Apologetics Index

Chapter 1: The Nature of Mysticism

The Nature of Mysticism

Innerness of Reality

The word mysticism has never had a precise meaning, and in recent years it has been used in so many different ways that most people now have no clear idea of what it means. It is, however, the best word available in spite of its weaknesses. Consequently, before we can profitably discuss how mysticism relates to Christian truth and practice, we need to define the term.

General Description of Mystical Innerness

It is much easier to explain what I do not mean by mysticism. First, I do not mean that confusion of beliefs and practices that we call “the occult,’ even though there often is much of the mystical in the occult.

Another meaning that must be rejected is that which many adherents to the philosophy of naturalism give to the word. For them, mystical and supernatural are often used synonymously. Some mystics deny that their mysticism involves anything supernatural at all, although this groups seems to be quite small. Most claim that when they are in a mystical trance they are in contact with the supernatural, but this alone is not what is meant by mysticism.

Others seems to equate mysticism totally with Oriental religions. This is also wrong, for although the major oriental religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism are mystical, there has been a strong mystical element in certain Western religions and philosophies as well.

Finally, mysticism must not be confused with mystery, even though the words are related historically. To call something mystical is not to say that it is hidden, or difficult, or impossible to understand. The meaning is quite different from any of these.

There are two aspects to mysticism that we must recognize to avoid confusion. First, there is a psychological aspect, often called the mystical experience. Then there are beliefs that arise from that experience. These philosophical and religious beliefs constitutes a set of ideas sometimes collectively called mysticism. However, the term mysticism is often used for both the experience itself and the beliefs resulting from it. Our first major concern is to answer the question, What makes an experience mystical?

When we speak of a mystical experience we refer to an event that is completely within the person. It is totally subjected. When I describe it as being “inner,” and on occasions as “private,” I have the same thing in mind. Although the mystic may experience it as having been triggered by occurrences or objects outside of himself (like a sunset, a piece of music, a religious ceremony, or even a sex act), [1] the mystical experience is a totally inner event. It contains no essential aspects that exist externally to him in the physical world. Some examples may help to make this a bit clearer.

Andrew M. Greeley relates the following as an example of the kind of event we are discussing:

A troubled young man has been listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on a phonograph in his apartment. He turns off the music and begins to work on a term paper, but he makes little progress. The doubts, fears, the thoughts of self-destruction that have harassed him before return. Then, in counterpoint, he hears the hymn of the Ode to Joy, and something, perhaps someone, takes possession of the room and of him. The doubts, the fears, the anxieties are dispelled forever; the young man knows there is nothing to worry about. [2]

It may be useful to notice that Greeley tells us something about this young man’s state of mind before the experience as well as after, but little about the experience itself. We are told that he “hears the hymn of the Ode to Joy” yet, we are told, he had already turned off the music. This “hearing” of the Ninth symphony apparently has no actual physical basis. What are we to make of the statement that “something, perhaps someone, takes possession of the room and of him”? We are probably to understand that this is how the young man felt. The key concept Greeley seems to wish to communicate is that which he emphasizes in the last line of the description. He says that the feeling of confidence and well-being is so strong that it completely convinces the young man that everything is all right. Greeley insists that is properly called “knowing.” The change in the young man’s conviction about his condition is not based on any change in the outside world or on any objective facts. The entire event occurred within the young man himself.

Later in the same book Greeley makes a claim, which one hears not infrequently, that the Bible is full of mystical experiences. As evidence, he points to Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus. [3] This, however, is wrong. Paul tells us that there was a light and a voice. In Acts 9:7 we are told that those who were with Paul also heard the voice, although they did not understand what was said. In Acts 22:9 they also say the light. Unless we reject the accuracy of the account, the Damascus Road experience consisted of a series of objective events. These events occurred “out in the open” where they were shared by all those present and were, therefore, not purely subjective or confined to Paul’s mind.

Another biblical events that is wrongly called a mystical experience is Moses’ encounter with god at the burning bush. If we accept the accuracy of the record, this was not a mystical experience because there really was a bush, it was really on fire, and the voice of God audibly spoke to Moses. These were public events — that is, events in the real world, rather than imaginary occurrences. If there had been other people present, they also could have heard the voice and seen the bush burning. [4]

In the way we are using the term, then, an experience cannot be called mystical if it consists of events in the objective, public world, although such objective events might happen to be what triggered the experience. However, we should be quick to add that the mystic may perceive his subjective events as being in his surroundings. He may believe the event occurred in the objective world, but other people with him did not sense it and could not have done so. Generally, however, the mystic realizes the things he experiences are not objective.

By now it is likely apparent that what we describe as a mystical experience is primarily an emotive event, rather than a cognitive one. By this I mean that its predominant qualities have more to do with emotional intensity, or “feeling tone,” than with facts evaluated and understood rationally. Although this is true, it alone is a woefully inadequate way of describing the mystical experience. The force of the experience is often so overwhelming that the person having it finds his entire life changed by it. Mere emotions cannot effect such transformations.

Furthermore, it is from this emotional quality that another characteristic results, namely, its “self-authenticating” nature. The mystic rarely questions the goodness and value of his experience. Consequently, if he describes it as giving him information, he rarely questions the truth of his newly gained “knowledge.” [5] It is this claim that mystical experiences are “ways of knowing” truth that is vital to understanding many religious movements we see today.

On the other hand, to speak of “emotional intensity” is debatable. Many, if not most, mystics would say that what they experience is not emotional at all. In fact, they often insist that the dominant quality of the experience is the total absence of all emotion or sensation. However, if we draw a broad distinction between intellectual activity, on the one hand, and emotional experiences on the other; and if we then force all that we experience into one category or the other; then mystical experience must be called “emotional” rather than “intellectual” or “cognitive.” This bifurcation of human experience is exceedingly simplistic, but I believe it will help as we attempt to grasp what we mean by mystical experience.

The way I have attempted to describe the mystical experience may lead some to think I am suggesting that such an occurrence is a case of conscious self-delusion and is, therefore, completely in the control of the mystic. According to practitioners, however, this is not true. They say that mystical experiences cannot ever be induced. Many mystics report that these experiences catch them completely by surprise. Others believe that one can prepare himself for them. In fact, yoga is a practice intended to by such a preparation. Drug us, as a religious act, is seen as a way of inducing mystical trances, but many mystics see drug states as counterfeit mystical experiences. Some mystics believe long periods of preparation are necessary before significant experiences may be expected. [6]

Thus far I have been trying to describe the mystical experience itself. I have said it is a psychological experience, totally within the person, having an emotional tone, and that it often has a life-changing intensity about it that sets if off from other experiences. I have also said that the experience proper is totally subjective, and there is not open to others. This last aspect requires further examination.

Although, I supposed, two or more people might have mystical experiences at the same time that were triggered by the same external events, there is no basis for saying they were having the same mystical experience. This observation is, of course, not unique to mystical experiences. If you and I both have a toothache, I have no right to say we are having the same experience, except to mean we are having experience we believe to be similar. My experience of a toothache is not your experience of a toothache. I can never “get into your skin” and feel your pain. Pain is private in a way that watching a sunset together is not. In the latter case, we believe that we are both seeing the same sunset, even though we may pay attention to different aspects of the event. In the case of pain, we know we are not experiencing the same pain, although we may believe it to be similar. Even though we may sense the sunset somewhat differently, there are still a great number of components that are common to us both. In other words, they are objective. In the case of pain, little if anything is common other than the word pain. The components of having a toothache are nearly all subjective.

It is the lack of objectivity in the mystical experience that presents the major difficulty for the mystic when he tries to justify his claims to knowledge.

We are now ready to develop a more formal definition of mysticism . It will be helpful to do this from three slightly different perspectives: first, the psychological aspects; second, the philosophical implications; and finally, the theological expressions.

The psychological dimensions involve assigning primary significance to inward, subjective, nonrational impressions. It involves seeing intense, noncognitive, subjective experiences as having deep significance that they should be sought. One’s life should be directed by them.

For many people, mysticism is an unexamined psychological attitude — one that while it may profoundly influence their lives, is not clearly understood and may not even be recognized. But for a knowledgeable mystic who has sought to understand his commitment to the mystic ways, this psychological attitude is grounded in a philosophical belief. This belief sees truth and knowledge as attainable through mystical experience. All truth is tested by inner, subjective impressions rather than by its logical consistency or other rational considerations [7] When mystical states constitute an intense experience, this experience is seen as somehow a “union” with whatever is ultimate, and therefore as the proper fulfillment of human existence. [8]

When either the psychological attitude alone, or the more complete philosophical grasp, is translated into theological terms, the resulting view leads the person to equate his inner impressions and subjective states with the voice of God. Such as person, if he is a Christian, tends to believe that the activity of the Holy Spirit within us is expressed primarily through emotional or other noncognitive aspects of our being. Having and “obeying” such experiences is what “being spiritual” is all about.

Religious Use of Mystical Innerness

It is time now to turn our attention from the description of mystical experience to the use of mystical experiences in religious movements of our day. A key point to keep in mind has already been stressed: the claim of the mystic that the mystical experience provides knowledge. A quick look at what is implied by the term knowledge may help us here. Two aspects are important. First, to say that I know something is to say not only that I am aware of that something, but also that it is true. If, for example, I say that I know the earth is flat, I am also saying (falsely) that it it true that the earth is flat, and that I am aware that this is so.

The second use of the term knowledge relates most clearly to people. If I say that I know Harry, I am saying that I am experientially acquainted with him. Some have occasionally implied that one can known a person without knowing any facts about him. But this is false. Truly to know a person, one must be aware of some accurate information about him, as well as being experientially acquainted with him. This is important in our study, because one cannot say one knows God without knowing some accurate information about Him.

The mystic claims to gain knowledge in both of the senses we have described. He believes he gains truth about something ultimate and that he also becomes experientially acquainted with whatever that ultimate reality is. The first kind of knowledge is described by William James under what he calls the “noetic quality” of mystical experiences.

Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for aftertime. [9]

It seems then, therefore, this “sense of authority: is so compelling that they insist there is no possibility that they are mistaken in what they have come to believe. It is this compelling sense of truth that I refer to as the self-authenticating nature of the mystical experience. It is from these “noetic qualities” that much of the theology of the new religions is derived.

A further curious aspect related to the noetic quality of the experience is the argument one often encounters when challenging a mystic. He may argue that since the non-mystic has not had the experience he has had, the non-mystic is therefore not qualified to sit in judgment on it. One often hears the claim that “I just know,” with a refusal to discuss or defend the issue.

If we ask the religious mystic what the source of this claimed knowledge is, and what it is knowledge of, he will answer that it is knowledge of God, or of some aspect of His will, and that its source is God Himself. [10] In other words, the mystic claims, either openly or by implication, that God has revealed Himself to the mystic, or else He has revealed some new, vital information. If it was God’s self-revelation, doctrine can be developed from it. Otherwise, the teaching itself is said to be directly from God. Either way, the religious mystic claims to have experienced God and to have received special revelations.

How are we to react to the mystic’s claims? A series of rather significant issues must be confronted if evangelical Christians are to see their way clearly in dealing with these claims.

For convenience I will divide these issues into two groups. First, there are problems that result form the actual phenomenon of mysticism. These difficulties are theoretical, but they are also significant for the evangelical Christian since they relate directly to certain basic Christian doctrines. Second, there are problems that result from the nature of the revelations the mystic claims to have received. Here the central issue is specific doctrines derived from mystical experiences. Among these is the doctrine of God.

It is vitally important that we clearly understand both groups of problems, lest we be caught in that trap that allows us to accept a false principle because the specific application of that principle seems to be legitimate. For example, suppose we find a person who claims to have gained, by means of a mystical experience, a specific bit of information that we happen to know to be true. Does the truth of the information prove that mystical experience is a valid means of gaining knowledge? Of course it does not. The fact that one piece of information is true does not prove that the means by which it was discovered will always (or even usually) provide true information. It may be totally accidental that the mystical experience yields valid information.

The first issues that need to be examined result from the mystic’s claim to have gained truth. Two factors, one largely philosophical and the other doctrinal, both closely related, demand consideration. What is the criterion by which we determine truth? Or, stated in other terms, When is a statement true? and, By what standard do we determine that it is true? This is the philosophical issue.

The doctrinal problem grows out of it. Evangelical Christians maintain that the Bible is the only standard for faith and practice — the only and ultimate criterion in all matters concerning our spiritual life (2 Peter 1:2-4; 2 Timothy 3:16) [11] If this is so, is there any place for such extrabiblical sources of knowledge as mystical experiences in the Christian’s life?

A closely related issue concerns whether or not God’s special revelation to man is complete in the Scriptures. Most Protestant Christians, until recently, have always believed and taught that it is. While there is no such Scriptural passage that explicitly states this, Biblical scholars have long maintained that there is strong implicit evidence in the Word that direct revelation was to cease with the death of those who were eye-witnesses of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. It seems quite significant that most, if not all, claims to direct revelations made by self-proclaimed prophets since the close of the canon have resulted in serious problems for the church. They have also been the sources of many major heresies. [12]

If God’s special revelation to man is complete in the Scripture, then the mystic’s claim to direct revelation must be rejected. This applies not only when it conflicts with biblical teaching, but also when it claims to be in line with the Word but goes beyond what the Bible teaches. All that we need to know is either already directly contained in the written word or is implied by what it says; or else it is revealed in and through God’s general revelation, His creation. To claim a further revelation is to deny the sufficiency and completeness of what has already been given.

If, however, a supposed revelation neither conflicts with, nor adds to, what is already revealed, it is then no real revelation. This is so because nothing is being revealed that is not already known, and there is no need for it. Thus, in either case, a claim to new revelation must be rejected, either as conflicting with God’s Word or as being superflous. But such a “revelation” is never only superfluous, because if accepted as a revelation it maked legitimate the claim that new, special revelations are possible, and therefore potentially valid.

The evangelical Christian, then, must reject the mystic’s claims to direct revelation from God for several reasons, some of which we will examine later. But at this point, he must do so primarily becuase it, in effect, results in the position that there is at least one other way, beside through Scripture, of gaining knowledge of God.

Thus far we have been discussing the doctrinal issues. We must also understand what it means when we say that the Scriptures are the final criterion of truth. The Christian’s response to the philosophical question is that in matters relating to spiritual issues, the Bible is the final criterion of truth and the standard by which truth claims are tested in other areas as well. The mystic, however, proposes another criterion, although this is generally done more by implication an practice than by explicit statement. For him, inner, nonrational experience is the ultimate criterion. [13] There is something about the experience that sets it apart, putting it above question. In some cases, the intensity of the experience seems to be what makes it self-authenticating. The experience convinces the mystic is such a way, and to such a degree, that he simply cannot doubts its value and the correctness of what he believes it “says.” [14]

However, another elements of quite recent origin seems prevalent in at least some cases. In its crudest form this position says that believing something to be true makes it so. [15] The idea is that ultimate reality is purely mental; therefore one is able to create whatever reality one wishes. Thus the mystic “cretes” truth through his experience. In a less extreme form, the view seems to be that there are “alternate realities,” one as real as another, and that these “break in upon” the mystic in his experiences. Whatever form is taken, the criterion of truth is again a purely private and subjective experience that provides no means of verification and no safeguard against error. Nevertheless, it is seen by the mystic as being above question by others.

The practical result of all this is that it its nearly impossible to reason with any convinced mystic. Such people are generally beyond the reach of reason. However, those in the process of being drawn into mystical movements can often be made aware of the irrational and questionable nature of what they are being asked to believe. Sensitivity to these issues by Christian leaders is vital today if we are to “guard… the flock … the church of God” (Acts 20:28-31), as Paul urged the leaders of the church. I am convinced that many evangelicals, especially young people, who are in more direct contact with the mystical elements of our society, would be spared much spiritual danger if their leaders were themselves better prepared to recognize, analyzed, and evaluate these elements, and then alert the people. Ignorance of mysticism and the issues that accompany it in today’s world is a serious danger.

Truth Claims of Mystical Innerness

We must be cautious as we turn to some of the problems that result from the nature of the alleged “revelations” mystics claim to receive. Ultimately each mystic’s views are unique and must be examined individually, because there is much diversity. In fairness, we must not assume that what is true of one is necessarily true of all. However, certain common tendencies exist.

It seems that the mystical experience often involves a feeling of “union” or “oneness” with either the totality of the universe or some aspect of it. [16] For the mystic whose background of Christian theology and a conviction of its truth, this may take the form of feeling of “union with God.” [17] Precisely what the means may vary from person to person. The description may range from that of an experience of the “indwelling of Christ” to a declaration that one is in some sense “becoming God.”

An article in the magazine Catholic Charismatic used such terms as “we feel one with God” (italics the author’s), “…God as immanently present within us, drawing us into a union of His being with our being…,” and, “…energies of God divinizing them into children of God…” [18] Precisely what the author intended to convey by such terms as “immanently present,” “union,” “one with God,” and “divinizing” is difficult to say, but a straightforward reading of them seems to say that the mystic either is God or is becoming God in some sense.

However, the biblical position never blurs the separateness between God and men (even redeemed man). Man was created as man, and he never becomes anything other than man. Christ became man, but man never becomes God. Many of the mystical trends in modern society, however, claim either that man is God or is becoming God. [19] The theme that man becomes God is quite prominent in recent science fiction as well, sometimes mixed with a clearly occult, mystical element and sometimes with an evolutionary, naturalistic kind of mysticism. [20]

But even when the results are not as openly contrary to Christian truth as the foregoing “union,” there is still a serious difficulty. Many mystics come to see the goal of the spiritual life to be this union — not salvation and Christian maturity. Mystical union must not be confused with salvation or anything it involves. The difference between the two, crudely stated, is this: Salvation concerns what God has done and is doing for and in us, whereas the mystic’s union concerns how he feels. Salvation is objective (although subjective elements could result), but union is primarily subjective. This point is illustrated by Margaret L. Furse in her book Mysticism: Window on a World View when she says, “The great religious motivation of the mystic is to recover the original state of oneness from which we are apparently (though the mystic assumes not really) separated.” [21] To “recover the … state of oneness” that we have not really lost means that we have become aware of our oneness or our identity with something. That is, we are to feel one with something from which we have really never been separated. This “something,” of course, is God, as the context of that quote makes clear. Thus Furse is saying that the mystic really does not believe that he is recovering anything objective, but rather he is only recovering his own subjective sense of identity with God.

When the mystic “assumes (we are) not really separated,” he is, I take it, denying the reality of the effects of the Fall. Or perhaps rather, he is denying all the effects of the Fall except the feeling of separation from God. This separation is abolished through the mystical experience, not “by grace…through faith” (Ephesians 2:8) in Christ’s finished work on the cross. The objective reality of Christ’s sacrifice is unnecessary, as is any knowledge of it, or trust in it. At best, the attention has been shifted from God to feelings and inner experiences.

We should recognize another possibility in Furse’s description of “the great religious motivation of the mystic.” Those who take this attitue hold a position identical to, or very near, that of pantheism. To be identical with God is to say that in some sense we are God. This, of course, is totally contrary to biblical Christianity. (2 Thessalonians 2:3-4).

Again I must add a caution. Many Christians who speak the mystic’s language would deny that Christ’s sacrifice was unnecessary or that they hold a pantheistic concept of God. But even if they themselves do not believe that Christ’s death was unnecessary, the emphasis on the inner subjective experience still has the effect of shifting others’ attention from it and from genuine belief. The correctness of my own belief does not give me license to say whatever I please. I am responsible to some degree for what others believe as a result of my statements.

In some mystics, this emphasis on “oneness” and “union is part of a world view that occasionally seems to result from mystical experience. [22] Briefly, the position is that all reality is ultimately mental in some sense, and that it is a radical oneness, or whole, in the sense that all distinctions, diversities, qualities, characteristics, and so forth, are illusions and have no basis in fact. Thus to feel distinct from anything real is a mistake, and therefore, the attempt to regain the feeling of union is an attempt to feel correctly about things. Furthermore, since in their view reality is “in the mind only,” feeling correctly is very important.

Because this position is so clearly contrary to common sense and is so different from what most of us take for granted, it is a difficult position for the common person to understand. Still, many people today hold this position, at least to some extent, as a result of giving credence to mystical experiences.

This conviction that all is somehow “one” helps to explain why many mystics have a tendency to deny the difference between good and evil, right and wrong. If all is one in such a sway that distinctions cannot be drawn, then obviously the distinction between good and evil cannot really be made. All is really good, and evil is said to be only an illusion. Time is also said to be an illusory distinction. We sense time in discrete moments. This, according to many mystics, is false, since all time is now. [23]

Lawrence LaShan, in a book entitled The Medium, the Mystic, and the Physicist, tries to show that the world view within which spiritists mediums operate, and which the mystic experiences, is the same as that of certain theories in advanced physics. [24] He quotes Bertrand Russell as analyzing the claims of mystics under four statements:

  1. The there is a fundamental unity to all things
  2. That time is an illusion
  3. That all evil is mere appearance
  4. That there is a better way of gaining information than through the senses

Of these four, the claim that evil is mere appearance is the one that most obviously contradicts the biblical position. The other three, however, are also denials of other aspects of Christian doctrine.

The claim that time is an illusion is the basis for several sorts of strange positions. For example, it is either this position itself, or a closely related one, that is usually found among those who believe in reincarnation. Perhaps even more significantly, a denial of the reality of time allows for a blurring of the line between reality and imagination, and between actual history and myth. This strikes at the basis of the Christian claim that God really entered human history, that the events associated with Christ’s life were actual events, not myths, and that there are certain specific facts that must be believed if we are to meet the demands of a righteous God.

When we destroy the distinction between real and imagined events, as the claim that time is an illusion tends to do, one result is that the way is opened to say that truth is whatever one happens to believe. It has no real relations to the objective world of actual events and things. Truth may then be said to be totally subjective and relative.

Something must be said about the fourth claim cited by Russsell describing a better way of gaining information than through the senses. Stated in this way, Christians might be tempted to agree. After all, mere sense experience is not an adequate basis for gaining all necessary information. To say that senses alone are adequate is the position of empiricism. This is the epistemological theory of scientific materialism that has been the recent intellectual enemy of evangelical Christianity. But if we see here only a rejection of empiricism, we miss the really significant aspects of what the mystic maintains. First, what is said to be “a better way” is the way of mystical experience, itself no friend to Christianity.

Of still greater importance, however, is that this claim is not only a rejection of sense experience but also a rejection of reason, as a careful examination of mystical writers will quickly show. By revealing Himself through the written Word, God has committed Himself to using rational concepts as a tool for revelation, thereby making human reason absolutely necessary. This is no mistake, accident, or afterthought on His part, but an expression of His perfect will. Yet mystic literature abounds with statements that reject the reasoning ability as an adequate tool for gaining knowledge. This attitude of rejection ranges from a mild position that reason is fine for many things but there is a better way, to the claim that reason always misleads because it deals only with elements that are unreal.

One of the more mild statements by a religious mystic is that made by Maloney in the article from which I quoted earlier, “Mysticism and the Charismatic Experience”: “In the superior knowledge in which God communicates Himself to men more directly and immediately, Christians of deep prayer know, no through concepts, but by means of direct ‘seeing’ of God’s revelation.” [25]

Notice that Maloney is claiming knowledge of God for the mystic through a nonrational, nonconceptual direct “seeing.” “Deep prayer” is his term for a kind of mystical experience, which is argues is an advanced kind of prayer. The Scriptures are not involved here, though, since he is a Roman Catholic, I do not suppose he would say that the Bible is without any importance. The place of conceptual knowledge and the process of reasoning is clearly seen as being, at best, of lesser value than this “direct seeing.”

What we have seen thus far may not appear too serious to some. Of much more serious consequence is the rejection of what is known in logic as the law of noncontradiction. [26] This principle states that of any two statements that are actual contradictions, one must be false and the other true. When this principle is rejected by someone, he believes that any statement he makes can be true, even though it directly contradicts some other statement already known to be true. Thus the mystic, rejecting reason but trusting his experiences, can (and often does) believe totally contradictory propositions. Again, the line between truth and falsehood is blurred, and another test of truth is rejected.

We should keep in mind that contemporary society has as one of its most prominent features a strong anti-rational element, and that the tendency to reject the law of noncontradiction is a major aspect of that anti-rationality. [27] This fact results in two trends that affect the church. First, it makes people much more amenable to false teaching, much less capable of detecting error. Second, it tends to neutralize what has been one of the strong points of the gospel message throughout the centuries: its inherently rational character. [28] Thus, many Christians cannot understand how someone can believe some of the doctrines of the new religious movements, and therefore fail to take both the claims of the religion and of its adherents seriously.

Not only does mysticism have the strong tendency to reject reason and thereby lead to a rejection of a propositional revelation, it also directly endangers another fundamental Christian doctrine. The inclination to see everything as “oneness” and the trust in subjective feeling often result in a non-Christian concept of God. The tendency is to deny the Trinity in some cases and in others to see God as a force, not a Person. If ultimate reality is a oneness, the mystic reasons, then God must be an absolute unity. The Trinity cannot be understood as consisting of three distinct Persons. At best, the doctrine must be seen as only a convenient way of describing different functions of God.

On the other hand, if God is an absolute oneness, then the concept of personhood seems vastly inappropriate when applied to Him. Personhood is seen as a limiting characteristic and an aspect of diversity. It points to distinctions and differences. Persons are many. Besides, to call God a Person is to draw attention both to His uniqueness from some things and His similarity to others. Hence, many mystics describe God in terms more appropriate to an impersonal force than to a Person, although some may hesitated to say openly that He is only a force. Some are inclined to describe Him only in psychological or emotional terms, such as “Love” or “Light.” For others, the tendency is to drift ever nearer total pantheism.

Summary and Conclusion

It may be well to say a few words by way of clarification and summary. Mysticism, as I have defined it, has as its essential element a certain deep trust in inner, subjective feeling states, which are seen as both good and valuable in themselves and as truth-bearing. Because they are subjective and therefore private to each individual mystic, it is impossible to say if the experiences that any two mystics have are in any significant sense closely similar. Because they are emotive states, they are in a sense ineffable. By this we mean that their essence cannot be put into words just as the taste of an onion, for example, cannot be described accurately and completely to one who has never tasted an onion. The best we can do with mystical states is to identify some very general characteristics, such as that they are intense, that they are often very pleasant, or that they are such that the person having them often finds it hard to doubt their value.

Thus far we have simply described a phenomenon. Our actual concern rests with what is done with these experiences. We are disturbed that mystics exhibit certain tendencies and make certain kinds of claims. I have tried to show that the subjective nature of the mystical experience makes it impossible for the mystic to justify his claims. He cannot show that his experience is an adequate means of gaining information. Nor can he show that the supposed information is true.

I have also argued that the Christian should reject mystical experiences, because God has chosen to relate to man by means of man’s mind, not through his emotions. The Word, which must be understood, is the ultimate criterion of truth. Subjective experience is not an adequate basis by which to judge the truth of anything.

When the mystical experience is said to be a revelation from God, this must also be rejected, because the supposed revelation is either superfluous or contrary to the written Word. It is also dangerous because it sets the stage for further “revelations” that may well be false. Accepting mysticism is a rejection of the doctrine of a complete and sufficient revelation in the Scriptures.

Finally, we have examined some false doctrinal positions that have resulted from mystical experiences. Here we should be careful if we with to be fair. Although many religious mystics hold all these false views, there are some who, no doubt, hold none of them. It is not the believing of certain specific views that makes one a mystic. However, to be a mystic is itself an open door to false doctrine. As a result, I will argue later that the great danger for the church does not lie in the false teachings of mystically based cults, as dangerous as they are, but rather in the tendency in the church to confuse the voice of the Holy Spirit with mystical experience. This opens Christians to “every wind of doctrine.”


  1. Andrew M. Greeley, Ecstacy, A Way of Knowing (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1974), p. 92
  2. ibid., p. 2
  3. ibid., p. 136
  4. I can find no events described in the Bible that are indisputably mystical experiences. There are, however, a few that might qualify, although we are given too little information to be absolutely certain, in my judgment. One of these is Paul’s description of ‘a man … caught up to the third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12:1-5)
  5. Edgar D. Mitchell, Psychic Exploration (New York: Putnam’s, 1974), p. 613. See also Greeley, p. 4
  6. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Macmillan, 1961), pp. 315-18. James’ discussion of this issue was strongly supported by my own experience. I studied Oriental religions for some months under a man trained as a Buddhist monk. He vehemently rejected drug experiences, saying that he had tried them and they produced only counterfeit mystical experiences. True experiences resulted only from long preparation through yoga, he insisted.
  7. Watchman Nee, The Spiritual Man (New York: Christian Fellowship Publishers, 1968), 2:75-76
  8. William Ralph Inge, Mysticism in Religion (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1948), p. 25. See also W. T. Stace, Mysticism and Philosophy (London: Macmillan, 1960), p. 66
  9. William James, p. 300
  10. Inge, p. 8
  11. Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1947), 1:15
  12. Consider, for example, the tragic results of the claims to direct revelation made by some members of the radical wing of the Anabaptist movement. Although there were many specific instances during that period of history, the incident at the city of Munster was especially tragic. On the basis of supposed revelations from God, both private property and monogamous marriage was abolished. The incident finally culminated in the massacre of many of the defenders of the city and the torture of others (Williston Walker, The Reformation, vol. 9 of Ten Epochs of Church History, ed. John Fulton [New York: Scribners, 1900], p. 342-44). For further validation of this claim, one need only examine the history of modern cults.
  13. Inge, pp. 9, 22. An interesting, but tragic, sidelight to all this is that although he was formerly a clergyman in the Anglican church and held a high position in that body, Inge openly rejects the authority of the Scripture. He calls it “a broken reed” (p. 20) and says that it is “hopelessly discredited, except in low intellectual strata” (p. 18). He wished to maintain that mystical experience is the only adequate source of knowledge about God.
  14. My point her is not that he is forced to believe in such a way that we can say that he actually could not help himself. Rather, given his personality, beliefs, state of ignorance, and so forth, he see his experience as totally convincing and see no possibility that it might be false.
  15. For a good discussion of this issue, see James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door (Downer’s Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity, 1976), pp. 178-83
  16. James, p. 239. See also Evelyn Underhill’s definition of mysticism as “the art of union with Reality” in Practical Mysticism (New York: Dutton, 1943), p. 3
  17. Stace, p. 34
  18. George A. Maloney, S. J., “Mysticism and Charismatic Experience,” Catholic Charismatic 1, no. 1 (March/April 1976): 29, 31
  19. Compare the concept of the self in Eastern pantheistic monism with the view of the self in New Consciousness as discussed by Sire, pp. 129-203
  20. For one example that expressed this position see Jacob Atabet by Michael Murphy (Millbrae, Calif. Celestial Arts, 1977)
  21. Margaret L. Furse, Mysticism: Window on a World View (Nashville: Abingdon, 1977) p, 15
  22. Stace, p. 131
  23. Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic (London: Allen & Unwin, 1963), p. 22ff
  24. Lawrence LaShan, The Medium, the Mystic, and the Physicist (New York: Viking, 1974). LaShan’s purpose seems to be to provide legitimacy for his own mystical views by arguing that they coincide with those of science — especially physics
  25. Maloney, pp. 29, 31
  26. I would suggest that the reader consult any good textbook on logic. For example, see Irving Copi, Introduction to Logic (New York: Macmillan, 1986), pp. 306-7
  27. Francis Schaeffer has repeatedly called attention to this fact. See for example, his little book Escape from Reason (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity, 1968)
  28. The scope of this book will not allow for me to develop this theme, and the statement may come as a surprise to some who have come to accept the false claims made by the world that Christianity is irrational. The issue is not whether science, for example, or Christianity is more rational, but rather what set of presuppositions provide the correct starting points for the rational process. Scientific naturalism, on the other hand, maintains that such theories as as the uniformitarian thesis and empericism provide the proper starting points. In short, the issue turns on which articles of faith one will accept, nor whether one is more rational — that is, whether one of the other follows the rules of correct thought more closely.


Published by Moody Press, Chicago, 1988
ISBN 0-8024-5643-X

Faith Misguided - Exposing the Dangers of Mysticism

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