All Theology is Mystical

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Eastern Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky in his The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church writes that

"The eastern tradition has never made a sharp distinction between mysticism and theology; between personal experience... and the dogma affirmed by the church... we must live the dogma expressing a revealed truth".

This lived faith, he says, involves a "profound change, an inner transformation of spirit, enabling us to experience it mystically." While there has traditionally been conflict between the theological side of the church and its mystical side, one seeking to preserve orthodoxy and the other focused on renewing a vital relationship with God leading to inner and outer transformation, Lossky insists that the two in fact are inseparable. Theology needs to be focused on fostering a transformed church, on leading us into relationship with God.

Too often this has not been the focus of theology. Instead the focus has been on systematizing the mechanics of the universe, one deciphering out exact workings of the Trinity like a math problem, or precisely defining doctrinal statements that seem distant from life. Stanley Grenz criticizes just this tendency for theology to become focused on extracting propositional truth out of the narrative of Scripture and organizing it in systematic form like detached entries in a encyclopedia, because it becomes then removed from relationship. Reading through the history of theology one can get the impression that this has been the focus of theologians for centuries. Take for example Augustine. Augustine is credited with the doctrine of original sin and predestination, but taken out of his narrative context these can seem like detached and impersonal doctrines and one misses the vital relational faith that they spring from. Predestination becomes a question of determination, as if it were a kind of natural force rather than a relational concept of God's desire and intent to be in relationship with us, having purposed (pre-destined) us to be loved by him, chosing us the way a lover chooses their beloved. Original sin likewise is relationally motivated because it speaks of our deep need to be in relationship with God and how outside of that connection we cannot be our true selves. One gets this relational context reading Augustine directly because his writings ooze with the beautiful aching prose of the lover seeking God. Augustine's theology is written in the form of a prayer, a love letter to God.

"You called, and shouted, and burst my deafness. You flashed, shined, and scattered my blindness. You breathed odors, and I drew in breath, and panted for You. I tasted, and I hunger and thirst for You. You touched me and I burned for your peace."

In “Silent Fire,” Walter Capps and Wendy Wright describe Augustine as “the father of the mystical tradition” They illustrate that Augustine's understanding of salvation was deeply relational, rooted in his idea of humilitas which expressed the soul's deep need and yearning for God. Humilitas is “the disposition of the human heart, bestowed and formed by the divine presence. Through it the image of God is reconstituted, and the presence of God is brought to interior consciousness.” (p 17) This experience of a relationship with God indwelling and transforming us, Augustine says, must be “born within the soul” in the same way Christ was born in humility in the manger. In other words: ye must be born again. We have here at the heart of Augustine's understanding of salvation, rooted in his own conversion experience, an expression of the new birth that could not be more clear – inner transformation by the indwelling Spirit experienced in a loving intimate relationship with God found in surrendering oneself to Christ as Lord and savior.

Here we have in Augustine, the father of the mystical tradition (meaning an experienced relational born again faith), who is at the same time, the father of western orthodoxy. Yet reading many surveys of theology focusing on the later, you would never guess that Augustine (and so many others) have this intimate relational faith. Instead one is left with the impression that their faith was focused on cold doctrinal formulations. But to miss this intimate experiential focus is to miss the very heart of theology, sucking out its life. In reaction to this, many people see Paul as opposed to Jesus – Paul being the poster boy for cold doctrinal formulations, and Jesus being loving and relational. But to read Paul this way, as with Augustine, is to completely misunderstand him. Paul is the “father” of the churches in Corthinth, Ephasus, Galatia, and so on, precisely because of his focus on mystical faith, because he encountered them with a transforming relationship with God. With the “power of God” rather than with intellectual arguments or doctrine. All the doctrines that are derived from Paul spring from this relational, experiential, mystical root of a vital lived encounter with God in Christ transforming his life from the inside out. As with Augustine, Paul who writes the bulk of biblical doctrine is at the same time profoundly mystical. One could say the same of John whose Gospel is the most theological and the again most mystical. There is no conflict between theology and mysticism, between religion and spirituality, between experience and revelation, between Biblical and experiential faith.

The root of this is not in experience but in God's self-disclosing personal revelation in Christ as witnessed in Scripture. We need theology to help us connect to that root. But the connection is one of experiencing that reality in our own lives, in entering into a relationship with God. Theology's job is in lead us to that loving transforming relationship. A history of theology that is not a history of vital relationship with God is a dead history that paints a false picture of the church. Theology is not primarily an academic intellectual exercise, but one that needs to be done on our knees.

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At 5:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Depends what you mean by mystical. You equate mystical with experiential, however traditionally mysticism refers to union with God through meditation and other "spiritual exercises," as opposed to relational unity with God. Christian unity is relational through the Holy Spirit as opposed to Muslim and Buddhist becoming one with the Absolute. Even Orthodox mystics speak of the uncreated light of Mt. Tabor (The Transfiguration) as the basis for their experience of the Divine.

Mysticism goes back to the Greeks and is based on non-relational Being philosophy rather than Hebrew covenantal relational faith.

At 6:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I tend to disagree with your analysis, but would be interested in hearing more of your perspective to understand it better. First of all I am only referring here to Christian mysticism. I am not familiar with your Mt Tabor reference, but one I see a lot is the Song of Solomon which comes up over and over. This is of course a deeply relational and intimate text.

While Christian mysticism does utilize spiritual practices like meditation, I would say the core is focused on dependency on God as the basis of intimate relational union.

The world view of the early church was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy which effects both theology (like the creeds) as well as mysticism, but I think an argument could be made that both the theology and praxis of the early church are based on Paul and John and thus not a diversion from the Bible, but its imperfect expression within their particular (Greek) culture. I do not see anything particularly sacred about any one cultural expression including Hebrew culture, so the question for me is whether we see in the mysticism of the church a genuine expression of a living relationship with God despite its many human faults. I think we do.

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts here.


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