While I and many others have a lot to say about Christian mysticism, it’s worth considering how using ‘mysticism’ as a modifier for ‘Christian’ is somewhat redundant. In other words, it can be argued that Christianity is already mystical by nature, and that all Christians are therefore mystics, especially if they understand this aspect of our religion. The purpose of this post is to make a case that Christianity is indeed a mystical religion, and discuss what value there may be in continuing to use terms like ‘Christian mysticism.’
For the purposes of this post, let’s begin with Merriam-Webster for a conventional understanding of ‘mysticism,’ ‘mystical,’ and ‘mystic.’
1: the experience of mystical union or direct communion with ultimate reality reported by mystics
2: the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience (as intuition or insight)
1 a : having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence <the mystical food of the sacrament>
b : involving or having the nature of an individual’s direct subjective communion with God or ultimate reality <the mystical experience of the Inner Light>
1: a follower of a mystical way of life
2: an advocate of a theory of mysticism
Notice these key words:
- direct communion
- direct knowledge
- subjective communion
These words speak to a connectedness with God, a oneness with God that mystics believe, and some may actually know, is possible to experience or realize. Technically speaking, it follows that to use ‘mysticism,’ ‘mystical’ or ‘mystic’ as a modifier for ‘Christian’ could imply that Christianity itself isn’t inherently mystical, and that some of us have added mysticism to it. So we should ask if that is the case or not.
Does Christianity already include mysticism? Let’s begin to answer that question by reviewing some relevant scriptures.
Jesus Declares the Kingdom of God is Within
“Asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He replied to them by saying, the kingdom of God does not come with signs to be observed or with visible display, nor will people say, Look! Here [it is]! or, See, [it is] there! For behold, the kingdom of God is within you [in your hearts] and among you [surrounding you].” (Luke 17:20-21 AMP)
The Prayer of Jesus for His Followers to Know They are One with God
My prayer is not for them [the disciples] alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me — so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:20-23)
St. Paul on Our Interconnection with God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit
While in Athens, Paul argued for the closeness of God by quoting the Cretan philosopher Epimenides:
…he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ (Acts 17:27-28)
Speaking to the Corinthians, Paul made these statements:
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? … For it is said, ‘But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.’ … Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? (1 Corinthians 6:15, 17, 19a)
St. John on Love as Union with God
No one has ever seen God. But if we love one another, God lives in us. His love is made complete in us. We know that we belong to him and he belongs to us. He has given us his Holy Spirit. … So we know that God loves us. We depend on it. God is love. Anyone who leads a life of love shows that he is joined to God. And God is joined to him. (1 John 4:12-13, 16)
There are many more scriptural references we could draw on, but these words attributed to Jesus, St. Paul, and St. John are enough to suggest that, at the very least, it is possible to personally know union with God, even if only under certain circumstances. It is also understandable why some of us find in them the further revelation that we are already one with God, though we may not be aware of it. From these passages, it is obvious that mysticism as previously defined is an inherent part of Christianity, unless we take their words as nothing more than the loosest form of metaphor. (But be careful, for if we take it as nothing more than flowery prose, then we have poor grounds to take Jesus more literally when he says, “I and my Father are one,” a statement central to his prayer for his followers.) All Christians, if by the term we mean those who consider themselves adherents to the theology of Jesus and his Apostles, are therefore mystics as defined by Merriam-Webster, whether we recognize ourselves as such or not.
Given this conclusion, what value is there in using terms like ‘Christian mysticism’ ‘mystical Christianity’ or ‘Christian mystic’? We begin to answer that by acknowledging the simple fact that not everyone uses or understands the meaning of ‘mysticism’ offered above, and neither do all recognize that Christianity fits that definition. Likewise, many of us have personally experienced varieties of Christian spirituality that hinge more upon emphasizing the distance between God and humanity rather than upon our communion with God. To overtly use these terms is therefore to emphasize one’s own commitment to intentionally engage in and/or draw attention to this aspect of Christianity.
Finally, I want to suggest that a technical redundancy is the least of all risks in using these terms. One of the bigger risks is reinforcing a perception that mysticism is an innovation within Christianity, a departure from the “faith of our fathers,” if not some entirely foreign and heretical appendage grafted onto our religion. Therefore, whenever we speak of mysticism in Christianity, I think we have a duty to help others understand that we are talking about something lived and taught by Jesus and his Apostles, something they prayed that all their followers would come to know. Another risk is building up spiritual pride through the notion that, in applying these terms to oneself, one is somehow identifying oneself as a ‘better’ Christian, or, God forbid, even a ‘true’ Christian. It is for this reason that some of us choose not to apply them to ourselves. While that might be the wisest option for some, I don’t believe it should be a rule for all, anymore than I believe we should avoid calling ourselves Christians because we might be prideful in doing so. I think Jesus’ teachings about sharing the Good News and letting our lights shine are instructive in this context. Even so, these same teachings remind us that our loving actions are the best testimony and fruits we have to share with others, and that any words we might use without them are no more than noisy gongs and clanging cymbals. Any mysticism that doesn’t eventually yield such fruit is, at best, a distraction.