Me and mysticism: Why we don’t get along

July 25, 2005 at 11:19 pm Leave a comment

I referred, a couple posts ago, to the fact that I’m not wild about mystical tendencies in Christianity. Natalie, being the wonderful critic that she is, just had to go and ask, “What’s wrong with mysticism?”

It was probably a good thing that she asked, since I admit I didn’t actually know what the word “mystical” meant until she nailed me to the wall and I had to look it up.

I did go dutifully and dig up a dictionary, though, and here are my impressions after some thinking on the matter. (Stick with me; I confused myself writing this post, so don’t feel bad if I confuse you too. :-P)

In my understanding of the concept, things that are mystical are subjective and experiential, as opposed to objective, rational and faith-based. (I know, I know, putting faith-based and rational together is strange, but I think it fits here. Bear with me.)

According to, the word mystical means having a “direct subjective communion” with God (italics mine). It also depends on seeing and experiencing shrouded meaning that one cannot understand with ordinary sense. In fact, the first definition of mystical in the dictionary defines it as “having a spiritual meaning or reality, that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence.”

When I first read those definitions, I admit I didn’t understand the gist of what they were saying, and I had to read them a couple times. Chalk that up to poor comprehension skills if you like; however, I think the obscurity of these definitions actually demonstrates an important trait of mysticism itself.

By that, I mean that the mystical is, in essence, shrouded. It’s mysterious, and inaccessible, and enigmatic. (In fact, “mysterious” is another of the dictionary definitions of mystical.)

This mysteriousness, in my opinion, is a problem. It implies that we are dealing with things that have veiled significance that you can’t grasp with ordinary intelligence. The mystical realm is an arena where reason has to be left behind, and you have to step into a fuzzy realm of invisibleness, where ordinary rules don’t apply.

So, the problem with that?

In one sense, you could argue that it’s not a problem. In certain ways, everything I’ve just described about mysticism has a valid place in Christian theology.

However, here are the main problems I see, and why I tend to avoid mystical directions in general:

Problem 1: Reason and the laws of ordinary intelligence should apply when we’re talking about theology and Christian experience.

Nope, reason isn’t an ultimate standard by which to judge any experience or idea, but it sure shouldn’t be chucked.

Problem 2: If the meaning in a mystical encounter is not obvious to the senses or the intelligence, it is not subject to confirmation or accountability, either.

Not even the accountability of Scripture, really. And since reason is deemed of no relevance here, it’s easy to get carried away in mumbo-jumbo and arrive at multiple anti-rational conclusions.

Problem 3: Because mysticism emphasizes the subjective, the experiential, and the non-rational, it excludes people who don’t feel they can escape ordinary senses and enter into this mysterious realm.

What I mean by this: When Christianity drifts too far toward mysticism, it tends to place greater and greater emphasis on subjective feelings. But what if a person doesn’t feel anything, and doesn’t have a sense that they are going through the sort of mystical experience they are expected to have?
For example, the act of believing in Christ (giving your life to Christ) is sometimes made into a mystical experience. A person who is wavering on the verge of this decision may feel as if they should feel something, or it must not be genuine. In reality, this is a deception; he or she doesn’t need to feel anything. An act like this is supposed to be less of an emotional experience and more of a rational, studied decision to believe.

Problem 4: Finally, a mystical emphasis encumbers acts and beliefs with more meaning than they are supposed to have.

After all, mysticism concentrates on a spiritual meaning or reality that is not obvious to the intellect (in contrast to Christ’s use of very tangible, concrete, and simple examples in His illustrations). It is possible then, that a mystical emphasis can infuse an act with a recondite significance it doesn’t really have. (For example, it is sometimes suggested that the water of baptism literally washes away sins. This perhaps represents an infusion of a mystical sort of meaning into an act that was merely meant as an illustration of a spiritual truth.)

So, my conclusion:

Mystical associations in Christian theology invite excessive focus on mysterious abstractions and realms and happenings that we can’t see. In this, mysticism undermines the plainness and simplicity of the truth Jesus taught and the acts He told us to do.

Agree? Disagree? Think I made absolutely no sense? 😉 Please do tell me if I said something you don’t understand.

My especial apologies for my last illustration of baptism. You can disagree with that too, if you feel so inclined. 😉


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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

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