Into the Mystic

November 01, 2018

by Peter Lillback

The fourteenth century saw the blossoming of mysticism, a movement that has influenced the church to this day. Mysticism asserts the earthly possibility of a personal, immediate union of the soul with the being of God himself. It offers direct knowledge of God by extraordinary experiences and states of mind.

Mysticism as a whole is not unique to Christianity, being found in religions and philosophies worldwide. Christian mysticism claims roots in the Scriptures, but it was also influenced by Neoplatonic philosophy via the author Pseudo-Dionysius and the scholastic philosopher John Scotus Erigena, the eighth-century translator of Pseudo-Dionysius.

The fourteenth century produced the mystical Dominican theologians Meister Eckhart, Johann Tauler, and Heinrich Suso. Interestingly, their mystical book Theologica Germanica influenced Martin Luther to some degree. Gerhard Groote, a Dutch mystic, was founder of Brothers of the Common Life, which is considered a forerunner of the Reformation. English mystics included the female Julian of Norwich. Other contemporary female mystics were Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Ávila.

Causes

Christian mysticism emerged from other practices in the history of the church that have “magical” and unrealistic qualities about them, which make such practices highly suspect or unorthodox. These practices include asceticism, sacramental superstition, and the allegorical interpretation of Scripture.

[Mysticism] offers direct knowledge of God by extraordinary experiences and states of mind.

The first of these forebears of Christian mysticism is asceticism, which is the radical rejection of the physical world. Like Christian mysticism, asceticism took its impulse from Neoplatonic philosophy.

Next, superstitions grew out of the influence of Greco-Roman mystery religions, such as the Cult of Mithras and Isis, which influenced the church with mystical and magical beliefs about the powers of special rituals. These beliefs affected the Christian view of the sacraments and of the relics of martyrs and heroes of the church.

Third, allegorical biblical interpretation flowed from the belief in a fourfold exegesis of Scripture. That is, instead of a Christ-centered historical focus, the Bible was purported to have hidden meanings that conveyed secret metaphysical and eschatological knowledge.

What drove this desire for experiencing the extraordinary and for reaching new levels of consciousness? One factor was misinterpretation of the Bible. For example, 2 Peter 1:4 says that God makes Christians “partakers of the divine nature.” This passage could be over-spiritualized if read out of context. In addition, passages such as the transfiguration (Matthew. 17:1–13), Paul’s description of a soul’s experience of the third heaven (2 Corinthians 12:2), and John’s vision in Revelation—when misinterpreted—led to an unwitting mixture of biblical Christianity with non-Christian and pagan mystical experiences and philosophies.

Another cause to note has to do with Christian mysticism’s medieval context. That context furthered Christian mysticism thanks to features such as plagues and high mortality rates, persecutions of heresy, the Crusades, and the opulence of the church. Why? Because Christian mysticism offered a “retreat” from an often overwhelming, hostile, and confusing world. It focused upon subjective inner experiences, allowing the mystic to disengage or ignore the outside world.

Practices and Techniques

The monastic movement, in which many Christians left cities to start monasteries, was still a major force in the fourteenth century. As the monastic movement spread, it offered its followers a rigorous schedule of devotional contemplation that often enabled and encouraged mystical experiences. For example, mystics often disciplined themselves by pilgrimages and fasting, and by more radical forms of asceticism such as extreme fasting, sleep deprivation, and self-flagellation. Their quest for religious ecstasy led them to reject the primacy of the mind and instead to focus upon the “emptying” of the mind through constant repetition of a prayer.

Mystics often approached their experiences in two different ways in order to understand God. One involved attempting to understand him by declaring what he is not, and the other involved asserting what he is. Each of these methods was inherently speculative. Neither of them began with biblical revelation; rather, the human soul sought to know God by its own inner, non-rational experiences, which was often merely hypothetical and could be problematic when not based on Scripture.

Theologians

The fourteenth-century mystics had distinctive approaches to their mysticism. Gregory Palamas, in the East, advocated withdrawal to seek God through prayer. He utilized Athanasius’ dictum that “God became man, so that man might become God.” He claimed that this dictum allowed for a type of deification of man that was distinct from pantheism. For Palamas, God remained God, while man partook of the divine energies. Palamas developed practices involving mystical recitations of holy words joined with a specific posture.

For the Christian, mystical experience can never take the place of the revealed Word of God.

Meister Eckhart’s view of the immediate knowledge of God, on the other hand, implied that the mystic actually became the divine nature. He believed that the “spark of the soul” given by God is God’s image in man. It enables the contemplation of eternal truths resulting in “the birth of God in the soul.” For Eckhart, this could only come about by renouncing oneself and this world. Union with God follows so that the mystic experiences God’s life and the glory of his nature. In this union, the soul participates in the divine nature and becomes divine. This knowledge, Eckhart claimed, is too great for words and is known only in pure unity with the divine. Moreover, this “beatific vision” is short-lived and only becomes permanent in eternity. The pope later condemned Eckhart’s pantheistic assertions.

Medieval Mysticism’s Legacy

Mystical theology did not disappear at the end of the medieval era; rather, it reappeared in subsequent eras of church history. Diverse individuals such as Ignatius of Loyola, Caspar Schwenkfeld von Ossig, and some English Puritans had mystical emphases.

Moreover, various Protestant traditions have practiced mysticism or have been open to mystical experiences. These have included Pietists, Quakers, Pentecostals, and charismatics. In addition, the “father of Protestant liberalism,” Friedrich Schleiermacher, argued that religious experience is the heart of the Christian religion.

Mysticism in the twentieth century crossed religious and philosophical boundaries as represented by German theologian Rudolf Otto, American psychologist William James, Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, and French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. All of these individuals were influenced by the fourteenth century’s Christian mysticism.

Safeguards Against Dangers

For the Christian, mystical experience can never take the place of the revealed Word of God. The Word is our proper revealed truth, and we should be skeptical when anyone—whether in the fourteenth century or today—seeks to describe for us their own personal truth about God. To “empty” one’s mind and worship God by a non-cognitive experience is to fail to love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength. God calls us to worship him with our whole selves.

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Peter Lillback

Dr. Lillback (PhD, Westminster) is president and professor of historical theology.

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