Communion with God

I wonder how you react to the word “mysticism”?

I was telling a good friend recently that I had been doing some thinking about mysticism. He reacted with an immediate and vehement, “Oh no!”

I understand why he reacted in this way because I share his concerns. Mysticism as it is commonly understood and practiced today has become  a rather ill-defined phenomenon in which personal experience often trumps biblical exposition. It offers vaguely reassuring experiences disconnected from God’s revelation in Scripture or practices that have little to do with biblical spirituality. It is even used by those who want to downgrade the importance of doctrine. Mysticism, they tell us, “beyond truth” and therefore beyond the divisions that debates about truth have caused. There is something of the emperor’s new clothes about all this: at first it appears impressive, but look again and its nakedness is exposed.

Yet the word “mystery” is a biblical word. Most commonly it is used to describe what was once hidden, but which has now been revealed (Matt. 13:11; Mark 4:11; Luke 8:10; Rom. 11:25; 16:25-27; 1 Cor. 2:7; 4:1; Eph. 1:9; 3:3-4, 9; 6:19; Col. 1:26-27; 2:2; 4:3; 1 Tim. 3:9, 16; Rev. 10:7). At the heart of this revelation is Christ himself:

I [Paul] have become its [the church’s] servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness – the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Col. 1:25-27)

Here then is a simple biblical definition of mystery: it is “Christ in you, the hope of glory”. It is centred in Christ. But it also has a strong experiential dimension, for it is “Christ in you”. This is not just Christ as an historical figure, but as the one in whom and through whom we have a living experience of God. There is also an eschatological dimension to the mystery of God, for it comes with the promise of a deeper and richer experience in the future with “the hope of glory”. So true biblical mysticism is our present experience of Christ and the fulfilment of this in the beatific vision.

In Christian theology the noun “mystery” has generated some important uses of the adjective “mystical” that clarify the nature of the mystery of “Christ in you”.

1. The mystical meaning of Scripture and the sacraments. Paul’s definition of the mystery in Colossians 1:27 is preceded by this statement: “the mystery … has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people” (Col. 1:26). The mystery is the hidden christological meaning of Scripture. The Scriptures always pointed to Christ, but salvation through a crucified Christ only became clear once Christ had been crucified and raised (John 2:22). Looking back from the vantage point of the resurrection and enlightened by the Spirit, the hidden meaning becomes plain (Rom. 16:25; 1 Cor. 2:7). So when the church fathers spoke of the mystical meaning of Scripture they did not mean a secret meaning for an elite (though this is the meaning it come to acquire in the late medieval ages). They meant the way the Scriptures pointed to Christ. This was “hidden” only in the sense that it was not the initial or literal meaning of the text. The text might speak of the sacrifice of a lamb, but now Christians can see this speaks of the sacrifice of Christ. The same kind of language is used in Christian theology to speak of the sacraments. The sacraments have a meaning that is hidden from sight. The bread looks like bread to unbelieving eyes, but believers see it as a sign of Christ’s presence and love.

2. The mystical body of Christ. The word “mystery” is used by Paul in Ephesians 5:31-32. Talking about marriage and quoting Genesis 2:24, he says “‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church.” The mystery here refers to the union of Christ and the church. “Mystical” in this context is used in contrast to “literal” or “physical”. Although our union with Christ is pictured in marital terms (indeed this is why God created marriage), we are not physically united to Christ. So we need a word to describe the intimacy of this connection without the implication of sexual intercourse and the word theologians have used is “mystical”. The church then is described as the “mystical” body of Christ or “Christ mystical”. “Christ mystical” is a synonym not for Christ, but for the church, but specifically the church viewed as the body of Christ united to its head or the bride of Christ united to her husband.

This allows us to define biblical mysticism as an encounter with Christ in his word and in his sacraments among his people. Biblical mysticism is centred on Christ, on Scripture, on the sacraments and on the church. For most of its history the church has thought of the mystical not as esoteric experiences beyond words, but as the corporate experience of being united to the Christ revealed in the Scriptures.

But in the late medieval period there developed what we might call a “new mysticism” – a different stream of mysticism that ran to seed in the twentieth century. This new mysticism is concerned with an individual experience of transcendence within the soul. From around the 1200 onwards there was a profusion of personal accounts of visions. There is a stark contrast between this “new mysticism” and the older understanding of mysticism.

First, it is not Christ-centred. What is sought is an experience of transcendence, but not necessarily an experience of God in Christ. Christ may function as an exemplar, but not as a mediator. There is therefore an openness to inter-religious dialogue. The mystical experience is seen as an experience which transcends dogmas and religious boundaries. What the “Christian” mystic experiences is the same as what the Muslim or Buddhist mystic experiences. This is along way for the christocentricity of Paul’s message of “Christ in you”.

Second, the new mysticism is not word-centred. It pursues an experience within the soul. In one sense this is the same of biblical mysticism. Biblical mysticism is an experience of Christ in you. But the experience of biblical mysticism is mediated through the word and sacraments. It may be experience within (as well as collectively), but the building blocks are the word and the sacraments. But in the new mysticism the word and sacraments are peripheral. Even if they’re employed, they may be separated from their true meaning. The form is used, but not the content.

Third, the new mysticism is not church-centred. It is concerned to offer an individual experience in solitude or on retreat. It often has little time for the institutions of the church. The mystical and the institutional are (falsely) set up as polarities.

This contrast between biblical mysticism and this new mysticism leaves me in two minds about the word “mysticism”. There are arguments in favour of trying to restore the word. First, it is (as we’ve seen) a biblical term with a biblical definition. Second, it highlights the importance of a lived encounter of Christ – what our Reformed forebears called “experiential faith”. Evangelicalism is shaped by the rationalism of the enlightenment and one negative feature of this can be a wariness of speaking of experience. Biblical mysticism has the potential to rebalance our emphases.

But I fear any attempt to revive the term “mysticism” will be like whistling in the wind. So embedded are the assumptions of what mysticism involves that the term may be damaged beyond recovery. When you speak of “mysticism” people assume you are talking about what I am calling “the new mysticism” – wither they are enthusiasts or sceptics.

Perhaps a better is the word “communion”. This places the relational dimension at the centre. It embraces both spoken and unspoken communication. And it can include both deliberate times for contemplation as well as an awareness of God’s presence in all of life.

So let me end with this injunction from the Puritan Thomas Goodwin:

Besides the regular tribute of daily worship you owe to [God], take time to come into his presence with the sole purpose of having communion with him. This is truly friendly, for friendship is maintained by visits … And as for our duties, their journey’s end is fellowship with God. Our neglect of them, if you trace that neglect to its origin, is a neglect of communion with God – this is why the soul says it has no pleasure in them. But this communion with God was the apostles’ Eden and what they regarded as the proper way of life. John calls us all to it as that for which we are born anew: “And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ,” he says in 1 John 1:3 … You can see that the Scriptures contain this notion of friendship with God. Therefore attempt, if you have not yet tried it, this way of seeking God.[1]

[1] Updated from Thomas Goodwin, “Of Gospel Holiness in Heart and Life,” Works, Vol. 7, 198-199.