On Monday, Fred Serjeant, our outgoing Fraternal Chairman, addressed the Westcountry Reformed Minister's Frat. on the subject of mysticism. Here are some notes on what he had to say.
Mysticism appears in one form or another in the three main world faiths; Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The phenomenon has appeared throughout the history of the Christian Church. Mysticism can often seem attractive to those who are interested in the spiritual growth. Contemporary evangelicalism is open to mystical influences. We need to understand the attraction of mysticism. What is lacking in evangelical piety that makes mystical spirituality so alluring?
Mystics desire to achieve a state of union with Ultimate Reality. Mysticism has five key characteristics:
1. An Ultimate Being exists
2. An Ultimate Being can be known
3. An Ultimate Being can be perceived by human sense
4. An element in the soul is akin to the Ultimate Being. Man is possessed of a divine spark, so that to find God is to find oneself.
5. The goal of mysticism is union with the Ultimate Being.
Mystics aim to transcend the phenomenal world to attain a fresh perspective on Reality by entering an altered state of consciousness. This will lead to a direct experience of union with God.
3. Roman Catholic mysticism
It has been suggested that a mystical strain may be found in Augustine of Hippo. But that claim cannot be substantiated. The apopaphic spirituality of Gregory of Nyssa and Basil of Caesarea was was tinged with mysticism. But Christian mysticism only really comes into its own with the pseudopigraphal writings of Dionysius the Areopagite in 5-6AD. He pioneered the via nagativa, the negative way. According to these writings, mystical union with God is achieved by a process of purification that leads to illumination and ultimately deification. Despite their dubious provenance, the Pseudo Dionysius literature helped to stimulate mystical tendencies in the Church. In the 12th Century, the Franciscan movement drew on Dionysian mysticism, as did Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits in the 16th Century was also of a mystical bent. His Spiritual Exercises helped to popularise mystical spirituality.
4. How mysticism influenced Evangelical Protestantism
The 14th Century mystic Meister Eckhart is a key figure. Eckhart taught that, "The core of the soul is the core of God." And, "If I were not, God were not." John Tauler a disciple of Eckhart was a popular preacher, whose views were to have an impact on evangelical spirituality. But the later, 16th century mystics were all opponents of the Reformation. Loyola is a case in point. Luther was once attracted to the mystical way. Later, he came to see that mysticism is incompatible with justification by faith alone and a forensic understanding of the atonement.
The German Pietist movement was a reaction against dead orthodoxy and formalism in the Lutheran Church. The Pietists leaders looked back to the likes of John Tauler for inspiration and used his writings as a resource for spiritual renewal. John Wesley's parents were steeped in the mystics and he came under the spell of Tauler and the mystical Madame Guyon. Wesley was also infuenced by the Pietistic Moravians. The preacher was to adopt a more critical attitude towards mysticism, but to the end of his days, he would recommend Thomas A' Kempis' The Imitation of Christ and other mystical works to his Methodists. Wesley's view of sanctification as a crisis experience where the believer is swallowed up in God, and filled with perfect love smacks of mysticism. His teaching fed into the Holiness movement of the 19th century, associated with the Keswick Convention and figures like Andrew Murray and Oswald Chambers. The mystical way of purgation which leads to illumination followed by union with the divine can be traced in many who took their lead from Wesley. This can be found in some of our hymns, "But we never can prove the delights of his love/until all on the altar we lay". A spiritual crisis will only follow extreme negation of the self. This kind of thing may also be seen in A. W. Tozer, who had a great admiration for the mystics. Pentecostal emphasis on the "Second Blessing" is a development of Wesley's teaching on perfect love.
Some contemporary evangelical writers are returning to the mystics in an attempt to stimulate the spiritual life of the churches. But mysticism is ultimately based on works rather than grace. It teaches that the goal of union with God can be achieved by human techniques and programmes. This is a denial of the total depravity of man in sin. We need to develop a properly biblical spirituality that is based on our experience of the God of saving grace.
The meeting was opened up for discussion and various points were raised. Mysticism aims at man's ontological union with God by bringing out the "divine spark" in the human soul. But our union with God us not ontological, it is soteriological. Union with God in Christ is the basic presupposition of the Christian life. That is where be begin. Divinisation means being made like Christ and sharing his resurrection glory, not being subsumed into the divine essence. A properly biblical spirituality is based on communion with the triune God. It is rooted in the election of the Father, the sacrifice of the Son and the sanctifying work of the Spirit. We, like the Puritan John Owen need to work out a trinitarian experiential theology. We must beware of putting so much emphasis on Scriptural doctrine that we leave little room for the direct work of the Spirit in Christian experience. Holiness is not achieved in a mystical crisis event that follows purgation and illumination. Our holiness begins with definitive sanctification on union with Christ. Then, the life of holiness is worked out in the Spirit-enabled activity of mortification and vivification.
We often encounter "soft" mysticism in evangelical Christians who claim that the Lord has told them to do this or that, even if their impressions or feelings are contrary to Scripture. But we should not prize our subjective experiences above what God has revealed in the Bible. That way lies Quietism and the Quaker emphasis on "inner light" over and against the light of the written Word. In his paper, Fred quoted these words, "Mysticism begins with mist and ends in schism." There is certainly something in that. We need to beware of mystical tendencies and respond to the challenge of mysticism by constructing an evangelical, that is a gospel-based account of the believer's experience of union and communion with the God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.