The Christian Mystical Tradition(s)

In The Nick of TimeThings that appear to be the same are sometimes quite different in important ways. When judicial activists appeal to the rule of law, for example, they may use exactly the same language as originalists, but their meaning is very different. Discussions of mysticism tend to be like that.

The history of Christian mysticism displays a tension between two impulses that are fundamentally incompatible with each other. Both impulses tend to express themselves in similar language, but what they mean by that language is quite different. Let me briefly describe each of these impulses.

Impulse One: Dionysian Neo-Platonism

A mystical author of the fifth or sixth century adopted the pen name of Dionysius the Areopagite. Known to scholars as “pseudo-Dionysius,” he wrote such works as The Divine Names and The Mystical Theology. Pseudo-Dionysius appears to have imbibed rather heavily of the Platonistic streams that had been flowing into Christian thought since the incursion of Gnosticism during the second century. There is sufficient ambiguity in his writing that we have to be careful in the charges that we bring against him, but he seems to have subordinated certain aspects of Christianity to neo-Platonism.

According to pseudo-Dionysius, we can affirm nothing about God. We know Him only negatively (i.e., we know certain things that He is not). When we begin to speak positively of God, we lose ourselves in a cloud of unknowing. It is possible to read pseudo-Dionysius in such a way that all rational attempts to know God stumble over the obstacles of language and concept.

For pseudo-Dionysius, the way to know God is through mystical experience. This experience must be non-discursive, or it, too, will result in unknowing. In the mystical experience of God, one empties the mind, leaves the self behind, and enters into an ineffable union with the divine. How is such a union possible? In at least some places, pseudo-Dionysius leaves the impression that he envisions reality as pantheistic. When Dionysius and his followers speak of union with God, they appear to imagine some sort of metaphysical union taking place.

Mystics who were influenced by this version tended to be very ascetic and world-denying. Like the Gnostics, they tended to see bodily pleasures as intrinsically evil. They would impose upon themselves all sorts of privations and afflictions.

Pseudo-Dionysius is the most prominent early writer to articulate this version of mysticism, but he certainly was not the only one to hold it. One finds this version of mysticism (to a greater or lesser degree) in some of the Desert Fathers, in Meister Eckhart, and in the anonymous Cloud of Unknowing. Even in those sources—and even in pseudo-Dionysius—it is rarely, if ever, unmixed.

Impulse Two: Pious Devotion

From the very beginning, Christianity has had a second impulse that is often classified as mystical. This is the recognition that since God is a person, He must be known personally and not merely propositionally. Those who are influenced by this impulse do not deny the validity or importance of propositional truths about God, but they do insist that knowing a person is always more than being able to repeat correct statements about that person. This sort of mystic is not content to know about God. Rather, this mystic yearns to know God Himself.

Mystics of this sort acknowledge that all of God’s redeemed have come to know Him in a personal way. Every believer is already a lover of God, just as every believer is already beloved of God. But these mystics long for a deeper fellowship and more intimate communion with God in Christ. Theirs is the desire expressed by the apostle Paul, who, though he had served Christ for many years and suffered many things, could still aspire, “That I might know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His suffering, being made conformable to His death.” This was the same Paul who, only a chapter earlier, had penned the kenosis passage. He knew the facts and could repeat the propositions, but he still thirsted for a more intimate knowledge of the person.

What is necessary in order to enjoy such communion with Christ? Those who have pursued it most fervently have articulated several criteria, of which three are particularly significant. First, one must deal with every activity and attitude that would grieve Christ and mar fellowship with Him. For this reason, those who pursue Christ also pursue holiness. While they cannot make themselves sinless, they seek to live lives that are pleasing to their master, and they regularly confess the sins they commit.

Second, one must lay aside every distraction. Not only every sin, but also every weight must be put away. In a world filled with clamor, focusing the mind upon Christ is no easy thing. Most Christians have found that it requires some spiritual retreat, some measure of solitude. Such solitude is found in a temporary withdrawing from the normal activities of life, whether this withdrawal is enjoyed for a few moments in the prayer closet or for a longer period away from human contact and concerns.

Third, one must seek after Christ as a person and not merely as a theological proposition. Anyone who attempts to describe this seeking finds that language begins to fail and metaphors take over. Perhaps the most common metaphor for communion with Christ is the intimacy of marriage. Marriage is the relationship in which humans most devote themselves to another. The intimacy of marriage includes talking to each another, but it also includes touching and often simply being near one another. A husband who articulates the perfections of his wife is doing a good thing, but at some point speech ceases in favor of simple enjoyment of the presence of the beloved. There is a time to speak and a time to be silent, and at times, silence is more intimate than speech.

So it is with the soul that loves Christ. Even if we are speaking to Him and about Him, speech can be a distraction. We are thinking about what we might say rather than thinking about Him. At some point, there is greater communion in simply enjoying the presence of the Lord than in telling Him how much we are enjoying it.

This communion with Christ is miles away from the inner emptying of Eastern meditation. Nevertheless, it does involve a form of inner silence. The point of this silence is not to empty one’s mind, but rather to replace the distractions of mental discourse with the joy of communion with Christ. It is like the difference between enjoying one’s dessert and describing one’s dessert. If one is focused on description, then one may very well miss some of the pleasure of perception.

Like Dionysian neo-Platonists, devotional mystics speak of union with God or union with Christ. For them, however, this union is not a metaphysical union of being, but a union of self-giving love. Still, they often employ language that is similar to the neo-Platonists, for some of the same reasons that we sometimes use that same language when speaking of romantic love between man and woman. It is right to speak in this way: even Scripture refers to the most intimate of human unions by saying that “the two shall be one flesh.” This union does not entail the obliteration of personhood or individuality, and neither does the union of the loving soul with Christ. In giving one’s self to the beloved (or the Beloved), however, there is such forgetting of self and such attentiveness to the other that the language of absorption, and even obliteration, comes naturally.

The devotional impulse to mysticism arose very early and has been extremely influential. Athanasius learned it from Anthony, and it gave the former strength to stand for Christ when the whole world was against him. Augustine was moved by it. It was shared by the Gerhard Groote, John Tauler, the Brethren of the Common Life, and Thomas a Kempis. It is one of the key impulses that led to the Reformation, and traces of it can be found in both Luther and Calvin. It was an important motivation for David Brainerd, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, the Wesleys, Adoniram Judson, and many others during the Great Awakenings. This version of mysticism was practiced by several of the fathers of Fundamentalism. One of its most visible, recent advocates was A. W. Tozer. We must not allow our fear of false mysticism to deprive us of the joy of knowing Christ personally and intimately.

Who Would True Valor See

John Bunyan (1628-1688)

Who would true valor see,
Let him come hither;
One here will constant be,
Come wind, come weather
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim.

Whoso beset him round
With dismal stories
Do but themselves confound;
His strength the more is.
No lion can him fright,
He’ll with a giant fight,
He will have a right
To be a pilgrim.

Hobgoblin nor foul fiend
Can daunt his spirit,
He knows he at the end
Shall life inherit.
Then fancies fly away,
He’ll fear not what men say,
He’ll labor night and day
To be a pilgrim.

Kevin BauderThis essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
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