I will make the point once more that the purpose of this article is not to criticize those who find mysticism as an important part of their lives or spirituality. My purpose for writing is for those, like me, who have no desire to be mystics, at least in accordance with the popular definition. We need to understand that it is healthy to have our view. There is an unspoken belief that the really “spiritual” Christians seek the mystical expressions. I’m here to say that is not true.
Mysticism Within the Philosophical-Historical Context
I will try to make this simple and cover only one small facet of the question. Within Christianity, the tension starts when the early church was painted on the canvas of the Greek culture. The Church adopted, in part, a Greek-Platonic metaphysical view of existence. I say, “in part” because the early church leaders pushed against this idea through their great Church councils, yet it was still woven into the fabric of the new religion.
Without saying too much, this Platonic-Christian view sees this
material / physical world has less importance than the spiritual, which was defined as residing within an unseen world in the heavens. Some, such as the Gnostics, saw the material as not only inferior but evil. This was the devil’s domain and heaven was God’s.
Within this mindset, it became automatic that an experience, which could not be explained by material world constructs (reason, logic, empirical investigation) was superior to those that could. For that reason, mysticism was very attractive.
We just had a guest pastor who was explicitly clear that the true experience of God is irrational because God is irrational. I profoundly disagree with this conclusion and I think such thinking is very dangerous, setting up the believer in the irrational-mystic to living in a surreal world underpinned with a lot of self-deception. God is the writer of logic, reason, and the giver of rationality.
Without getting into the nitty-gritty of the historical developments (which I do cover in my book, Butterflies in the Belfry) I will just say that when this desire for the spiritual/mystical reached a pinnacle, the cultural manifestation was the Dark Ages.
Jumping ahead, a different Greek philosophy, Aristotelianism, began to seep into Europe north of the Alps after the Dark Ages. It was a very reasonable view of the world starting from the premise that truth is reached by the empirical observation of our senses and then processed through our deductive reasoning. This new trend evolved into the Enlightenment of the seventeenth century. This brought many great advances to our western culture. During the Enlightenment, however, the thinking evolved to the point that if something could not be observed empirically, then it was not important. Finally, it reached an arbitrary point of saying that if something can’t be observed with our senses, then it does not exist. This was when the first great atheistic movement began. You can’t handle or observe God; therefore, He is not there. That tenet is still widely held today, especially within the science community.
The enlightenment, in contrast to the Dark Ages, carried a great hope of human’s reaching a state of utopia. Many great things did come from it. Some of this optimism lingered, at least in America, into the 1960s. However, most of this hope was dashed in the bloody American Civil War, the trenches of WWI, the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust, WWII, and the threat of thermonuclear war during the cold war. When there is disillusionment in the material world and human reason, there is always a tendency to return to the draw mysticism for a new hope.
The turning point for modern American Christianity was the revival on Azusa Street in Los Angles in 1906. This was the birth of the modern Pentecostal movement, which emphasized emotional and irrational experiences as the essence of deep Christian spirituality. This movement swept the US and Latin America of the subsequent 100 years. This movement has had a profound influence on, not only the charismatic churches but all denominations Protestant and Catholic.
Along with this evolution of the western culture, within the framework of the great disillusionment of reason, the secular culture started to turn to Eastern mysticism for meaning. The big introduction of this type of mysticism happened in the 1960s with the experimentation with psychedelic drugs and the Beatles introduction of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. So, for a long while the secular cultures and the Christian one was on parallel but distinct paths. The secular embracing what became New Age spirituality and the Christian experimental or mystical, and for the same reason, a disillusionment with the hope of reason.
The problem, however, was that the reason that gave hope during the Enlightenment was not a healthy Biblical understanding of reason to start with. The Biblical view of reason is that it is not inferior to experience or “of this world,” rather it is good, wonderful, God-given . . . but weak. Due to the fall of humanity, you cannot reach perfect truth with reason. You certainly can’t reach perfect truth through an emotional experience, which is very elusive. Most horrible cults were built on the backs of pastors who had mystical experiences, where God spoke “truth” directly to them. Such horrible “truths” as “God wants you to give me your daughters for my sexual pleasure.” We, as Biblical-thinking Christians, must understand that we live in a world and a time when we must settle for a lack of certainty because certainty is not obtainable with our mortal minds.
Sometimes I feel that I’m living in the movie (the remake with a terrible ending) the Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In that movie, the protagonist is losing friends, one by one, who’s bodies have been taken by the invaders. In the last scene, his very last friend is taken. Now, it seems like every time I start to connect with someone, even intellectual people, that they eventually confine to me that all their Christian spirituality is wrapped up in mysticism. Dreams, voices, strange and trite miracles (which I think are self-deception). I hope, someday, to find thinking Christians who recognize the deceit of fake experiences and embrace the true spirituality of thinking, reasoning and enjoying God with their sober minds.