Natural Mysticism and “The Genuine Article”

A reader writes:

Hi Carl, I have gathered that Christian mystics distinguish between ‘natural mysticism’ and what they see as the genuine article. However I am unclear on the difference. In addition I wonder how this critique maps onto mysticism in other traditions – does it amount to anything more than faith or belief in the necessity of orthodox Christian doctrine as the ‘skeleton’ of practice?

Thanks for a great question, and I’m sorry that for now I can only give the briefest of replies (today is a retreat day for me, and I have to leave for the monastery in a few minutes). But perhaps a few initial thoughts can spark further reflection and discussion.

First of all, natural mysticism — experiences of union with God’s creation — is a good and authentic form of mysticism. So I dispute your idea that Christian mystics don’t see it as “genuine.” Granted, some voices in the Christian tradition (Thomas à Kempis leaps to mind) over-emphasize the distinction between the world, which is seen as fallen and bad, and heaven or the realm of the Spirit, seen as holy and good and worthy of our aspiration. This kind of thinking, which to me smacks of Manichaeism and the worst forms of Neoplatonism or dualistic gnosticism, is really a distortion of Christian orthodoxy, which has always insisted that nature, while fallen, is good. Since nature is good, nature mysticism is likewise good — a gift to us from God.

Still, if Christians draw a distinction between nature mysticism and God mysticism, how are we to understand this today? I think a helpful guide from outside the Christian tradition here is Ken Wilber, the Integral theorist. Wilber, in his book Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, identifies not two, but four, distinct dimensions of mysticism, which he labels as: Nature mysticism, Deity mysticism, Formless mysticism, and Nondual mysticism.

At the rist of oversimplifying not only Wilber but the entire sweep of mystical wisdom, I’ll just briefly define these as follows:

  • Nature mysticism — the experience/recognition of basic oneness with the cosmos;
  • Deity mysticism — the experience/recognition of basic union or communion with God (or with the god/gods of your particular wisdom tradition);
  • Formless mysticism — the experience/recognition of basic union with what the Christian tradition has recognized as the ineffable or apophatic reality beyond all images or concepts of God;
  • Nondual mysticism — finally, the dropping away of all distinctions between “self” and “nature,” or “self” and “God” or even “mysticism” and “non-mysticism.”

Now, we could get into the distinctions, found among some classical Christian mystics and contemplatives, between acquired or infused forms of contemplation — the idea being that acquired experiences are directed by one’s own intentionality, whereas the infused dimension is entirely a gift of grace. I’m not sure how useful this distinction is, however. I think we need to remember that everything is grace — even those practices or experiences that we initiate ourselves. Meanwhile, although it’s helpful to remember that any experience of the mystery ultimate does come from God rather than from our own mastery or control of our spiritual lives, I’m not sure that this distinction helps us to understand the distinction between natural and so-called supernatural mysticism. The risk, which I think my reader has alluded to, is the idea that natural of acquired mysticism is somehow “not the genuine article” or inferior to supernatural, Deity-focused mysticism. But I think it’s a difference not of kind, but of degree.

I do think it is a natural thing for human beings to experience a sense of ineffable unity with the sky, or with the mountains or the ocean, or even a tulip growing alongside a city street. But I don’t think that makes such mysticism second-rate. Rather, I think we can see it as a celebration of God’s good creation, given to us freely and lavishly by God, which functions as a sort of preparation for the more deeply transformational experiences of union or communion with God — which, in turn, prepares us to enter into the cloud of unknowing, the dark night of the soul, wherein even our images and concepts of God are stripped away, as we are plunged deeper and deeper into the mystery.

Look at it this way: the levels of consciousness that a four year old or a ten year old experiences is different than that attained by a sixteen year old, or for that matter, a sixty year old. But it doesn’t make the younger consciousness inferior or “not the genuine article.” It’s just exactly where the youngster needs to be on his or her life journey. Of course, in terms of spirituality, I can still be a “four year old” spiritually even when I’m a seventy year old physically — and vice versa. That’s part of the mystery of it all.

I don’t know that I’ve fully answered my reader’s question, particularly in regard to how Christian mysticism “maps” into other traditions (I think Wilber is helpful here) or if Christian dogma is necessary for Christian mysticism (short answer: yes. But Christian dogma is not necessary for mysticism in the wider sense of the word). Hopefully, though, this is a start.

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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.

  • nemo235

    I dissagree with the statement that dogma is neccesary for christian mysicism. I think it’s just the opposite, I believe that religious dogma is detrimental to Christian mysticism. I think that manmade religious rules get in the way of directly experiencing god.

  • zoecarnate

    Sure, nemo, but which God are you directly experiencing? My guess is that it’s one formed by your understandings of Christian dogma. Now granted, there’s a lot there we need to unlearn! But Christians, Jews, and Muslims – unlike the East – value our stories, narratives, and histories as a kind of revelation, telling the truth about God. The experiences of our forbears (and even the enlightened speculation of the better of our theologians) guides Christian mystics as much as our personal experience. At least, that’s been my experience. :)

  • nemo235

    you got me on that one

  • Kyoshin

    Hi Carl, Thank you for taking the time to respond at length to my question.

    I dispute your idea that Christian mystics don’t see it as “genuine.”

    For the record the view I stated is not mine but my interpretation of a position found in the writings of people such as Ruusbroec. Of course my reading of their critique may well be wrong!

    “First of all, natural mysticism — experiences of union with God’s creation — is a good and authentic form of mysticism.”

    I thought that the term “natural mysticism” referred to the spontaneity of the experience, self-arising outside of religious structures if you like, rather than to ‘nature’ or ‘creation’. Ruusbroec and others seem to argue that such mysticism goes astray unless it is placed within the container of Christian doctrine. I understand that a ‘skeleton’ is needed but I am not clear on the case for why the Christian framework should be priviledged in this regard. Then perhaps you don’t think it should?

  • Carl McColman

    No, I don’t believe that Christian mysticism deserves privilege, but I’ll grant that many Christians throughout history (including Ruusbroec) would have insisted that Christian wisdom is indeed the “only” or “best” path to God. Again, following Wilber, this goes back to a certain level of consciousness that is tribally-driven. “My tribe has the truth, and all other tribes are going to hell.” Certainly, this way of thinking is not unique to Christianity, but to the extent that it is seen as emblematic of Christianity, it does make Christianity appear to be a chauvinistic faith. I think that it is important to view the entire sweep of the history of Christian mysticism in the light of some of its most visionary voices of the last century, including Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Merton, Bede Griffiths, Swami Abhishiktananda, and Raimon Panikkar. They offer us insight into the beauty and splendor of Christian mysticism that does not require tribal chauvinism as part of its identity.

    As for “natural mysticism” referring to mysticism outside of religious structures, I think you’re right, but then the question arises: to what object does such an irreligious mysticism lead to (comm)union? Here I think Wilber’s definitions of the levels of mysticism are helpful. I don’t think it’s hard and fast that “nature mysticism leads to communion with nature” whereas “deity mysticism leads to communion with God” or whatever. I suppose we could argue that experiences of union/communion will always be conditioned by the structure of our language, values, community, etc. (Wilber would certainly say as much). Thus, a “nature mysticism” might have a god-element, if the person experiencing such a comm/union was engaging in God-talk. But my sense is that, generally speaking, God-mysticism requires some sort of religious structure.

  • Brian Doyle

    Japanese Zen Buddhism uses the terms kensho and satori to describe awakening. The former is said to be the “first perception of the Buddha-Nature,” while the latter refers to a more “deep or lasting realization of the nature of existence.” (See:

    If we consider the question in light of the Christian parable of bearing fruit, I would suggest that, rather than what we are experiencing, natural mysticism may differ from other forms simply in regards to our own understanding and how we relate our experience(s) to ethical conduct and to wisdom. Like a seed scorched by the sun or eaten by birds, a person can have a blissful moment of mystical union yet not translate that experience into enduring transformative practice.

    Within the scope of Christianity, this may explain the value of doctrine. In an interfaith context, I think we can simply affirm the notion that discipleship involves more than mind-bending experiences.