Two Ways of Knowing God: Scholasticism And Mysticism

Two Ways of Knowing God: Scholasticism And Mysticism June 10, 2022

In his 1930 Church History for “upper high school & college courses and adult reading,” Father John Laux writes about two ways of knowing God that became more clearly delineated with the rise of universities in the Middle Ages. These two methods of approaching God eventually became known as “Scholasticism” and “Mysticism.” Of them, Laux correctly writes:

Scholasticism and Mysticism are not opposed to each other. They should go hand in hand. If theology is treated merely as an affair of the intellect and reason, it is devoid of all living and life-giving warmth; if it lacks clear and precise notions, if there is no method in its treatment, no logical classification, definition, division, it will end in sentimentalism and heresy.

Laux, Church History, 376

Scholasticism, according to Laux, starts roughly with St. Anselm of Aosta (Canterbury) who “was the first who systematically studied the truths of faith in the light of reason alone” (Laux, 375). Mysticism emerged in response to this “science” of theology, or, this seeing theology as a science. St. Bernard, himself a renowned intellect, voiced his concerns about an over-reliance on reason as such:

Of what use is philosophy to me? My teachers are the Apostles. They have not taught me to read Plato or Aristotle. But they have taught me how to live. Do you  think that to know how to live is a small matter? It is the most important of all!

Laux, 375

Laux points out, however, that Bernard’s warning about scholasticism is not a wholesale denial of it as a legitimate approach to God:

St. Bernard did not condemn Scholasticism, but he knew from experience that there was another and higher way to arrive at a deeper understanding of the truths of faith; namely, to train the soul by a holy life to seek and to achieve intimate union with God, and in the light of grace, which is given only to the clean of heart, to see, as it were, with the eyes of the soul, in God the truths revealed by God.

Laux, 375

And so there exists a real duality of approaches to knowing and understanding God. It is a duality that has always existed in virtue of the types of creatures we are. Moreover, being creatures with a relatively fixed nature, it is a duality that continues to impress itself upon us today. To balance the dynamic relationship between abstract reasoning on the one hand, and the concreteness of the will and emotions on the other, is a fundamental and inescapable task of the Christian believer. It is also a dynamic that if not properly balanced, and rightly understood, leads to much division in the Church (as in the historical controversy between Bernard and Peter Abelard).

How Scholasticism Can Fail Us

The logos, or rational intellect, is the hardest part of the human person to reach. We are not innately clear, concise or coherent thinkers. We make all kinds of errors in reasoning. We misjudge, miscalculate and misperceive. Our beliefs are riddled with inconsistencies, and those inconsistencies, oftentimes unbeknownst to us, can generate great emotional turmoil in our souls. The noetic effects of sin are far greater than we think, as self-defeating as that statement may sound. Yet we know it to be true, if we are honest, that our intellects are terribly finite and horribly flawed. We need inordinate help to think rightly about nearly everything, most especially our own selves.

And so to approach anything, let alone the ultimate reality of God, intent on grasping it in a coherent, systematic and precise manner is truly a noble aim. The nobility of the task is commensurate to its difficulty. In fact, to attain a truly rational and coherent view of anything can be so difficult that we often abandon the project prematurely. However, in this pursuit of rational knowledge of God, “head knowledge” as many call it, we inevitably find ourselves empty in our search. Even if we try to carry it out to its full end, we still wind up lost.

For as St. Bernard pointed out, a personal and living God cannot actually be grasped by the intellect alone. Thus, even if we find ourselves with true, rational knowledge of God, we can nevertheless find ourselves without a genuine relationship to Him. This is where the scholastic approach can, and often does, fail; for God is far more like a Person than a premise.

Scholastic theologians themselves of course realized this. Categories of knowledge, or belief, were formulated in order to define what it meant to have a true knowledge of God, meaning a “salvific” knowledge. Mere intellectual assent to proper conceptualizations of God or true propositional statements about God were not sufficient for salvation, even if necessary. Three categories of belief were articulated in order to help grasp this truth. They are described in Richard Muller’s indispensable Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms as follows:

Scholastic theology distinguishes three types of believing: 1) Credere Deo: to believe God; i.e., to accept as true the revelation or scriptural Word of God. This is not a saving faith but merely fides historica, held by good and bad alike. 2) Credere Deum: to believe in (the existence of) God; again, not a saving faith, since it implies no loving relationship with God. 3) Credere in Deum: to believe in God, in the sense of a close personal love and trust in God and in his mercy; this is fides salvifica, or, in the terms of medieval scholasticism, fides formata. [saving faith].

And so the scholastics, many of whom were both intellectually inclined and personally pious, did not forsake thinking about the dynamic itself. The first two kinds of belief were not genuine Christian belief. They were rational, but obviously deficient. The one we might call “cultural Christianity” today. The other a sort of detached deism. At the heart of the third kind of belief, the one that saves, is personal affection, the love of the heart for God–itself an a-rational, but not ir-rational, feature of man.

Thomas Aquinas, the greatest of all the scholastic thinkers, himself wrote numerous poems and hymns, some of which are incomparably beautiful, like this one. He knew full well that his scholastic approach could not ultimately express the heart’s longing for God. And so the “Doctor Angelicus,” who almost single-handedly synthesized the entirety of Western thought by correlating Aristotle with divine Revelation, said this just a few months before his death about his own work:

I can no longer write, for God has given me such glorious knowledge that all contained in my works are as straw – barely fit to absorb the holy wonders that fall in a stable.

Aquinas’ almost final words testify to the “higher way” of knowledge that Bernard had already mentioned over a century earlier as scholasticism was emerging on the scene. And so while the abstract and rational approach to God is a noble endeavor and valuable project, it cannot stand alone, lest it fail us.

How Mysticism Can Fail Us

Mysticism, alternatively, is the heart’s attempt to know God experientially and personally, unencumbered by the deficiencies of rational knowledge and our human concepts. The goal of any genuine Christian mysticism is direct, unmediated knowledge of God’s presence in the world. The goal of that encounter with God is the sheer delight of it. For beyond a direct encounter with God, there is no greater object for the human soul to desire. The personal, enduring and unmediated presence of God is the summum bonum for all human creatures (and perhaps for all creatures period).

Many practitioners of Christian mysticism are well known saints of the Roman Catholic church. Although there were also many orthodox Protestant mystics who sought God through very concrete practices, such as the German Pietists (Spener, Francke, von Zinzendorf, et al.). One should probably point out, however, that the mystical tradition, like scholasticism, goes back long before the Reformation or the Middle Ages. One could trace it back to the desert fathers and to mystical theologians like the Cappadocians, Maximus the Confessor and John of Damascus.

David Bradshaw points out how much of the mystical contemplation of God by these Eastern Church Fathers formed the thought of early medieval theologians like St. Symeon, who wrote with great lucidity about the vision of the divine light:

The mysticism of the divine light found in monastic authors, and the theophanic realism of the Cappadocians, Maximus, and John Damascene, converge in the writings of St. Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022). More than any earlier author, Symeon presents the vision of divine light as the culmination and goal of the Christian life. He also goes far beyond others in the vivid detail with which he recounts such experiences.

Bradshaw, Aristotle East and West, 212

Bradshaw cites Symeon’s account of one of his pupils’ direct experience with God:

One day, as he stood and recited, ‘God, have mercy upon me, a sinner,’ uttering it with his mind rather than with his mouth, suddenly a flood of divine radiance appeared from above and filled all the room. As this happened the young man lost all awareness [of his surroundings] and forgot that he was in a house or under a roof. He saw nothing but light all around him and did not know if he was standing on the ground. He was not afraid of falling; he was not concerned with the world, nor did anything pertaining to men and corporeal beings enter into his mind. Instead he was wholly in the presence of immaterial light and seemed himself to have turned into light.

Centuries later we hear a similar testimony by a very different kind of person, Sarah Edwards, the wife of the American theologian Jonathan Edwards:

Part of the night I lay awake, sometimes between sleep and sometimes between sleeping and waking. But all night I continued in a constant, clear, and lively sense of the heavenly sweetness of Christ’s excellent love, of his nearness to me, and of my dearness to him. I seemed to myself to perceive a glow of divine love come down from the heart of Christ in heaven into my heart in a constant stream, like a stream or pencil of sweet light. At the same time my heart and soul all flowed out in love to Christ, so that there seemed to be a constant flowing and reflowing of heavenly love, and I appeared myself to float or swim, in these bright, sweet beams, like the motes swimming in the beams of the sun, or the streams of his light which come in at the window.

It really should not surprise us that a 10th century Greek man and an 18th century colonial woman can have experiences so similar. After all, the source and referent of each experience is the same, even if the subjects having the experiences are culturally and socially very different. In fact, religious experiences of Christ that traverse time and cultural location can be easily multiplied. Many of them share the same features of Symeon’s divine light.

However, as Laux points out, mysticism untethered from scholasticism can devolve into both sentimentalism and heresy. Apart from the knowledge of doctrinal truths about God, there is an open door to subjective experiences that may mimic the divine light, but that are anything but. The scriptures themselves warn of this, when Paul tells the church in Corinth that Satan can disguise himself as “an angel of light.” (2 Cor 11:14). If God has allowed Satan to masquerade as a being of light, then how can we know that our mystical experiences are not ones of deceit–are not encounters with the father of lies (Jn 8:44) as opposed to the Father of lights (Jas 1:17)?

Again, this is why doctrine matters and the rational investigation of the Christian faith cannot be neglected. However, in the mystical tradition itself, from Maximus to Sarah Edwards, there are also central tenets that act as safeguards against a false form of mysticism. These tenets were developed early in the life of the Church and all Christian mystics, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant, have acknowledge their absolute necessity in guarding against both the sinfulness of the human heart and the deceitfulness of Satan. Bradshaw points out what Maximus thought was critical for our perception to be genuinely transformed so as to see Christ:

To be attuned to it [the divine light] requires a transformation of perception through all the means that Maximus never tires of reiterating: prayer, asceticism, obedience to the commandments, and the active practice of charity.

Bradshaw, 206-207

In sum, mysticism can go horribly wrong if there is not an intentional and persistent attempt to purge the desires of the flesh through prayer and asceticism, to obey God’s moral commandments and to do explicit acts of charity and good will. This is Christian mysticism; the kind practiced by Paul, Maximus, Symeon, John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila, Brother Lawrence, von Zinzendorf, Tozer, and many others. Unfortunately, this kind of asceticism, also exemplified by the puritan Edwardses, is entirely foreign to the soft, saccharine and opulent culture of contemporary American evangelicalism. And so today we see more sentimentalism than sanctification, more heresy than holiness.

How Both Can Work Together In Blessed Unity

To conclude, the dynamic between “head” and “heart” that we often hear about is quite real. Of course these simplistic labels do not do justice to the reality of these two aspects of the human person. There is a great and desperate need to carefully synthesize the scholastic approach to knowledge with the mystical approach. We require both as God’s paradigm creation.

Unfortunately, due to sin, our intellect and our emotions are bent toward error and ego respectively. And so we often abandon one approach entirely in favor of the other, which can have drastic consequences. Too much scholasticism can lead to dead religion. Too much mysticism can devolve into the creation of our own religion. And so we must be wise and prudent to be intentional about having both in our lives. The right balance of both approaches to God can truly lead us to a blessed unity with our Creator, and a genuine knowledge of the divine light of Christ.


About Anthony Costello
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago to a devout and loving Roman Catholic family, I fell away from my childhood faith as a young man. For years I lived a life of my own design-- a life of sin. But, at the age of 34, while serving in the United States Army, I set foot in my first Evangelical church. Hearing the Gospel preached, as if for the first time, I had a powerful, reality-altering experience of Jesus Christ. That day, He called me to Himself and to His service, and I have walked with Him ever since. You can read more about the author here.

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