Christian Perspective #1

Response to Questions on Mysticism and Spirituality

Phillip Sheldrake

In broad terms, contemporary Western cultures often treat “spirituality” and “mysticism” as synonymous. “Spirituality” implies an exploration of the depths of human existence and the ultimate purpose of life and a quest for deeper wisdom. In addition, the notion of “mysticism” suggests that we may have immediate encounters with, or an experiential “knowledge” of the mystery of God/the Absolute. Equally common is an assumption that both “spirituality” and “mysticism” are associated with direct, personal experience in contrast to the way many contemporary people think about religion: institutional authority, structures, rituals, doctrines, morals, laws, and buildings. Indeed, “spirituality” is frequently contrasted favourably with “religion”. Equally spirituality and mysticism are seen as the essence of true religion – a common stream running through all religions, from Catholic Christianity to Tibetan Buddhism.

The fascination with spirituality and mysticism expresses the desire of many people, within and beyond faith traditions, to transcend boundaries and to experience union with others and with the cosmos. They want to overcome the divisions of humanity because these are deeply destructive. People look for something “in common” on a spiritual plane. Fears for the future of humanity and cynicism about conventional religious structures are countered by an appeal to a level of consciousness available intuitively. Spirituality and mysticism seem to offer a deep sense of connectedness.

Core Question 1

First, in Christian terms, how do I understand spirituality? I come from the Western Catholic Christian tradition which values both spirituality and mysticism. In my estimation, they are not exactly the same although they are closely related. In simple terms, I understand spirituality as the broader concept and mysticism as one element within the tradition of Christian spirituality. The origins of the word are Christian (from the Greek word for “spiritual”, pneumatikos as it appears in St Paul’s letters in the Christian New Testament) although since the late 19th century it has been applied to other faiths. NB “spiritual” does not imply a contrast between body and soul but rather between two attitudes to, and practices of, human life. A “spiritual person” (see 1 Corinthians 2, 14-15) was simply someone who lived in accordance with the Spirit of God.

Thus, Christian spirituality refers to the ways that our core values, lifestyles and spiritual practices reflect understandings of God, human identity and the material world. Christian spiritual traditions are rooted in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ portrayed in the Gospels. However, varied traditions are also attempts to understand these foundational texts within specific historical-cultural circumstances. Thus there are both continuities in Christian spirituality and also different responses in particular contexts.

Second, how do I define of mysticism? For some Christians this word is more problematic than spirituality. Until recently, commentators often concentrated on the notion of intense religious experience. This causes several problems. First, it separates mysticism from theology – the ways we seek to speak about God. Second, it removes mysticism from the outer world into the realm of private inwardness. Third, it concentrates on states of mind and emotions experienced by a limited number of people as the result of intensive meditative practice or ascetical discipline. This tends to separate “mysticism” from the Christian life in general. The noun “mysticism” is relatively modern – appearing in France in the 17th century (la mystique). The adjective “mystical” (Greek mystikos) is more ancient and describes the deeper dimensions of Christian practice and theology. From the 2nd century C.E. onwards the word signified the hidden realities of the Christian life, the deeper spiritual meanings of the Bible and the inner power of Christian rituals. In the early 6th century an anonymous Syrian, known as Pseudo-Dionysius, coined the term “mystical theology” to indicate an engagement with the mystery of God. The main point is that “mysticism” originally concerned the call of all Christians to enter deeply into the “mystery” of God. Equally, mysticism was seen as a gift from God rather than something achieved through human effort.

Bernard McGinn, an important contemporary writer on Christian mysticism, notes that “mysticism” is multiform but he attempts a working definition. Mysticism implies “those elements in Christian belief and practice that concern the preparation for, the consciousness of, and the effects attendant upon a heightened awareness of God’s immediate and transforming presence.”[1] Mystics are simply those who believe in and practice their Christian faith with particular intensity. The great Christian mystical writers are adamant that they are describing a process of life not altered states of consciousness.

Core Questions 2, 3 & 4

Spirituality and Mysticism within Christianity

First, as already noted, spirituality is the broader concept and mysticism is one aspect of it – a kind of intensification of the Christian spiritual path. Second, the historic role of spirituality and mysticism within Christianity is ambiguous. Many Christian traditions such as mine value both. However, some Protestant Christians remain suspicious of them – particularly of mysticism. Third, “spirituality” is not reducible to spiritual practices nor can it be separated from frameworks of belief and values. It describes “the Christian life” – the following, in varied contexts, of the way of Jesus Christ for which the word “discipleship” is often used. This “following” involves conversion (metanoia), a change of heart, life and mind (embracing a new kind of wisdom), and also the continuation of Jesus’ mission to bring God’s love to the world.

It is important to note that writings on Christian mysticism from the medieval period onwards are not purely experiential. They also address the limitations of human language about God. The great German mystic, Meister Eckhart, loved to cite St Augustine on speech about God: “If I have spoken of it, I have not spoken, for it is ineffable”. Christian mysticism underlines that the truth of “God” is ultimately beyond all theological categories and doctrinal definitions.

Spirituality, Mysticism & Social Transformation

It is important to note that, in Christianity, both “spirituality” and “mysticism” have engaged with social transformation. This is true of medieval mystical writers such as Jan Ruusbroec who writes of contemplation as the basis for a growing love of all creatures, and of contemporary writers on contemplative-mystical union as the source of true solidarity, compassion and social justice.

Much contemporary Christian reflection on spirituality explores the links between “the spiritual” and everyday life, including our social existence. Thus, increasingly spirituality and ethics mutually inform each other. As an example, I am currently engaging with other religious thinkers, architects & planners, and policy-makers to develop a new approach to spirituality and cities. Given rapid global urbanization, the meaning and future of cities, and a compelling moral-spiritual vision for them, is one of the most critical issues of our age. The faiths have long traditions of urban thought and experience that may offer key spiritual qualities, values and virtues to enhance cities both as social communities and as built environments.

Questions 5-8

Spirituality, Mysticism & Interreligious Relations

Spiritual and mystical wisdom is valued in all world religions. In that sense spirituality and mysticism offer a common ground for understanding the deeper currents of religious faith and practice. Yet, I do not think there is a generic “something”, e.g. “spirituality-as-such”, aside from the specifics of faith traditions. There are three issues. First, generalized definitions are too abstract and thus fail to do justice to the riches of specific religions such as Christianity, Islam or Buddhism. A true understanding of spirituality and mysticism needs to begin with specific people, places and times. Second, we cannot clearly distinguish pure experience from our interpretations of it. Third, as already noted, mysticism in Christianity is as concerned with language as with experience.

As a result, I have certain cautions. I do not think that the sharing of spiritual insights on its own simply by-passes the need for interpretative dialogue. Equally, we need to be careful not to turn “spiritual sharing” into a new elitism among a small group of enlightened ones. However, with those provisos, I definitely believe that there is a genuine and specific value in “spirituality” (and, within it, mysticism) in interreligious encounters. I am certain that spirituality provides an important balance to other forms of dialogue.

1. It avoids a narrowly intellectualist approach to dialogue. Spirituality is a form of learning or wisdom but beyond purely cognitive versions of theological exchange.

2. Christianity has gained from engagement with e.g. Eastern forms of meditation – reminding it of forgotten aspects of its own tradition and of the importance of a proper balance between mind, body, psyche and spirit in pursuit of a truly religious life.

3. Religions reflect different cultural origins. In this sense, attention to the spiritual wisdom of other faiths may be a catalyst for (a) a realization of the cultural limits of one’s own perspective and for (b) a process of creative adaptation.

4. Spirituality – not least prayer in common – is potentially creative of a common heart and mind enabled by a spiritual power beyond human effort. This is the seed-bed of a broader “community”.

5. Both 3 & 4 involve encounters with “otherness” that provoke deeper faith.

6. Spirituality also provides a “space” for shared commitment and common action in pursuit of the common good of all humanity and of the world.

Core Question 9

  • How does the wisdom found in spirituality balance intellectual approaches to belief and an over-emphasis on “doctrinal purity” as the primary concern?
  • How might spirituality and mystical traditions enable religions to achieve a holistic balance in themselves between mind, body, psyche and spirit?
  • How might spirituality & mysticism remind us of the limitations of human language about God/the Absolute?
  • How might exposure to the spiritualities of other faiths open us to creative adaptation and enable us to escape a sense that what is “other” is a threat to our integrity?
  • How might a dialogue of spiritualities re-enliven our own faiths rather than create a new pastiche “religion”? What does it mean for practices from one faith to be adopted by members of another? Is there any validity in what is called “double belonging”? Does crossing religious boundaries teach us more about our own faith?
  • How might spirituality impact on some of the critical issues of our contemporary world: e.g. ecology, economic inequality, conflict and violence? How might spirituality enable the development of a common heart and mind leading to action in the service of the common good of humanity?
  • What is the end in view of inter-religious dialogue or pan-religious sharing? Is it ultimately to dissolve the boundaries between faiths? Is it to achieve a new level of coexistence which allows for the validity of religious plurality? How does this challenge those religions with a proselytizing tradition?
[1] Bernard McGinn, “Mysticism” in Introductory Essays, Philip Sheldrake, ed., The New SCM Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, London: SCM Press 2005, pp 19-25, quote at p 19 (in North America, The New Westminster Dictionary etc, Louisville KY: Westminster-John Knox Press). See also B. McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism: Origins to the Fifth Century, New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1991, General Introduction, pp xi-xx.