absolute and that he or she can enjoy an unmediated link to this absolute in a superrational experience” (emphasis mine).[4] But even here there are at least three distinct categories of mysticism: panenthenic, in which, as Carl Jung thought, a segment of the collective unconscious intrudes on the conscious mind; monistic such as found in Hinduism and Buddhism whereby the individual is merged into the impersonal All, whatever that is called; and theistic in which the absolute is God, although not necessarily the true God.[5] The actual experience by these various types of mystics is very similar. But with whom the mystic believes they come into union is determined by the mystic’s belief system, as William James’ research demonstrated decades ago.[6]

The Road to Mysticism

The journey to mystical experience, almost universally, involves three stages: purgation, illumination and union.

Purgation

Purgation is the cleansing stage which begins with self-examination and penitence and leads to a holy life. Sixteenth-century monk, St. John of the Cross, is best known for his description of this stage which he called the “dark night of the soul.” During the dark night the soul of an individual feels abandoned by God, spiritually dry and at the point of despair. John saw this as a way in which God purified the soul by suffering, for only when the soul has been purified is it in a position to experience a rapturous union with God. This purgation involved detachment from the things of the world including material and physical desires; and mortification, the building of new paths to replace the old ones now rejected.

Illumination

At some point the purgation stage bleeds over into the illumination stage in which the mystic begins to experience inner voices and visions. The goal of illumination is to know genuine spiritual truth, but such truth cannot be found in conventional or even rational ways. This differs, at least in theory from the “mystical” Christian as defined earlier by MacArthur. These still believe that truth is primarily found through rational means, but they feel their thoughts and mental impressions can be explained as the inner voice of God. The true mystic has come to the conclusion that the secret and “deep” things of God cannot be understood rationally. They can only be understood through the experience of illumination. One of the earliest Christian mystics, who is known today as Pseudo-Dionysius, taught that to achieve the ultimate prize of union with God, “The soul must lose the inhibitions of the senses and of reason. God is beyond the intellect, beyond goodness itself, and it is through unknowing, and the discarding of human concepts, that the soul returns to God and is united with the ‘ray of divine darkness.’”[7] The means by which mystics achieved illumination was through fasting, long seasons of specialized prayers known as contemplative prayers and by following various spiritual disciplines of which the best known today were designed by the Catholic monk and founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius Loyola. As we will see later, it is upon Ignatius’ “Spiritual Exercises” that Richard Foster patterns his famous book, The Celebration of Discipline.

Union

The ultimate goal of the mystic is unmediated union with God. This point, at which the soul attains oneness with God, “was the mystical ecstasy in which, for a brief indescribable moment, all barriers seemed to be swept away and new insight supernaturally imparted as one gave himself over fully to the Infinite One.”[8] The ancient mystics would frame this experience in romantic, even sensual terms. John of the Cross “describes the union in terms of spiritual betrothal, where the soul, conceived of as feminine, is married to Christ as the bridegroom. In other places he may say… ‘The centre of the soul is God.’”[9] Bernard of Clairvaux (12th-century), who managed to turn the Song of Solomon into an erotic love story between God and man, described this moment of union as the time when the believer is “kissed with the kisses of His mouth.”[10] Similar depictions are common in mystical literature.

Pseudo-Dionysius (so called because we don’t know his real name but he used Dionysius borrowed from a convert of Paul in Acts 17:34) set the table for the need for this type of mysticism with his belief that God can never be truly known through the intellect. Harkness describes it well,

The author’s position is that God is completely transcendent, beyond all human thought, reason, intellect, or any approaches of the mind. A term, which occurs repeatedly in this writing (Mystical Theology), is “the Divine Dark.” The human mind can only say what God is not, never what God is. There is nothing within the human self to give us a clue. But is there no way to penetrate this divine darkness? Yes, there is one. This is the via negativa by which the soul strips off its selfhood and, in ecstatic union with transcendent deity, both feels and knows its oneness with the Infinite. This has become the classic pattern of Christian mysticism…. To this there is often linked a disparagement of the human capacity to know God saves by the mystical vision, and to this end the need of rigorous disciplines of prayer, fasting, prolonged meditation, and ascetic living.[11]

In other words, the mystic has no confidence in human knowledge accessible through normal means such as the propositional revelation of God (Scripture). If we are to know God, it must come from a mystical union with Him that transcends the rational thought process or even normal sensory experience. This takes place through following the three stages of purgation, illumination and union; implementing the spiritual disciplines and most importantly, practicing contemplative prayer. Roman Catholic monk, William Johnston describes the mystical process this way, “In this mystical life one passes from one layer to the next in an inner or downward journey to the core of the personality where dwells the great mystery called God.”[12]

Other well-known mystics, holding to these or similar views, throughout church history include: Meister Eckhart, Juliana of Norwich, Thomas à Kempis, Tereas of Ávila, Evelyn Underhill, St. Francis of Assisi, Madam Guyon, George Fox, Thomas Merton and Agnes Sanford. Modern mystics of import include Dallas Willard, Brennan Manning and most importantly, Richard Foster. Of Foster, Eugene Peterson enthusiastically writes on the cover of the 25th anniversary edition of Celebration of Discipline, “Richard Foster has ‘found’ the spiritual disciplines that the modern world stored away and forgot, and has excitedly called us to celebrate them. For they are, as he shows us, the instruments of joy, the way into mature Christian spirituality and abundant life.” What Foster “found” many others are discovering as well. As a result classical, Medieval Roman Catholic mysticism has been dusted off and offered as the newest and best thing in spirituality. But there is one little problem. If this is how God wanted His followers to connect with Him why didn’t He bother to say so in His Word? If contemplative prayer (We will further describe this in a future paper.) is the key that will unlock this greater dimension of spirituality, as we will see is being claimed, why did God not give us instructions on how to pray in this manner? Why did He leave it up to monks and nuns hundreds of years later to unveil this key to true godliness? Of course, the answer is that He did not. God’s Word is sufficient; all that we need for life and godliness is found there (I Peter 1:4; II Timothy 3:16,17). That brings us to a number of questions: What does the face of modern mysticism look like, where is it leading us and why is it so popular? We will look into these next time.

 


[1] John MacArthur, Reckless Faith, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994), p. 27.

[2] Brian Moynahan, The Faith, (New York: Doubleday, 2002), p. 269.

[3] Georgia Harkness, Mysticism, (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1973), p. 19.

[4] Winfried Corduan, Mysticism: an Evangelical Option,(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), p. 32.

[5] See Corduan, pp. 45-46.

[6] William James, The Variety of Religious Experiences, (New York: Longmans, Green and Co. 1922), pp. 377-429.

[7] Moynahan, p. 270.

[8] Harkness, p. 32.

[9] Corduan, p. 35.

[10] Moynahan, p. 270 and Harkness p. 39 (Bernard also considered the “kisses of the feet” in The Song as picturing the purgative stage and the “kisses of the hand” as the illuminative p. 91).

[11] Harkness, pp. 26-27.

[12] William Johnston, The Inner Eye of Love: Mysticism and Religion, (Collins/Fount, 1981), p. 127.