Thursday, July 29, 2010

Should We Embrace Mysticism?

Is mysticism a good thing? No sooner do I ask that than the question arises, what do I mean by "mysticism"? Now in this context, I am speaking of Christian mysticism.There are other types, but the Christian form is the one I am speaking of. I would define Christian mysticism as the idea that ordinary Christianity is not enough and we need to pursuit a deep inner experience of God. This is reached by applying many, not uncommonly ascetic, disciplines and going through various stages of inner experience until one reaches a state of deep inner union with and contemplation of God. Is this a good or a bad thing?

There is much to be admired in mysticism. It takes God and living for God seriously. It is not willing to settle for a superficial Christianity that goes through the motions of observing external ritual. It can take seriously the legitimate Biblical disciplines of prayer, fasting, studying, and meditating on Scripture. It encourages a love of God that is deep and personal.

However, especially in the extremes, it can lead to real problems. It produces pride, which looks down on those who do not come up to its spiritual level. It can lead to individualism that isolates its practicers from other believers and encourages withdrawal from the world. It can lead to putting inner experiences above Scripture and following them wherever they lead. It can lead to abstruse metaphysical speculations and, in extreme cases, to believing the pantheistic concept that we are all really God.

But I think often the real problem with mysticism is it avoids the real issues. In the Middle Ages the real problem was that Christianity had degenerated into a ritualistic system devoid of God's grace. It is not surprising people turned to mysticism for spiritual reality. Likewise pietism, which was a form of Protestant mysticism, grew up in state churches where everyone who did not somehow disqualify themselves was regarded as a believer. In other words, the problem with the "ordinary Christians" in both those cases was many were not Christians at all. And what needed to be fixed was an insufficient understanding of true Biblical doctrine. It can be a dangerous temptation to draw off into a search for our own spiritual perfection when there is something in the church at large that needs to be fixed.

I think there are things we can learn from at least the more moderate mystics. Things about a deep love of God and a serious pursuit of Him. But true understanding of Scripture must come from God's Word and not from inside ourselves. And our goal should not be to exalt ourselves above other professing Christians but to do what is necessary to encourage them on the way to true salvation if they are not and to a walk of greater obedience to God's commands if they are. For no Christian should settle for being an "ordinary Christian" and no one should exalt themselves above their fellow Christians as "extraordinary."

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