Mysticism


This is once more late, but having summarised Father Alexander Golubov’s essay on “Spirituality in an Orthodox Perspective” (the foreword to Father Dumitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Spirituality  – the previous posts can be found here, here, here, and here), I want to return to this and say something more specific about the contemporary phenomenon of “spirituality” and the challenges that it poses to anyone who desires to be faithful to the historic Christian tradition.

As already noted, the word “spirituality” is used to mean almost anything today, and has a spectrum of meanings even when used in a consciously Christian context. It also seems clear to me that the most fundamental problem with much of the language of spirituality is related to its lack of theological grounding or, in some cases, with its deployment in theological projects that are decidedly at odds with Christian tradition.

This was illustrated for me a couple of months ago with the release of Richard Rohr’s The Divine Dance. Now, I had been vaguely aware of Rohr for some time and the popular quotes of his that I had seen seemed to exemplify some of my concerns about the “spirituality” scene – one-liners that sound so appealing, but which I suspected were nevertheless part of a broader agenda. My suspicious were confirmed by this article, but I didn’t think much more about him until Amazon tried to sell me his Divine Dance. I wasn’t going to spend money on it, but I did wonder whether I was writing him off unfairly so listened to some of his YouTube talks, which further confirmed my suspicions. He may be a pleasant person and even have helpful insights, but his talks were full of caricature, half-truths, and the downright peddling of ignorance, which made me wonder how anyone could take him seriously.

I was therefore pleased to come across Fred Sanders’ critical review, Why I Don’t Flow with Richard Rohr. Apart from the obvious factual inaccuracies in the book (not only in terms of the misuse of the word “perichoresis” but also in terms of absurd made-up stories about mirrors), Sanders draws attention to Rohr’s fundamental misuse of the Cappadocian Fathers in his own attempts to undermine the distinction between God and creation. Sanders concludes:

And my long—forgive me—review has one main point: it’s that The Divine Dance isn’t about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s a book about an alternative spirituality of Flow, committed to a metaphysic that refuses to recognize a distinction between God and the world. It’s one long looting of the language of Trinitarian theology, with an avowed goal of using that language to teach an entirely novel doctrine. I would oppose the doctrine of Divine Flow in any context where it came to my attention. But for this doctrine to be marketed as the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is insupportable. This sustained misrepresentation is what makes this book a piece of false teaching in the church.

It is precisely this creeping monism that most concerns me about the contemporary phenomenon of “spirituality,” but I will hopefully return to that again. What I want to note now is the response of Rohr’s co-author, Mike Morrell, to Sander’s review. Instead of engaging with any of Sanders’ substantive points, Morrell basically rants. But, in doing so, his basic argument is that his and Rohr’s is a different approach that is just as legitimate, and claims that theirs is “an apophatic, social, process-oriented Franciscan approach,” while Sanders’ is “a kataphatic, hierarchical, substance-oriented Calvinist approach.” Quite apart from his misunderstanding of these terms, or the suggestion that this is a Calvinist issue (!), his basic argument is that what he and Rohr are doing is what “mystics” do, and so he appeals to another kind of experiential and mystical knowledge that would somehow excuse him from answering Sanders’ substantive points.

It seems to me that this is the core of the problem, namely, that the language of “spirituality” and “mysticism” is currently being used on a large scale to undermine historical Christian faith. And when people object to it, they are simply countered by an appeal to a different type of knowledge or, if they don’t know better, by the misquoting of Church Fathers or “mystics” to justify such positions. Now, there is a grain of truth in all this as there is such a thing as “mystical knowledge” in Christian tradition, which is perhaps something to explore in a future blog post. But it is certainly not what is being presented by Morrell and his self-identified “mystics.”

Of course, all of this also leaves us with the question: Does it matter? And is monism really such a bad thing? I hesitate to promise future blog posts given my terrible recent record, but that is what I would like to explore next.

This is another one of those thinking aloud posts and one which I have put off writing because it feels like such a complex subject that could go in all sorts of directions. I have mentioned my frustrations with the language of “mysticism” before and have been wanting to probe, unpack and explain my discomfort with that discourse for some time. I did actually write something a couple of months ago, but then decided that it was too much of a rant and didn’t sufficiently explain the background against which I was reacting – and I have since lost what I wrote when my computer died last week. (Yes, I know about backups in theory, but…)

Those concerns were primarily with a general contemporary Christian discovery of or emphasis on “mysticism” or “mystical experience.” My reactions tended to be sparked by things like the much-quoted statement by Karl Rahner that the Christian of the future will either be a mystic or will not exist, or, in the case of my last rant, someone tweeting a quote from Pope Francis that “a religion without mystics is a philosophy.” While such interest is understandable for people coming out of heavily cerebral religious traditions and seeking a healthier integration of faith and experience, and a theology rooted in a life of prayer, and while I should, I suppose, have a certain sympathy with them, having been there myself, I have found myself getting more and more concerned with the uncritical glibness of such assertions. Much of this relates to the way in which mysticism and experience are contrasted to dogma, which is invariably viewed in negative terms. This erosion of dogma – which is a consequence of the failure to understand the true nature of dogma – undermines the richness of the Christian revelation and becomes something fundamentally anti-ecclesial. It also opens the door to monism, which is another topic that I have been intending to address for ages.

However, in addition to these general concerns about “mysticism” there is also a related assertion that one sometimes hears, namely, that it is Orthodoxy – or “the East” – that is mystical. I have had people expressing interest in Orthodoxy because they believed it to be mystical and yet at the same time insisting that they were not interested in “ritual and dogma.” And I have also come across Orthodox Christians contrasting East and West and claiming that the East is mystical, experiential and apophatic, while the West is philosophical and rational. When I came across such assertions twice in one week recently, I decided that the time probably had come to probe this further.

The reality is that such assertions do contain a grain of truth, but it is often a rather messy truth in which blanket statements are made about two traditions that – at least in their earlier years – were by no means unrelated. While the West did develop in ways that, from an Orthodox perspective, are indeed problematic – and the rise of scholasticism is a fundamental part of this – pushing this back to the fourth century and laying the blame at the feet of Saint Augustine as is often done, strikes me as simplistic and problematic.

I have hesitated to write on this as I’m aware that I’m not nearly as thoroughly immersed in the early Fathers as I would like to be. But as I have reflected on such arguments, it has struck me that there is considerable confusion about the terms that are used in making such claims about East and West. More specifically, what exactly do we mean by the words mystical, experiential, apophatic, philosophical and rational. Unpacking these could, I suspect, help to provide a much more nuanced understanding both of the differences between East and West, and of the differences between how the early Fathers viewed the life of faith and how it is viewed in some contexts today. And it is this later divide that I would argue is far more fundamental – and which the current enthusiasm for “mysticism” only serves to entrench.

I had originally intended to explore this in one blog post, but it has become clear that that is unrealistic. So instead, I am going to devote a post to each of these terms, hopefully in the next couple of weeks. If it achieves nothing else, it may at least get me writing…

In our own day there is a widely held view that belief in religious dogmas is not obligatory: even if they still have a certain historical value, they are no longer vital for Christians. Moral and social agendas have become the main preoccupation of many Christian communities, while theological issues are often neglected. This dissociation between dogma and way of life, however, contradicts the very nature of the religious life, which presupposes that faith should always be confirmed by deeds, and vice versa. Thus, in the Epistle of James we find: ‘Faith apart from works is dead’ (Jas. 2:26). St Paul, on the other hand, claims that ‘a man is justified by faith apart from works of law’ (Rom. 3:28). The ‘works of law’ here means the Old Testament rites and sacrifices which are no longer necessary after Christ’s saving sacrifice. Good deeds are necessary and essential, yet when separated from faith they do not in themselves lead to salvation. We are justified by faith, but only by a faith which informs the way we live.

No less alien to Christianity is the dissociation of dogma from mysticism, or of theology from the spiritual life. There is an essential interdependence between dogma and mysticism: both lead to knowledge of the truth, but in different ways. ‘And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free’, says the Lord, who himself is the only Truth, Way and Life (John 8:32; 14:6). Every dogma reveals truth, opens up the way and communicates life, while each heresy puts us at a distance from truth, closes off the way to salvation and renders us spiritually dead. The struggle for dogma which the Church has conducted throughout her history is, as Vladimir Lossky demonstrates, a fight for our being to be brought into the true Life, for our union with God and deification…

Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, The Mystery of Faith: An Introduction to the Teaching and Spirituality of the Orthodox Church. (London, DLT, 2002) xiii-xiv.

A couple of months ago I happened to listen to two papers which addressed somewhat similar themes, if from rather different perspectives. The first was a podcast of Abbot Jonah Paffhausen’s address to the Fellowship of Saint Alban and Saint Sergius. (Text here). The second was a talk by Father Tjeu Timmermans O.Carm., the chairperson of the Conference of Dutch Religious (text in Dutch here). The first was entitled “Episcopacy, Primacy and the Mother Churches: A Monastic Perspective” and the second “Religious life in a secularised world”. Although they had somewhat different foci and audiences, both addressed the phenomenon of secularisation and it was the differences in their underlying approaches that struck me and motivated me to eventually look up the texts and reflect further on them. And this ties in, as perceptive readers will no doubt notice, with themes that I have been thinking about recently.

Father Timmermans is primarily concerned with secularisation as the recent historical phenomenon in which the overarching function of religion that was previously taken for granted has disappeared. Contemporary men and women have become a homeless seekers who no longer take religion or God for granted. Influenced by modernity’s utilitarian emphasis, they also come to realise its limits and remain open to “the Mystery”. They have rejected the institutional Church, but the religious desire that remains is the nucleus of true prayer. It is a longing that stretches itself out to “the Mystery”. In this context, Timmermans argues, religious are called to create spaces where such people can enter into relationship with the mystery of God.

While there is much that is true in this, there are two things that strike me about Timmerman’s paper. The first is the way in which he appears to view the Church almost exclusively in institutional terms as something that people have rejected and which appears as rather irrelevant. And the second is that his language of people seeking “the Mystery” does not appear to have much theological content. (Which of course made me think of the analysis that Father Louth provides of western perceptions of “mysticism” – see my series of six posts in Completed series).

Now, there is nothing new in this and such  perspectives are common, at least in this part of the world. I just find it rather sad that the Christian tradition does not seem able to offer anything more than a playing off of ecclesial institutions against a new seeking religiosity.

In this context, then, I was rather interested in the juxtaposition of this analysis with that of Abbot Jonah’s paper that I encountered at almost the same time. He too addresses secularisation, but in a rather different context. For him, the roots of secularisation are found in early Church history in which the personal relationship of spiritual fatherhood on which episcopal primacy was based was secularised and cast in terms of civil office.

This led to the separation of charismatic and institutional authority within the Church. What followed was the bureaucratisation of church leadership: the reduction of the episcopacy to institutional administration, and the virtual elimination of its pastoral role. (12)

The corrupting fruit of secularisation is fear and lack of trust, hence isolation, autonomy, self-will and the breakdown of the real authority of the episcopacy. It destroys souls and the institution of the Church. Secularization reduces the Body of Christ to a religious organization; it is the form of religion, deprived of its power. (13)

Abbot Jonah is writing in an Orthodox context, but his emphasis on the split between charismatic and institutional authority seems to me to be just as relevant, if not more relevant, in the West. The historical roots of how we got to this position are no doubt complex. But to simply accept such a split means acceding to a vision of the Church as simply a utilitarian institution which we can discard and recreate at will. In contrast to this, Abbot Jonah pleads for a rediscovery of spiritual obedience as a structure of accountability in which the bishop recapitulates the Church in himself, keeping the whole body in synergy, calling us to repentance and fostering spiritual formation.

His paper is well worth reading, especially the last section on “The episcopacy: a monastic perspective”.

Father Louth concludes this essay by noting the transformation that the word theoretikos has undergone. Whereas contemporary mystical discourse seeks to highlight mysticism’s experiential nature in contrast to theoretical knowledge, which is seen as abstract and speculative, for the Fathers

Theoretikos means contemplative; that is, seeing and knowing in a deep and transforming way. The ‘practical’, praktikos (see above on Evagrios), is the personal struggle with our too often wayward drives and desires, which prepares for the exercise of contemplation, theoria; that is, a dispassionate seeing and awareness constituting genuine knowledge, a knowledge that is more than information, however accurate – a real participation in what is known, in the One whom we come to know. The word theoretikos came to be one of the most common words in Byzantine Greek for designating the deeper meaning of the Scriptures, where one found oneself caught up in contemplation, theoria, of Christ. The mystical life, the ‘theoretical’ life, is what we experience when we are caught up in the contemplation of Christ, when, in that contemplation, we come to know ‘face to face’ and, as the Apostle Paul puts it, ‘know, even as I am known’ (1 Cor. 13:12).

Andrew Louth, “Afterword” to the new edition of his The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (Oxford, 2007) 214.

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I don’t think that I can add anything to this at this point! I have appreciated this essay for the light that it sheds on my frustration with much contemporary Western discourse on mysticism, which was first kindled by reading Denys Turner’s The Darkness of God several years ago. And it is not without relevance to the frustration concerning academic theology expressed in my last post!

… alongside the great attempts of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to find in mysticism an ecumenism of spirit – a kind of synchronic mysticism – there is also an attempt to define a kind of diachronic mysticism, a mysticism that stretches throughout the ages, a mysticism that has a tradition. What this endeavour seeks to establish is a kind of canon of Christian mystical literature – a literature manifesting that kind of likeness Zaehner mentioned – reaching back to the beginnings (Jesus or Adam?). What are the criteria of this canon, we might ask? (We are not asking an abstract question or a question to those now dead. Bernard McGinn’s attempt to write a massive ‘History of Western Christian Mysticism’, called The Presence of God, depends on the existence of such a canon.) It seems to me that the criteria are both negative and positive: negatively, all is excluded that is doctrinal or narrowly liturgical; positively, there is a search for material that is experiential. The result is, it seems to me, entirely eclectic, and frequently misconceived.

Andrew Louth, “Afterword” to the new edition of his The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (Oxford, 2007) 211-212.

While the development of the concept of mysticism represents the fragmentation and breakdown of tradition and a move from reliance on tradition towards finding authority in inward experience, it nevertheless “needed to feel that it represented a tradition”. (211) Hence the development of a canon of Christian mysticism. 

However, following Denys Turner, Father Louth argues that such a development is only possible by misconstruing much of the literature prior to the later Middle Ages. Regarding the imagery of negativity and darkness, Turner had argued that whereas such imagery was originally used in an ontological and epistemological way, it now comes to be interpreted experientially “and the earlier literature, once it is included in the ‘canon’, is subjected to such an interpretation.” (212) Louth continues:

…what we are doing is privileging a very small period of recent history, an element, I would argue, in an attempt to get behind historical and religious traditions, experienced as being oppressive, though, instead of doing this by attacking tradition as such – which was the enterprise initially of the Reformation, and more thoroughly of the Enlightenment – it is done by discovering – or, I would say, inventing – a tradition that is deeper and partially obscured. It is indeed a modern gnosticism. One needs to recall, too, that such tradition-making is a well-documented phenomenon in post-Enlightenment history … (212)

Thus Louth argues that Christian mysticism is not a settled concept but the name for a religious strategy that originated in early modern (or late medieval) Europe. It is a strategy that may have parallels in other religions, but we shall not discover that simply by looking at the “mystical writings” of other religions, as if there is an “essence” religions that can be isolated.

‘Comparative mysticism’ is too easy, and unhistorical: it simply lulls us into thinking that we can regard as fundamentally significant (‘mystical’ has never lost the connotation of what really matters, what is ultimately powerful) what appeals to the individualized consciousness of the West – religious literature that aspires to the form of poetry, devoid of dogmatic content or ritual expression. (213)

Whereas in the traditional understanding, the true body of Christ had been realized in the celebration of the Eucharist that culminated in communion in the mystical/sacramental body, in this late medieval understanding, the celebration of the Eucharist becomes the rite by which the priest effects the miracle of the true body of Christ, which then exists quasi-independently. The Church as a community recedes from history into the ‘mystical body of Christ’; the visible Church that remains splits into the institutional priesthood that has power to make present the verum corpus Christi and the laity.

So far as the word ‘mystical’ is concerned, what has happened is that it has been wrenched from its traditional meaning as identical with sacramental and cast adrift. Whereas in the older usage, the primary meanings of ‘mystical’ applied to something evident – the scriptural text, or the sacramental elements, and indeed anything used in a liturgical context – to affirm that its real meaning lay deeper, now the term corpus mysticum Christi applies to something not evident: ‘mystical’ in this sense means precisely the Church as not manifest, the ‘real’ Church as distinct from the institutional Church. The term ‘mystical’ becomes opaque; instead of designating something that is a sign of something hidden, it designates the hidden reality itself. It acquires a quite different charge.

Andrew Louth, “Afterword” to the new edition of his The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (Oxford, 2007) 209-210.

Father Louth proceeds to consider the implications of the shift in meaning that the phrase “mystical body of Christ” underwent in the twelfth century. He draws on Henri de Lubac’s Corpus Mysticum which shows how this phrase had previously referred to the Eucharistic elements as is consonant with the patristic use of the term “mystical” outlined earlier. However, in the twelfth century the consecrated bread of the Eucharist became the “true body of Christ”, while the Church came to be seen as the mystical body of Christ. This did not refer to the Church in its institutional aspect however, but rather to an invisible Church spanning heaven and earth. Thus the consecrated elements come to be abstracted from the community that celebrates them. This community becomes itself more vague and not identifiable with the actual life of the Church, and yet at the same time the distinction between clergy and laity takes on a new and more entrenched meaning.

Instead of the consecrated elements, through communion, being a sign that effects and deepens the incorporation of the baptized Christian in the body of Christ, so that the mystical/sacramental body points to the true body to which all Christians belong, the consecrated host becomes an end in itself, an object of adoration. (209)

It is in this context that we should view the development of “mystical” movements in the late Middle Ages. The flowering of such movements provided people with the possibility of direct access to God by they were able to bypass (or sometimes challenge) priestly power over the sacraments. This is particularly the case in the women’s spirituality of this period

women, excluded by their sex from the priesthood, find in themselves, I their dreams, in their bodies hidden signs – mystical signs, particularly of Christ’s wounds – that establish access to a divine power to rival that of the priesthood. Such claims do not always challenge the reality of priestly power – mostly they do not – but they claim an equivalent power: the most famous woman making such a claim was St Catherine of Siena. The mystical is now thoroughly individualized, and from the late Middle Ages onwards, there is a conflict between the mystical and the institutional… (210)

The Fathers understood the mystical to refer to Scripture, the liturgy and the hidden reality of Christian life. However, it is now only this third meaning that remains, stripped moreover of the ecclesial context into which it traditionally fitted. Christian mysticism, then, emerges, not as an expression of some universal religious phenomenon, but as

one of the elements of the fragmentation of the Western Christian tradition that took place in the later Middle Ages and issued in, among other things, the Reformation. (211)

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This obviously has far-reaching implications which I am not going to discuss now – perhaps another time!

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