On the Redundancy of ‘Christian Mysticism’
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.
Your explanation of Christian mysticism is very similar to my own understanding. I agree that the modifier of “mysticism” after Christianity is redundant, and that our active participation in Christianity includes that element we refer to as “mystical experience”.
Just as we are in relationship with God’s self-communication rationally and intellectually, through the “Word” of God revealed to us in Biblical and non-Biblical sources, we are, by our participation in the mysteries of Christianity, in relationship subjectively with God’s mystical gifts with or without any awareness.
For me there is no real distinction between these two aspects of revelation, or God’s self-communication. When we distinguish Christian mysticism from other elements of Christianity, we are doing so merely as an aid in understanding. But, there is a holism implied here that denies access to understanding revelation other than as a hypostasis, a union. In my opinion, Christian mysticism acknowledges that aspect of revelation that is God’s self-communication with his creatures individually.
I usually like when you create new posts, and again you didn’t disappoint. I remember a few years ago catching part of an episode on the History Channel that mentioned mysticism and specifically John and Paul (& other disciples) as being the first Christian mystics. I barely remember the episode, as I didn’t even plan to watch it, but the idea seemed to stick with me. I think that’s partly why I was more open to reading about mysticism a few years later. Seems a lot of mysticism refers to the teachings of St. Teresa de Avila and St. John of the Cross, but you can find a lot of good stuff just reading the Bible. I like reading the Book of John and Psalms.
I have often wondered why the title of the website is “Christian” mystics and not just “mystics”? The various religious, spiritual, and other forms of individualistic and subjective considerations of each member has made me wonder if everyone actually owes up to being a Christian and in that regard to the words of Christ – “being born of the Spirit” apart from the mysticism mystic.
I don’t consider it a redundancy. I see where you’re coming from, but what the heck was William Blake?
For that matter, what the heck am I? I still don’t consider myself mystic or contemplative, but most definitely a Christian. Perhaps that is because my relationship with God seems like I’m consistently “there” with Him.
As you well know I’ve had a number of miraculous and spiritual supernatural occurrences and experiences in my life. Even now as it proceeds, the intimacy of being in love with God continues to draw me further and further along.
I don’t consider that unification; although I understand more and more what that term means as I continue to study more and more. Even then, the technical terminology can never take the place of the actual mystical unification.
Still, as I draw nearer to God, it seems the opening of the window into the heavenly realm allows me to basically just accept without reservation or question the spiritual realm as being a normal course of daily factuality and the unseen is recognized by the seen.
Lately, I’ve been “contemplating”, and I use that word very gingerly, if as some say, heaven is already present in and all around us (which, depending upon how a person means that to be the case whether in the form of angelic manifestation or actual heaven-like presence), then isn’t that a form of bonding in the “shape” of unification from without?
Granted the inner sanctum of my soul meets with God continually since He states, I will never leave you nor forsake you and the pleasure of having myself as the Temple of the Holy Spirit renders me “full” in the sense I am not alone or “empty” as I once was before accepting Jesus as my savior; and, I definitely know the difference as regeneration continues – it strikes me that mysticism is just one of the puzzle pieces of the big picture.
Perhaps in making the mystical cake, the dough of faith must be nurtured with the yeast of hope to allow the sweet aroma of love to permeate into not only our lives but into others and provide a sweet, sweet smell that titillates the nostrils of God.
My pastor’s mom used to tell me, “If you get too close to the water of life, then sooner or later you’re going to fall in and get wet.” Yes, well, I’m pretty much soaking wet and shaking the water off into the lives of others. Is that mystical?
As I read your comment, I was reminded of how very easy it is for us to think and act as if God isn’t right here, right now, within and around everything. We are so used to splitting things up with our minds, that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. “This is of God, and that’s not,” or “This is holy, and that’s not,” for a couple of examples.
Even the Christian mystics, and mystics of other traditions, who have directly experienced the reality of unity, and know that separation is a misperception on our parts, still cannot help but talk about God and loving God in ways that imply separation. That’s because language must work within this misperception, as part of it, and can only point to the oneness. This is one reason the great mystics recommend the practice of sitting in silence, essentially ignoring our thoughts and feelings for a while, because no matter how hard we try to think and feel ourselves closer to God, thoughts, visions, and feelings can only take us so far before they themselves are found to be the veils, the very first and last veils, that stand between us and union with God.
And then, if the veils are parted, in that moment there is only the One. There is no “me” to experience anything “I” might call “God.” IT IS just what IT IS.
I know for a fact that the loss of self in such an experience is what frightens many people about mysticism. As much as we can say we love God and want to be one with God – to fully dissolve into God, to cease existing as ‘Chuck’ or ‘Fred,’ as any kind of entity distinguished in any way from the One, even for just a few short moments, isn’t something most of us really want, and least not very often. I’m not saying that’s wrong either, because I actually think it’s God’s will that things work the way they do. Here’s a poem I wrote about that: http://chuckdunning.blog.com/2011/03/09/deep-within-the-well-of-this-heart/
First, the disclosure, the tone of my posting may sound harsh, but you know I’m only continuing the discussion. As indicated previously, I love you, when in doubt refer back to rule 1 – I love you, : )
A most powerful and solid poem, thank you for sharing it. The imagery is resplendent and in many ways reminds of William Blake’s mystical artwork – nicely done. It definitely brings the “acceptance” that God has for us despite who we are, what we might have or have not done or thought and makes us realize that it’s all part of His plan even when we think our misguided dreams may be of little or no importance. And realizing those dreams are not so misguided after all, but sometimes its all we’ve got to work with.
As I was busy confessing my sins this morning, ha, it occurred to me that I might not have made myself completely clear.
Herein is the uniqueness of being a follower of Christ in that that in itself is mystical. I understand what you ascertain with the redundancy (at least I think I’m following what you’re stating, correct me if I’m wrong) – in that being a Christian and being a mystic are one in the same?
As of late, I’ve found a few authors and writers concerning mysticism say the very same thing but in a different “one size fits all” type of category – “every one is a mystic”. Sorry, but I don’t buy their reasoning; at least not at face value.
If everyone is a mystic then perhaps it is realized over time with the “great awakening” or it is never realized; or, like you hinted – avoided altogether. Could you imagine a world full of mystics with self-realization that they are mystics? What kind of world would that be? And if we were all “Christian” mystics what then? The Great Commission to go out and preach the gospel to every creature would have to be reexamined.
And what if there is something else beyond mysticism? Perhaps we are still in the babyhood of Christianity despite what we’ve already experienced or learned. To this end I would like to refer and recommend the book “My Time In Heaven” by Richard Sigmund. In his book he describes his eight-hour visit to Heaven after dying. Then he came back to life and recorded what he saw. This book may seem like just a way to get into publication and I’ve told people either this is the best science fiction story I have ever read or it’s true. As I was stating – to this end, the things he saw and experienced indicate to me there is so much more that we can even imagine and the sweet fragrance of God that permeates within our souls now is just a foretaste of what is to come.
So I don’t see all Christians as mystical in the strictest sense of the definition. What I do see are the layers like an onion each Christian has and little by little God peels off the layers as we are able to be revealed to Him without a whole lot of pain.
Does that make any sense? Words are so inadequate for these topics, but I do enjoy participating. Thanks for starting this one.
Fred, no worries, because I didn’t take your tone as harsh. 🙂 Thanks for the additional comments.
I recommend looking at the Gospel of Thomas for true mysticism. That, for me, is where you find a great closeness to Jesus and God.
“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. ”
HOW do we move beyond this? When one catches the vision and is ready to go deeper, HOW? I’m so tired of being dry! But I don’t seem to be moving forward in any direction. :/
Yeah, that’s a great question, and it seems we all have to find our own best ‘answer’ to it. For some of us it is contemplative prayer and/or other spiritual practices. There have been times in my life when my primary response was to double-down on being as ‘religious’ as I could be – more prayer, more meditation, more worship, more ritual, more praise, more intellectualism, more emotionalism, and on and on. I’ve found those things very useful at times, but increasingly I think the most important thing is simply to focus on love in all its forms. As I have said elsewhere, one of the meanings I find in the dryness is for me to stop being so focused on wanting to feel God’s presence, but instead to be God’s presence as best I can through loving others. I know that doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s the best response to my own experience of dryness that I’ve been moved to make. It’s also the most challenging response! 🙂
Sorry it took me so long to approve your comment and reply.