Friday, December 02, 2005

A Thoroughly Christian Mysticism: Mysticism and Scholasticism

Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it. -- Jacob (Genesis 28:16)
There are many individual things that can be picked apart and criticized in the history of Christian mysticism; some of the criticisms are legitimate. Then again, there are legitimate criticisms against anything with a long enough history. The question is not whether there have been absurdities or abuses; the question is whether there is a healthy stream of Christian mysticism. Here I will set out the basic view that mysticism is a rightful part of the soul's experience of God. Heart and mind and strength have their place in our faith. But without the soul, the heart tends towards a shallow and tyrannical emotionalism, the mind tends towards dithering or dryness, and strength tends towards power or futility. In setting aside mysticism, we have lost something valuable. Our appreciation of God has become less than it was meant to be.

Mysticism is the appreciation of God, an appreciation experienced within the soul. As such, it is more than merely tolerable in the Christian life; it deserves welcome. It is an appreciation which most people (even some atheists I've known) admit to experiencing on occasion, even if the disreputable name "mystical experience" is not spoken. It includes awe and wonder, humility and reverence among its aspects.

Such things are nearly ignored by most systematic or scholastic approaches to God. Note that mysticism is not opposed to the intellect. Instead, it is on intellectual grounds that mysticism is opposed to the worse parts of scholastic theology. Mysticism questions scholasticism for an unfittingly dry approach to the Holy of Holies, for its "salvation by systems" theories which tend to sideline the cross of Christ, and for its predictable descent into trivialities and arguments. Scholasticism tends assume that if you have made a system by which to understand something then you have understood it correctly, and that the best way to understand something is to make a systematic analysis of it. Mysticism would mention that, aside from the question of whether the system is truly correct, and aside from the fact that God is beyond our powers of analysis, there is a larger question at stake: is classifying facts about God necessarily the same as getting to know Him? There is a risk of interacting with facts about God, but never coming to face to face with God Himself.

Over the next few posts, I'll introduce two lines of thought on a thoroughly Christian mysticism, one line of thought based on creation and the other from Jesus' incarnation. I'll also include a few comments on one particular branch of mysticism, "apophatic" mysticism, and its rightful place in a healthy appreciation of God.


D. P. said...

I'm looking forward to this series, and have linked to this first installment so that perhaps we can, as you suggested, generate some further discussion.

Matt Stone said...

I'm interested in seeing more of your thoughts on this