In the previous instalments of posts on The Christian Mystic we took a journey through a general understanding of mysticism. Mysticism is usually described as a kind of religious experience. It is “religious” in the sense that through it one has an encounter with ultimate reality i.e. something greater than your senses could possibly reveal such as God. These phenomena, as studies suggest, are influenced to varying degrees by personal experiences and cultural context. This means we have to assess them carefully and not jump straight away to conclusions. As such I proposed a critical realist philosophy in making sense of the mystical. Some of these situations might be genuine, that is the experience is real, but not credible. So I proposed discerning between mystical experiences and what I call “spiritual experiences.” Spiritual experiences, as I define them, are a subset of mystical experiences but they are inspired by the Holy Spirit of God and as such conform to the biblical worldview. It still means we have to critically evaluate and interpret them but we are using a biblical process to do so, with the assumption that it is possible God is actually communicating to us through some of these mystical encounters. This has finally brought us into familiar Christian territory. In this post I will be looking at the theology of the mystical and how that works out in the Bible.
A biblical theology of mysticism must answer the question of what ultimate reality is. The answer to this question will significantly differ depending on your worldview. As far as the Bible and the worldview it espouses is concerned, God is the creator of the universe, of things both seen and unseen. He is the ultimate reality. Ultimate reality is by definition is greater than what is immediately humanly observable. It is always there but sometimes people have special windows into what is going on “behind the scenes”, otherwise it usually goes unnoticed. Various spiritual experiences in the Bible like visions, revelatory dreams and prophecy fall comfortably in this category. It is not so much that they experience the reality of God through them but rather they participate in God’s reality. As Israelites they already believed in God but what these phenomenon did was let them “see” things from his perspective. A classic example of this are the spirit sayings in Ezekiel where the Spirit of God either enters him or carries him away revealing something Lord sees or thinks to the prophet. For instance this passage says,
He put out the form of a hand and took me by a lock of my head, and the Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and brought me in visions of God to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the gateway of the inner court that faces north, where was the seat of the image of jealousy, which provokes to jealousy. – Ezekiel 8:3 ESV
With the symbolic language of vision and prophecy the Lord revealed how he perceive what the Israelites were doing, which they thought was in secret, as well as his reaction and response to it. Unlike a vague sensing or knowing this was pretty defined albeit figural. Most if not all mystical phenomenon in the Bible are characterized by such specificity. Though it does not dismiss the more nebulous experiences it focuses on things that are more noteworthy. It is a lesson to us about priorities because I have noticed in Charismatic circles we tend to get hung up on mystical experiences that are not that important. We make more out of them than they really are which can be dangerous. As I said in the previous post, as a rule of thumb we need to approach all mysticism conservatively, by not reading meanings into them that are unwarranted.
Ezekiel was not the only Biblical character who had a spiritual experience. From the opening pages of Genesis throughout biblical history the people of God have had them. However, what happened with Ezekiel did mark a major turning point. Spiritual experiences had been most closely associated with prophetic activity. Spiritual activity, that is Spirit inspired activity, was generally limited to certain individuals namely prophets. Mystical experiences were therefore important, especially when they served the community, but not crucial to national life since they were a limited phenomenon. Religion in the ancient world was intertwined with national identity and was not a distinct category. Also it was not defined by theological beliefs, even though that was present, but rather by cultic worship. “Cultic” here is a technical term for a system of worship involving ritual practice and ceremony. Centres of ritual practice were the hub and focus of religious activity in their world. Prophets were often associated with these places such as altars, shrines and temples. For instance Moses and the Tabernacle and Samuel was at Shiloh where the Tabernacle was located in the Promised Land.
What was so different and disturbing about Ezekiel’s revelation was that he saw God’s glory do a vertical take-off and leave the temple (Ezekiel 11:22-25.) The centre of spiritual life in Israel had been abandoned by God which was far more serious than the lack of prophetic revelation. You see the Shekinah glory was a symbol of his presence among his people. A temple is a god’s home therefore sacred space. In ancient Near Eastern cosmology, sacred space was the centre of the world, a deity’s headquarters. The temple was in fact destroyed a few years later just as it had been foreshadowed in his vision. Their centre had literally been removed. You see the temple was the place they sought out God in times of crises and he promised to rescue them. Now the temple had been destroyed so how do they reach him? The primary symbol of their national identity and aspirations, which stood for four centuries, was gone. He had left and he was no longer listening to them. The temple was God’s home in the world and he had vacated it.
Many scholars postulate, and I agree with them, that Ezekiel’s vision was the answer to the question of how God communicates with his people when he is no longer in the world let alone with them. There are many echoes in Ezekiel of previous episodes in Israel’s history like Ichabod in 1 Samuel among others. Individual elements of Ezekiel were not necessarily new but as a whole it was a unique formulation. Ezekiel’s visions were seminal in stimulating and informing Jewish mysticism. The emergence of Jewish mysticism as a response to theological and societal crises is very important. They were not niche esoteric practices to excite the bored or the idle. They had an important prophetic function in that period as the way God was communicating with his people in the absence of sacred space.
Jewish mysticism continued long after Ezekiel’s visions. The visions of the Book of Daniel represent another important development in Jewish mysticism some describe as apocalyptic literature. Daniel continues with the model of fantastical symbols but in a new setting answering new questions. Daniel was concerned with the delay of the fulfilment of God’s promises in redeeming his people from exile. Some important themes and hints were picked up in Daniel from Ezekiel. The most notable of these ideas is resurrection which was teased in Ezekiel 37 and made more concrete in Daniel 12. Another symbol that is carried over is the chariot throne of God which is mentioned in the first part of Ezekiel and in Daniel 7. One of the earliest forms of Jewish mysticism is Merkabah mysticism. Merkabah is the Hebrew word for chariot and is used to refer to the throne-chariot of God in Ezekiel. Basically in Merkabah mysticism, you meditate on the throne of chariot of God so that somehow through your meditations you too will be caught up in “visions” of God. The throne-chariot is a picture of God present in the world as a sovereign monarch enthroned over the world which is central to these mystical experiences. Their form of mysticism was not just expressing “religious ideas” but in fact an entire worldview. This was a way of understanding their God and his telos for the world.
Jewish mysticism continued well after the exilic period into the second Temple era and beyond. Within early Christianity we have evidence in the New Testament that spiritual experiences continued to play and important role. The Gospels, Acts, Letters of Paul, and most obviously Revelation, all contain accounts or references to spiritual experiences. As I said, mysticism developed as a response to a spiritual crisis acting as a way for God to communicate with his people when he was no longer dwelling in their midst through the temple. Even though what we have come to know as Christianity began in the late second Temple period that idea of divine communication in the absence of the temple is very important. This is because the early Jesus movement, as N.T. Wright would describe it, was a counter-temple movement.
Right from when the Temple was being rebuilt, many Jewish people thought it was inferior to the first (Ezra 3:10-13.) During Jesus’ time the Essenes, a Jewish sect, completely rejected the second Temple and lived in seclusion from Temple affirming Jewish society. From the discovery at Qumran these people had apocalyptic texts which contained accounts of mystical experiences through which they thought God had specially communicated his will to them. Though Jesus and his followers did not completely reject the Temple, Jesus’ criticised it and predicted its destruction, along with the city of Jerusalem, which happened at the hands of Rome a few decades later (Matthew 21:12-13, 24:1-2.) Since the Jesus movement lacked the Temple, a symbol of communion between God and his people, spiritual and religious experiences would play a very important role in the formation of Christian faith. This is what we will explore in the next post on Christian mysticism.
 Baskin J., Seeskin K., The Cambridge Guide to Jewish History, Religion, and Culture, pp. 401, 2010.
 Wright N.T., Jesus and the Victory of God, pp. 51, 1996.