God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and in truth.
— John 4:24
One of the problems with “mysticism” as it pertains to Christian life and ministry is just how hard-to-define the concept actually is. In one breath, a person may refer to the classical understanding of “mystical union with Christ” and in another, without a trace of irony, complain about the “mysticism” of some Christian thinkers or the quoting of those considered “mystics” by respected evangelical writers. Clearly there is a good kind of mysticism and a bad kind of mysticism. But how do you know which is the right kind?
Justin Taylor has helpfully provided a primer on the concept of mysticism and a good overview of the kind of mysticism that corresponds to Christian orthodoxy. (The goofballs over at Doctrine & Devotion also dedicated a podcast episode to the subject of mysticism.) In Taylor’s piece, he cites D. D. Martin’s definition of Christian mysticism as found in The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology:
Christian mysticism seeks to describe an experienced, direct, nonabstract, unmediated, loving knowledge of God, a knowing or seeing so direct as to be called union with God.
I thought I might offer a few further thoughts myself, especially in providing some guardrails for our understanding (and practice) of the right kind of mysticism.
Properly understood, Christian mysticism is:
1. Contemplative but biblical.
Many warn repeatedly about the dangers of “contemplative prayer.” Heresy hunters cast a wide net in these warnings, indicting all kinds of evangelicals, including some who are not really dangerous at all. What is being conflated here is the kind of contemplation that has more in common with Eastern meditation than Psalm 1:2. Certainly there is a kind of contemplative prayer that is more contemplative than prayer. And yet, Christians are not called merely to regurgitate facts but to ponder them, reflect on them, marinate in them. Let the reader understand, of course.
This does not mean that Christians must contemplate the allegedly endless possibilities of the human consciousness (for our hearts are deceitful above all things) nor the ambiguous qualities of a vague numinous (for the Lord our God, the Lord is One—and he has a name). When we meditate and contemplate, then, let us meditate on God’s sufficient Word and contemplate his holiness. We have content to contemplate, in other words. We have a definitive word from the Divine, and it is inspired and inerrant. Therefore, whether in prayer or in study, we are not called to contemplate with an empty mind but upon the substance of Scripture.
2. Spiritual but Christocentric.
The theological category so-called Christian mysticism seems to emphasize most is pneumatology. Mystics are seeking an experience of God’s immanent Spirit. This is a good desire. And yet this desire, if we are not careful, can take us drifting into a focus on the Spirit that puts us in the same ditch of heterodoxy as many charismatics. You don’t have to be a cessationist to avoid this drift, but you do have to make sure your understanding of the Holy Spirit is rigorously biblical. If it is, you will realize that the Holy Spirit’s mission in the world is to reveal the glory of the Son and to make those captivated by Christ’s glory more and more like Christ. This is the kind of pneumatology that sanctifies, because it does not neglect or diminish the third Person of the Trinity but nevertheless functionally centers on the second person of the Trinity.
The Spirit has been sent by the Father and Son to lead us into the truth of the Son, to testify to him (John 15:26). Some theologians for this reason refer to the Holy Spirit as the “shy” member of the Trinity—because he is occupied with shining the spotlight not on himself but on Christ. If your mysticism is preoccupied with Christian spirituality, don’t forget the centrality of the Christ in Christian. (This is something I explore more thoroughly in my new book on experiencing the Holy Spirit, Supernatural Power for Everyday People.)
3. Theologically exploratory but not innovative.
The things of the gospel are the deep things of God. This news is simple enough a child can understand and believe and be saved. And yet this news is so deep, so complex, so eternally rich that even angels long to gaze into it (1 Peter 1:12). Paul writes:
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments and untraceable his ways!
Because of this depth, because of these riches, because of this unsearchability, we will be exploring the wonders of God and his ways for endless days. And while we may discover things new to us, we will never discover things new. In other words, we are free to dive deep into the things of God—for the things of God are deep—but we are not free to invent them. We get to partake of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:3-4), for example, but, as Edwards says, we do not become “Godded with God.”
When we begin to discover truths, we must take care that our discoveries are not at odds with revealed Scripture and with the great tradition of orthodox creeds and confessions. The right kind of mystical Christian experience exercises the liberty of theological exploration without the heresies of theological entrepreneurialism. Behold the complexities of old ideas. Beware the conspiracy of new ones. (One of the best and oldest historic examples I can think of for this kind of Christian mysticism is the latter chapters of Augustine’s Confessions.)
4. Experiential but not emotionalistic.
What Christian mysticism is really concerned with is that our Christianity be experiential, not merely “notional.” It is in effect making Christian practical, applicational, lived-in. Only heretics (of a different kind) would deny that faith without works is dead (James 2:17). Therefore, the practice of the core Christian disciplines of Bible study, prayer, fasting, and service are indispensable to the normal Christian life. But the alarms that go off for many when they encounter the word “mysticism” in relation to Christianity are not entirely false. For one thing, so many who emphasize “works” in relation to “faith” often seem to position works over faith. Similarly, many emphasize the experience in such a way that it really amounts to the kind of sensuality the Bible forbids.
The sensuality forbidden us is not always in respect to sexuality; it is a larger category that mainly relates to an elevation of what is felt. In this way, many worship gatherings in evangelical churches every Sunday morning could be categorized as unbiblically sensual, even if there is ample God-talk in the songs. The Holy Spirit and the Christian doctrine he reveals are meant to fuel an experiential Christianity, yes, but they do not fuel a Christianity based on or beholden to what we feel. The way the psalmists exhibit the full range of human emotion and always come back in faith to propositional truth is ample demonstration enough.
To get personal for a moment, this is why I struggle so much to profit from the more modern authors most identified as mystics. They seem to explore without boundaries, contemplate without content, and emphasize experience over the evangel. I appreciate the artistry of many of these writers and thinkers. But much good we find in them is not original, and much original we find in them is not good. I much prefer the mysticism of many of the Puritans, for example, over the mysticism found among the Roman Catholics, Eastern Christians, and modern progressives.
The truth is, the true Christian life is rightly understood as a mystical experience. But we must take care that our mystical experience is ordered intentionally by true Christianity.