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I repeatedly hear Western Christians repudiate mysticism. This post is NOT about the merits or dangers of Christian mysticism. Another question addresses that sufficiently. This question deals with whether or not Western Christians are accurately defining mysticism.

It seems that what is often called 'mysticism' by Western Christians is actually what might be better called 'emotionalism.' This is evidenced by the fact that mysticism always seems to be presented as the opposite extreme of rationalism (which implies that mysticism must be irrational). It seems that the trend of creating this dichotomy began historically in Western culture in the Romantic period. But is mysticism the same thing as emotionalism or is this a false dichotomy that we have inherited from Romanticism? Why or why not? If not, what definition would you offer for it?

Any sources from Christian history (east or west) would also be appreciated when addressing this question.

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2 Answers 2

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I can tell you what Catholicism has to say about it, for the most part. Though, if you're looking for some survey of western Christians to get some sense of what all of them think mysticism is, this isn't the forum for that. But, even without a poll, I can say with high confidence that most Christians, especially those from larger denominations like Catholicism, don't know their own doctrines sufficiently. And they likely have no idea what what we mean when we call one of our saints a mystic.

That said, proper mysticism is not emotionalism, and it's not anti-rational; it's superrational.

Christian mysticism is the "quest" to come into an intimate, unitive relationship with God, God willing. And since God is well-beyond comprehension, mystical experiences and practices are necessarily "foggy" and "mysterious." However, the fruits of a mystical experience (the fruits of contemplation) can always be verified rationally by comparing their message with that of Word of God and the Church.

But, the best way to see that proper mysticism is not an emotionalism, I think, is to examine some mystics, their experiences, and their insights. You'll definitely find some emotional experiences in their bios. And, you should expect to find emotion in a relationship. But, these aren't the highlights of their stories. The highlights are the ecstatic, confusing climaxes of their contemplative experiences, and the fruits that follow. Unlike what an emotional experience can yield, these experiences yield prophetic and/or genius-like insight, transcendent peace, and profound love (in the sense of willing the good of others as other).

Two very notable Catholic mystics. - St. Theresa of Avila (on Wikipedia and Catholic Encyclopedia) - St. John of the Cross, Doctor of mystic theology (on Wikipedia and Catholic Encyclopedia)

And I think it has been well-argued that John the Apostle and St. Paul were mystics. And you can refer to their NT writings. The Gospel of John, in particular, has a pretty heavy mystical feel to it.

I think it's also important to point out that Christianity -- Catholicism and Orthodoxy in the least -- are highly mystical religions. We don't necessarily call every Christian a mystic, but the practices (even basic prayer) have an end-goal that is ultimately mystical. That is, we're trying to unite with God in whatever manner God desires. And, we acknowledge that this relationship is beyond understanding (it's a mystery),but we work with God to attain (receive) that unity anyway -- that's mysticism.

But again, if you're looking for an answer that represent what most Christians believe, regardless of the dogma to which they subscribe, I'd wager most of them have little to no idea what mysticism is.

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I think that's a great response. In fact, I think a Roman Catholic perspective is ideal in some ways as a Western perspective on mysticism (because most of the mystical Protestants are reading mystical Catholics). As to your statement, "proper mysticism is not emotionalism, and it's not anti-rational; it's superrational." I'll be stealing that (with attribution of course) in the near future ;) –  Dan Dec 21 '12 at 15:05
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Glad you liked it. And no citation necessary. I've heard similar statements from various priests about God, the sacraments, religion in general, and even aspects of "daily life." Things that aren't ir-rational, because they don't oppose reason; but which extend beyond reason to work with it, to fuel it, etc. –  svidgen Dec 21 '12 at 16:04

This is a very difficult question to answer. There are some anti-mystic Christians that claim anybody who slightly leans to the appreciation of poetry as an evil mystic. There are also very emotional people drawn to mysticism to such a degree that they seem incapable of properly thinking through any doctrine at all.

To get down to the heart of the matter one must understand what a mystery is in the Bible. By the term 'biblical mysticism' I basically understand those truths 'talked around' in scripture but not fully revealed in scripture - they are still hidden on this side of heaven. The gospel is not a mystery in that sense, for it was hidden before Christ, than it was made known. A mystic who appreciates those things on the outskirts of the gospel, meditating on them in awe and wonder and having their hearts moved are not mystics in the evil sense, they are just wise. The 'evil mystic' is actually the person who confuses the idea of 'mystery'. They say the gospel itself is 'still a mystery' and so deny it while glorying in poetic ideas about God, virtue and good works.

I think this more or less captures the more balanced reformed western views. You do have a point about some overly rationalistic western theologians who seem opposed to even biblical mysticism which is derived from accepting the gospel as intellectually certain and then falling into awesome wonder over its incomprehensible parts.

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