A reader writes:
Hi Carl, I have gathered that Christian mystics distinguish between ‘natural mysticism’ and what they see as the genuine article. However I am unclear on the difference. In addition I wonder how this critique maps onto mysticism in other traditions – does it amount to anything more than faith or belief in the necessity of orthodox Christian doctrine as the ‘skeleton’ of practice?
Thanks for a great question, and I’m sorry that for now I can only give the briefest of replies (today is a retreat day for me, and I have to leave for the monastery in a few minutes). But perhaps a few initial thoughts can spark further reflection and discussion.
First of all, natural mysticism — experiences of union with God’s creation — is a good and authentic form of mysticism. So I dispute your idea that Christian mystics don’t see it as “genuine.” Granted, some voices in the Christian tradition (Thomas à Kempis leaps to mind) over-emphasize the distinction between the world, which is seen as fallen and bad, and heaven or the realm of the Spirit, seen as holy and good and worthy of our aspiration. This kind of thinking, which to me smacks of Manichaeism and the worst forms of Neoplatonism or dualistic gnosticism, is really a distortion of Christian orthodoxy, which has always insisted that nature, while fallen, is good. Since nature is good, nature mysticism is likewise good — a gift to us from God.
Still, if Christians draw a distinction between nature mysticism and God mysticism, how are we to understand this today? I think a helpful guide from outside the Christian tradition here is Ken Wilber, the Integral theorist. Wilber, in his book Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, identifies not two, but four, distinct dimensions of mysticism, which he labels as: Nature mysticism, Deity mysticism, Formless mysticism, and Nondual mysticism.
At the rist of oversimplifying not only Wilber but the entire sweep of mystical wisdom, I’ll just briefly define these as follows:
- Nature mysticism — the experience/recognition of basic oneness with the cosmos;
- Deity mysticism — the experience/recognition of basic union or communion with God (or with the god/gods of your particular wisdom tradition);
- Formless mysticism — the experience/recognition of basic union with what the Christian tradition has recognized as the ineffable or apophatic reality beyond all images or concepts of God;
- Nondual mysticism — finally, the dropping away of all distinctions between “self” and “nature,” or “self” and “God” or even “mysticism” and “non-mysticism.”
Now, we could get into the distinctions, found among some classical Christian mystics and contemplatives, between acquired or infused forms of contemplation — the idea being that acquired experiences are directed by one’s own intentionality, whereas the infused dimension is entirely a gift of grace. I’m not sure how useful this distinction is, however. I think we need to remember that everything is grace — even those practices or experiences that we initiate ourselves. Meanwhile, although it’s helpful to remember that any experience of the mystery ultimate does come from God rather than from our own mastery or control of our spiritual lives, I’m not sure that this distinction helps us to understand the distinction between natural and so-called supernatural mysticism. The risk, which I think my reader has alluded to, is the idea that natural of acquired mysticism is somehow “not the genuine article” or inferior to supernatural, Deity-focused mysticism. But I think it’s a difference not of kind, but of degree.
I do think it is a natural thing for human beings to experience a sense of ineffable unity with the sky, or with the mountains or the ocean, or even a tulip growing alongside a city street. But I don’t think that makes such mysticism second-rate. Rather, I think we can see it as a celebration of God’s good creation, given to us freely and lavishly by God, which functions as a sort of preparation for the more deeply transformational experiences of union or communion with God — which, in turn, prepares us to enter into the cloud of unknowing, the dark night of the soul, wherein even our images and concepts of God are stripped away, as we are plunged deeper and deeper into the mystery.
Look at it this way: the levels of consciousness that a four year old or a ten year old experiences is different than that attained by a sixteen year old, or for that matter, a sixty year old. But it doesn’t make the younger consciousness inferior or “not the genuine article.” It’s just exactly where the youngster needs to be on his or her life journey. Of course, in terms of spirituality, I can still be a “four year old” spiritually even when I’m a seventy year old physically — and vice versa. That’s part of the mystery of it all.
I don’t know that I’ve fully answered my reader’s question, particularly in regard to how Christian mysticism “maps” into other traditions (I think Wilber is helpful here) or if Christian dogma is necessary for Christian mysticism (short answer: yes. But Christian dogma is not necessary for mysticism in the wider sense of the word). Hopefully, though, this is a start.