What do visualization (Ignatian Examen or kataphatic prayer), silence, solitude, lectio divina, labyrinth prayers, Stations of the Cross, chanting, induced visions, centering prayer, centering down, and astral projection all have in common? The answer is they are all forms of mysticism (spirituality) that has been flooding the evangelical world over recent years. I can pretty well guarantee that if you have not yet encountered these you soon will.
Now let me say up front that spirituality, or Christian experience of God, is very much part of what it means to be a Christian. I am appalled by some today (such as Old Life Presbyterians) who have little or no time for Christian experience and dismiss it as mere emotionalism or pietism. In fact, the pietistic movement in Germany in the C17 began as a healthy biblical reaction to the rigid dogma-driven orthodoxy of the Lutheran church married to a high ecclesiology that, not unlike modern old-lifers, discouraged devotional fervour in the faith of believers.
We must not dismiss Christian experience. We are converted that we may know God, not merely know about him. Salvation brings us not only into union with Christ but into communion with him. We enjoy his presence. We know what is to ‘dwell in God’. We are called into the fellowship of the Father and Son, for all who love Christ and keep his word know what it is for the Father and Son to come and make their home in them (Jn 14:22). Christian experience is abiding in God and God abiding in us (1 Jn 4:15,16). This is much more than a proper standing, or a theological system, it is relationship and intimacy that brings us into all that God is. Where the affections are not engaged Christianity is not realized.
However, while communion with God in Christ is what we are called to as Christians, like every other aspect of Christianity Satan is only too ready to corrupt and distort it. C17 Pietism began well but in time was enticed into various spiritual experiences that had no roots in the gospel and belonged more to mere mysticism with its emphasis on ecstatic visions of the soul and altered states of consciousness created by ‘spiritual techniques’ rather than beholding the glory of God in Jesus Christ (2 Cor 3).
Such mysticism did not originate in the C17. It plagued the church from its inception. We have been focussing in recent posts on various aspects of the heresy that harried the Colossian church. We noted that this heresy was a hydran mixture of philosophy (human wisdom trumping revealed truth), Judaism (human religiosity and laws for holiness becoming a substitute for grasping what it means to have died with Christ to this world), and finally mysticism. This mysticism was false and dangerous because it offered spiritual experience detached from a singular focus on the revealed Christ.
This danger Paul addresses in the Colossian church when he writes:
Col 2:18-19 (ESV)
Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
Some, it appears, were advocating religious experience through intermediaries (angels) and visionary states of consciousness, perhaps induced through bodily deprivation, that had nothing to do with looking at Christ. However, these are man-made spiritualities. They appear wise but are really self-made religion (Col 2:23) for they are not about the simplicity of holding on by faith to the risen and reigning Christ.
The simple reality is, not all spiritualities are authentically spiritual. Nowadays the desire for a Christian spirituality is leading some into rather strange places. Modern mystics like Dallas Willard and Richard Foster promote forms of spirituality that have a lot more to do with Roman Catholic mysticism than genuine biblical faith. Classic medieval mysticism was virtually unknown in Evangelicalism until popularised by Foster in his ‘Celebration of Discipline, the Path of Spiritual Growth‘. Voted by Christianity Today as one of the ten best books of the C20, Foster introduced all kinds of dubious mystical techniques into the evangelical consciousness.
How do we stop genuine pursuit of God being corrupted by a false kind of mysticism? Let me try to answer this question in terms of a few propositions.
true spirituality never divorces itself from objective truth
The Christian gospel is objective truth we are called to believe (Jn 20:31). Indeed, we grow in the knowledge of God only as he has revealed himself in Jesus Christ (Jn 17:3). There is a tendency in Christian mysticism to pay only lip-service to revealed truth. As one writer observes,
The essence of mysticism lies in this, that the seat of authority is transferred in the mind of the mystic from the external Word of God to the spiritual consciousness — the “spiritual man” — internal to themselves. Homage of quite an orthodox kind may be verbally rendered to the Scriptures, and yet they may be largely displaced. It has little or no restraining effect upon the flights of his imagination. He quotes it of course, but only as supporting or illustrating or adorning his own conceptions of truth. His conceptions become the primary thing on which the main emphasis must be laid. Scripture must be interpreted in the light of those conceptions, and its words become of secondary importance.
Evelyn Underhill, a leading Anglo-Catholic mystic of the early C20 confirms the truth of this criticism in saying,
“Mysticism, according to its historical and psychological definitions, is the direct intuition or experience of God; and a mystic is a person who has, to a greater or less degree, such a direct experience — one whose religion and life are centered, not merely on an accepted belief or practice, but on that which the person regards as first hand personal knowledge.”
Where quests to know God are not founded on what the God who has made himself known has objectively revealed for faith to grasp they soon wind-up as merely fanciful experiences. The subjective trumps the objective and the mystic becomes ‘puffed up with their sensuous mind‘ (Col 2). The Quakers (or Society of Friends) are a classic example of where for many ‘inner light’ has replaced revealed truth; connection with the head is lost.
true spirituality focusses on an exalted Christ outside of self and not on Christ within
It is true, and wonderfully so, that Christ dwells in the heart of every believer by faith. Yet it is equally true that we are told to focus on the exalted Christ outside of ourselves and not the Christ within. The gospel does not encourage pre-occupation with what is happening inside of us. Instead Paul exhorts,
Col 3:1-4 (ESV)
If then you have been 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 appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
It is the risen and exalted Christ in glory who is the object of faith and adoration. We look to Jesus who has triumphantly completed the life of faith and is now seated at the right hand of God. (Hebs 12:2). Looking within merely leads to self-absorption the very opposite to the self-forgetfulness that the gospel creates. The kind of mysticism that calls for navel-gazing is not biblical spirituality.
true spirituality has Christ as its object and not spiritual experience itself
The inclination of fallen humanity is to be self-absorbed. Our human tendency is to make much of ourselves. We like to be the centre of everything. If we give in to this everything becomes false. The flesh loves its own reasoning, its religious observance, and its own religious consciousness. The gospel, however, always takes the focus away from us and on places it on Christ.
False mysticism is interested in religious experience rather than Christ. It deals largely with ourselves, and our own state and apprehension of the truth. It is occupied not with divine realities themselves, but with how we become conscious of those realities, and of the way they work out certain results in us.
Lectio Divina, meaning “sacred reading,” is a technique that moves beyond the normal reading the Bible. It aims at going beyond the objective meaning of the words to that which transcends normal awareness. One writer instructs,
‘As you attend to those deeper meanings, begin to meditate on the feelings and emotions conjured up in your inner self.’
Notice how the technique subtly turns us in on ourselves and our consciousness. It is not about God, it is about us.
Mysticism has about it an apparent profundity of thought and utterance. It promises a far greater depth of understanding, which is alluring, and especially to minds of a certain contemplative type, fundamentally disposed towards introspection and self-occupation. We can be sure such self-occupation is not biblical spirituality. As even the Roman Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton writes
‘If I were to say that Christianity came into the world specially to destroy the doctrine of the Inner Light, that would be an exaggeration. But it would be very much nearer to the truth… Of all conceivable forms of enlightenment the worst is what these people call the Inner Light. Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within. Any one who knows any body knows how it would work; anyone who knows anyone from the Higher Thought Centre knows how it does work. That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones… Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain. The only fun of being a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely recognised an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners’.
true spirituality is not merely aspirations after God in Christ but present enjoyment of him
A feature of much false mysticism is that it is about un-realised desire. It pants for God but never seems to find him. It longs to know love but never experiences it. Now we must be careful here for there is always that which is aspirational in faith. Paul wishes to ‘know Christ’ and reaches out to what he has not yet attained, HOWEVER, this is within the context of already knowing and enjoying Christ. The love of God is already shed abroad in his heart (Roms 5). He already ‘knows the love of Christ which is beyond knowing’ (Eph 3:19). Yes we wish to be filled with all the fulness of God (Eph 3:20) but we are already ‘filled’ in Christ, the one in whom the fulness of the Godhead dwells (Col 2:9).
We not only desire Christ, we have Christ. He is the present satisfying object of our love and adoration. We delight in him, enjoy him, and are complete in him. In the Spirit he is already for us a spring of water springing up to eternal life, eternally satisfying.
John 4:13-14 (ESV)
Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
Desire and love are not exactly the same. Desire is never satisfied. It does not possess the object of desire, but love does. Love supposes that we have full possession of the object of our desires. Love does not so much desire as delight in the one loved. Mysticism, absorbed as it is with self and feelings, never gets beyond desire; while simple Christianity, giving the knowledge of salvation, puts us into full possession of the love of God. I know that I am loved and I know the one I love. Indeed, my very love is self-forgetful, for that is what true love is. Desire turns one in on oneself while love takes one out of oneself and rests on the object loved.
In Christianity, I dwell in love, divine love. In peace, I contemplate this love, and I adore it in Christ. I dwell in Him and He in me. In God, and contemplation of him, I am deeply and completely filled and satisfied. He satisfies the longing soul and fills the hungry with good things (Ps 107:9). Love, peace, joy and unspeakable glory are not elusive but enjoyed realities in Christ. Yes, I long for more, but I do so from one who is satisfied. He has already filled the hungry with good things (Lk 1:53). This biblical tension is important to maintain.
true spirituality is not technique-driven but simply adores God in the risen Christ
A criticism that can be rightly levelled at many spiritualities ancient and modern (for the modern are only the ancient resuscitated) is the degree to which they are technique-driven. All involve processes to create transcendence. Now this immediately rings alarm bells, firstly because there is something contrived and manipulated about such techniques, and, secondly, because these ‘techniques’ are hard to find in Scripture. Sometimes verses are cited in support but often these are asked to deliver much more than they are able. We have to ask of many of these ‘techniques’ why they are not plainly exhorted in Scripture.
On so-called ‘centering prayer’ (focussing on a single word like ‘love’ or ‘God’ to clear the mind of other thoughts) Tony Campolo comments,
‘In my case intimacy with Christ has developed gradually over the years, primarily through what Catholic mystics call ‘centering prayer.’ Each morning, as soon as I wake up, I take time-sometimes as much as a half hour-to center myself on Jesus. I say his name over and over again to drive back the 101 things that begin to clutter up my mind the minute I open my eyes. Jesus is my mantra, as some would say.’
Letters to a Young Evangelical Pg 20
Henri Nouwen the late Roman Catholic mystic popular in Evangelical circles explains,
“The quiet repetition of a single word can help us to descend with the mind into the heart … This way of simple prayer … opens us to God’s active presence” (The Way of the Heart, p. 81)
Yet we are obliged to ask where such a technique is commended in Scripture? Notice too, Nouwen, is taking us into ourselves rather than outside ourselves. This is deadly, for immediately we ‘lose connection with the head’ (Col 2).
True spirituality or Christian mysticism is that which contemplates the truth of God revealed in the gospel of Christ. It is firmly anchored in objective truth and arises from it. It recognises that in holding fast to the head is the way of spiritual experience and reality. Faith and love look without and not within.
More observations could be made. We could consider the suspect role of spiritual directors in mysticism. However, I hope what has been said so far gives cause for caution and reflection before buying into the ‘spiritualities’ on offer in the evangelical world at the moment. Never fail to ask what is the central concern and focus – religious consciousness or the revealed and reigning Christ?
I suggest for further reading an article by D A Carson written some years ago. Below are his opening paragraphs.
The current interest in spirituality is both salutary and frightening.
It is salutary because in its best forms it is infinitely to be preferred over the assumed philosophical materialism that governs many people, not only in the western world but in many other parts as well. It is salutary wherever it represents a self-conscious rebellion against the profound sense of unreality that afflicts many churches. We speak of “knowing” and “meeting with” and “worshiping” the living God, but many feel that the corporate exercises are perfunctory and inauthentic, and in their quietest moments they wonder what has gone wrong.
It is frightening because “spirituality” has become such an ill-defined, amorphous entity that it covers all kinds of phenomena an earlier generation of Christians, more given to robust thought than is the present generation, would have dismissed as error, or even as “paganism” or “heathenism.” Today “spirituality” is an applause-word—that is, the kind of word that is no sooner uttered than everyone breaks out in applause. In many circles it functions in the spiritual realm the way “apple pie” functions in the culinary realm: Who is bold enough to offer a caution, let alone a critique?
Carson is just the man to do so.