Mysticism, Part 2


And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
—John 17:3

We don’t emphasize that verse enough. Eternal life is knowing the Lord. The great Christian mystics of the past had one goal: to know the Lord. And not just on a surface level, but as deeply as He might reveal Himself to them.

I don’t know how you see it, but I don’t see any conflict there. Nor do I see any problems here:

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”
—Mark 9:2-7

For the three disciples, witnessing Jesus’ transfiguration exceeded the first laser light show, the U.S. Bicentennial fireworks display, the 2002 Super Bowl halftime show, and the reunion of The Police—combined. Huge. Mind-blowing. Even terrifying.

And downright mystical.

All across the world and through the ages, people have encountered God alive and moving, speaking into their lives in supernatural ways. 'The Christ of St. John of the Cross' by Salvador DaliPeople like Saul on the road to Damascus. Guys like St. Patrick, whose ministry to hundreds of thousands of people sprang from a dream he received as he slept. Or Dwight Moody, one of America’s great evangelists, who encountered God in a mystical, overwhelming way as he walked the streets of New York City, and his ministry immediately transformed in that meeting from good to great.

So this mysticism thing is awesome, right?

Well, maybe.

Christian mysticism perpetually runs the risk of deviating from the intended target. Aiming for God and hitting something (or someone) entirely different is possible. The wise way to open oneself to God requires a series of personal firewalls intended to keep out anything not of God.

To that end, some have asked me for a list of great Christian writers since 100 AD who’ve written flawless works that can be trusted 100 percent of the time. I’ve included that list below:
Nil, zero, zip, nada

Kind of empty isn’t it? That’s for a reason. God never intended for us to swallow everything we hear out of the mouth of someone who self-labels as a Christian. I don’t care if we line our bookshelves with the most orthodox writings known to Man, those books will contain errors. I hope I’m not bursting anyone’s bubble by saying this, but your favorite Christian author/teacher/pastor makes mistakes. True, some make more mistakes than others, but the point remains: we must ALWAYS be discerning in ALL encounters with ideas and practices, be they “Christian” or not.

One of the first posts I wrote for Cerulean Sanctum applies to this issue of Christian mysticism. “Charismatic Churches and the Cult of the New” outlines several flags we must always apply when dealing with anything we encounter presented in the name of the Lord. The following cautions should be considered whenever we approach “new moves of God” within the Church. I originally intended these flags to pertain to charismatic practices, but I believe these also apply to any practice or concept that relates to mysticism:

Flag #1 Cannot be squared with Scripture or is based on a single verse of Scripture (usually taken out of context.) If we’re doing something that violates Scripture, we need to stop. End of story. If we don’tknow what Scripture says about some mystic practice we wish to employ, better to actually KNOW the Scriptures first before we get all mystical.

Flag #2Is pronounced by direct revelation through a single individual or a small group of people. The Church today doesn’t lack for individuals and small groups speaking some strange things. I don’t believe that the Lord speaks “unusual” truth through one person or a small group alone. He may speak to you for your needs, but the whole “mystic secrets of divine union for select disciples who pay $200” thing isn’t going to wash with the Lord.

Flag #3Is considered relevant for today, yet has no historic precedent in the Church. Nothing new under the sun, folks. If the Church through the ages didn’t practice or teach it, it probably ain’t kosher.

Flag #4Attempts to make a New Testament practice/theology of an Old Testament practice/theology rendered moot by the finished work of Christ. While this plagues certain aspect of the charismatic movement more so than the mystic community, it’s still something to watch for.

Flag # 5Involves “Restoring or the “Restoration of a practice or theology. Some things died out for a reason. Yes, a few good practices have been neglected by us hypermoderns, but we must be careful.

Flag #6Is a “redeemed version of a secular/occult concept or practice (usually which has been abandoned or discredited by secular/occult practitioners.) A huge flag when dealing with anything deemed mystical. (I’ll unpack this more below when I talk about syncretism.)

Flag #7May produce immediate results, but does not move the Church or individual into a deeper, biblically-based relationship with Christ in the long run. Practicing mysticism for mysticism’s sake will get us nowhere. All too often, a fascination with mysticism reflects failing to pursue God in approved, traditional ways. Those must always be addressed first. All the mysticism in the world’s not going to make an infant in Christ into an adult. Got to make it to the teen years of the Faith before reaching adulthood.

Critics of contemporary mysticism in the Church have good reason to point out troubles. Any two of the flags above in combination should entail a gut check about the practice or idea we’re attempting to incorporate into our spiritual lives.

With Christianity in the West so heavily compromised by syncretism, if we wish to be a holy Bride, then we can’t keep whoring around. Too many Christians who are looking into mysticism don’t have the spiritual maturity or common discernment sense to know what’s genuinely of God and what’s not. Since the critics of Christian mysticism love to blanket condemn, clashes will be constant. For the chucklehead who wonders how well astral projection and Christianity work together, good for the critics for calling him on his folly. We’ve got so many Christians lacking in even basic discernment skills that perhaps a place may exist for the blanket condemnation. A sad state of affairs, but given the tendency to let all the garbage in 24/7/365, possibly warranted. We have only ourselves to blame for the critics’ hypersensitivity.

The thing about the old Christian mystics? They’d already gone through all the steps of growth and maturity. And that’s the key point here. The Cloud of Unknowing may very well grow us deeper in God. But if we’re not reading and meditating on the Scriptures, cultivating a consistent prayer life, making disciples, or laying down our lives for others, we’ve got no right to pick up that book and start yammering about how deep it is and how it’s going to take us to “the next level.” You don’t give an infant a powerful weapon like an AK-47 to play with, because if you do, someone’s going to get killed. And for the purposes of this illustration, it’s usually the infant.

The riches of the Lord are His and His alone. Looking into Buddhist (or any other non-Christian) mysticism to apply what one my find to Christianity is like panning for gold in a field of manure. God’s already got a river flowing with gold, no need to wade through the crap. Yet all too often we try to find truth in places it doesn’t exist. If we truly believe that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, searching for Him by syncretizing rituals gleaned from the places He’s not couldn’t be a bigger waste of time. All too often, those dabbling in Christian mysticism do just that.

Get the basics of the Faith down first. Stay away from syncretistic practices that attempt to join Christ and Belial. Test every spirit to see if it’s of God (the flags above are a good start). Be as wise as snakes and as innocent as doves—not the other way around.

Yes, sometimes the critics are off-base. But then again, once in a while they’re not. It pays to listen to them and weigh what they have to say against the Scriptures and the Spirit.

I’ll conclude this mini-series in my next post.

8 thoughts on “Mysticism, Part 2

  1. Dan, You cover the red flags well. The challenge is #6 isn’t it? Appreciate you unpacking this later in the post. Still, what qualifies for syncretistic practice has changed over time. The celebration of Christmas is a prime example. This surely is a “redeeming” of a pagan holiday, infusing the date of an established and decidedly non-Christian celebration with new meaning. Holidays are one thing, it might be said, but “spiritual” practices like utilizing a labyrinth or Buddhist prayer wheel are quite different. I would tend to agree, but we have to ask ourselves where did the ancient mystics learn some of their practices? Many came out of a pagan environment (Alexandria for example) and, while focusing on knowing the Lord as you rightly point out as the mark of Christian mysticism, nevertheless engaged in practices that we might deem aberrant today. Just some thoughts. Thanks for your well-developed series. Lyn from Thought Renewal

    • Lyn,

      I’ve always approached discernment on these issues with an “assume it’s false before you believe it’s true” attitude. I wish more Christians did this.

      I also think the rush to mysticism reveals a profound lack of satisfaction with the traditional routes to knowing God, but only because they haven’t been tried. There’s a certain spiritual “sexiness” to attempting something few others are doing, but in most cases that comes down to pride.

  2. Cary

    Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
    Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.
    1 Thessalonians 5:16-21 (NIV)

    Thanks so much for taking up this topic. It is so difficult to find balance in this area †“ openness to let God work combined with discernment and testing. As the passage above shows, Paul admonishes us to not quench the Spirit or disregard prophecy, but he also warns us to judge and weigh everything.

    I agree with all of your flags above. A very practical test that I have found useful is whether or not a word or experience exalts Jesus. If something is truly from God it should cause the person experiencing it and those around them who love God to be drawn closer to God †“ both with love and with worship. I find that much of the desire for the mystical, including within my own life, is all too often focused on seeking a powerful personal experience. I absolutely believe that we can have incredibly powerful and mystical experiences of God, including feeling overwhelmed with emotions of love or joy, but these things change us by changing our perception of who God truly is and who we truly are in relation to Him. The result of a true encounter with God leads to action, toward personal holiness in our own lives and toward compassion and service to our neighbors. This comes not out of duty but because we see just a little better how great He really is. Thanks for helping to remind us all of these truths.

    May God richly bless all of us to know the depth and breadth of His great love for us and for others in Christ Jesus,


  3. Peter Smythe

    Dan, two comments. First, if you look through the Book of Acts, the gifts of the Spirit operated only with or through the five-fold ministry except for two occasions. That should provide the Body with guidance that, although we are all united in Christ, God still recognizes ministers of his own choosing for the gifts to flow. Second, looking at the life of Jesus and then at the disciples, you leave with the frame of mind that God works hand in hand in getting the Gospel out. Personally, I do not see any experiences in the Word happening for the purpose of “personal growth.”

    Thanks for the essay.

  4. Diane Roberts’ve redeemed yourself in Part 2…LOL I think one of the problems I have is the name–Christian mysticism. There must be a better name for what you described here. Perhaps just the work of the Holy Spirit and let’s drop the “mysticism” part?

  5. You are right on about the spiritual maturity part of mysticism. Dabbling in that before you are a mature disciple is like a baby trying to eat steak without teeth. So many writers of mysticism were men and women whose whole lives consisted of seeking and knowing God, day and and day out. They spoke clearly of the dangers of such practices…and warned of what to watch for. You have to be firmly rooted and extablished in Christ first. The purpose of mysticism is to know God in deeper, more intimate ways. But, like a relationship between a man and a woman, you have to start out dating, getting to know each other, eventual engagment, then marriage, then years of progressive intimacy. In that anaology, mysticism is a “raised our kids, worked our jobs, know each other better than we know ourselves” kind of practice.

    Thanks for all your great thoughts…very thought-inducing!

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