Theology and Mysticism

Once upon a time, there was no difference between theology and mysticism, just like there was no difference between philosophy and science. Science (“natural philosophy”) was an integral part of the quest for wisdom, just as mysticism (“ascetical theology”) was an integral part of the quest for wisdom of God.

Ken Wilber talks about how it was a good thing for humankind to reach the point where we were able to differentiate between “external” forms of wisdom (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.) and “internal” forms of wisdom (theology, mysticism, morals, etc.). The current mess we’re in (where religious thinking has been exiled from the scientific community, where fundamentalist Christians insist that the theory of evolution is “anti-God,” and where advances in technology are embraced often with little or no public debate about their moral or spiritual value), however, stems not from this necessary differentiation of different fields of human wisdom, but rather from their dissociation, as religion and science have basically been warring against one another in the west for at least the last three hundred years (a battle that, thanks to folks like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, we can see is still alive and well).

Perhaps mysticism and theology have suffered a similar fate. While their differentiation (a process that may have began as early as 500 CE with the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius, and was pretty much in place by the time John of the Cross rolled around a millennium later) was probably an important part of the unfolding of Christian wisdom, the subsequent dissociation of mysticism and theology (where theology has increasingly become abstract and arcane on the academic level, and concerned only with moral behavior on the popular level; meanwhile mysticism has retreated either into conservative devotionalism or liberal relativism, both marred by an appeal to emotional experience which subtly masks an anti-intellectual, anti-rational foundation) is, as in the case of the dissociation between science and religion, a disaster.

At its best, theology is like classical or Newtonian physics while mysticism is like modern or quantum physics. Neither one repudiates the other; they simply represent different fields of inquiry that hopefully complement one another and indeed can illuminate one another. We need mysticism grounded in theology, and theology grounded in mysticism. And this isn’t going to emerge from the pulpits or the universities. If the Holy Spirit wants to lead us into a re-integration of theology and mysticism, I suspect that such a re-integration will begin in the hearts and minds of ordinary people who are taking time to pray, to meditate, to contemplate, and to reflect on who they are and what their Christian vocation might be. We are all parts of the body of Christ, not just those of us who get paid to be. So let’s all start praying about how we can get the Body’s heart and head back in harmony with each other.

Seven Essential Thomas Merton Books
Beatrice of Nazareth: Seven Manners of Divine Love
Why Is "Mysticism" A Dirty Word?
Christian Mystics to Celebrate in 2015


  1. I’ve known people who can argue theology all day long and seldom pray. Heck, I used to be one! I am now learning to shut up and get on my knees (at least figuratively). Still interested in theology, but not the kind that isn’t rooted in experience of faith.

  2. I find myself a lot like Tom here. I have gone from majoring on theology to nearly tossing it out in a radical search for authentic spiritual experience.

    I have come back to a bit of a renewed interest in theology, too, but only in service to the spiritual realities of which it is at best only a commentary anyway. One way to sum up the conclusion to this is to say that theology can make a great servant of the life of prayer (experiential knowledge of God), but it makes a terrible and oppressive master–even “good” theology!

    Blessings to all,

  3. Jacquelyn Judd says:

    My opinion is that the answer to getting the head and heart on the same page is a third element: action. Seeking knowledge about God and spiritually seeking God propels one toward loving and serving God and one another.

  4. judith collier says:

    Who said “east is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet?” I don’t believe this is an absolute, but difficult for some.

Leave a Comment