One of my gripes with Phyllis Tickle’s book The Great Emergence is that she provides little or no insight into where she thinks the church is headed during this period of emergence. I think everyone kind of gets it that post-modernity is a hinge time, where we’re after something that no longer works (modernity) and we don’t really know yet what it is we’re before. (as an aside, I figure it’s either going to be a new renaissance that will make the 15th century look like a dress rehearsal, or else it could involve environmental devastation and resultant trauma on a scale never before imagined. And it all really boils down to how effectively we can curb our appetites!).
Okay, well, I can hardly whine about Tickle’s lack of forecasting, if I don’t do a bit of my own. So I’m working on a chapter in my book that will explore my conjectures about the future of Christian mysticism. This is utterly un-scientific: I am only basing my thoughts on what I have seen and read and intuited. So feel free to disagree — but if you do, please post a comment as to why. I’d be curious to hear what other contemplatives sense about where the Holy Spirit is leading us.
But for now, here are the seven characteristics that I (currently) believe will shape the future of Christian mysticism:
- Christian mysticism in the future will be increasingly Trinitarian. I believe the success of William Paul Young’s The Shack is at least partially due to its lovely presentation of the trinitarian nature of God. Obviously, the Blessed Trinity has always been central to Christian theology, but I believe its importance will only increase, as a healthy alternative to monism and dualism — both of which have dogged Christian spirituality for too long.
- Trinitarian Christian mysticism in the future will be essentially relational. “Flight of the alone to the alone” is lovely and poetic, but it is also Neoplatonic rather than Christian. Not to knock Neoplatonism, but in celebrating what is distinctive about Christian spirituality we need to recognize that the Trinity is foundationally relational, and therefore participation in the Trinity (our destiny as Christian mystics) doesn’t mean that we get to “be” God, but rather that we get to enter into the heart of God’s love. This is the ultimate game-changer that mysticism proclaims: through the saving work of Christ, we enter into the economy of Divine love, which transforms all of our relationships. That’s the kicker. In the future I see fewer hermits and more beloved communities as central to Christian spirituality. Likewise, I believe the mystics in the future will increasingly be on the front line of social justice issues — feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless, basically just being Christ present here on earth. Which leads to the next point…
- Christian mysticism in the future will be increasingly earthy. As nature-positive as Celtic and Franciscan spirituality are, I believe they are just precursors to where Christian spirituality will go. This is necessitated by the increasing realities of our environmental crisis, but also by the increasing understanding the mysticism is not about climbing to heaven, so much as about bringing heaven to earth. Mysticism will not reject the earth, but rather seek to heal and transform her. “The fullness of joy is to behold God in all,” proclaimed Julian of Norwich; and so Christian spirituality will foster joy by learning to see God present even in the density of our materiality.
- The future of Christian mysticism will hold apophatic and kataphatic spirituality in creative tension. This is a point of continuity with the tradition as a whole, for the greatest mystics have always appreciated both God’s immanence and God’s inscrutable mystery. God comes to us through images and yet images conceal God as much as they reveal him. God transcends all of our thoughts and concepts and imaginal representations of God, rendering God hidden in the cloud of unknowing. What I think will be new about the mysticism of the future is that, increasingly, all mystics will embrace the kataphatic/apophatic tension, rather than some mystics being more kataphatic while others are more apophatic. Blend Julian of Norwich and Pseudo-Dionysius together, and you’ll get the mystic of the future.
- Christian mysticism in the future will embrace interreligious wisdom. There has always been an interreligious dimension to Christian mysticism, from Clement of Alexandria’s engagement with Hellenic religion, Pseudo-Dionysius’s engagement with Neoplatonism, the early Celtic saints’ engagement with druidism, Luis de Leon’s engagement with Kabbalah, down to the twentieth century where Thomas Merton, Bede Griffiths, Swami Abhishiktananda, William Johnston, Anthony deMello, and others have all engaged in the great conversation between east and west. I think this will only grow and develop as the world gets smaller and the crises we face become increasingly shared on a global scale. I don’t believe Christianity will lose its identity into some sort of bland “world religion,” nor do I wish for that! But I do believe the wisdom of the Sufis, the Vedantists, the Buddhists, and others will inform and in some ways enlighten the path of the lovers of Christ.
- Christian mysticism in the future will embrace scientific knowledge and will celebrate its own evolutionary nature. As Thomas Merton was to the encounter between Christianity and Buddhism, so Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was to the encounter between Christianity and science. Today, Raimon Panikkar is an example of how creative a mystical embracing of science and religion can be. Science is our best defense against superstition and fundamentalism, and — as Ken WIlber shows — it is possible to understand a truly creative and dynamic relationship between the external mapping of scientific knowledge and the internal mapping of the mystical quest. Furthermore, science and religion need each other to address the towering problems facing us: saving the environment will require both a revolution in values and the fullest extent of our technical know-how.
- The future of Christian mysticism will be revealed to us through narrative and story, not just through abstract theology and philosophy. Jesus spoke in parables; the desert fathers and mothers as well as the Celtic saints left us vignettes full of spiritual wisdom. The best mystics have always been great storytellers, and this will continue. Postmodernity is the age where narrative wisdom is preferred to abstract philosophizing; forget the efforts to elucidate first principles, just tell me a story about who you are and why you’re you. As mysticism increasingly recognizes that it’s job is not to pontificate on the Truth-with-a-capital-T, but rather to shed light on the “inner truth” that is revealed to each and every one of us in our own unique ways, it will increasingly be a forum for shared stories, out of which shared understanding and communal values will emerge. As Christians, we don’t just jettison our faith in God as the author of absolute truth — but we recognize that our job, as contemplatives, is not to tell others what that truth might be, but rather to share with others our own flawed attempts to embrace that truth. When we combine all our off-key voices, somehow by the grace of God a heavenly choir is formed.
So there you have it. This isn’t the Bible and I’m not the pope, so none of this is carved in stone. But at least as of today, this is my best guess.
Let me know what you think.