What do Christian mystics believe?
Hidden in this question is really two questions:
- Do Christians mystics believe what other Christians believe?
- Do Christian mystics believe something different from what other Christians believe?
Let’s look at each of these in turn
The Belief of Christian Mystics — as Christians
Anyone interested in the beliefs of Christian mystics will naturally be curious to know, “do Christian mystics believe the same things as other Christians?” It’s an almost impossible question to answer, simply because there are so many differences within Christianity itself. Consider the denominational differences: Orthodox Christians, Catholic Christians, mainline Protestants, Evangelicals, Pentecostal/Charismatic Christians all espouse different beliefs — sometimes just minor differences, sometimes dramatically different. Then factor in how different Christians around the world have different cultural backgrounds, different political or philosophical viewpoints, and even different personality types, and the variety of different beliefs becomes even more apparent. To use a simple example that many people in the USA will be able to relate to: consider the difference between a seminary-trained liberal Episcopalian and a fundamentalist evangelical who does not share the same academic background — and it’s easy to see that, while they both identify as Christian, the way they understand what that means, what it requires of them, and how it shapes their worldview and values, could not be more dissimilar.
You can easily find educated, informed Christians — in the same denomination, or even in the same local congregation or parish — who conscientiously believe different things about God, or different things about the Bible, or have a different understanding of how science and religion should interact, or a different way of understanding what it means to be human (which can affect everything from morality to political beliefs to medical ethics). And while one of those Christians might say “Only one of us can be right,” the other one may very well respond “God has made us different for a reason, and so there’s room for differences of opinion within Christianity, even when our beliefs conflict.”
Then there’s the question of how the beliefs of mystics (or mystically-minded) Christians have evolved over time. For example: very few Christians today believe that God created the world in just six days. But a thousand years ago, in a world that lacked the scientific knowledge of our time, such a belief may not have been considered unreasonable. Likewise, while many Christians today may see the the devil as a mythical figure who symbolically represents how evil seems to function as a force in its own right, at a previous time in history more Christians would have accepted the idea that Lucifer is an actual, real being who meddles in human affairs in a negative way. It would be a mistake to say only one of these beliefs is “Christian” — both are Christian, shaped by the age in which they are espoused — and both are very much at odds with each other.
I’m belaboring this point to make a simple but important observation: it’s dangerous to get too caught up in making grand pronouncements about “what Christians believe.” Because there’s just too much diversity and difference of perspectives. I think the best we can hope for is to chart some broad generalizations that most Christians might accept. I am no authority on the diversity of Christian doctrine and beliefs, so all I can do here is offer my take on what some of those broad generalizations might be. Others, many of whom are much more educated or informed than I am, might disagree. But we have to start somewhere! So here are seven broad, general beliefs that I imagine most Christians would accept, more or less — including mystics who are Christians. People who identify as mystics but not as Christian, naturally, would probably not accept most or all of these principles. But our topic is the beliefs of Christian mystics. So here goes:
- Like most Christians, Christian mystics believe there is more to life than what can be empirically measured or scientifically observed. Christians believe in a more-than-material world: a spiritual world, in which God, angels, prayer, miracles, life after death, all are accepted either at face value, or at least as mythical or metaphorical descriptions of authentic realities. Not all Christians like the word “God” (some critique it as patriarchal, for example), but virtually all accept that there is an Omega Point of sentient power and creativity that is real, loving, and accessible. For Christians, spirituality is objectively real, and more than just a playground of the imagination.
- Like most Christians, Christian mystics believe that the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth is a meaningful guide to spirituality. Many people embrace a world-view that includes a spiritual dimension — but then what map(s) can we rely on to explore this spiritual reality? Perhaps the single most clear marker of “Christian belief” is this: a willingness to engage with Jesus, the one called the Christ. Many Christians believe many different things about Jesus: what his relationship to God is like, why he did what he did, how his teachings are to be interpreted and applied. But I suspect that all people who are seriously engaged with Christianity are united in saying “Jesus — and his teachings — matter.”
- Like most Christians, Christian mystics take seriously the teachings of the Biblical tradition: the Jewish scriptures and tradition that shaped Jesus, as well as the teachings of his earliest followers and disciples. The Bible is a collection of writings regarded as sacred by the Jewish community — what Christians call the Old Testament — along with a second set of writings that are the foundational documents of the Christian tradition. These sacred scriptures include myth, history, poetry, wisdom literature, prophetic writings, prayers, canticles, Psalms, along with Gospels (interpretations of the life and teachings of Jesus), letters of instruction written by early leaders, and apocalyptic or visionary/revelatory writings. Christians vary widely in how seriously they think the Bible should be taken: whether it makes more sense to read it literally or metaphorically, whether it should be reinterpreted in the light of secular knowledge like science and philosophy, and so forth. But all Christians see it as an essential text for getting to know Jesus, his teachings, the backstory of his life, and the origins of the spiritual movement that developed in response to him.
- Like most Christians, Christian mystics are at least open to the teaching that God is a Trinity: One God whom we encounter as three persons. Not all followers of Jesus are trinitarian, but most of the lineages within Christianity — Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Protestantism, Evangelicalism, Pentecostalism — accepts the idea that God is simultaneously one (the essential meaning of monotheism) and three — manifested as three distinct persons: the father/creator, the son/savior, and the spirit/sustainer. Some may see this as merely a philosophical compromise that early Christians worked out so they could have their monotheistic cake and eat it (three different ways) too; but others see it as a rich teaching in its own right: the inherent nature of God includes love, relationship, community, intimacy, and familial bonds, for starters. Add to that the Biblical principle that human beings are created in this God’s image and likeness, and that Christians form “the body of Christ,” and mystical theology opens up into incredible possibilities.
- Like most Christians, Christian mystics find their spirituality shaped, formed and nurtured by the generations of mystics and contemplatives who follow Christ, and who have kept this mystical tradition alive for some 2000 years now. Christianity continues to evolve over time and space (as I alluded to above); every generation yields people who emerge as great teachers, theologians, saints, and yes, mystics; these people affirm the heart of the tradition, but also reinterpret that tradition in meaningful and sometimes surprising ways. Christians not only take Jesus seriously, and take seriously the earliest followers of Jesus, but they also take seriously the wisdom and creativity of followers of Jesus from generation to generation.
- Like most Christians, Christian mystics typically prefer an optimistic and love-centered interpretation of Christian beliefs and teachings, even if they take seriously traditional teachings on sin, judgment, etc. There are many different ways to interpret that stories of God, Jesus, and so forth that are found in the Bible and in the ensuing tradition. The mystics over the ages have likewise interpreted Christian doctrine and beliefs in many ways. But I think it’s fair to say that, generally speaking, the mystics bring a positive, hopeful, and optimistic lens to their way of interpreting Christian teachings. They tend to emphasize God’s love and mercy over God’s wrath and judgment; they tend to focus on Biblical statements that emphasize God’s closeness to us, and that point the way to the idea that a life given over to prayer, meditation, contemplation and service is a life that fosters deep joy and even happiness. “God is Love,” proclaims one of the letters in the New Testament. To the mystics, everything else in the tradition needs to be filtered through that essential declaration.
- Like most Christians, Christian mystics accept the Jewish and Christian doctrines that we are created in the image and likeness of God, that this God is a God of love and justice, and that while this God is profoundly mysterious, this God can be known. Here I’m just filling in some of the details of that optimism I spoke of in #4 and #6. The Bible says we are created in God’s image and likeness. The Bible says that Christian human beings are partakers of the divine nature; we are part of the body of Christ, and we have the mind of Christ. The Bible promises the third person of the Trinity/Triune God: the Holy Spirit, is poured into our hearts in and through Divine Love. It’s a provocatively visionary and adventurous way of framing and understanding Chrstianity. Many people abandon the Christian religion because they see it as a lifeless system of moral rules and legalistic precepts. But for mystics, it’s all about love, and joy, and relationship-building, and service not as duty but as adventure.
There’s so much more that could be said here, but this gives us a start. Now, let’s turn to the second way of interpreting our key question, “What do Christian mystics believe?”
The Belief of Christian Mystics — as Mystics
Mysticism is a universal form or expression of spirituality, and as such, it cannot be limited to any one religious tradition or belief-system. Like prayer, or meditation, or worship — spiritual qualities that can exist both inside and outside of any one religious path — so, too, mysticism is an expression of spirituality that has a Jewish form, a Muslim form, a Hindu form, a Pagan form, and even a Buddhist form1Unlike the other major world religions, Buddhism does not require belief in God, and in some forms actually discourages theism; but it still has a mystical dimension; this shows that mysticism, itself, does not require belief in deity., as well as a Christian form. You can be a Christian without being a mystic2Although I would argue that Christianity without mysticism is incomplete., and you can be a mystic without being a Christian.
So, then, what is it that Christian mystics believe, that may set them apart from other (non-mystical) Christians, but meanwhile unites then with mystics on a global level? First, I should caution that mysticism tends to place more emphasis on experience than on belief, so just as different Christians have sometimes radically different beliefs, the same can certainly be said of mystics. So, again, we are left with nothing more than trying to establish a few broad generalizations about how Christian mysticism is akin to mysticism in general. And like all generalizations, there will be exceptions to pretty much every rule. Nevertheless, I think the following principles offer an introductory perspective in how Christian mysticism is like all “mysticisms” even when this might create some tension between mystical Christianity and other expressions of the faith.
- Like most mystics, Christian mystics tend to prioritize spiritual practices and experience over dogma and doctrine. I have made no secret on my blog that I don’t like the word “experience,” mainly because I think it tempts us to place more emphasis on our experience than on God, who is the ultimate “point” behind mysticism. But even with that disclaimer, I recognize that mysticism is, at heart experiential as opposed to propositional. In other words, it’s more about the heart than the head, more about our embodied sense of spiritual living, rather than just a set of abstract “beliefs” or principles that one is supposed to believe. Even mystics who radically accept the core teachings of Christianity (or any faith) may say that assenting to such beliefs only makes sense when it emerges out of the authority of one’s own inner experience.
- Like most mystics, Christian mystics believe it is possible to experience heightened or altered levels of consciousness that can facilitate a sense of either the presence of God, or union with God. The literature of Christian mysticism is filled with stories of ordinary people who have extraordinary encounters with the mystery they call God: Thomas Aquinas while participating in the Catholic Mass, Julian of Norwich while seriously ill, Ignatius of Loyola while standing on a riverbank, Caryll Houselander while riding on the London Underground, Thomas Merton while standing on a busy street corner. We encounter God in many ways, many situations, many locations, many circumstances. This encounter often takes us by surprise. But it seems to entail a marvelous (if not miraculous) sense of a heightened awareness or consciousness, of perception or vision or “knowing,” of a felt sense of God’s presence (or even union with God). These Divine encounters seem to change the person’s life, forever. And yes — it happens to “normal” people, too, not just famous saints or mystics.
- Like most mystics, Christian mystics find meditation, contemplation, silence, solitude, stillness, and asceticism (a life of intentional simplicity and even austerity) to help to facilitate the encounter with God. Christian mysticism insists that these consciousness-expanding encounters with the Divine cannot be orchestrated or engineered by human effort; they are always a free gift from God, an expression of divine grace. Nevertheless, we human beings can do things to dispose ourselves to the action of the Spirit in our hearts. These, then, are the spiritual practices that are both characteristic of Christian mysticism specifically but also world mysticism in general. Practices such as meditation or contemplation, or cultivating silence and solitude, or fostering simplicity and even austerity in life (clearing the decks, as it were, to make room for the action of the Spirit in your heart). Indeed, this website has an entire section devoted to the practice of mystical spirituality — check it out to explore this aspect of mysticism in greater detail.
- Like most mystics, Christian mystics rely on poetry and art as well as philosophy or theology to communicate their experience — but also playfully insist that mystical experience ultimately cannot be put into words. This may not be a “belief” so much as simply a characteristic: mystics tend to be creative expressionists, and tend to rely on writing, music, poetry, art, iconography, to help them express what is truly inexpressible or ineffable. While some mystics are philosophers, and indeed brilliant ones, more seem to gravitate toward expression that is playful, paradoxical, allusive, and humbly acknowledging that it’s trying to put into words what simply cannot be described. Mysticism, after all, is related to mystery!
- Like most mystics, Christian mystics place a high value on ethics, morality, and the quest for justice — cultivating a rich interior life does not excuse one from working to make the world (and the self) a better place. With the emphasis on meditation and contemplation, it’s tempting to wonder if mystics aren’t escapists — and the fact that mystical spirituality has often thrived in monasteries and convents seems to support that thesis. But there is a long tradition of mystics as religious or social reformers, activists for political or economic justice, and visionary, prophetic figures who literally and metaphorically call the world into a better way of responding to Divine love. Over the past century, Howard Thurman, Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, Mother Teresa, and Simone Weil are just a few examples of mystics who were also social activists (or vice versa). Mystics are not just into loving God, but also loving the world, overflowing from that Divine Love.
Plenty more to say here, but hopefully these broad generalizations will give you a sense of how mystics understand the world we live in — and their place in it. Remember: it all begins with God-who-is-Divine-Love, and — for Christians — Jesus-as-the-human-incarnation-of-that-Love. Mysticism is the spirituality of radically and in an embodied way, responding to that Divine Love, and then allowing the adventure of falling in love with Love to form and shape a life of silence, stillness and joy. It’s truly an adventure.