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Christian Mysticism

Basic Problems Of Christian Mysticism

Christian mysticism inherited most of its ontological and anthropological foundations from the Hellenistic environment from which it emerged. But it also derived a great deal of its imagery and inspiration from the Old Testament, first of all from the Song of Songs. Nevertheless, the original contributions of Christianity must be related to the revelations of the New Testament. The history of Christian mysticism begins with the oldest documents of Christianity, the letters of Paul. The Apostle writes:

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven.… And I know that this man … was caught up into Paradise and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. (2 Cor. 12:2–4)

This quotation shows the problems that scholarship on Christian mysticism confronts. Paul's memory of his mystical ascent seems to lie at the periphery of his religious consciousness. It is his experience as a "man in Christ" and can only be understood as one of the consequences of the Damascus experience, his vision of the Resurrected. The paramount experiences that lie at the foundations of the Christian symbolic universe are not understood as the results of individualistic efforts by religious virtuosos but as the self-revelation of a merciful god. At least in Western Christianity, the paradigm of the saint is not the ascetical hero, who attained mystical states, but the converted sinner, who did not deserve the grace of his calling. The notion of a God who not only created the world but also mediates himself through sending his Son and the Holy Spirit, in other words a God who acts toward man, seems to contradict the mystical notion of an ever-transcendent God that must be approached by meditative ascent.

Moreover, if the climax of God's self-revelation is the incarnation of his word (logos), how can there be a higher knowledge, gained in an experimental realm beyond language? The union of the soul with the ground of being, which can be regarded as the climax of mystical experiences, seems to undermine the orthodox understanding of divine union, that is the sacramental union with the body of Christ, provided by the institution of the church. It is therefore no wonder that Christian mystics often fell under the suspicion of heresy and that even modern theologians regard the concept of Christian mysticism as a contradiction in terms. Of course, a closer look at their writings would show that almost all Christian mystics did not doubt that membership in the church, faith in Christ, and the dispensation of divine grace is the presupposition of their ascent. Nevertheless, the tension remains.

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