01. What Do We Mean?
Satiated with consumerism, technological gizmos, and frenetic activity, people of all stripes are exploring the mystical realm. We all resonate with moments of elevated wonder triggered by a beautiful sunset, rapturous music, or the birth of a baby. In a depersonalized age, image bearers are searching for relationship with something or Someone larger than themselves that will ease the dullness of daily life and energize the soul. Christians, in particular, hunger for more intimate experience of Jesus Christ and greater awareness of the Spirit’s ministry within.
In a previous issue of Conversations I described a six-week sojourn in a renewal Benedictine monastery, the experience of which was radically transforming.Bruce Demarest, “Reclaiming Wisdom: A Gracious Reversal,” Conversations 4.1 (Spring 2006), 43–47. In that grace-filled community I sensed that the Spirit, as it were, led me up the Mount of Transfiguration to witness the glorified Christ and transported me back to the life of the apostolic church with its vision, passion, and power. Healing of soul and transformation of life also occurred. Were these legitimately mystical experiences? Some remain skeptical of the mystical because of associations with Eastern religions and occult movements such as theosophy, nature mysticism, and New Age enlightenment. Mysticism, we are told, is something that begins in mist and ends in schism.
The word mysticism derives from the Greek, muō, meaning “to conceal.” The related English word, mystery, denotes what is obscure or unknown. To understand mysticism I find it helpful to distinguish between hard, occult, and soft forms of mysticism. Hard mysticism alleges the merging of human nature with the essence of the Absolute or God, in such a way that self-consciousness is lost. The Buddhist seeks absorption into Nirvana (an egoless state), and the Hindu, merging of the self (Atman) with Brahman (universal deity). Meister Eckhart (1260–1327) was one of the few Christian mystics who made statements that border on hard mysticism. Occult forms of mysticism (e.g., Scientology, est, New Age, Psycanics) seek transcendent insights and experiences through mind-altering substances and/or esoteric practices. Both hard and occult forms of mysticism are fundamentally opposed to orthodox Christianity.
What I call soft mysticism, on the other hand, seeks deepening relational union with God, not emptiness, fusion, or an ontological union. An important feature of soft mysticism is the believer’s experience of intimate, relational union with Jesus Christ, which involves no loss of individuality or selfhood. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church defines what I have called soft mysticism as “an immediate knowledge of God attained in this present life through personal religious experience. It is primarily a state of prayer and as such admits of various degrees, from short and rare Divine ‘touches’ to the practically permanent union with God in the so-called ‘mystic marriage.’”Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), 935.
The believer’s faith-union with Christ that is central to soft mysticism involves a relation between the two persons that could be described as one of likeness or similarity, not one of identity. Early Christological controversies dealt with the issue of whether Christ was merely “like” (homoiousios) the Father or truly “identical to” (homoousios) the Father. Analogous to this classical discussion, the Christian’s relation to Christ is one of similarity, not identity. Unless otherwise noted, the discussion of mysticism to follow pertains to the soft, or relational, form as here described.
Kenneth Boa helpfully defines mysticism as “an intuitive and heart-oriented approach to spiritual formation that explores the inner terrain of the soul’s journey toward God.”Kenneth Boa, Conformed to His Image (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 514. Henri Nouwen identifies mystics as “men and women of God” who ardently “desire to dwell in God’s presence, to listen to God’s voice, to look at God’s beauty, to touch God’s incarnate Word and to taste fully God’s infinite goodness.”Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus (New York: Crossroad, 1989), 29–30. According to John Michael Talbot, “A mystic is an ordinary person blessed by an extraordinary experience of God that transforms life in amazing ways. A mystic is someone who believes that there are realities to life that are beyond what can be perceived by our rational minds or described in words.”John Michael Talbot, The Way of the Mystics (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005), 3.