Mysticism, Evangelical Style

Several of the most confusing classes I encountered in my Bible College and Seminary training were related to worship and spiritual formation. Terms like “authenticity” and “experiential” were buzzwords thrown around to signify what traditional Evangelical church services are missing. I got the impression that intense, sappy emotion generated by hypnotic music was the primary indicator of an “authentic” religious experience.

At the time of my Bible College education I was about twice the age of the average student, so I was given more leeway in being required to attend student chapel services, etc. After several experiences during which I felt that students were being emotionally manipulated I opted out of the services. The rationale behind intense emotion and mood-setting music in worship was explained in classes about worship.

It seems that a mind cluttered with distracting thoughts makes it difficult for God’s Spirit to penetrate to the level of our hearts. Hypnotic music (my term, not theirs) plus repetitive lyrics equals clearing of the mind to receive God’s inspiration.

In addition to all of this, symbols, imagery, tactile sensations and even aromas (incense) may “enhance” the “experiential aspect” of worship. The idea seems to be to get the mind off of the earthly and into the heavenly. Old Testament-based worship postures and gestures also contribute to “authentic” worship. They help worshippers to “focus” on “experiencing the presence of God.”

In Seminary, many of the same practices were recommended, along with styles of worship recommended by writers referred to as “the New Evangelicals” or leaders of “the Emergent Church.” What I found particularly surprising is that the personal “spiritual disciplines” recommended by both seminaries I attended were developed by Roman Catholic mystics from the Third Century onward.

Some of the New Evangelical writers even speak highly of Protestants who “convert” to Roman Catholicism along their journey into the modes of worship now on offer in Evangelical churches.

As a former Roman Catholic myself, I found the whole thing somewhat disturbing.

Even more disturbing to me is that my call to a personal relationship with Jesus began with Jesus freeing me from an occultism that began with similar practices of emptying my mind to “get in touch” with the “spiritual realm.”

Needless to say, “stilling my soul” or “clearing my mind” is not a practice I will be engaging in any time soon. For me, that would be very dangerous.

I’m not convinced that it is any less dangerous for other Christians.

As I recall from one class on spiritual formation even the Desert Fathers who started the whole tradition of “Christian” mysticism pepper their writings with warnings about intense spiritual encounters with evil spiritual beings or forces (or their own “darker side”) during meditative times. This seems to me to be a very arduous and dangerous way to be in touch with a God who is only a prayer away in Jesus Christ.

It was while doing a paper in an undergraduate class about the history and thought of the denomination of the Bible College I was attending that I encountered a seminal paper online about the phenomenology of mysticism. Evelyn Underhill’s book Mysticism: A Study in Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness  notes the many similarities between Eastern meditative mysticism and the Christian variety in both practices and the resulting feelings of closeness to (or alienation from!) the spiritual entities encountered or invoked. It was quite an eye-opener. A quote from her chapter about mysticism and theology should illustrate the point.

Because it is characteristic of the human self to reflect upon its experience, to use its percepts as material for the construction of a concept, most mystics have made or accepted a theory of their own adventures. Thus we have a mystical philosophy or theology—the comment of the intellect on the proceedings of spiritual intuition—running side by side with true or empirical mysticism: classifying its data, criticizing it, explaining it, and translating its vision of the supersensible into symbols which are amenable to dialectic.

Such a philosophy is most usually founded upon the formal creed which the individual mystic accepts. It is characteristic of him that in so far as his transcendental activities are healthy he is generally an acceptor and not a rejector of such creeds. The view which regards the mystic as a spiritual anarchist receives little support from history; which shows us, again and again, 96 the great mystics as faithful sons of the great religions. Almost any religious system which fosters unearthly love is potentially a nursery for mystics: and Christianity, Islam, Brahmanism, and Buddhism each receives its most sublime interpretation at their hands. Thus St. Teresa interprets her ecstatic apprehension of the Godhead in strictly Catholic terms, and St. John of the Cross contrives to harmonize his intense transcendentalism with incarnational and sacramental Christianity. Thus Boehme believed to the last that his explorations of eternity were consistent with the teaching of the Lutheran Church. The Sufis were good Mohammedans, Philo and the Kabalists were orthodox Jews. Plotinus even adapted—though with what difficulty—the relics of paganism to his doctrine of the Real.

The inner reality that the Hindu or Buddhist mystic seems to correspond to that which the “Christian” mystic experiences. It doesn’t matter which religion one holds in theory, the mystical experience is essentially the same. This suggests an underlying “experience” of God that is not Christian at its core, as noted further in the same chapter:

Unless safeguarded by limiting dogmas, the theory of Immanence, taken alone, is notoriously apt to degenerate into pantheism; and into those extravagant perversions of the doctrine of “deification” in which the mystic holds his transfigured self to be identical with the Indwelling God. It is the philosophical basis of that practice of introversion, the turning inward of the soul’s faculties in contemplation, which has been the “method” of the great practical mystics of all creeds. That God, since He is in all—in a sense, is all—may most easily be found within ourselves, is the doctrine of these adventurers;

In my view, the degeneration into pantheism or panentheism is inevitable. This is why Christian mysticism is not for me. My Lord is not the same as the Hindu or Muslim or pagan gods. Jesus is not reached through mantras or “inner stillness.” Whoever the mystics reach, it is not the God who came to be with us in the flesh. Our God is knowable through his revealed word, the Bible and through his Holy Spirit, who reveals Jesus Christ as God and Saviour.

Worship that leads to a trance-like state or to a state of receptiveness to whatever the pastor is preaching strikes me as going overboard. Paying attention to the actual message and comparing it to the Scriptures strikes me as more profitable than just going along with a music-generated mood and calling it “spiritual.”

If the pastor’s theology and reasoning are sound, he is probably preaching God’s word, that is, if he preaches the gospel message that Jesus died for our sins and offers salvation by grace through faith in Jesus. (Remember that faith includes faithfulness to Jesus as Lord.)

That message does not need to have an audience that is lulled into a “receptive” state. In fact, most of Jesus’ disciples were killed because of that message.

If Jesus is Lord, let him speak when it suits him to speak, and not just because we want him to. Maybe we should get back to reading the Bible and letting his Spirit interpret the meaning and message for us. Filling our minds with the faithful words of the Scriptures strikes me as much more productive for hearing God’s “voice” than emptying our minds in the hopes that God (and not some other spirit!) will enter.

Replacing the message of the cross of Jesus with an alternative way of “feeling God’s presence” via emotion or sensory experience strikes me as a definite trading of authentic worship for a cheap substitute. For me, it represents more than just a “dumbing-down” of the church. It suggests a false gospel. Jesus isn’t a feeling. Jesus is Lord.

I am not saying that emotion has no place in worship. Of course it does! What it shouldn’t do is replace thought in worship. And it certainly shouldn’t replace the Jesus who died to take on our sins with a Jesus who loves everybody so much that he will not punish for sin or condemn anyone in a final judgment.

The Jesus who died for our sins and who is now alive again is the one and only true Lord.


About John Valade

I facilitate and teach in Wascana Fellowship. I have been married to Wanda since 1984. M.Div. from Briercrest Seminary, SK in 2011 and B.R.E. Canadian Bible College (now Ambrose University College) in 2000.
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