March 13, 2014
This is Part 11 in a series about why evangelicals should care about the early church. If you are just now joining us, you can read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here; Part 4 here; Part 5 here; Part 6 here; Part 7 here; Part 8 here; Part 9 here; Part 10 here; Part 11 here; Part 12 here; Part 13 here.
One of the words that tend to rub contemporary evangelicals the wrong way is “mysticism.” When we hear stories of people who went out to the Egyptian desert in order to fight demons (St. Anthony the Great in the early fourth century), spent decades perched atop pillars in Syria (St. Simeon the Stylite in the fifth century), or spent their lives gazing at their navels while reciting the Jesus prayer (the Hesychasts of Mt. Athos in Greece, in the late first and early second millennium A.D.), we tend to think that the mystics were the class-A kooks of Christian history. And some of the mystics certainly were kooks, although none of the examples just above were actually as odd as we make them out to be.
But according to the definition of the word, a “mystic” is one who is not satisfied with mere association with the church or with knowledge about God, but who instead longs for a deep, direct, intimate experience of God. By that definition, evangelicals are mystics too, or at least we should be, because we of all people should long for direct experience of God. And if some of the practices of the ancient and Medieval mystics in their efforts to grow closer to God seem weird to us, we have to admit that evangelicalism has also produced some strange practices as well, from tent meetings to Azusa Street to the Toronto Blessing. When we assess a phenomenon like mysticism on the basis of whether it is bizarre, we should recognize that bizarre is in the eye of the beholder, and what seems bizarre to us may seem normal to others.
A better way to assess mysticism—in all its expressions—might be to ask the fundamental question of whether mystical practice constitutes an attempt to establish contact with God, or whether it is an attempt to deepen a relationship with God that one has already been given. In my (admittedly subjective) opinion, the best of Christian mysticism follows the latter pattern.
One of the great names in Christian mysticism, and I think one of the best examples of mysticism at its best, is the fourth/fifth century monk John Cassian. He spent over a decade among the Egyptian desert fathers and then founded two monasteries in southern France around the year 410 A.D. Cassian wrote a long work (the Institutes) on monastic practices and a massive work (the Conferences) of alleged conversations between two neophyte monks and various Egyptian monastic fathers. Through these works, Cassian exerted a major influence on Benedict in the sixth century, who in turn shaped all of Medieval Western monasticism.
Cassian’s thought has been variously interpreted, but in my opinion, the foundation of that thought is that we are united to God as a gift through adoption and that our mystical practices constitute an effort to deepen that previously-established salvation. (See chapter 5 of my book Grace and Christology in the Early Church for my explanation of this foundation.) If I am right about this, Cassian presents us with a model for the Christian experience of God that is somewhat similar to that of evangelicalism—God acts first to establish the relationship, but he then calls us to foster that relationship through our spiritual disciplines. Cassian and other mystics like him may thus be valuable resources for us as we seek to know more fully the God who has brought us to himself.
Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.
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