In my previous post I pointed out that the idea of communion with God is very important to Christian faith. When we refer to the common definition of mysticism as participating in ultimate reality, the Christian understanding of communion with God definitely has a mystical dimension.
Paul in the famous benediction at the end of 2 Corinthians talks about the communion (koinonia in Greek) of the Holy Spirit. Koinonia can mean a number of things but within Christianity there is a mystical facet to it which we can discern in 2 Corinthians 13:14 where it says “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.” In the New Testament the Holy Spirit is the source of legitimate mystical experiences.
The first time I heard the word “mystic” being used to describe something in the Bible was in Greek New Testament lexicons to explain the “in” language in the New Testament. By “in” language I mean statements like “God in Christ”, “I (Jesus) in him (God)”, being “in Christ”, “in the Spirit” etc. These commentators used mystical to describe a kind of metaphysical relationship between humans and the divine. To me they called it “mystical” for a lack of a better word since it is quite hard to articulate in our modern ways of thinking what they meant. The New Testament authors were talking about spiritual reality, something that we do not see day to day yet it is profoundly true and present with all believers in the Messiah. The New Testament writers were saying they had such an intimate relationship with the divine, that is, with God and his Son Jesus through the Holy Spirit. The best language they had for it portrayed participation in God’s identity as his chosen people. These things are hard to express but as a believer, and I know other Christians feel this way, you somehow have an existential knowing that you are in Christ and Christ is in you.
This Christian understanding of the relationship with the divine begins with an understanding of the relationship between Jesus and God. In the Gospel of John, Jesus himself articulates this understanding,
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. – John 17:20-23 ESV
God and Jesus have a unique relationship where they are identified with each other. In the New Testament you cannot talk about God without talking about Jesus, and you cannot talk about Jesus with talking about God. Jesus did not think of this as a subjective interpretation of reality which is characteristic of so much non-Christian mysticism. He was talking about a concrete spiritual reality which was true whether you were aware of it or not.
In the letters of Paul it is quite characteristic of him to use this “in” language which originated with Jesus. When Paul talked about Christians being “in Christ in God” it meant they too had entered the unique relationship between God and Jesus as Father and Son. Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:9 says the saints have been “called into the fellowship of his Son.” Believers were therefore called the children of God because they had entered this divine familial relationship. Jesus as the Son of God good shares his status with those who trust in him so they too are the children of God (John 1:12-13.)
A little further on in 1 Corinthians 1 Paul talks about baptism into Christ. Baptism in the New Testament is the initiation rite into the Church. In the twelfth chapter he explains there is a baptism in the Spirit. So water baptism served as a symbol, an identity marker of a greater spiritual reality in the Messiah Jesus, which often came with certain signs or spiritual gifts as Paul would call it. He explains the role of the Spirit this way,
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body– Jews or Greeks, slaves or free– and all were made to drink of one Spirit. – 1 Corinthians 12:12-13 ESV
It was through the Spirit that believers were incorporated into the body of Christ. Paul in Romans 8:14 says all those who are led by the Spirit are the sons of God. The agency of the Spirit of God in the believers union with Christ includes a mystical dimension. Unlike many non-Christian forms of mysticism the goal is not to attain oneness with ultimate reality. Like I said earlier with the Jewish tradition, Christian mysticism is rather about God invading our reality and our space. It is not something that we achieve but a relationship we are granted by the grace of God. By believing in Jesus we equally find ourselves in a state of spiritual union with the almighty God through his son Jesus. This is another important distinguishing feature of Christian mysticism, it’s completely democratized. Participation in the mystical is not for the spiritual elite or those who have learned certain techniques. The Spirit of God through who we enjoy our mystical union with God is available to every believer. Even when it comes to the more dramatic spiritual and mystical experiences, everyone is a potential candidate. Again in 1 Corinthians 12 Paul declares,
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. – 1 Corinthians 12:7 ESV
Peter on the day of Pentecost also indicates,
For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: “‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. – Acts 2:15-18 ESV
In this discussion on mysticism I moved from a general understanding of mysticism to a very specific Christian conception of it. For many a Christian the word mysticism does not conjure ideas of anything to do with Christ but something to do with the occult. That is why through my first series of posts I eased into the subject by taking a neutral stance on it. Mysticism is a feature of the human experience across all cultures. So we cannot immediately dismiss it as fraudulent or demonic, especially when it has been a part of biblical faith for so long. That being said there are distinctions between Christian and non-Christian mysticism. First of all Christian mysticism is circumscribed by the biblical worldview and originates from the Jewish exilic mystical tradition. Ezekiel, Daniel and Zechariah’s mystical experiences were concerned about God’s plans and activities in and for the world. Christian mysticism also addresses such concerns. Though a person’s cultural milieu does play a significant part in informing mystical experiences, in the Christian worldview something more than that is at play.
Non-Christian mysticism maybe about a private spiritual reality. Indeed some Christians do have a detached esoteric experience. They sometimes see things which have very little to do with scripture. In Christianity however, a legitimate spiritual experience is a private experience of reality but reality nonetheless. What is witnessed says some authentic about the way the world is which is consistent with the biblical worldview. In it God is actually communicating with his people. Since Christian mysticism is consistent with the biblical worldview, it in many ways subverts the general understanding of mysticism found throughout human history. The term “mystical” really does not do justice to the nature of spiritual experiences in Christ. This means we need to critically assess mystical experiences in sombre, prayerful meditation and the careful study of Holy Scripture.
Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good – 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21 ESV