A Conversation about Mysticism

Yesterday Google Alerts brought to my attention a new blog called Are There No More Idols? Is There No Place Left to Hide? The Time is Near! The inaugural post on this blog, by a woman named Diane, attacks Rob Bell because of his advocacy of mysticism.

Now normally when I come across an anti-mysticism blog I might spend a few minutes looking at it to see if there are any new arguments arising from that camp (I’ve yet to find anything beyond the standard anti-Catholic or anti-Eastern rhetoric, but I keep looking just in case). Typically I don’t bother to leave a comment, but because this particular blog was brand new, I felt led to voice my disagreement (I tried to be polite, although I did tell the blogger I thought her post “reveals how little you know about the authentic tradition of Christian mysticism” — guess I need to take a charm school refresher course).

Well, today she responded to my comment, not so much in terms of responding to anything I said but by expressing more of her thoughts about why she felt mysticism is un-Christian (and yes, she was more polite than I was). Even though we’re basically having a debate, I’m enjoying the opportunity to dialogue with someone whose views are radically unlike my own. If anyone would like to pitch in, please follow this link to see where the conversation is headed; or you can read my most recent comment on Diane’s blog, copied in full here:

Diane, thanks for being both honest and respectful in expressing your opinions and your response to my last comment. I hope that in the light of the Holy Spirit we both can learn from each other. Now, in response to your most recent post…

Carl…. think on this- mysticism is “works”. We are not saved by works. A mystic could boast about his direct connection to God. This is wrong, we are saved by Gods mercy and grace.

As the Letter of James reminds us, “faith without works is dead.” I think it’s vitally important that we Christians recognize that, while works can never earn us salvation, they are an essential part of the life of faith. To the best of my knowledge, no mystic claims that his or her mystical experience earns or causes salvation. Part of the nature of true Christian mysticism is that it is a response to the grace of God in Christ. When I choose to devote time every morning to silent prayer in which I wordlessly adore the risen Christ, I do not do this to prove anything to God (or anyone else). It is simply an act of love.

Now, I am not a mystic. But if I am willing to do “works” as a way of responding to God’s love in my life, why would I criticize mystics, whose experience of the loving presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives is so much greater and more profound than my own?

As far as a mystic boasting, can you give me an example? I’ve never heard of a mystic bragging on his or her relationship with God. On the contrary, most mystics seem to be deeply and profoundly humbled by their experience of God’s loving presence in their lives, and they are clear that such experiences are given to them in order that they might be strengthened to be better servants of God (and of the Body of Christ). Here is what one mystic, the fourteenth century visionary Julian of Norwich, had to say about her mystical experiences, which she called “showings”:

“Receiving the showing doesn’t make me a good person, unless I love God better as a result. And to the degree that you, my reader, love God better than I do as a result of my showing, it has been more profitable to you than to me!” (Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, chapter 9)

Is that bragging? Not hardly. On the contrary, it is truly humble recognition that the point of life — including the mystical life — is to love and glorify God.

Once a person is saved he is a new creature in Christ and worshiping God is done in spirit and in truth. This is very different than mysticism. I have been lead by the spirit of God speaking to me, I have had visions, I have had dreams, This may seem mystical but it is not, it is spiritual. It is NOTHING like the Catholic mystics, or eastern mysticism. There is little or no unity with the word of God (the Bible) with Catholic mysticism or eastern mysticism.

First of all, there is a huge, staggering difference between Catholic and eastern mysticism. So I really object to you lumping them together.

Catholic mysticism is deeply grounded in the Holy Bible. Some of the greatest mystics in history, like Gregory of Nyssa, Bernard of Clairvaux, Augustine, and Origen were gifted preachers who regularly expounded in the scripture through sermons and educational writings. The earliest mystics drew their teachings from the Bible, particularly from the Psalms, the Song of Songs, Exodus, the Gospel of John, and the writings of Paul (especially Colossians and your own favorite, Ephesians!). Christian mysticism is fully grounded in scripture. In fact, in my blog I recently called the third chapter of Ephesians the “charter of Christian mysticism” since it so profoundly lays out the central teachings of mystical theology.

I think it’s a real mistake to confuse eastern spirituality, which is self-focussed and monistic, with Christian mysticism (whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant — yes, there have been many wonderful Protestant mystics!) which is deeply Christ-centered and Trinitarian.

In fact it opposes the Bible and Jesus Christ. Spend some time reading the Bible and see what Paul and Jesus had to say on salvation and reconciliation and union to God.

I don’t mean to be rude, but in response to this final statement of yours, all I can say is, “Prove it. Provide a quotation to show how Christian mystics oppose the Bible. Show me an instance where Christian mystics have opposed Jesus Christ. Don’t quote me what someone who is hostile about mysticism says. Go direct to the source. Find an actual quote from a real mystic who says ‘I oppose the Bible’ or ‘I oppose Christ.’” Frankly, I know you’ll never find such a quote, because it doesn’t exist. Christian mystics love Jesus, love him dearly, and would never want to offend him or disappoint him in any way.

Now, I recognize that the sad divisions between Protestantism and Catholicism are vast and almost insurmountable. So I understand that you may object to some things that Catholic mystics say or believe because it is in opposition to your beliefs as a Protestant. I’m just asking you to recognize that disagreeing with Catholic mystics just because they are good Catholics does not amount to a valid criticism of mysticism. There is a difference between Catholicism and mysticism (like I said, there have been many Protestant mystics over the past 500 years, including George Fox, John Donne, George Herbert, Jonathan Edwards, A. W. Tozer, Dag Hammarskjold, and Howard Thurman, to name just a few). Maybe if you became more familiar with some of the Protestant mystics, you’d learn to see the beauty in Christian mysticism!

Diane, I am confident that you love the Lord and want to do your part as a Christian to live a life pleasing to Him. All I ask is that you recognize that the great Christian mystics throughout history share your faith, even if you might disagree with them on some finer points of theology.

Incidentally, Diane, just so you know: I am also cross-posting this comment on my own blog (which as you can imagine is a blog devoted to Christian mysticism) located at www.anamchara.com. I hope you’ll drop by and please feel free to leave a comment on anything I’ve written.

God bless you -

Carl

  • Peter

    Carl, you are doing well here: keep it up!

    Just one corrective or point of disagreement here: you “am” too a mystic, by any definition I can think of or cook up–by your definition or mine as well!

    And by the way (shhh! don’t let anyone hear this!) I am pretty confident that by these same definitions our dear Diane here is a mystic too! To quote her: “Worshiping God in spirit and in truth…being led by the Spirit of God speaking to me…having dreams and visions…”–what are these if not the daily meat and drink of the mystical experience? If I am right, this reduces her fine logical arguments to mere semantics, and exposes her motive as the very kind of fear which her loving Jesus came to save her from!

    In other words, I am afraid it may be just the TERM “mysticism” that she is so worried about, a matter of mere smoke and mirrors….

    Keep up the good work.

    In the interest of continuing the conversation,
    Peter

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Thanks, Peter, for your lovely compliment.

    I certainly aspire to be available to God and to live a mystical life. However, I simply believe it is inappropriate for one to call oneself a mystic — even in the privacy of one’s own thoughts. I’m happy enough being known as a “student of” or “aspirant of” or even “spokesperson for” mysticism.

    Having said that, I also agree with William McNamara, OCDS, who declares “a mystic is not a special kind of person; each person is a special kind of mystic.”

    And I totally agree, Diane sounds like she is quite a wonderful mystic herself. Sorry she is confused by a non-existent distinction between “mysticism” and “spirituality.”

  • Peter

    Semantics is a nasty snake that can easily turn on itself and bite its own tail.

    For example, if we “DEFINE” mysticism as “a FALSE way of using FALSE methods to seek a FALSE sense of union with a FALSE god or divine force”–well, there’s no point in pointing out my point here!

    On the other hand, if we define mysticism more generically, to include various forms of seeking union with the divine, including various methods of contemplation and other spritual disciplines–then Yes, there is still need for the kind of caution that Diane is putting forward here: after all, there ARE a lot of false and harmful gods and religious potholes and landmines out there, and the Holy Spirit gifts of discernment are in fact needed now more than ever in the Church. But I share your sadness and disappointment that such a righteous fire of indignation and purification would be aimed against the very allies that could be most helpful and supportive of Diane’s quest for true Christian spiritual life and experience, the experience of the joy of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

    Diane–I don’t mean to just be talking “about” you (in the third person) to Carl. I bless your desire to protect the sheep from false doctrine and keep them in the love of God in Christ. I am sorry that this problem of the definition of terms is keeping you from recognizing the friends you have both in history and in today’s church whose fiery devotion to Jesus has come under the unfortunate heading of the term “mysticism.” If getting rid of the term would help, I suggest that you re-visit these saints and their writing and thinking without the use of that word, just as Carl has graciously and humbly declined the label for himself. And when you suggest that Carl re-visit the writings and sayings of Paul and the other Apostles and Jesus Himself, may I remind you that these have been called (rightly, in my opinion) the greatest mystics of all time…

    Yours in the blessed service of the Lord Jesus,
    Peter

    Maybe I can copy this to Diane’s post as well….

  • http://frimmin.com Jon

    I’m with Peter on this, Carl. Yes, you ARE a mystic. There’s nothing “special” about being a mystic using the word isn’t claiming to have a unique knowledge of God … The one who makes him/herself open to the direct experience of God (or even who wants to) is a mystic as much as someone who lives in a state of constant experiential presence.

    I like Matthew Fox’s statement that all children are born mystics… Non-mysticism is what’s learned, not mysticism.

  • http://wildfaith.blogspot.com/ Darrell Grizzle

    Jon’s right: Carl is a mystic, and so is Peter, and so is Jon. Thanks for reminding me of that great Matthew Fox quote, Jon!

  • Glenn Schoen

    How might the Lord’s commandments be abided by without the performance of works? How can we, e.g., love the neighbor and simulataneously refrain from works? Works are necessary, though not sufficient, and the notion that works are unnecessary flies in the face of the fact that we are to follow the Lord’s commandments, the doing of which involves works.

    Also, while efforts and endeavors to bring about or increase the likelihood of a mystical experience might be construed as works, mystical experiences themselves are passive and cannot be legitimately classified as works.

    Lastly, I very much agree with the (modified) statement that, “Part of the nature of [a] true Christian [mystical experience] is that it is a response to the grace of God in Christ.”

    Thank you.

  • http://iamapoem.blogspot.com/ Diane

    Carl,
    Hello, my blogger friend! You are very interesting. I’m beginning to think you love mystics more than you love God. God says that if you love Him you will obey Him. God offers only one way to have access to Him and that is through Jesus Christ. A mystic has no mediator so therefore there is no real connection to God. Anything they think they are getting from God is either their imagination or a demonic influence.

    A mystic longs for significance and they feel that their union with God gives them this “specialness”. Oh, they don’t admit that of course because they have a false humility. They really believe they are the “special children of God to whom God reveals knowledge to and that other people are just not spiritual enough or haven’t evolved enough.”

    You said you only responded to my blog because it was new. But, I wonder what I said that struck a chord with you to the degree that you felt you must put me in my place (posting on your blog for all to see “the ignorant mommy” talking about mysticism). I wonder how long I will have your attention… The only real way to peace with God is by faith in Jesus, my friend (Romans 5). A mystic has little peace. They are constantly scraping and searching for something, anything mystical or exciting from God. They long for the experience rather than for God. I should know, I was deceived and have personal experience with “Christian” mysticism.

    I believe we (you and I) need to define what a mystic is. If one would call a believer who through faith in Jesus Christ receives the indwelling Holy Spirit and then walks in the light and truth of His leading (being led, convicted, taught, and comforted by the Holy Spirit) a mystic, then all born again believers in Jesus Christ would be mystics. Yes, it is sort of mystical, but that in no way is the mysticism of, say, the desert fathers. They believed they could gain righteousness by being isolated and silent. They believed they would become the spiritual elite after having had many years of this desert practice. After becoming elite, they believed they could then share the “knowledge” they had gained while in the desert with the common folk. Neither of these examples are the mysticism promoted by Ken Wilber who worships false gods and is simply a deceived man.

    A faithful believer accepts God’s terms for communication with Him. They are truly humble and wait on God to lead, reveal, and edify. They do not sit around like spoiled children and demand that God reveal the secrets of Himself (secrets = occult) or “special” knowledge of Himself (knowledge = gnosticism) because of THEIR will. These people are looking for secret knowledge of God not already revealed to all believers through God’s Word. It is through Jesus Christ that people can have all of the spiritual blessings available.

    Carl, what are you missing that is causing you to spend your life on mysticism? These mystics do not have what you are looking for. You can only find what you are looking for through faith in Jesus and after that in obedience to His Holy Spirit. Examine your heart and see if there be any wicked way in it and repent and have faith (Romans 8). I believe that the only reason you are entertaining my writing is because the Lord Jesus Christ is softening your heart and trying to get through all the mystics in His way in order to draw you to Himself. Carl, turn away from the mystics. You don’t need them for a life of contentment, faith, hope, love, and joy in Jesus Christ.

    I care, your blogger friend Diane. :)

  • Pingback: The Conversation Continues… « The Website of Unknowing

  • Sonia

    Dear Carl,

    I’m a spanish student of theologi (Teresiamun- Rome), sorry, I can’t explain me better in english.
    The world of mystics it’s my love.

    I would like to know where Is this frase of William McNamara: “a mystic is not a special kind of person; each person is a special kind of mystic.” I need to find it.
    If it’s possible to send me an email with this answer.
    If you have more information about it these frase I will be happy to hear it.

    Thank you for your Kindness, and i will wait your answer (madresonia2001 @ yahoo.es)

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Dear Sonia, thank you for your message and your English is fine! As I’m sure you can tell from my website, the world of the mystics is my love, too.

    The quotation from William McNamara may be found on page ix of his book Earthy Mysticism: Contemplation and the Life of Passionate Presence (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1987). If you follow the link it will take you to the USA site of Amazon where you can purchase a used copy very inexpensively.

    Incidentally, the exact quote is: “The mystic is not a special kind of person; every person is a special kind of mystic.” McNamara goes on to say, “The mystic is one who consciously and thoroughly immerses himself in the mystery of life and enjoys communion with ultimate Being.”

    Many blessings,
    Carl

  • http://www.myfathershouse.squarespace.com A Christian

    I happened upon this blog post today while doing some research. I would like to invite you to view my articles opposed to mysticism, as I hope, at least I have endeavored, to have taken a unique approach on the subject.

    I would love, love to dialog with you.

    Sincerely,

    A Christian

    http://myfathershouse.squarespace.com/journal/2013/5/5/violent-mystics-part-1-of-3.html


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