The Christian existence is an odd one. The world is not quite home. When we gather on Sunday and hear the marvelous truths of God, or when we read our Bibles, we look around us at a completely ordinary-looking world. It is difficult to embrace such miraculous truths as the Incarnation, Atonement and Trinity of God in such an unmiraculous-looking and corruption-soaked world. We believe the truth, but it is difficult to embrace it fully in a fallen world. It is incomplete. In other words, we now see in a mirror dimly the truth of God. It is profoundly lesser than what it will be when we see Christ face-to-face. What is different between then and now?
The world has this pervasive way of tempting us to dirty that mirror, making it a far more dim understanding than God desires. Each person has their unique defiling agents, but each accomplish the same end of obfuscating our view of God’s truth. I’m hoping you agree with me that we each do this to varying degrees. I believe that our role as God’s children and Christ’s brothers and sisters is to bring ourselves into the presence of the Divine for ongoing cleaning of our mirror. This way we might journey towards that full knowing Paul speaks about.
Our view of knowledge is typically very cerebral. This is fair, if we are to look at the sciences. Whether or not I know how to perform a triple bypass or know the stages of mitosis is entirely cerebral. However, it is different to know a person. I know my mother loves me, but I know it differently when she hugs me. You could say I know it in a ‘fuller’ sense. God invites us to know Him, which is much more than the recitation of creeds and propositions. It is to have those eternal truths personally appropriated, so you can see your own life in Christ. It is experiential knowledge.
The problem with experiential knowledge is it has a habit of being wrong, at least if we are to take the Scriptures as authoritative. Frankly, I do not care just how much you think God told you it was okay to embezzle money from your company, I will defer to Ephesians 4:28. There is no experiential knowledge that defies the Scriptures. It is from this danger that conservative, non-Charismatic Christianity (in my experience, anyway) has difficulty with experiential knowledge. Almost as if the only acceptable knowledge is cerebral, lest we fall into heresy. I like this careful attitude, but I believe there’s a middle way between theologically-devoid experience and experience-void theology: Word-based mysticism.
mysticism: experiential theology
It may be a scary word, but it is a historical reality that Christianity has a mystical slant. The New Testament is replete with profoundly mystical ideas. How is it that we are Christ’s body (1 cor 12:27) when he has his own body? How are we born again (john 3:5)? In what sense will we be ‘like him when we see him as he is’ (1 john 3:2)? How is God three and one (matt 28:19)? How can God be man (col 2:9)? How are we to become ‘partakers of the Divine nature’ (2 peter 1:4)? These are not like the stages of mitosis that can be grasped, analysed and put down. These are realities beyond the capacities of reason that will never run dry. They are truths of which we can only grasp around the edges. This grasping is a good thing, as it serves a dual purpose. One is to utilise the God-given tool of language to understand what He has us to understand. The second is to realise just how lowly we are in our creaturely capacity. I think it was Calvin who said God talks down to us as you would a child, because that is all we can grasp.
Paul’s point in 1 cor 13 is profound. Knowing ‘fully’ is relative, of course. We will never comprehend God like the stages of mitosis. But we will never cease to deepen in our experiential knowledge of Him, His love for us, and His providence. Mysticism is recognising the enormity of God beyond understanding, seeing the Creator-creature distinction as well as the unity enjoyed in Christ simultaneously. It is hard to put into words, and it always will be, because experiential knowledge can never be purely conveyed by language.
I am a novice when it comes to mysticism, but I see it as a great stream of historical Christianity with insight for those of us who want to enjoy a deeper, experiential relationship with God governed by the Word. Our experience is inherently unreliable. I can walk into a Pentecostal church or into a Hindu monastery and hear of a similar experience of peace or love or gratitude. The mystics were well aware of this and often distinguished between the ‘True Light’ and ‘False Light’ of mystical experience, noting that both provided a similar experience but came from different, opposing sources. The True Light is characterised by its contribution to the faithful service of the Christian. It is God’s righteous exposition of the truth to the person to further enable their service to Him. It is not Gnostic secrets, but deepening the understanding of what is already revealed. It’s for this reason that I want to engage with these practices in a way that is thoroughly governed by the Word, to make recognising the True Light the priority while engaging with wisdom from the past of how others guided by the Holy Spirit have enjoyed a deep relationship with God.
Regardless of your theological tradition, I hope what I write might be of some use in your own exploration of God’s Word and thus Himself. In case you were wondering, I am thoroughly committed to the reliability of Scripture and it being the vehicle of the Holy Spirit’s action of delivering Christ to us so He might indwell us. I’m a confessional Lutheran with all that entails. I hope this can be a place for you and I to contemplate what God has revealed as we live as sojourners on the way to see Christ face to face.
an important caveat for uneasy people (update)
Reflecting in the last few months (and having read much more widely) I thought it might be good to clarify something. The brand of mysticism I’m endorsing is thoroughly rooted in three primary thinkers: Bernard of Clairvaux, John Tauler and the anonymous author of the Theologia Germanica. These, I think, are some of the only truly ‘safe hands’ I’ve come across in this theological tradition of mysticism. I don’t blame you if you’re not a fan of the word, and perhaps it best I don’t use it either. Or I can help redeem it.
I think the primary drawback of most mystical thought it that it borders a kind of non-Trinitarian pantheism (or embraces it! Looking at you, Meister Eckhart). The three thinkers listed above (along with John Ruusbroec) are all united by a common theme: theology first. The experience of God is the experience of the truth of God’s revelation. It is too see in a mirror…less dimly. Anyone who teaches otherwise, that we have some experience of God’s oneness or find within us the spark of divinity, is teaching non-Christian nonsense.