Practical Theology: Sounds Like Mysticism

We got the authors of three recent books of practical theology together and asked them to bang their ideas around to see what interesting overlaps and contrasts emerged. Andrew Root of Luther Seminary recently wrote Christopraxis: A Practical Theology of the Cross. Mark Van Steenwyk, founder of the Mennonite Worke Community, wrote The UNkingdom of God: Embracing the Subversive Power of Repentance. The guys from Two Friars and a Fool, Aric Clark, Doug Hagler, and Nick Larson wrote Never Pray Again: Lift Your Head, Unfold Your Hands, and Get to Work.

by Mark Van Steenwyk

Andrew’s book, Christopraxis, begins with a deeply human story of a little boy (Andrew) who encounters friendship, death, abandonment, and God. If I were a powerful wizard, I would cast a spell that forces all theologians to begin their works with similar vulnerability.

Andrew tells the story of the death of a childhood friend, his first friend, to cancer. Shortly thereafter, Andrew’s family moved to a new home. His new home was next door to an open foundation–essentially an open pit. The story of Andrew and the Pit is deliciously existentialist. The pit–which coincidentally occupied the same relative space to Andrew’s new home as did his dead friend’s house in his old home–had become for young Andrew a manifestation of the void. And like any good little existentialist, one evening, Andrew fell into the void.

Andrew desperately cried out to God in the void. And then God came to him. I don’t want to ruin the story by telling exactly how it ends; it is enough to say that in the midst of the void, Jesus came to Andrew and Andrew was never the same again.

In my own book, I tell the story of my own mystical encounter during a time in my life when I was caring for my dying mother. There are some striking similarities between our two accounts…dealing with the death of a loved one, a feeling of abandonment, entering the void…and then, in the midst of the void, the palpable experience of a God who says “I am here.”

There is, indeed, a tension between Andrew’s assertion that experiences like his must be at the center of practical theological reflection and the assertion from the folks at Two Friars and a Fool  “that vertical or ‘mystical’ experiences often serve to distract from love of neighbor.” They admit that this isn’t necessarily the case, but contention is that mystical experiences usually serve to draw us closer to one another.

Of course, I’d be the first to admit that most claims of mystical experience are bullshit.

In the unKingdom of God, I describe mysticism this way:

The stripping away of layers—the collapsing of spiritual distance—can happen in all kinds of ways. Some mystics encounter God alone in their room. But others experience the presence of God in the face of a stranger. Still others encounter God in nature. In all of these experiences, mysticism isn’t otherworldly. It is about encountering the living God wherever God may be. Mysticism collapses the distance between a person and God, between people, and between a person and the rest of creation. At its best, mysticism points towards a life free from abstraction, where you simply see what is.

Because of this, many mystical movements have been on the forefront of social justice. Mystics often see beyond the myths of their society and, in refusing the power of those myths, are able to embody lives of justice…Their experiences threaten to invalidate or destroy the structures and layers that the establishment clings to for its survival. So, when I use the word mystic, I mean ‘those people who see the world with spiritual eyes and, therefore, see things for what they truly are.’

My disagreement with the “fools” may seem merely semantic. They suggest that mystical experiences usually distract from flesh-and-blood realities. I assert that mystical experiences usually drive us deeper into flesh-and-blood reality. However, I probably have a much stricter set of criteria for determining whether or not an experience is properly “mystical.” And so, in the end, the fools and I would probably come to a similar conclusion: when an experience propels us to love our neighbors (or care for the earth), it was an experience worth having.

However, they seem to think that we can learn to love our neighbors apart from mystical experience…that such experiences are tangential to the work at hand. My contention is that our minds are so wrapped up in the twisted mythologies of Empire that we need mystical experiences to cut through the crap so we can experience real life.

Interestingly, I see Never Pray Again advocating just that…it functions as a kind of practical primer on mysticism.  If Andrew’s book suggests that divine encounter is the starting point for practical theology, Never Pray Again suggests (at least to me) that loving one’s neighbor is the starting point for divine encounter.  Sounds like mysticism to me.

Mark Van Steenwyk is cofounder of Mennonite Worker, a Christian intentional community in Minneapolis. Mark is an editor at and the producer and co-host of the Iconocast podcast.

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