Over the last year I have consumed quite a bit on biblical studies and Christian theology. It more or less started as a reaction against the kind of subjectivism that was so prevalent in the background that I was trying to escape. However, a few months in I realised it was not only highly informative and productive, but I really enjoyed it and had quite a knack for it.
I was introduced to the world of Christian academia through the backdoor of Christian apologetics. You see apologetics touches on a little bit of everything. Most of the Christian apologetics that I encountered proceeded from the West. It’s not that I had particular bias for it but that was what I could find. The majority of western Christian apologetics is dominated by Evangelicalism particularly the American breed of it. I am not a Westerner and I don’t self-identify as an Evangelical. So one of the benefits of being an outsider looking in is that I could see both the strengths and the weaknesses of their approach to Christianity. One of the weaknesses I have identified in popular Evangelical scholarship is that it says precious little about the mystical. The Charismatic Movement does not shy away from this at all. I am also very aware in the Catholic, Anglican and Eastern Orthodox traditions they talk about the mystical and I am trying to learn more about it. The mystical forms a legitimate aspect of the Christian experience which I think needs to be properly grounded in the biblical worldview.
It is understandable why many remain sceptical of the more mystical aspects of Christian faith. The excesses and outright problems caused by people emphasising and placing personal experience over against scripture and common sense are well known. Also there is the problem of the demonic. When people dabble with spiritual and esoteric phenomena without being grounded in biblical faith, there is no telling what weird and possibly dangerous things they might encounter. Such matters should be treated with caution but I do not think being careful and circumspect means we should completely distance ourselves from it.
Fortunately, the Bible has quite a bit to say on the subject of mysticism since it developed in the ancient world where all sorts of mystical experiences were well known. Many biblical authors and personalities themselves had mystical, esoteric or even ecstatic experiences. They also reacted against many other kinds of religious experience that were found within their own culture and other cultures. In the Bible the mystical is very much real but it doesn’t mean all sorts of mysticism were uncritically accepted. As such a biblical critical realist approach is warranted in discussing the mystical.
Critical realism is a philosophy that says there is a relationship between the knower and the known. That is to say how we perceive public external realities is influenced by internal personal experiences. There is nothing like pure objective knowledge neither is their pure subjective knowing but rather our knowledge of things lies somewhere between the two experiences. Therefore we need to be very discerning and not just accept things as true or false based on how we feel or even what we see.
Perhaps discernment is the watchword in the discussion of Christian mysticism. Ever since the biblical period right up to know, believers in God have had all sorts of mystical experiences. I have encountered several people who have had mystical experiences and I have had them myself. The truth however, is that not all these experiences (including my own) should be accepted. Some mystical experiences or alleged mystical experiences are plain ridiculous, whiles others are very profound and scripturally sound. This raises the question which experiences are reliable, which ones are not, and how can we tell? I have struggled with how mystical or ecstatic experiences like visions and prophecy seem to be individually and culturally conditioned even though they are supposed to be from an independent source. For example in The Wrong Destination I ask why people constantly have visions of going to heaven but never have any visions about heaven coming on earth, just as the Bible talks about in Revelation, but they are all supposed to be from God. Also what do we make of mystical experiences in other worldviews. My point here is even though the mystical supposedly answers deep existential concerns, it equally raises a lot of questions. It is not enough to appeal to the mystical in validating something. The mystical is simply mysterious. It’s also something not to be taken lightly. We need help and guidance in navigating this exciting but also dangerous terrain. So who will or should take up the responsibility?
In The Charismatic Apologist I argue that Charismatic ministers need to do a better job of representing their tradition applying sound biblical reasoning as well as by engaging with scholarship. The reason why I think they should be leaders in the discussion of Christian mysticism is that mystical experiences are a fundamental aspect of the expression of Charismatic faith. Charismatic Christianity is not only very accepting of personal encounters with God but encourages them. Furthermore Charismatic pastors claim to have these experiences more than ministers from other traditions. By virtue of these reasons I think they are poised to help both sceptics and believers in the mystical in the Church to responsibly participate in the mystical in an edifying manner. The aversion among Charismatics and Pentecostals to theology and the larger world of academia is not helpful. Over the last year I have benefited a lot from that world and it is my aim to integrate good scholarship into the ordinary lives of congregants. Charismatic leaders need to be teachers in the fullest sense of the word and be aware of what is going on in the ivory tower as well as in the pews.
For me the most pertinent issue about mystical experiences is not whether they happen but rather what they mean. So I ask the reader to carefully consider, if you have had any such experiences, how did they affect you and what did they mean? In ensuing posts I will get into the definitions of mysticism, how it relates to the biblical worldview, and how we should interpret them.