Christians of the future will be mystics or will not exist at all

I just read a fantastic article by Carl McColman called The Hidden Tradition of Christian Mysticism
where he says;

Karl Rahner, one of the most renowned Christian theologians of the twentieth century, once famously remarked that “the Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.” For people whose experience of Christianity is, often, little more than a religion invested in obedience and in patriarchal morality, this seems to be a bold statement. After all, mysticism implies not legalistic religion, but living spirituality — heart-felt experience of the Divine, centered on a miraculous and joyful appreciation of the Spirit’s ability to heal and transform lives. Can Christianity and mysticism really co-exist?

It fascinates me that a consistent theme among burned out pastors and christians, is that they push back to Christianity’s ancient roots and themes. Even while I was burning out, I knew I was craving something deeper, more authentic and less structured and pedantic than the ABC’s of prayer and reading three chapters of the bible.

I started reading Henri Nouwen and was googling the practices of the Benedictines and chewing over the ideas of the desert fathers. I had begun to mediate and look for God within. For twenty years of my christian life, I thought that God was “out there”, but the contemplatives believed he dwelt inside of us, and that to commune with Him, we had to look within.

It all sounds a little “out there” to someone with a traditional western contemporary version of Christianity, but a quick flick through church history shows it has “always existed on the margins of the church” as McColman puts it. I mean, when you think about it, Christianity is more an eastern faith than a western one, and once the lens of western modernity is lifted, it does allow you “see” the possibilities much like seeing the 3D magic eye pictures.

He goes on to say

So mysticism is, in a very real way, Christianity’s best-kept secret. And even though some Christians of the third millennium remain suspicious of mysticism, many other Christians have begun to embrace the transforming power of such core spiritual practices as meditation, lectio divina (“sacred reading,” a meditative approach to the Bible and other wisdom texts), and contemplative prayer — the powerful form of prayer in which meditative silence is offered directly to God for the purpose of seeking and fostering deeper intimacy and communion with the Divine.

In all honesty, I think we’re all craving a deeper experience of the divine but the journey of discovery has been hijacked by an institutional, modern, western, attractional, business model of doing church, that hands us Christianity in a neat bubble-wrapped glossy package with the words on the back saying “This is guaranteed to work if you follow the following three steps to the successful Christian life”. Maybe the life of the contemplative is just what we need.


14 Responses

  1. Quite interesting! It is amazing how much culture influences our perspective on things. We think because we do something a certain way that it must be right. True Christianity is a longing to honor the God that we love!

  2. Hey Christy, I think we just inherit stuff and think that it’s meant to be a certain way, and it’s not until we hit the wall that we start to wonder if it always was this way! Sometimes we’re so futuristic, that we forget the treasures of the past.

    The exciting thing is there are some Christian “archaeologists” sifting through our roots and rediscovering some exciting pathways to God….

  3. hmmm,sounds like this is walking a thin gray line. Modern mysticism can easily get clouded into a pure Christianity where meditating on God’s word can be mistaken for a oneness with God where equality can exist. Yes, we sit silent before the Lord, but to the “new age” practicer, it will just give a watered down version of Christ’s deity.

    • sabrina, it probably is walking a thin gray line from one perspective, but I think the pioneers of our faith have always been a bit “out there” to their contemporaries. Contemporary christianity vacated the “mystical” arena and left it to the new agers because we embraced modernism so whole heartedly, that now, anything the new agers do, we think it’s…. new age!

      I think we could afford to push back into this arena a little and reclaim the ancient practices without fear of watering down our gospel. In fact, it may actually be a powerful way of connecting with God and others…..

      • Maybe the “pioneers” were out there, but the true pioneers like Paul, for example, preached a simpler, straight forward gospel that warned of practices that the world participated in. Most of those practices came from idol worship where it penetrated how lives were lived at the time, the sin of adultery, fornication, witchcraft: all things that are still practiced today. If we are not careful, we as a church do not look different than the rest of the world around us that you echoed in a later blog of the church’s irrelevancy.
        My husband suffered severe clinical depression in 06, which led to an overflow of help from our church during those dark times. Now, he is divorcing me and no one knows what to say. Divorce has crept into our churches and has become an almost “norm” and “been there, done that” and it is shameful.
        My stand for marriage reconciliation is not a popular one but if I can believe Christ rose from the dead or I can pray fervently for the healing of a child or the soul of an unsaved loved one….why is praying for my marriage viewed so differently?
        We must be very careful of that thin gray line. The closer we walk to it, the lighter it gets, until there is no difference from shinning the Light of Christ in the darkness, to being just another flickering bulb of the masses where hypocrisy lies. It is there amongst the weak flickers where Christ is watered down in the mysticism of new age where “we are our own healer….I’m O.K., You’re O.K…and Gosh Darn it! People Like Me” rhetoric.
        What Christ did on the cross is no longer the core, but acceptance of a “higher consciousness and self-awareness” become the mantra. You want to connect with God, do it on your knees.Deny yourself as admit His deity, power and love is all we need. We do not need the ways of the world with its mantras, but we need Christ. His rulebook is timeless and we are dealing today with the same old issues they dealt with in biblical times and conformity.
        Jack, I have not read your book, but if you are saying the same thing I believe “be still and know I am God” then we are on the same page. However, maybe it is just terminology and what the deeper meaning of mysticism is that bothers me. Not sure if mysticism is a spiritual gift but allowing your soul to take in the wonders of God and “die to yourself” is not a religious practice but a constant struggle with our flesh and the all too real powers of Satan fighting to keep us from fulfilling God’s work in us.
        People in the world today are like dried out sponges, trying to soak up any new “fad” or “rediscovered ans updated” ancient rituals that make them feel good without the sacrifice of their fleshly desires. In fact, many of them embrace those desires as being “spiritual” and “self-exploratory” where biblical teachings is more of a “guide” of suggestions to reference to and not relevant to toady, when in actuality, it predicts the very spirituality the world seeks today.

  4. Dear Jack, I’m pleased that you found my article useful. I’m new to your blog and would like to add my voice to all the others who have said thank you for being honest and brave in telling your story. I do believe that the ancient practices can well be the best hope for the future of the church, in whatever form the Holy Spirit leads us into!

    For Sabrina Lawson: I totally understand and agree with your concerns. Of course, in a short article I can’t address every issue related to mysticism, but in my book (The Big Book of Christian Mysticism) I do try to give a clear sense of what distinguishes orthodox Christian mysticism from other mystical paths in world religions. I believe that, properly understood and approached, mysticism is a gift from the Holy Spirit for the church, and is simply the joyful recognition that God seeks not just our obedience, but our love; and God is eager to bless those who are willing to “be still and know” he is God (Ps. 46:10).

    Blessings to all,

    • Hey carl, thanks for dropping by. I was just wondering if it is a common theme that burned out christians push back to contemplation and ancient paths?

      • The challenge is that so few people in the church today are aware of, or have an appreciation for, the contemplative tradition. And that lack of knowledge breeds misunderstanding. So many folks erroneously believe, for example, that a practice like centering prayer is strictly a Christianized form of eastern meditation. And yes, centering prayer as a method was developed in response to the popularity of eastern practices like transcendental meditation — but centering prayer is anchored in the Christian desert fathers like Evagrius and John Cassian, not to mention the medieval contemplative tradition as exemplified by The Cloud of Unknowing. I think the more that Christians today (whether burned out or not) can learn about the tradition and the ancient practices, the better — and I’d be willing to bet that if our pastors and other leaders were nurtured as contemplatives, there would be far fewer who would burn out to begin with.

  5. I agree and feel our soul is a resident in a beautifully designed mind and a well-constructed physical body. In our worldly consciousness our mind only knows the outside of the home, the veneer of the body. If the ego continually directs the mind to the outside, the senses continually run around and about in service of the ego as it forgets the inner altar and the home of the soul. Christian mysticism is a good guide on the inner journey.

  6. Man, I feel like I found a jewel in coming to your blog today.

    There are about a million thoughts going through my head about this one. Tough to pick out just one or two. 🙂

    The comments written here too are thought-provoking as well. I think that the worst thing anyone can do – for their own sake – is to continue a line of thought because of tradition, without questioning. Sometimes it becomes important to peel away the layers of something to find out the goal of the originators.

    In stepping away from the church, there remained the question: well, what about humanity? Is everyone who isn’t, strictly speaking, a practicing believer of Christianity necessarily doomed to hell, utterly worthless?

    It seems to me at least, that if we are fundamentally created in His image, there remains some of His DNA in everyone. Even the most avowed atheist can’t help but exhibit some aspect of the divine.

    I believe that critical thought, science, music and the arts, all of it, in some way reflects this image of God. Whether I’m right or not – it means there’s a possibility of seeing everyone as peers of a kind. Fellow travellers into the mystic.

    • Hey ws, thanks for your thoughts. You raise some really important questions. I’ve really appreciated Brian McLaren’s thoughts on some of these big issues.
      I definitely agree, that we need to see others as peers. For too long contemporary christianity has seen non-christians as “them” or “outsiders” or “unreached” or “unsaved”. I used to for sure.

      Now I see all of us as different distances from God. Some of us are close, some are far away, but we’re all on a journey somewhere. This means that with my new paradigm, we don’t have insiders and outsiders, just sojourners….

  7. Their is a lot of ancient Church practices that we have ignored for a long while.
    I think the emergent movement and their deconstruction has lead us back to these ancient practices which are again sparking peoples spirit and their quest to draw closer to God.
    Its a reminder to me that God is Big and works in lots of ways.

  8. Faith and Losing it.

    That’s what church has basically been in my life for some time. Message after message from the organized church feels too ‘organized’, too pointed toward some goal set by men. Is it God’s work, or is it man’s work that sometimes appears to co-exist with the will of God?

    That is to a degree unfair of me, but one of the most shaking points of my experiences in an organized church as a young girl is still a very clear memory. I hadn’t regularly attended a church in years due to a bit of a falling out with my pastor’s daughter. Until that point the girl had been my best friend. The new church I’d found was nondenominational. I remember the first two weeks really reaching to me, striking chords that had been long untouched. The third week the boiling point of the youth pastor’s sermon was this: “Cast aside ALL of your Non-Christian friends and ten good, strong, Christian friends will come and replace them.”

    There were just so many reasons that the message of that sermon was crushing for me. It was already such a difficult time in my life, and in the lives of some of my friends. Two of them were Jewish, you see, and many more agnostic or even atheist. They never looked down on me for my faith, and I never tried to force my faith upon them, but I did show them compassion, support, friendship. In this way wasn’t there a chance they might find a path to Christianity through our friendship?

    After further similar experiences with other churches I turned my back on the organized religion, instead attending my faith in the comfort of my home with the Bible left me by my Grandmother on her passing. Prayer, sanctuary, and the sort of connection with God that is not guided or channeled through another, but rather found in the solace of my soul.

    It’s not my belief that all churches and all pastors preach the wrong message or work to their own ends, but I’m done looking for the ‘right’ church. If I’m meant to find a place in a church then it will happen and in the meantime I bring the church into my home.

    To me Christianity and Mysticism coexisting seems as natural as life without the organized religion has become. Thank you for a wonderful read, Jack, and for sharing your story here.

    • thanks anon, for sharing your story. I love stories and every one is precious. You’ve traveled a difficult road and had some really sad experiences and I’m sorry.

      I guess, you and I are found in the “in-between”. Wanting to be part of something bigger, but not having found a church we can belong to. And I agree, in the meantime we can still go on discovering God as best we can and you are doing that wonderfully.

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