Four Dimensions of Spirituality and Embracing the Mind of Christ

On my writer’s page at Facebook, my bio used to read like this:

Carl McColman is the author of 10 books on the spiritual life. Most of his works published before 2005 concern Pagan and Celtic spirituality. In 2005 he became a Catholic, and is now writing a book on Christian mysticism to be published in late 2010.

As of this morning, I have re-written it thusly:

Carl McColman blogs about Celtic, emergent, mystical, & contemplative spirituality at the Website of Unknowing ( He is the author of 10 books. The 11th, “The Big Book of Christian Mysticism,” will be published in August 2010.

I’ve done this for several reasons. First, I felt that, at least at this point in my journey, I am known more for this humble blog than for my even humbler books. Although my book sales are respectable enough, in any given month far more people read this blog than buy my books. So I wanted my Facebook blurb to represent me as a blogger first, booksmith second.

Then there is the minor matter of changing the anticipated pub date of The Big Book of Christian Mysticism from “late 2010″ to the more precise and accurate “August 2010.”

But the most important reason for my self-revisionism involves my growing unease with oppositional thinking, as well as an equally growing recognition that both my own spirituality and my vocation as a writer are shaped by four equal and very important dimensions of Christian experience.

First, the oppositional bit. My old bio made a big deal out of “he used to be a Pagan” and “now he’s a Catholic.” That’s because for the longest time, I’ve been making a big deal out of it myself. If you’re not familiar with After the Magic, read it and you’ll see how I’ve been wrestling with this shift in personal spiritual identity since about the spring of 2004. But in the last year, as I’ve begun working with the ideas of Richard Rohr (and continue to ponder Ken Wilber’s integral theory), I’ve become increasingly uneasy with what Rohr calls “oppositional thinking” — our all-too-human, but decidedly pre-mystical, tendency to see the world in dualistic, adversarial, right/wrong, good/bad, in/out ways. Yes, the oppositional mind has its uses — you need it in order to operate heavy machinery, for example — but much of the misery in our world comes from how we use dualistic thinking to exclude, marginalize, silence or oppress one another.

Last night I had an interesting dream, in which I was scheduled to give a public talk on my experience of converting from Paganism to Catholicism. I was prepared to have hecklers in the crowd who would harangue me for abandoning Paganism. But all the Pagans who showed up were very polite and respectful. However, there were a couple of hecklers — only they denounced me because I rejected the idea that the earth was flat! Quickly my talk veered away from Catholicism vs. Paganism and moved instead into the larger question of the relationship between faith and science (which means it probably ended up being a better talk; although since it was in a dream and I woke up before it was done, I couldn’t say). I think the point behind that dream is clear: if I persist in defining myself in oppositional ways, I’ll just keep drawing to myself people invested in dualistic consciousness, no matter how absurd their platform.

It has become increasingly evident to me that every time I rehearse my “I once was Pagan, but now am Papist” story line, I’m neither critiquing Paganism nor lauding Christianity — I’m just reinforcing oppositional thinking, both in myself and also quite possibly in my readers as well. This doesn’t mean that this story has changed (it hasn’t), nor does it mean that I’ll never talk about it again (I’m sure I will). I just don’t want it to be the way I publicly define myself anymore.

The other important change to my Facebook bio involves introducing these four descriptors: “Celtic, contemplative, emergent, and mystical.” I want to blog about this further, but I’ll need to do so on another day, perhaps after my editing is done by the middle of February. Basically, for now I’ll just say that I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about how my spiritual identity is shaped by the contemplative tradition (as exemplified by the Lay-Cistercian community where I am in formation), my Celtic heritage (of which I have written several books and which continues to inform much of my self-understanding as a Christian), my love for mysticism (primarily Christian mysticism, but extending into all the wisdom streams of the world) and the emergent conversation (which is primarily a Christian phenomenon, but which I believe also has significant interfaith implications and in any event signifies the unfolding of a truly loving, hospitable, justice-oriented, postmodern way of doing faith). I won’t go into how I see these four dimensions of spirituality working together just yet; I’ll save that for a future post. But let’s just say for now that I have become increasingly conscious recently of how each of these four dimensions contributes to shaping my spiritual identity, as well as my identity as a blogger and author. So it seemed to make sense to let these four descriptors define who I am, instead of my old (and dualistic) Pagan-to-Christian story.

I’m also introducing this same change to the “Welcome” widget here on the blog. As of yesterday, that widget read like this:

THE WEBSITE OF UNKNOWING ( is all about Christian mysticism, Celtic wisdom, interfaith spirituality, the emergent conversation, and assorted other topics.

But now here’s what it says:

THE WEBSITE OF UNKNOWING ( is all about Celtic, contemplative, emergent, and mystical spirituality, and assorted other topics.

Once again, I’m trying to remove the subtle oppositional energy — in this case, the “Christian/interfaith” duality — from my self-description. It’s not that I’m going to stop writing about these things; of course I’ll keep doing so. But the beautiful thing about Celtic, contemplative, emergent or mystical spiritualities is that each of these can be approached from either a Christian or an interfaith perspective. So, basically, I don’t need to beat the drum of “I’m a Christian who likes interfaith spirituality,” rather I can just let my writing speak for itself. Relaxing into that — and hoping/trusting that I can learn to write about both my faith and the wisdom of others in as non-dualistic a way as possible — simply feels good.

I’m sorry if this post seems self-indulgent; I’m hoping you’ll find it worth your while to read this because I think all of us can benefit from considering how dualistic or oppositional consciousness might be shaping even the very ways we think about ourselves or present ourselves to the world. As Peter Gabriel once sang, “How can we be ‘in,’ if there is no ‘outside’?” It’s a pervasive way of thinking. Catholic, Protestant; Christian, Pagan; mystical, non-mystical; orthodox, heretic; liberal, conservative; even dualistic, nondualistic: our egoic minds are always dividing the world into “in” and “out.” Mysticism represents a new way of seeing that blows those categories out of the water. I believe it’s the way of seeing that Christ preached, and what the Apostle Paul refers to as “the mind of Christ” when he says “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). In other words, let go of dualistic and oppositional consciousness and adopt the radically inclusive, lavishly loving, boundary-erasing mind that Jesus embodied, and that the great mystics embody as well. This is my faith, and my hope. But none of us are perfect, and so I have to be cognizant of the ways in which my thinking — and my writing — subtly undermine my own fidelity to the mind of Christ. I hope you’ll join me in our own self-examination, not as some sort of witch hunt (ooh, bad pun) but as a loving process of self-awareness that can lead to growth and healing.

Is Mysticism Genetic?
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
Pentecost and Ecstasy
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Amy

    Thanks, Carl, for bringing this very important factor to mind. It comes at a good time for me, as I myself have been pondering why we tend to categorize everything, from charity, to obedience, to humility to spirituality. You name it, we’ve categorized it. Yet, in the division or oppositional thinking as you call it, we oft lose sight of the one goal, the face to face encounter with the light. Maybe the truth that “God is one” has more to teach us than mere Trinitarian theology. Maybe the goal of the mystic is to become so conscious of the Divine as to see the whole rather than the parts (or divisions).

  • judith quinton

    This is EXACTLY what I needed this morning, as tomorrow I embark on a new journey of shared conversation, on a wider scale, with the world.

    I have been wrestling with how to conduct that conversation in an inclusive way that would not dilute my own stand as a Catholic Christian/mystic.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you…for being used by God to speak to me this day.

    This is very comforting as well as thought-provoking and I will be pondering how I should apply it, within my own special “brand.”

    Judith Jlo Quinton

  • claire

    Resisting oppositional, dualistic thinking… I like this, Carl, because it takes us away from simplistic, no middle ground discussions and toward the world as One.
    I sense that my Catholicism from birth has erased pretty much paganism from my surface memory. I need to dive into the depths of my being to contact other levels of spirituality. But luck has willed it that dissatisfaction with my own denomination has led me to explore other religions. I was going to write ‘embrace’, but this would be an exaggeration.
    I look forward to reading about your own explorations. For all its appeals, I know very little about Celtic spirituality — just a few names.
    For those who would be interested, WATER offers a tele-conference with Mary Condren on Brigit of Ireland, Spirit of Old Europe, on Feb 3. To register go to

  • Deb Pruitt

    NOW you’ve got my interest again, Carl! Thank you SO much for clarification about a dualistic way of thinking. I have searched for years for a comfortable way of thought that eases my weary spirit back to the Divine. I read Anam Chara until it was dog-eared and it was instrumental in helping me begin that journey, but I’ve wandered away in recent years.

    Reading this blog has re-invited me back into a gentle, all-encompassing, loving atmosphere into which I can sink and absorb without trying to dodge old memories of my strict Baptist upbringing.

    Thank you again, Carl. I admire your strength in bringing this ever so needed blending to light.

  • http://notyet Phil Soucheray


    This was my first visit to your blog. Lots of it resonates. I’m 56, Irish by heritage, Catholic by birth and by choice in adulthood, and I am striving to explore notions of spirituality that go beyond the oppositional norms that have tended to be reinforced for thousands of years by various religious constructs — whatever there genesis. The anthropology of spirituality intrigues me.

    Now that I’ve found you, I’m excited to read more and to share in your ongoing exploration.

    While scientific humanity pushes the boundaries of what we know about the universe around us (and I stand in amazement of what is discovered), I am lured by the trek in search of the soul sensing that the two illuminate each other.

    God’s speed.

  • trev

    I LOVE this “new” expression. (I really don’t think it’s altogether new for you, I think you just needed some time to integrate it.) It’s the direction I’m moving myself, from the opposite side: I’m a Celtic former Christian who became a Pagan, but who still sees the value of the deeper Christian revelations and welcomes the company of anyone who is caught up in the Mystery….

    Thank you, as always.

  • Brother Don

    Hate to bust your bubble, dear brother. most of those hits are mine, I was trying to get your score up :-). Ever since you introduced me to that blog site. And yes, I am crossing my fingers as I write this LOL.
    And frankly, I do not see any problem with oppositional thinking, as long as you are not losing any arguments with yourself.
    But I agree with how you define yourself, and I understand that part of yourself. But then again, I have known for years that the contemplative tradition is a significant part of you, even when you called meditation, prayer or yoga (OK I made that up).

  • Cait Finnegan


    How the Grace, the Life of God, is running through our mutual stream! So much of what you share in this blog is similar to my own personal journey. How wonderful to put it into words for people to hear and share and chew on.

    I sense something wonderful.


  • Ken

    Hello Carl, much to be found here again. I think it’s not a self-indulgent post at all – very interesting in terms of identity, how we try to make sense of ourselves on our path. We all have to reconcile opposites in ourselves, some of us more, some less.

    What comes to mind is the term “unity in diversity”, a nice short-hand for integral, but also for contemplative / mystical approaches. There’s a danger in overvaluing one of both sides. Overvaluing diversity can lead to a point where understanding seems impossible due to our differences – one of the downsides of postmodern fragmentation. On the other hand, many spiritual teachings overvalue unity / non-duality which then becomes a subtle or not so subtle oppression of our contrariness and diversity, both within and between ourselves.

    There is an understandable longing to bridge our differences in these postmodern days, but in Robert Master’s words: “Why let our recognition of our innate unity of Being separate us from our differences?”. He wrote an excellent essay on the relation between the dualistic and the non-dual, which one can read here:

    Best regards,

  • Gary Snead

    I think it is not self-indulgent at all. Actually it comes across to me as a living example of your topic. You are moving to being, living your path and not dualistic as an individual who is writing about something. Now writing about yourself is writing about your path, the thoughts you have while on the path, and writing about the path is writing about you.
    My pastor gave a sermon today about the 2 lost sons, some recognize as the parable of the prodigal son. His point was a way of saying what you are saying about eliminating dualistic thinking. The older brother was just as lost, just as insulting of and rejecting of the father as the younger. He was complaining that he was ‘right’, followed the rules, and the younger ‘rule-breaker’ was being loved, shutting out the father’s love that was available to him also. He wouldn’t see how they could all love each other as a family.

  • Carl McColman

    You’re pastor’s sermon is right on the money, Gary. We nice respectable church-going Christians all too often play the role of the elder brother. We are so secure in our relationship with God, and yet we demand that others must conform to our way of doing faith — or else we dismiss them as heretics or schismatics or worse.

    The prodigal father (another name I’ve heard for the parable) is truly the master of the non-oppositional mind. He simply loves his sons, and is so eager to be in relationship with them. He doesn’t even give the younger son a chance to make his confession! Just the fact that he came back was enough.

    Would that we could all experience God’s grace so fully — and trust in how that grace is so freely available to others, even those who don’t fit our “mold” for being a Christian.

  • Gary Snead

    Exactly. I like the title prodigal father. As the pastor explained, prodigal can mean not just excessively, recklessly extravagant living but expending it all. He divided up his property among the brothers, ‘among them’ the NIV says, giving everything away, and tried to lavish his love on both brothers. The pastor also said we, like the pharisees, often must confess our sin of doing or being good when the motivation is to earn God’s love or to be noticed, rewarded, to separate us from the rest of the sinners by our moral conformity. The younger son was exercising self-discovery but in a way that rejected access to the father, to the source of love, so more of a selfish journey, ‘I’ll find my own way’. He said he got the ideas from Pastor Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, NY City. The unified end for each of us is that we are to be melted and moved by what it cost to bring us home. We are to offer the gospel, that we each are accepted by God because of Jesus, and not offer ‘older brotherhood’ (earn this by doing and being a certain way). The hymn that came to mind at the end was “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling…”

  • Infinite Warrior

    the emergent conversation (which is primarily a Christian phenomenon….)

    Happily, it isn’t. Rather, it appears to be an all-pervasive phenomenon, which I’ve described inadequately in the past as an inversion of Consciousness.

    The nature of consciousness has become a hot topic of debate among the more philosophically/scientifically-minded in fields as diverse as biology, ecology, psychology and quantum physics, et al. The dialogue is still incredibly centristic, which is to say, practitioners (again, for want of a better term) of each discipline seem to believe theirs holds THE key to everything when they all appear to be using different metaphors to describe the same thing.

    With the interiors of all these disciplines stirring at once, what’s happening seems to me very clear: a paradigm shift is occurring in which the peoples of the world, if not our institutions as yet, are slowly but surely trading in our misguided, brain-centered awareness/consciousness for a heart-centered one, which is all Aurobindo’s “supramental consciousness” means to me.

    The one statement I’ve heard that sticks with me (and I believe I can credit Deepak Chopra for the first hearing of this one, though he’s not the only person saying it) is that our very thoughts are not our own. This is fully in keeping with Essene/Nazarene teachings regarding the “thinking body“, which is equated with wisdom in this contemporary interpretation of the Essene way of life.

    Personally, I think Jesus’ life and teachings as well as a very few others was a supreme example of a near-to if not perfect alignment with this principle of a “Cosmic thinking body” and the biblical episode in which it is most apparent is the famous stone-throwing incident of John 8:7. Nearly every exegesis of this passage I’ve ever read says that when Jesus stooped to draw in the sand, he was thinking, but I really don’t think he was. Rather, I believe he was patiently waiting…for the perfect answer to arrive of its own accord. Call it “contemplation”; call it “meditation”; call it “blank slate” or “empty mirror”. Call it what we will, and I will believe that what Jesus was engaged in at that moment was not thinking, but an emptying of any and all traces of self.

    The “Cosmic Christ” in Rohr’s terms is a mind, heart and will perfectly in tune with the very real vibrations of a Universal Consciousness expressed in multiple forms, imho. That all these forms are slowly engaging in dialogue with each other is something I find both mysterious and exciting.

  • judith quinton

    AMEN on the “mysterious, exciting” part, Infinite Warrior!!!

  • TLH

    TBTG I found this page.

    This is precisely where I’m at right now.

    :bear-hugs Carl:

    Sometimes I hang out with Unitarian Universalists, as they seem very “interfaith” friendly.

    But I also love receiving Holy Eucharist as well, and thus I hang out with Episcopalians!

    It’s funny how it all works out in the end.
    :D :D :D

  • raymondsigrist

    — Carl writes: “I’m just reinforcing oppositional thinking, both in myself and also quite possibly in my readers as well.”

    Well said. When we treat the question of oppositional thinking, I am reminded of a mystical dynamic which was first clearly expressed by some ancient daoist mystics. One of them was Zhuangzi. Zhuangzi sensed that he could not embody the dao (ti dao 體 道) if he ruled out the validity of anything anyone else said to him. That degree of ego purgation is one which very few of us have accomplished; few of us have realized optimal spiritual poverty. I certainly have not. I best achieve that aim, because without it I have not even arrived at the mystical threshold. Across that threshold lies “the truth that sets one free,” the secrets of unconditional love.

  • Luke

    Dear Carl,

    My spirit is moved by the words you selcted from Paul. I am not a mystic, at least I don’t think so, but I loved John as you did as well. I am dedicated to living in the word everyday, being in the space of Christ and the Holy Spirit inspired word. I have begun to leave the land of the law knowing that I am already home with Christ though my body is still here on earth for me to be a light unto any and all who come into my sphere. There is nothing to do but be that spirit and live in the mind of Christ. My journey has been pot marked with my worldly desires and actions but today it is different but the same.