On Mystical Theology: Christian Spirituality

Mysticism, as a subject, comes out of the early seventeenth century academy and is a byproduct of the Enlightenment.[1] But, as I will show, its concepts are interwoven throughout the whole Christian narrative. This is not so much about the seventeenth century’s academic theories as it is a study on the nature of relationship between creature and Creator. I address what Bernard McGinn calls Christian “belief and practice that concerns the preparation for, the consciousness of and the reaction to what can be described as the immediate or direct presence of God.”[2] This is a matter of relationship to that which Albert Schweitzer refers when the “finite will-to-live experiences union with the infinite will in which all life is one.”[3]

Mysticism and its partner, spirituality, are about the authentic nature of relationship. Here is found the entry point of encounter with the super nature of ontological reality. Of this, the twentieth century Evelyn Underhill notes that “only the supernatural possess reality.”[4] She describes mysticism as active, practical, “not passive and theoretical,” an organic life process “done by the whole self,” not an “intellectual opinion” or philosophy. It is “not occultic.” It is “an organic process which involves the consummation of the Love of God.” Further, without spirituality and the acceptance of mysticism there is no sound theology.[5]

Mystical theology comes out of a long tradition. It is the result of an active process of purification, illumination (including meditation and contemplation) and unification. Therefore, it indicates a spirituality that is the source of authentic relationship with the Triune God. Theologian Mark McIntosh points out that theology’s inner character is “itself a form of spirituality.”[6] Mysticism is concerned with the creaturely union with the Creator in order to participate with the Divine nature.[7] It is a tradition that establishes a pattern of leaving one’s assumed human nature to discover its intended nature – adhesion to a principled life in Christ.[8]

Relationships are fundamentally rooted in God, as McIntosh says, requiring participation in the “mystery of the reality it desires to know.” I might add that to enter into this relationship requires risk taking that moves one to the place where knowing and unknowing meet. I think this is what the fifth or sixth century Pseudo-Dionysius has in mind when he, in his Mystical Theology, instructs: In order to have union with God, “leave behind you everything perceived and understood, everything perceptible and understandable, all that is not and all that is…strive…as much as you can toward union with [the one] who is beyond…”[9] I think McIntosh would agree as he continues that “the ever deeper divine mystery [is] at the heart of human, personal mystery – understanding [it] requires involvement, practice [and] participation.”[10]

The point of this relationship is not to achieve an inner state. But, it is to actively engage in the relationship that one has been invited into by God. McIntosh says it this way. “Spirituality [is] a form of life engendered and initiated by…other.” Other “beckons one from provisional existence into real life, into the unfolding of true personhood, and so ultimately into the most real form of life there is, namely the interpersonal trinitarian life of God.”[11]

A trend from the Enlightenment to the present has been to subjectify the nature of relationship with God to that of inner experience, alone. McIntosh suggests that perhaps the time has come to throw out this approach in favor of an “embodied and contextual mode.”[12] It seems to me that while McIntosh does offer a fair, accurate assessment, he is also generalizing. By this, I mean to say that there are exceptions to his point. Alongside what he is saying, embodiment and contextualization exist within the period he mentions as has existed to greater or lesser extents throughout the entire Christian narrative as we shall see.

Take, for example, the 1866 Samuel John Stone hymn, The Church’s One Foundation.

  1. Yet she on earth hath union with God the Three in One, and mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won: O happy ones and holy! Lord, give us grace that we like them, the meek and lowly, may live eternally.

Today, twenty-eight out of every one hundred persons, if asked on the streets of the United States of America, would likely demure from further conversation on much of this text, in particular, “mystic sweet communion.” Or, if they did engage in the conversation, they might offer a negative view. A Pew Research study published on December 1, 2016 indicates that twenty-eight percent of the population of the United States of America does not believe in the concept of heaven.[13]

Interestingly, Stone was inspired to pen The Church’s One Foundation as a pro-Nicene response to a controversy raised by Bishop John William Colenso of Natal, South Africa who challenged the authenticity and authority of the old covenant canon. Robert Gray, Bishop of Cape Town, responded with a strong defense of the Church’s heritage thereby inspiring Stone’s hymn.[14]

The Church’s One Foundation is a hymn that, in its entirety, explains the saving work of the Triune God in mystical relationship while also relaying the work of Christ through the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist.[15] Consider:

  1. The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord; she is his new creation by water and the Word. From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride; with his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.

It is interesting to note that in this hymn is found a poetic definition of the Greek new covenant word, mysterion. This term refers, not to what is unknowable, but to what can only be made clear through God’s revelation. This is to say, God’s self-emptying and salvific work. Or, as Jesus Christ says in the Gospel of Mark: “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God…”[16]

Therefore, the intended nature of all of life is sacramental, spiritual and mystical. The Apostle Paul calls this “the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to the saints.”[17]  Paul, like Stone’s hymn, is referring to the experience of the ecclesia as the Body of Christ for all time that lives in response to the invitation to live in order to die in order to be transformed in the likeness of Christ in relationship with God empowered by the Holy Spirit.[18] It is both the mystical and physical affirming the “goodness of the world and of the continuity between nature and spirit as well as the recognition that the mystic life finds its true expression in active love of neighbor” and contemplative actions.[19]

This brings us to the central doctrinal truth of the Christian faith. It is that truth that speaks to the incarnation of Jesus Christ – true God conjoined with true creatureliness “by whom, and with whom, and in whom” as the celebrant declares in the celebration of the sacrament of Holy Eucharist leading up to the Great AMEN.[20] Sacraments, such as the Eucharist, point to the sacramental nature of life in Christ and suggest that a mystical relationship is to be expected. This relationship “is based on the premise that the purified soul, because it partakes of divinity, can finally come to see and perceive the God who is love.”[21] Our encounters with God’s self-giving out of love transcend all else, are gifts of abundant grace and result in deep peace that surmounts human understanding.[22] These are gifts that extend across place and time – past, present and future.

In The Practice of Faith: A Handbook of Contemporary Spirituality, Karl Rahner writes about what he expects the Christian experience to look like in the future. He says that the Christian experience will be a mystical one where a “genuine experience of God [emerges] from existence.”[23]  While this may be so for the future, it also seems a fitting description for any time. What is the Christian experience? It is nothing less than an encounter with the Gospel message which is to say nothing less than the restoration of all things through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ empowering God’s infused people with the Holy Spirit. McIntosh points out that this is not theory, but fact. “[T]he act of salvation becomes the lens by which everything else is perceived and understood.” Therefore, he concludes that, first and foremost, the Christian salvation experience bears witness to its mystery.[24]

But, how is that experience expressed? Language is not experience. It conveys experience through nuance. Bernard McGinn sees that mysticism’s primary obstacle is language. One thing mystics know “is that the experience itself defies conceptualization and verbalization, in part or in whole.”[25] McGinn’s observation presents a challenge, but, within his challenge also lies the opportunity that we see playing out as language continually expands to convey experience. We see this through the ages as humankind grapples to come to terms with its experience in relationship with the Divine reality. The opportunity is for an expansion of language so that experiences of mysticism, of spirituality, may be more fully understood and communicated with others. This is the attempt of language, whether written or conversational, in sacred texts or in dialogue with the saints of the past or the present.

What comes first is the mystical that finds its source in the triune God, the truth of Divine reality. Efforts to explain come from the human reaction to make sense of the something of experience to the extent that one is aware either as an individual or as a member of a group. Encounter is the predecessor of experience. Consider that before the written word, the proverbial word was encountered, experienced and shared as part of the oral tradition. This understanding heightens the impact of the Genesis creation narratives, stories of God’s mystical acts of creation, retold through generations before ever being codified as written record. From “darkness” and “formless void,” God creates then dwells within creation including humankind.[26]

Job provides an example of one transformed in relationship to God and God’s creation. From his experience, Job learned that a relationship with God has spiritual roots that stem from a mystical center. God reveals himself to not be the God of human rationality and justice that Job expects. Rather, God is a God inviting spiritual relationship with creation in the present moment. Job learns that there is a world of difference between knowledge as possession and knowledge as communion. “Job [risks] the security and certainty of a carefully worked out theory of existence and [suffers] his way into a rich and rewarding experience of life.” In Job, we meet one called into union with God beyond all human rationality. Yet, paradoxically, we also learn that to be in loving union with God does not necessarily demand “permanent withdrawal from the hurly-burly of the world.”[27]

I think that this is what Paul has in mind when he instructs followers of Christ to die to old ways and “be renewed in the spirit of [their] minds, and to clothe [themselves] with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness”[28] as we see in the example of Job. God’s way of mystical union with God’s people is transformational. Be “raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly…”[29] Paul, of course, is not the only new covenant writer on Jesus Christ as a mystagogue.

The writer of John’s Gospel relates that Jesus Christ who is present since the world began enters the world as Logos. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life…and the life was the light of all people…He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own…to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…full of grace and truth.”[30] For the patristics such as Clement, Origin and Philo, Logos is the “hermeneutical key [opening] a vast treasury of meaning, giving access to God’s eternal will for creation; the exegetical process of arriving at this new knowledge is referred to as mystical and the knowledge comes also to be designated as such…the exegetical process [is] the mystical journey in which communion with the living Christ leads the Christian towards God.”[31] Modern era Anglican priest and theologian, William Ralph Inge agrees. Finding authentic mysticism in the Doctrine of the Word of John’s Gospel is a contemplative encounter with the incarnational Christ that actualizes “the attempt to realize, in thought and feeling, the immanence of the temporal in the eternal, and of the eternal in the temporal.”[32]

Contemplation, as has been alluded to earlier, is the activity of uniting with the Word made flesh. As Butler framed it, “Contemplation at its highest level is identical with the mystical experience.”[33] As such, it offers an alternate possibility of spiritual and intellectual being. Lewis Ayers, in his book, Augustine and the Trinity, points out that contemplation is both Augustinian and pro-Nicene. Contemplation “casts all knowing and seeing prior to that state as faith and not sight, albeit a faith heading towards sight.” For Augustine, contemplation is both intellectual and spiritual,[34] not a splitting of the spiritual from the intellectual as is the case with the Enlightenment’s academic approach to mysticism.

Contemplation, prayer and scriptural meditation form the transporting framework that takes one from the place of God’s invitation to the place of God’s uniting. This is a unitive process, Rahner explains, that relates “mysterious identity” with the Trinitarian God as the “most intimate reality” – our source, our present and final destination, never humanistic and always the God of both the old and new covenants adored in “spirit and in truth.”[35]  This direct relationship is both personal and corporate. McIntosh points out that, “Christians perceive this trinitarian life as beyond their understanding yet infinitely full of meaning.”[36]  It is always about the knowledge of death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is an active protest to humanism. It reflects learnings from the past with a life directed to the present and the future as part of God’s ontological nature.[37]

Those who know this firsthand practice God’s presence believing, hoping and loving. The seventeenth century lay monk, Brother Lawrence, observes: “All things are possible to [the one] who believes, they are less difficult to [the one] who hopes, they are easier to him who loves and still more easy to [the one] who practices and perseveres in these three virtues.”[38]

The fourteenth century anchoress, Julian of Norwich, well knows of this. She spent a lifetime making sense of her own experiences of ontological transformation that moved from life to pain and near death to her life’s deepest purpose – testifying to the mystical experience of union with God, a revelation of Divine Love, not just for her, as she says, but for all of God’s faithful. Before all was made, all was loved.[39] Julian sees that all was created to be in unitive relationship with God, “in whom we are enclosed.”[40]

Even so, the current state of the world is one that is currently preoccupied with owning knowledge while simultaneously dismissing mystical identity. Rahner warns that as time continues onward humankind’s mystical identity will be less sociologically supported. Out of this will come a reality of living “much more clearly than hitherto out of a solitary, immediate experience of God and [God’s] Spirit [within].”[41] It seems to me that Rahner’s warning is being realized. This struggle is the root cause of the lack of communion present in the world today.

This lack of communion is killing life and not just humankind’s, literally. Humanity toys with reimaging life without mysticism, without spirituality, as it attempts to split itself from its super nature – the restoration of all things and unending relationship with God. If successful, the narrative of all things would be altered defying scripture, tradition, reason and experience.

Practically speaking, it seems to me that the canon of scripture would be vastly compromised. Imagine a Bible without Wisdom literature and rewritten books from the Minor and Major Prophets, if a prophetic tradition at all. The Gospel of John and Revelation would not exist along with, possibly, a few others. At risk would be the relationship among creature and Creator. God’s outpouring, self-emptying, full disclosure of self invites one to reach beyond human presumptions to empty self and orient to God. Human history and its narrative indicate that self-emptying includes pain, as in the examples of Job and Jesus Christ. But, as McIntosh concludes, “the finite gift of self ultimately discloses what is irreversible in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.”[42] Ultimate reality has come and will come. It, fortunately, is a reality that cannot be unwritten.

© 2016 by Douglas A. Beck

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[1] Bernard McGinn. The Foundations of Mysticism. (New York: The Crossroad Publishing

Company, 1991). 266.

[2] Ibid, xvii.

[3] Ibid, 271.

[4] Evelyn Underhill. Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual

Consciousness. (Mineola: Dover Publications, 2002). 12.

[5] Ibid, 81.

[6] Mark A. McIntosh. Mystical Theology. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1998). 30.

[7] This concept brings to mind II Peter 1:3, NRSV: “His divine power has given us everything

needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.”

[8] McIntosh. 41.

[9] John R. Tyson, ed. Invitation to Christian Spirituality. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). 129.

[10] Ibid, 27.

[11] Ibid, 22.

[12] Ibid, 22.

[13] “Pew Research Center Fact Tank: News in the Numbers,” If the U.S. had 100 people: Charting Americans’ religious beliefs and practices, Pew Research Center, accessed December 3, 2016, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/12/01/if-the-u-s-had-100-people-charting-americans-religious-beliefs-and-practices/

[14] For more on The Church’s One Foundation, Colenso, Gray and Stone see

http://www.hymnary.org/text/the_churchs_one_foundation

[15] Alister E. McGrath. Christian Theology: An Introduction. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).400-401.

[16] excerpted from Mark 4:11, NRSV

[17] Colossians 1:26, NRSV

[18] McIntosh. 41.

[19] McGinn. 275. This is McGinn’s summary of common early twentieth century Anglican

thought espoused by William Ralph Inge, Evelyn Underhill and Kenneth Escot Kirk.

[20] The Book of Alternative Services. (Toronto: Anglican Church Centre, 1985). 245.

[21] McGinn. 273. Here McGinn is reflecting on the thoughts of Inge.

[22] See Philippians 4:7

[23] Tyson. 416.

[24] Mark A. McIntosh. Divine Teaching. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008). 65.

[25] Ibid, xvii.

[26] See Genesis 1-3.

[27] William McNamara. Christian Mysticism. (New York: Continuum, 1995). 31-32.

[28] See Ephesians 4:17-24

[29] Colossians 3:1-5a

[30] John 1:1-5, 9 – 14, NRSV

[31] Mark A. McIntosh. Mystical Theology, 42.

[32] McGinn. 273.

[33] Ibid, 276.

[34] Lewis Ayers. Augustine and the Trinity. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).  147-149.

[35] John 4:24, NRSV

[36] McIntosh. 34.

[37] Tyson. 414 – 416.

[38] Br. Lawrence. The Practice of the Presence of God. (Grand Rapids: Spire Books, 2004). 68.

[39] Julian of Norwich. Julian of Norwich – Showings. (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1978). 342-343

[40] Ibid. 285.

[41] Tyson. 414-416.

[42] McIntosh. 239.

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Ayers, Lewis. Augustine and the Trinity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Book of Alternative Services, The. Toronto: Anglican Church Centre, 1985.

Br. Lawrence. The Practice of the Presence of God. Grand Rapids: Spire Books, 2004.

Julian of Norwich. Julian of Norwich – Showings. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1978.

McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology: An Introduction. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

McGinn, Bernard. The Foundations of Mysticism. New York: The Crossroad Publishing                            Company, 1991.

McIntosh, Mark A. Divine Teaching. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

McIntosh, Mark A. Mystical Theology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1998.

McNamara, William. Christian Mysticism. New York: Continuum, 1995.

Tyson, John R., ed. Invitation to Christian Spirituality: An Ecumenical Anthology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual            Consciousness. Mineola: Dover Publications, 2002.