Demystifying Christian Mysticism

Surprisingly, many conservative Christians recoil at the idea that Christianity might be considered mystical or even spiritual!  For these, the very thought of mysticism conjures up notions of delirious individuals caught up in a mindless state; controlled by religious cult leaders , mysterious eastern religions, or new age gurus.  As such, to entertain any form of religion that might be deemed ‘spiritual’ or ‘mystical’ is to take the first step on the slippery slope toward fanaticism. For such as these, the only valid alternative to this alleged error is to adhere to a strongly rational or objective form of religion that relies on a rigid  interpretation of texts or known traditions.

The Protestant emphasis on the Word of God,  filtered though the theological frames of scholars such as the 19th century theologian Charles Hodge (who presented the faith in a highly rationalistic manner) and the 20th century theologian Karl Barth (who theoretically negated the subjective elements of faith within his theological system)–both in reaction to a certain form of religious pietism–have, in no small part contributed to an acculturation of an anti-mystical sentiment among conservative Protestants. Moreover, in more recent history,  a strongly negative reaction to the rise of Pentecostalism—with its alleged emphasis on ‘introspective’ spirituality and ‘enthusiastic’ behavior–has also succeeded in engendering a deep suspicion of things spiritual/mystical.

However, developing  a view of Christian spirituality based on reactions to perceived theological error or religious fanaticism is no way to develop a legitimate understanding of the spiritual dimension of the Christian faith.

Christianity is not a rationalistic philosophical system. In fact, Christianity is primarily a faith-oriented religion that relationally connects humanity with divinity. In the Gospel of John we read that God is spirit. Now given that God is ‘essentially’ spirit, and given that God necessarily engages us in various ways, it should necessarily follow that some kind of spiritual and or mystical dimension to this relational engagement is simply  unavoidable. However, it is at this very point the potential for error and misunderstanding arises.

If mysticism is understood as a purely intuitive and unmediated mode of communion with the divine, it falls within the category of what Albert Schweitzer calls God mysticism.  God mysticism implies that God can be engaged in a direct or unmediated sense, and that the so-called gnosis (knowledge) that is conceived in the experience of this mystical engagement, has the capacity to override  all other forms of authority: reason, tradition, and Holy Scripture.  However, as tantalizing at it may be to think that we can have a direct line to God, this is not the kind of spiritual experience validated by the witness of the Bible.

The Apostle Paul ( one of the first and primary advocates of Christian spirituality) knows nothing of this direct and unmediated union with God. Rather, Paul speaks of a union with Christ (the divinely appointed mediator between God and humanity). In many of  his letters, Paul’s uses rich in-Christ language to describe the nature of his intimate relationship with God. For Paul, union with Christ is much more than a logical belief in the life and acts of the historical Jesus vis-a-vis  a rational union of human and divine wills; rather he intimates a union with the risen Christ as a present existential reality: ‘I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me…’ (Gal 2:20NIV).

Now we know that Paul was not literally crucified with Jesus Christ, nor does Jesus physically live in him, so what does he mean by this? The 16th century French theologian,  John Calvin offers this  explanation: ‘He [Paul] does not live by his own life, but is animated by the secret power of Christ…believers live out of themselves, that is, they live in Christ; which can only be accomplished by holding real and actual communication with him’. But, how is such a life of communion animated?

Calvin and those who understand what is going on with Paul, know that this ‘real and actual’ communion is only possible through  the secret power of God’s presence–the Holy Spirit.  Indeed, a  legitimate belief in Jesus Christ and ongoing relationship with God through him, is only possible within a spiritual dimension. In fact, without the Spirit of God engaging us, God is, on a relational level, effectively unknowable.

However, this  ‘in-Christ’ mystical union through the Spirit, does not imply that:  the church, the bible, and even theological reflection are superfluous.  Indeed, Paul’s concept of spiritual union with Christ does not presuppose an introspective, spiritualistic, or private pilgrimage of faith free from external constraints. Rather, Paul conceives his personal union with Christ, in terms of a larger context of a communal union with other Christians within the Church and under the authority of God’s direct revelation,  a communion he metaphorically calls the body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit.

In the Church the Holy Spirit endows Christians with specific gifts to bring to bear the teaching of the Holy Scriptures in an instructive way into the lives of its members.  Moreover, the Spirit that calls Christians who are ‘in-Christ’, into the body of Christ, is the very Spirit that insures that the material testimony of the Spirit (the Holy Scriptures) is not subsumed by introspective God-mysticism, but actually regulates the ‘in-Christ’ experience.  Not only so, but the Holy Spirit also gifts Christians with abilities to encourage, help, heal, and minister to others, that through the medium of divinely animated human charity they might also have a tangible experience of  divine love.

Demystifying mysticism should not come down to a flight to the ‘safe-haven’ of a rationalistic adherence to religious texts or tradition based tribalism, motivated by a fear of fanaticism. In fact, sound theology is rarely, if ever, achieved by taking and becoming entrenched in reactionary positions. Yes, error and perceived error might be a catalyst to think these difficult things through, but defining what we stand for in reaction to what we stand against, more often than not, blinds us to the real truth.  I would suggest conservative Christians, who wish to come to a clear understanding of Christian spirituality,  begin with a simple and humble reading the New Testament. When the kind of spirituality that is evident in, and validated by, the New Testament is carefully observed, the necessity to take extreme positions is removed. I know it sounds too simple, but for those who really do believe in the authority of Holy Scripture, I can honestly think of no better place to begin the quest for demystifying mysticism.


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