Hyatt International Ministries
Taking Spiritual Awakening & Biblical Thinking to the Nations
with Drs. Eddie & Susan Hyatt & Friends
Some Thoughts on Mysticism
In a recent church gathering a well-known evangelical pastor led his congregation in a “breathing” exercise in which they were exhorted to take “nice, big, deep breaths.” He went on to explain that such breathing exercises, along with meditation, reflection, and silence, have been central to the Christian tradition for thousands of years. He then sought to buttress his argument by pointing out that, “In Yoga, one of the central tenets of Yoga is your breath needs to remain the same regardless of pose. And the Yoga Masters say this is how it is when you follow Jesus and surrender to God.” 1
Pastor Rob Bell is typical of many today who are looking to the medieval mystics (and to Eastern forms of mysticism) in their search for spiritual reality. But while many of the medieval mystics can be admired for their passion and devotion, they cannot be followed in many of their doctrines and experiences. Being loyal to the medieval church and sharing in its lax (and sometimes hostile) attitude toward Scripture, they often exhibit a glaring lack of discernment and common sense. So while some of their experiences are, no doubt, genuine, many are obviously psychic and some are probably demonic. Commenting on medieval mysticism and its neglect of Scripture, Dr. Hans Kung, the most widely read Catholic theologian in the world today, says,
These new revelations not only overshadowed the Bible and the Gospel, but also Him whom the Gospel proclaims and to whom the Bible bears witness. It is striking how rarely Christ appeared in all these “revelations,” “apparitions,” and “wonders.” Catholics who followed in the wake of every new “revelation,” which often turned out to be fantasy or deceit, and indulged their desire for sensation by looking for the latest reports of miracles–and yet who had never once in their whole lives read the Scriptures from cover to cover.2
Neoplatonists believed that if they performed a certain series of progressive steps of contemplation, they would be able to leave behind all the cares and all concerns for physical realities. They thought they could contemplate eternal realities and eventually achieve “ecstasy.” Neoplatonists believed at this point they would be in unity with “The One.”4
Nonetheless, during the Middle Ages Paul was read through the eyes of Dyonisius and turned into a mystic by the medieval church. Spiritual experiences and revelations through contemplation were exalted and valued while the Scriptures were often ignored and, at times, even banned by the institutional church.5 Exotic, non-Biblical miracles such as levitations, communion wafers bleeding, statues weeping, apparitions of the saints and the Virgin Mary, etc. were hailed as the great works of God. Commenting on medieval mysticism and its neglect of Scripture, Hans Kung, the most widely read Catholic theologian in the world today, says,
These new revelations not only overshadowed the Bible and the Gospel, but also Him whom the Gospel proclaims and to whom the Bible bears witness. It is striking how rarely Christ appeared in all these “revelations,” “apparitions,” and “wonders.” Catholics who followed in the wake of every new “revelation,” which often turned out to be fantasy or deceit, and indulged their desire for sensation by looking for the latest reports of miracles–and yet who had never once in their whole lives read the Scriptures from cover to cover.6
Paul’s experience of being caught up to the third heaven, which he reluctantly shared in II Corinthians 12:1-6, was interpreted by the mystics as an experience initiated by Paul through mystic contemplation. In fact, “Paul’s entire life was viewed as a process of mystical ascension, and his letters were considered to be guides in that process.” Within this Neoplatonic, mystical mindset emerged the mystical movement of the medieval church of which the following traits were characteristic.
A Mystical Union of the Soul with God
A Withdrawal From the World
An Unhealthy Preoccupation with Suffering
Not having an opportunity to suffer for Christ, as did the early Christian martyrs, many mystics pursued a self-inflicted martyrdom. For example, Henry Suso (d. 1366), a German Dominican mystic who gained fame for his sanctity and devotion, wore an undergarment studded with 150 sharp tacks that, he said, felt as if he were lying in a nest of wasps. He also made a wooden cross to which he affixed 30 spikes and on this he lay every night for eight years. To intensify his suffering, he affixed seven sharp needles to the cross, and for a long time, he daily inflicted himself with two penitential drills. In these exercises, he would tie the cross to his back and beat upon it with his fist until the spikes and needles penetrated the flesh and the blood flowed down to his feet.9
This unhealthy preoccupation with suffering, and the belief that it produced a cleansing effect on the soul, gave rise to writings such as The Dark Night of the Soul by John of the Cross (1542–91), a Spanish mystic and close friend of Theresa of Ávila (1515-1584).
The Rejection of Rational Thinking
I counsel thee in the earnest exercise of mystic contemplation, that you leave the senses and activities of the intellect and all that the senses or intellect can perceive. Having laid your understanding to rest, strain as far as you can toward a union with Him whom neither being nor understanding can contain. So shall you be led upwards to the Ray of that divine Darkness which surpasses all existence.10
The parallels with Neoplatonism, particularly in the rejection of reason and union with the Divine, are obvious. Gonzalez describes this work as, “An explanation of basically Neoplatonic mysticism in which the religious life consists in an ascending vision of God.11
of Jesus or the New Testament.
It is the carnal mind that is against God, not the mind per se. The answer is not to reject the mind and rational thinking, but to renew the mind in God’s Word as Paul admonishes in Romans 12:2. God’s Word and Spirit will often transcend human reason, but they will never violate it or seek to eliminate it.
Medieval mysticism is out of touch with Jesus and the New Testament in terms of prayer, as well. Jesus, for example, does not advocate any form of mystical prayer. He does not teach any postures or techniques for prayer and meditation. Neither is there any mention of silence or contemplation. Instead, He emphasizes a relational approach to God in which prayer is simple conversation with a loving, benevolent Being whom He calls Abba, an endearing term used only by children for the father in the Jewish household.
For Jesus, oneness with God is not a mystical union of one’s being with God, but a practical oneness of will and purpose, culminated by the indwelling Holy Spirit and Word of God in one’s life.
Another point of divergence with Jesus and New Testament Christianity is that Jesus does not call His disciples to withdraw from the world into solitude and contemplation. Instead, He sends them into the world and promises a baptism in the Holy Spirit that will empower them to prophetically engage the world as His witnesses.
Neither does Jesus teach progressive stages of cleansing through darkness and suffering, as did the mystics. Instead, He shed His Blood to cleanse from sin and its effects. He also emphasizes the Word of God as an agent of cleansing. For example, He says to His disciples, You are already clean through the word I have spoken to you (John 15:3). And He prays to the Father, Sanctify them by Your truth, Your word is truth (John 17:17).
And yet we must realize that mysticism is not a specifically Christian phenomenon. Not only is mysticism older than Christianity; it also comes from far away. Mystical religion had already come into being at a very early stage – in the late Vedan period – in India.12
Although many of the mystics can be admired for their commitment and devotion, we must recognize that many of their concepts and approaches to prayer and spirituality are rooted in pagan, mystical religion, i.e., Neoplatonism. The Reformers and Revivalists of the 16th century did not consider the medieval mystics to be their predecessors but, rather, sought to model their faith and spirituality after Jesus and the New Testament. Those who are hungering for spiritual reality in the 21st century would be wise to follow their example.
2 Hans Kung, The Church (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1976), 257-58.
3 See my book, 2000 Years of Chrismatic Christianity (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2002) for a more thorough discussion of this issue.
4 Justo L. Gonzalez, Paul: His Impact On Christianity (Nashville: Graded Press, 1987), 38.
5 In 1190 Pope Innocent III declared that as by the old law the beast touching the holy mountain was to be stoned to death, so simple and uneducated men were not to touch the Bible or venture to preach its doctrines. Archbishop Berthholdt of Germany echoed Innocent’s ban on the Bible when he declared, “The Scriptures are not to be given to simple and unlearned men and, above all, are not to be put into the hands of women.” In reaction to the evangelical revival groups, who quoted Scripture in defense of their beliefs and practices, the Synod of Toulouse issued a formal ban in 1229 forbidding laypeople to possess copies of the Scripture in their own language.
6 Gonzalez, 41.
7 Philip Schaff, vol. 6 of History of the Christian Church, 8 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910), 276.
8 Tony Lane, Harper’s Concise Book of Christian Faith (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984), 64.
9 Schaff, vol. 6 of History of the Christian Church, 263-64.
10 Lane, Harper’s Concise Book of Christian Faith, 56.
11 Gonzales, 40.
12 Hans Kung, Christianity: Essence, History, and Future (New York: Continuum, 1995), 448.