Christian Mysticism

The subject of, Christian mysticism can be a controversial one, as many Catholics and Orthodox embrace mysticism, while most Protestant and Evangelicals do not. This has led to hot debates and denunciations. The questions we need to address are: What is it? Is it consistent with Christian orthodoxy? The practice of Christian mysticism is a form of infused contemplation arising out of a desire for a deeper inner experience of God. Some Christian mystics suggest that contemplation does not come through our normal working senses, imagination, intellect, memory or will. Rather, it emerges from the soul where we are closer in touch with the Holy Spirit, and is a mysterious knowledge of our loving union with God. John of the Cross, a 16th century Spanish mystic believed that because the wisdom of the world is foolishness to God, the soul must proceed by "unknowing" rather than knowing. Thus, direct inner experience of God occurs without an intellectual understanding of God. Modern mystics will tell you quite clearly that they want to know God by direct experience, not through any teachings about God. 

Mysticism can be divided into categories such as extrovertive (experiencing the divine through nature), and introvertive (detachment from the senses). What is common to all mystical traditions is the belief that a person can experience an immediate mystical union with God without the aid of reason, the senses, or even special revelation. The mystic believes that reason only offers secondhand knowledge of God and is in a sense defective. William James notes two underlying characteristics of mysticism:

"Ineffability. Ineffability refers to an experience that cannot be described in words. The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. Thus, if an inquirer desires the same experience, it cannot be transferred by listening to a description of the experience; rather, it must be experienced directly.

Noetic quality. Regardless of its non-discursive nature, the mystical state is nonetheless tangible in some way. It is a state of being that carries with it "a curious sense of authority". Mystical experiences are private, intuitive and self authenticating." (William James, Mysticism, The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 371)

So how should we properly view mysticism?

We have to take account of three important points.

1. Mysticism is driven by a legitimate desire to know God on a personal level. Mystics are correct that intellectual assent alone is insufficient to really know God. The problem, however, is that many forms of mysticism create a false dualism, a false disparity between faith and reason by suggesting we have to have a direct experience of God that bypasses the intellect. Paul, who could easily have pointed to his experience of the risen Jesus and avoided trying to use intellectual arguments for faith in Jesus, instead appeals to reason in the Book of Acts. "What I am saying is true and reasonable."- Acts 26:25

2. Some forms of mysticism rely too heavily on the purely subjective. If subjective experience is "self authenticating" then there is no objective method of distinguishing between a genuine experience and a psychological illness, hallucination, or the purely fabricated. Indeed, one could not then say that the mystical experiences of the Hindu or the Buddhist were illegitimate. What this does is undermine all objective self revelation of God and leads to Gnosticism.

3. The claim that such experiences are ineffable is self defeating. It is self defeating because it attempts to accomplish the very thing it claims cannot be done- that is, describe the experience in words. Many would-be mystics use prolific language describing what they claim to be indescribable.

While Biblical Christianity recognizes the proper place and existence of mystery, it affirms the ability to describe that mystery, and views experiences not as a sort of mindless spirituality, lacking any objective criteria. In fact, experiences are judged by the standards of Sacred Scripture and authenticated in this way. Finally, any authentic experience will advance the "renewing of the mind" bringing the disciple closer to reflecting the mind of Christ and never contradicts or replaces scripture. It also does not claim there is a conflict between, nor place a false wall between the intellect and experience, but recognizes that we are in  the midst of what Anselm called "faith seeking understanding."

True mysticism will engage both the mind and the desire for something beyond mere intellectual comprehension or exploration. If we look to the examples of Scripture- the prophets and apostles- we can get a glimpse of the proper form of mysticism; one that takes us to a different level of communion with God, without neglecting or rejecting the rational and reasonable.