Christian Mysticism

The heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.

-The Prophet Ezekiel by the river Chebar (Ezekiel 1:1)

I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet.

-The Apostle John on the island of Patmos (Revelation 1:10)

I want to make the case for Christian Mysticism.

(And already somebody is freaked out. Mysticism?! Isn’t that Eastern religion or occultism or something like that?! No.)

Christian mysticism is simply the philosophy and practice of a direct experience with God.

The Encyclopedia Britannica begins its article on Christian Mysticism with these words: “Christian mysticism refers to the human being’s direct experience with ultimate reality, understood as God within the context of the Christian faith.”

Christian mysticism is the subjective, spiritual experiences a Christian has with the living God through the Lord Jesus Christ. Things like prayer, worship, hearing God, being led by the Spirit, spiritual impressions, divine revelations, dreams and visions, praying in tongues, etc. In effect, Christian mysticism can be summed up as the spiritual experience of the Christian life. Along with the practical, ethical and hermeneutical aspects of Christianity, there is the spiritual aspect. This is the realm of Christian mysticism.

The post Enlightenment world of modernity has generally looked askance at all things mystical, assuming that empiricism and scientific rationalism are the only acceptable epistemology (theory of knowledge) in the modern world and that revelation and mysticism can be dismissed as hallucination and self-delusion. But such an epistemology is incompatible with Christianity. At the core of Christianity is an implicit belief in the reality of the mystical. The realities of prayer, worship, revelation, prophecy and the inspiration of scripture are contingent upon mystical experiences.

Furthermore, in the postmodern world of today increasingly few people have blind faith in the ability of empiricism and scientific rationalism to explain all reality. Postmodernism is a mixed bag, but on the upside is the space postmodernism gives to human hunger for the spiritual and mystical. Something I’ve noticed is that postmodernism isn’t always postmodern…sometimes it’s actually premodern; i.e. a return to a pre-Enlightenment epistemology, which is the epistemology of the Bible.

The Bible is in no way nervous about mysticism, but is replete with accounts of mystical experiences. Think about the divine encounters of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; consider Joseph’s dreams, Moses at the burning bush, the oracles of the prophets, the visions of Ezekiel and Daniel, the revelations of Paul and John. The Bible itself is the result of mystical impressions. And ultimately all conversions are mystical in nature. What is a conversion but a personal encounter with Jesus Christ? And this by definition is a mystical experience.

The Christian church has a long history of mysticism and mystics. Some of the more famous Christian mystics are Saint Anthony, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, Julian of Norwich, Thomas a Kempis, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Brother Lawrence, Blaise Pascal, George Fox, Madame Guyon, William Blake, T.S. Eliot, Watchman Nee, Thomas Merton and A.W. Tozer. Tozer, a solid evangelical by all counts, compiled The Christian Book of Mystical Verse, an anthology of poems in the Christian mystical tradition.

Are there dangers inherent in Christian mysticism. Certainly. But there are also safeguards; primarily the church and the scriptures. No Christian can claim a mystical experience which in anyway contradicts the revelation of scripture and every mystical experience must be subordinate to the spiritual counsel and authority of the local church.

While there may be dangers with Christian mysticism, I don’t believe it to be any more dangerous than Christian pragmatism. And this lies at the heart of why we need an infusion of Christian mysticism in the American evangelical church. In our American compulsion to make all things practical and pragmatic, we are in danger of reducing God to a tool; making Him a means to an end. The vast majority of what passes for preaching and teaching in the American evangelical church is purely pragmatic. We have a glut of “how to” books and sermons. How to have a better life, a better marriage, a better job; how to have wisdom, success and prosperity. In and of themselves these teachings are fine, and the Bible does have much to say about these topics–but, when it becomes the totality of our message, we have domesticated God to something “useful.” We are not so much interested in God, as in what God can be used to do. God is made a tool. A means to some other end.

And this is the very thing we must not do! Our purpose, meaning and happiness are found in our relationship with God Himself and for Himself. We desperately need a serious shift from the pragmatic to the romantic; from the practical to the mystical. To know God Himself for Himself is the great goal and privilege of existence. Any other object made an end in itself will ultimately disappoint. God is the only perpetual novelty in the universe. Only the Holy Trinity has the capacity to eternally fascinate the soul of man. It is obvious that the etymology of mysticism implies a relationship with mystery. To explore the eternal mystery of the Holy Trinity is the great quest of every Christian mystic. This being so, you were meant to be a mystic exploring the great mystery of God through your own experience.

We live in an age of madness. Thomas Hardy wrote the famous novel, Far From the Madding Crowd. Hardy took the title for his novel from a poem by Thomas Gray…

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learned to stray;
Along the cool sequestered vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

Well, good for them, but we are not far from the madding crowd. We live right in the thick of it! We are being driven mad by our harried, hurried, frantic, frenzied lives. And people instinctively know we were not meant to live this way. This may explain why there is a growing counterculture fascination among young evangelicals with monasticism and why books with titles like The Way of St. Benedict and How To Be a Monastic and Not Leave Your Day Job have become surprising bestsellers. We long for the mystical experiences that are nurtured in silence and solitude. In the technological madness of the ubiquitous television, radio, cell phone, internet, Blackberry and iPod there is a means of communication that is not technological–it is communication with God…it is mystical. I’m convinced that a return to Christian mysticism is essential if we want to save our soul–not from hell in eternity, but from the madness of this present age.

Let me encourage you to begin to employ some of the disciplines of Christian mysticism, especially between now and Easter. Disciplines like prayer and fasting, silence and solitude, contemplation and meditation. Contemplate deeply upon the events of Holy Week–from the Triumphal Entry of Palm Sunday through the Resurrection of Easter Sunday. I believe you will find this to be a doorway to experiences in God which you have always longed for.

I urge you to begin the process of becoming the kind of Christian the western world desperately needs: A fully engaged, culturally relevant, 21st century Christian mystic.