The Christian Mystic III

I ended part two of The Christian Mystic with the question, ‘What criteria should be used to assess mystical experiences?’ I believe we need to look at worldview narrative as a starting point for coming up with this criteria.

[1]Stories are basic to people. We are the only earthly creatures with the capacity to tell stories. Our lives are ordered around implicit or explicit narratives that frame our worldview. For a faithful Israelite like Micaiah the metanarrative was God, the creator of heaven and earth, was Lord over all. This narrative of creational monotheism shaped their thinking. It not only answered the question of what exists, it informed their understanding of ethics. The moral thing to do was to serve him alone. Anything that violated the Shema was unacceptable. As such creational monotheism was the controlling narrative and the chief criteria for assessing mystical experiences. So centuries before Micaiah the people of Israel were told,

If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall walk after the LORD your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him. – Deuteronomy 13:1-4 ESV

Pagan polytheism was to be rejected outright because it was in direct opposition to creational monotheism. As such the Torah anticipates that some mystical experiences are not credible even though they are authentic. In other words they are real occurrences but they do not offer truth. If in the mystical experience, the vision of reality it has does not place YHWH their God as the ultimate being that too is deception, no matter how awesome the experience was. We live subject to how we conceive ultimate reality. That reality is then the ‘god we serve.’ So serving “another god” does not only mean explicitly acknowledging a deity. Following an implicit worldview narrative that does not put YHWH above is also not serving him. Mystical experiences need to be evaluated according to the implicit or explicit worldview narratives they tell. This means we need to be acutely aware of our own beliefs so we can examine how the mystical experiences compares with what we already know. In other words there is a critical assessment of the relationship between the knower and the known, the basic application of a critical realist philosophy.

Since we move from the familiar to the unfamiliar, the known to the unknown, in understanding the world, it means we should prefer conservative interpretations of the mystical over more fantastic ones. Especially in Pentecostal/Charismatic circles where mystical experiences are fairly common, they are not very circumspect in their interpretations. Mystical experiences like revelatory visions for example, often have more than one dimension of meaning. For instance Micaiah’s prophecy was not only a prediction but a polemic against idolatry. Mystical experiences can perform many functions. With that in mind, it is unwise to read too much meaning into them. It is better to go only as far as the mystical “data” suggests. Unwarranted speculations can and does lead people astray. Sometimes there are many possible meanings so you need to sift through them to see which ones are valid. Sometimes only time will tell if an interpretation is credible or not which is precisely the case for predictive (Deuteronomy 18:21-22.)

A good example of the difficulties with mystical experiences is the contrasting approaches between Agabus, a respected prophet in the early Church (Acts 21:10-14), and the prophecy of other Christian prophets regarding the apostle Paul’s fate (Acts 21:4.) Both of them envisioned impending peril for him. While the inexperienced prophets interpreted it to mean the apostle should not embark on his final missionary journey, Agabus simply relayed that there would be danger. It had already been foreshadowed earlier on in the narrative where Paul’s story was going and he was already determined in his heart to suffer for the Lord whom he once persecuted (Acts 9:1-16, 20:22-24.) This is one of the challenges with mystical accounts. It is sometimes hard to distinguish the experience from the mystic’s interpretation of it. [2]According to a contextualist understanding of mysticism, which is the predominant view among scholarship, mystical experiences are shaped by cultural contexts if not a part of them. This means personal experiences and views can influence or even participate in mystical experiences. A critical realist epistemology already recognizes there is nothing like purely objective knowledge since all we know is filtered through our subjective experiences. As such we need to exercise care and caution with what we make of the mystical. As a rule of thumb we should diligently apply Occam’s razor and not say more than is necessary.

Though mysticism is a bona fide aspect of the human experience, in itself it does not form a conclusive guide for life. This is because mystical experiences are discontinuous with normative human experience. You cannot rely on novel experiences to decide how to live day to day. Furthermore, they are often vague and oracular, filled with strange and wonderful symbolism. Since they are not mundane experiences it is not really surprising that they hardly ever make immediate sense. When mystical things do happen, people respond by trying to figure out how it fits within their personal and cultural frame of reference. The interaction between the mystical and a person’s general philosophy of life means the pre-existing worldview is either re-affirmed, modified, or denied altogether.

For example if the false prophets had Micaiah’s vision, it would have been a serious challenge to their worldview and profession. Micaiah’s convictions on the other hand would be strengthened. Sometimes mystical experiences do radically alter an individual’s life and worldview. The patriarch Abraham presumably had a mystical vision which changed his life. He was called by God to leave his family and serve him alone. In those days you religious identity was tied to your ethnic identity. Each group of people had the gods they served and religion permeated every sphere of life. By leaving his people and serving one god, which I might add was highly unusual in the ancient world, his identity was radically altered. He had effectively become a new ethnos, distinct from all other people groups around him. His worldview was changed from being a pagan polytheist to a creational monotheist. He denied one vision of reality and accepted another.

From these few examples it is possible to have a mystical experience that does not quite align with your worldview and even when it does, it is by definition not a normal occurrence. Therefore, there are many other considerations we must make to successfully handle these unusual experiences. Mystical experiences often happen when people are committed to some expression of worship, such as prayer or ritual service, or are deep in meditation. Those factors can provide an immediate context in understanding the mystical. Even if it does happen out of the blue, our worldviews and beliefs help us to comprehend it. Within the biblical worldview the appropriate response to a mystical experience is fervent prayer and reflection on the occurrence as well as how it fits the scriptural metanarrative. This is what we see with the prophet Daniel, whose eponymous book gives us the most, if not only, insight into the devotional life of a prophetic figure in the Old Testament. In other words mystical experiences are interpreted theologically.

For the Jewish people mystical revelations did not happen in a theological vacuum. As the Creator of all things the Lord knows all things. This includes everything not under the purview of human intelligence. So knowledge beyond the human domain is ultimately found in the Creator’s dimension of reality. (Mystical knowledge was often depicted as coming from heaven, God’s space which overlaps with earth, human space.) Even though he is distinct from his creation he is active within it to sustain it. Since he made all things, everything depends on him moment to moment for their being. This immanent presence in his creation known as the ‘spirit’ is not only the divine life breath that suffuses creation, it is the medium through which our transcendent maker is able to communicate knowledge beyond human wisdom and experience i.e. revelation. As such the divine spirit is associated with prophetic activity which includes mystical experiences. Some mystical experiences could therefore be described as spiritual in the biblical sense since some of them ultimately proceed from God’s Holy Spirit.

The mechanics of exactly how spiritual experiences work are very hard to describe or explain. It is also very much beside the point. The world is a mysterious place full of strange and wonderful happenings we scarcely have language for. Some of them are exhilarating while others are terrifying. What deserves our serious attention, and not just curiosity, are those things which are theologically significant. That is instances in which God is genuinely saying something to us; genuine spiritual experiences over just mystical ones. If we are indeed open to God speaking to us, through whatever means, we must be willing to subject it to the standard of Holy Scripture which is truth. We must not seek what is convenient for us but what is actually true.

[1] Wright, N; The New Testament and the People of God; p. 40; 1992.

[2] Stoeber, M, The Comparative Study of Mysticism, p. 15, September 2016.


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