Mysticism, Evangelism, and the Emergent Church

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Mysticism is defined primarily as the experience of intimacy with God, and the life practices used to cultivate that relationship. Understood on these relational terms it is at the very heart of Christian faith and life. Mysticism in the form of the monastic tradition has always been the life blood, as well as a key renewal movement with Catholicism. Likewise, within Protestantism's major movements towards reform and vitality found in Pietism and revivalism have been strongly rooted in a mystical experiential connection with God. Indeed Evangelicalism's focus on the centrality of the new birth and the proclamation of the Gospel are at heart relational and mystical concerns. Liberal faith with its roots in Schleiermacher is at heart as well a faith rooted in mystical experience. Finally, Orthodoxy has always maintained that mysticism and theology must go hand in hand. In short, every major branch of Christianity – whether liberal or evangelical, from Catholic to Protestant to Orthodox – is deeply rooted in mystical relational experience of intimacy with God.

The question is where does the emergent church stand in relation to this mystical relational faith? There has been some emphasis on "praying the hours" and other contemplative exercises, but at the same time as Scot McKnight has charged, there is a hostility towards evangelism (the sharing of relationship) and a re-definition of the Gospel in terms of "following Jesus" and his kingdom as a "way" rather than being in an intimate relationship with Christ effecting all of life. The later emphasis on the "kingdom now" at the expense of the eternal is something people like Andrew Jones have criticized in the writings of Brian McClaren. So this is definitely a (critical) conversation that is taking place within the emergent ranks among those who love it rather than simply an outside critique. The meergent church deconstructing itself. That's a good.

Some of the questions that arise are these: Does the emergent church tend towards an understanding of mystical experience that is self-focused with its new found focus on mystic rituals? Does it have an understanding of the gospel as "kingdom way" that is ultimately impersonal and detached from a relational encounter with a transforming God? How can we care about social justice without falling into the trap of secularized liberal church? How can we develop a rich and compassionate understanding of evangelism without falling into the dogmatism of fundamentalism. I'm afraid much of the emergent movement tends towards completely jettisoning the idea of evangelism all together, and is thus in danger of becoming spiritually infertile? Coming from a Pentecostal background as I do, I like the idea evangelism being about a relational encounter with power rather than a rational proposition, and think we would so well to remember our roots in the Great Awakenings that focused on both personal and social transformation through the Spirit working in people's lives and world.

Learning from our past, contextualizing here in our present post modern situation, and looking forwards towards an emerging future, what should be our approach towards mystical relational faith be, both personally and socially?

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At 4:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Derek

I can’t say that I agree with you that mysticism is “defined primarily as the experience of intimacy with God, and the life practices used to cultivate that relationship". I would say that relationship with God is the necessary foundation for Christian mysticism, but that it goes much deeper than that.

I subscribe to Ken Wilbur's notion that we live out our religious narratives in complementary but different ways. Most commonly we use our religion to create meaning, community, & orientation in our lives. Wilbur calls this aspect Translation & states, "it act as a way to create meaning for the separate self: it offers myths and stories and tales and narratives and rituals and revivals that, taken together, help the separate self make sense of, and endure, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune".

Much less common is what Wilbur calls Transformation. This is the domain of mysticism in its truest sense. To quote Wilbur again, "religion has also served-in a usually very,very small minority-the function of radical transformation and liberation. This function of religion does not fortify the separate self, but utterly shatters it...not a conventional bolstering of consciousness but a radical transmutation and transformation at the deepest seat of consciousness itself".

Going back & reading some of your earlier posts from Nov & Dec, it seems to me that in your reading of Wesley & Lossky you have not made the important distinction between these two aspects of spiritual life. Wesley was a great evangelist, advocating that people believe and live the narrative of the gospel in a direct way. This is translation in Wilbur's sense of the word. But Wesley also sensed there was something deeper than this, that we can be transformed in the deepest center of our being. I believe this is what he meant by Entire Sanctification. This seems very close to the Easter Orthodox idea of Theosis, that in our life & communion with God, we are ultimately made divine. (Check out Sanctification on Wikipedia)

As for the emergent interest in mysticism, it remains to be seen what fruit this will produce. I believe it is important to note that Orthodox, Catholic, & Protestant mysticism are very different in important ways as each tradition has a different take on the narrative of the gospel & Christian praxis. It seems to me that mysticism has flowered when christians have become disillusioned by the colonization of the gospel by society at large, and fled to the fringes to find a new way to live, & that living the gospel in a simple & direct way is the truest basis for evangelizing others. This was the case with the Desert Fathers & the Beguines. I am hopeful that this will be the case with the emerging neomonastic scene.


At 9:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Joseph,

I am basing my definition of mysticism here on several different authors. For example in "Early Christian Mystics" McGinn defines it as "a direct, immediate, and transformative encounter with the presence of God". Evelyn Underhill, a prolific authority on mysticism defines it in "The Mystics of the Church" as "the direct intuition or expereince of God" and a mystic as one who has that expereince "not merely as an accepted belief of practice, but on... first-hand personal knowledge"

I'd say that both of these authors would agree with your emphasis on transformation. So would I. That idea of transformation is as you say at the very heart of Wesley's understanding of salvation as rooted in sanctification as opposed to the more legal transaction of justification as it was developed in Lutheran orthodoxy. I've been studying the roots of my own evangelicalism which has led me to a study of Wesley and his influence by the German Pietists. In contrast to the idea of being born again as one time "fire insurance" legal translation as it can be today, Wesley and Pietists focused on inner transformation of life changing a person both inwardly as well as outwardly leading to a life of agape love. The Pietists and Wesley were heavily influenced by the mystics in this. So going back to these roots, I find a transformative lived-out faith that cared deeply about embodying faith in life as well as issues of compassion and social justice. It is that kind of transformative-relational faith that I think needs to be at the heart of our understanding of soteriology (how we are saved).

Sounds like we will be having some great foder for discussion at the next Sugarlump!

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