Acts of worship must be tested by the degree to which they remain living channels for the direct release of God into the life of the worshipper. When they become institutionalized they are apt to become dead so the mystic seems always to be the foe of institutional religion. He is very sensitive to the crystallizing of acts of worship into dead forms. It is profoundly true that he does not stand in need of the institution or the institutional forms as such. Even in Catholicism any careful reading of the testimony of the mystics convinces one that the church has no real friend in the mystic.
— Howard Thurman
These words from Howard Thurman can be found on pages 114-5 of the book A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience and Public Life. The quote comes from a lecture series titled “Mysticism & Social Change,” which Thurman originally delivered in 1939 to Eden Theological Seminary in Missouri. “The mystic seems always to be the foe of institutional religion… the church has no real friend in the mystic.” Powerful words, indeed.
Almost 85 years ago, one of the leading mystics of American Christianity flatly declared that to be a mystic is to be called to a prophetic place where one no longer can simply confirm to the expectations of the institutional church. Mysticism implies a living and ever-present relationship with God, and that in turn implies a higher loyalty than one could ever offer to any human tribe or organization, not even one supposedly under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Make no mistake: Thurman is not saying we should simply reject communal faith altogether. He is critiquing institutionalism, not community. For Thurman a mystic “is very sensitive to the crystallizing of acts of worship into dead forms.” He is commenting here on the tendency in some (maybe all) churches for worship to become “crystallized” into “dead forms.” Is the social act of corporate worship a meaningful, living encounter with the Mystery, or simply a rote ritual that gets rehashed every week because “that’s the way we’ve always done it”?
It’s interesting to reflect on this quote from Thurman in light of the famous line from Karl Rahner, “the Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist.” If we can be so bold as to put these quotations side be side, is perhaps the future of Christianity (as a community of faith) either an ever-diminishing cycle of institutionalized organizations that offer dissatisfying worship experiences, constrained by the ever-narrowing understanding of what is “acceptable” to the institution — or, alternatively, a renewed vitality that will come not through institutional structures, but only through each individual’s freely received and freely offered encounter with the liberating and life-giving spirit of God?
And keep in mind: Thurman is offering these thoughtful words before World War II, before Vatican II, before the explosion of interest in eastern and indigenous spiritualities that have shaped America’s religious landscape over the last half century. Today we live in a culture where more and more people choose to be spiritual but not religious, and the younger a person is, the more likely they will see no good reason for being engaged with church. Thurman’s nuanced understanding of the relationship between mysticism and institutionalism is a helpful reminder that the crisis facing Christianity today is not something that has just happened in the last 30 to 60 years. The problem has been around for a while.
If you have to choose between the intimate freedom of mystical spirituality and the conformist orderliness of institutional religion, Thurman is clear what his choice would be. Becoming a mystic means going to that place where you no longer need the institutional church. Of course, the church needs mystics — desperately so — even though there is much hostility to mysticism within the institution. Some mystics, like Thurman or Thomas Merton or Evelyn Underhill, remain embedded in the institutional church, as an act of service — like choosing to be a firefighter, entering a burning building to help rescue those who are trapped within it. But some other mystics may conscientiously choose to simply leave the institution that has become so unfriendly to mystics. It’s a choice that every contemplative must make for themself.