MYSTICISM: Christian Mysticism And World Mysticism by Carl McColman

The Essential Guide to Contemplative Spirituality

Christian Mysticism And World Mysticism by Carl McColman

From The Big Book of Christian Mysticism

Anyone who loves God is known by him. (1 Corinthians 8:3)

Christians need to think “Nothing” when they call God, “Love.”
Buddhists need to think “Love” when they say, “Emptiness.”
This will at least wake us up to the fact that words must always fall short of the ineffable.
(David Steindl-Rast)

What makes Christian mysticism so, well, Christian?  What is the difference between it and all the other mysticisms out there – including Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism, Sufism (Islamic mysticism), Vedanta (Hindu mysticism), Zen (Buddhist mysticism), and shamanism (indigenous mysticism)?

On the surface, it’s an easy enough question to answer: Christian mysticism is all about Jesus and the Christian faith.  It is carried forward in the wisdom of people who were and are practicing Christians.  Today, however, we live in an era where different faiths and traditions coexist in close cultural proximity.  More and more Christians are practicing Yoga or studying Zen or learning the Kabbalah, blurring the line that separates Christian mysticism from mysticism in general.  While for some this is just fine, for others – especially conservative Christians – it is troublesome.  In fact, many opponents of Christian mysticism, who are usually devout and sincere followers of Jesus, attack it precisely because they see it as a point of vulnerability through which foreign ideas and spiritual practices are infiltrating the one true faith.

Mysticism in the Global Village

In our postmodern, multicultural age, people have unprecedented access to many different religious and spiritual traditions.  While some may ignore this and choose to express their faith by adhering strictly to one religious path, many others experience an understandable desire to find common ground and shared values with those who come from other parts of the world.  In other words, many Christians today are interested in the wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism, or Hasidic Judaism, or Taoism.  This is a good and beautiful thing.  The more we see ourselves as members of a single global community, the more hope we have for peace and shared prosperity.

Indeed, mysticism has become a code word for whatever it is that unites all religions, despite their cultural differences.  As blogger Darrell Grizzle puts it: “Mysticism is that which enabled the Dalai Lama and Thomas Merton to meet in the 1960s and to recognize each other as brothers.”  Such sentiments suggest that mysticism may be the best hope for cultivating a true spirit of peace and goodwill among religions.

Some enthusiastic mysticism-boosters insist that, despite the cultural trappings that separate one religion from another, all mysticism is essentially the same.  Consider this quotation from S. Abhayananda, the author of History of Mysticism: The Unchanging Testament:

Scholars may imagine that a Buddhist experiences one thing, a Vedantist another, and so forth; but one who has experienced It, whether a Sufi, Christian, or Hindu, knows that It is the final Truth, the only One.  There are not different Unitys, one for each sect or denomination; there is only one One, and it is That which is experienced by Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Sufis alike.  It should be obvious that, if there is such a thing as Unity, and if It can be experienced, then the experience must be the same for all; since Unity, by its very definition, by its very nature is one.

Many Christians will disagree with Swami Abhayananda, insisting that Christianity presents a distinct and unique understanding of truth that is higher than the Unity of which he speaks.  Others, both Christian and non-Christian, will agree with him, and may even go so far as to declare that religion is the real culprit since it creates division between people and cultures, unlike spirituality and mysticism, which unites us.  Others might decide that, while it is a nice idea to assume that all mystical experiences are the same, we really have no way of knowing that this is true.  For all we know, what Swami Abhayananda calls “Unity” may be nothing like the experiences of Christian mystics like Teresa of Ávila or Meister Eckhart.

Jesus instructed his followers to be nonjudgmental (Matthew 7:1).  This is probably a good principle to bear in mind when considering the similarities and differences between Christian mysticism and other wisdom traditions.  If you prefer to think of mysticism as the source of unity, beware of the temptation to judge others who prefer to remain anchored in their own particular religion.  If you prefer to focus on what is distinctive and unique about Christian mysticism (or, for that matter, any other type of mysticism), resist the urge to reject those who are eager to see similarities between the religions.  Perhaps both are important.  Perhaps we need both a commitment to preserve what is unique and beautiful in each particular path, and visionaries who seek to create bridges of understanding and harmony that reach across the lines that separate belief systems.

To explore this inclusive idea a bit further, I want to offer what is probably the most whimsical metaphor you’ll ever come across in regard to mysticism.

Mysticism is Like Tofu

While I believe that mysticism can be an important doorway to inter-religious understanding, I’d like to suggest a different way of thinking about it – or at least a different way of thinking about Christian mysticism.  Mysticism is, in fact, like tofu.  When you cook with tofu, it has a fascinating tendency to adopt the flavor of whatever you cook with it.  Scrambled tofu, tofu curry, even barbecue tofu (yes, I’m from the South) all taste more like scrambled eggs or curry or barbecue than like tofu.  Likewise, mysticism thoroughly and completely adopts the flavor and identity of whatever wisdom tradition it inhabits.  Thus, Christian mysticism has an entirely different cultural and religious identity from, say, Vedanta or Zen.

Granted, tofu is tofu, regardless of the recipe you use it in.  Mysticism is mysticism, regardless of the religious or cultural context.  So in that sense, there really is an important unity or mystical wisdom that crosses religious boundaries.  But if you’ve ever eaten plain, uncooked tofu, you’ll notice that it is rather bland.  If tofu’s strength lies in its ability to adapt to whatever dish it’s cooked in, its weakness lies in its lack of defining taste or texture of its own.  Likewise, a “pure” mysticism might sound nice in theory – an experience of unity or ecstasy, unencumbered by religious dogma – but in practice, the beauty of mysticism rests in how it manifests unity in a distinct, particular way.

So Christian mysticism is more than just pure mysticism with a little bit of Jesus mixed in.  It is actually a unique, distinctive, and beautiful expression of God’s love and truth.  Conservative Christians believe it is the only expression of such truth, and even more liberal Christians might insist that they think it is the best possible way to God.  But even if you do not see Christianity as any better (or worse) than any other wisdom tradition, I hope you’ll recognize that Christian mysticism cannot just be reduced to other kinds of mysticism.  There are important ways in which the Christian mystery is unique among world religions.

This is why any serious exploration of Christian mysticism has to look at the nuts and bolts of the Christian religion in order to do justice to the topic.  Indeed, immersing yourself in the world of Christian mysticism means something far beyond just learning to meditate: Christian mysticism explores meditation through a relationship with the Holy Trinity.  This doesn’t mean that it is all about thinking Christian thoughts, however.  Rather, it means exploring a way of life that is shaped by the love and wisdom of Christ and Christ’s followers, who Christian mystics understand to be literally part of Christ.

Take the Trinity and the Incarnation, for example – central teachings of Christianity that remain mysteries, which means they transcend and defy logical comprehension.  No one can truly explore the splendor of Christian mysticism without embracing these great Christian mysteries.  There’s no way to avoid it.  The mystery of a God who became flesh, or of a God whose very nature consists of loving relationships, is at the heart of what is distinctive about the Christian path.

Many people today seem to think that Christian mysticism refers to some sort of diluted or heretical form of Christianity.  In other words, adding mysticism to Christianity somehow diminishes it.  This line of thinking distorts both mysticism and Christianity.  In fact, the witness of great mystics throughout history has been that, at its heart, Christian mysticism is just as faithful to the message and teachings of Jesus as most forms of conventional, institutional, organizational, churchy Christianity.  Maybe even more so.

Community and the Mystical Tradition

We can identify three essential elements in Christian mysticism that make it distinctive:

It is anchored in the Christian concept of God.

Christianity has some unique things to say about God – not only that God is a Trinity (a single deity who mysteriously consists of three distinct persons), but also that God took on human form in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the anointed one.  The Incarnation and the Trinity are the core of Christian mysticism, because they are the core of Christianity.  A corollary of this principle is the Christian insistence that mysticism does not lead to a pantheistic merging of you and God, but rather culminates in a  loving communion, where mystical unity with God occurs as an eternal loving embrace.

It is respectful of the authority of the Bible and church tradition.

Roman Catholicism insists that the Bible must be interpreted in light of tradition while Protestants say it the other way around: tradition must be interpreted in the light of scripture.  Both are essential elements in what makes Christian mysticism Christian.  Granted, there is great leeway in how individuals (or different churches) might interpret scripture and tradition, but a distinctively Christian mysticism works with, not against, these founts of wisdom.

It emphasizes communion and relationship.

Many of the world’s great mystical traditions are oriented toward what the third-century philosopher Plotinus called, “the flight of the alone to the Alone,” meaning that mysticism involves a solitary quest for individual enlightenment.  While Christian forms of mysticism often include this kind of personal striving, a far more dominant quality in the Christian tradition emphasizes community, from the teaching of Jesus: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Christian mysticism is not a do-it-yourself project, but rather an invitation to a dance, where God is the gracious host and everyone finds joy in dancing together.

It’s important to note that, throughout the history of Christianity, Christian mystics have displayed an unusual openness to the wisdom of non-Christian philosophy and religion.  In other words, Christian mysticism seems, from the beginning, to have had an intuitive recognition of the way in which mysticism is a form of unity that transcends religious difference.  Some of the earliest mystics, like Clement of Alexandria and his student Origen, explored their faith in the light of Greek philosophy.  This led to a long tradition within Christianity of dialogue with non-Christian wisdom – an ecumenical approach that appears again and again among Christian mystics.  Christian spirituality in the Celtic lands of Ireland and Scotland shows clear evidence of being influenced by the Druids.  In the sixteenth century, Spanish mystics were influenced by the Kabbalah.  And the twentieth century may go down in history as the great age of inter-religious spirituality, with mystics like Thomas Merton, Bede Griffiths, Swami Abhishiktananda, Cynthia Bourgeault, and many others expressing their Christian faith in ways that reveal the influence of wisdom traditions such as Sufism, Vedanta, or Zen.

Granted, some Christian mystics explored non-Christian spirituality only in order to figure out ways to convert others to the Christian faith.  For example, the thirteenth-century Spanish mystics, Ramon Lull, was interested in Islamic ideas only because he felt compelled to preach Christ to the Muslims.  Others, like Merton, approached interfaith spirituality with a more open and generous spirit, hoping simply to encounter those with a different perspective in a genuine desire to deepen wisdom and understanding, and foster a better world.

While this is not a book about interfaith spirituality, I think it’s important to keep in mind that, at some point, Christian mysticism can evolve into something different if it embraces values or beliefs that are at odds with Christian tradition.  Ultimately, however, no absolutely clear distinction can be drawn between Christian and non-Christian mysticism.  As long as we acknowledge that mysticism is, at its heart, about a deep and profound mystery that cannot be put into words, we can (and, perhaps, should) acknowledge that it is precisely in this dimension of mystery that people of different faiths and different wisdom traditions can relate to each other – not in a spirit of competition or hostility, but in a genuinely open, compassionate, and respectful manner.

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