The English term “mystic” comes from the Greek term, μυστικός, “mystikos,” an initiate into a mystery religion. Mystery religions were cults of antiquity in which participation was reserved to initiates. Although the mystery religions were practiced in classical antiquity, the initiates understood that the mysteries were much older. One of the popular Roman mystery religions, for example, was Mithraism, which took its name from an old Persian god named Mithra, a name that appears in archeological finds dating to 1,500 BC. That Mitra is still a popular surname in India gives some indication of how geographically widespread the cult of Mithra was, in its various forms. Today, the term “mysticism” refers to the pursuit of a direct experience with the divine, the supernatural, or ultimate reality, typically through special practices intended to bring about such experiences. Mysticism is distinguished from normal religious faith by its emphasis on direct personal experiences that the mystic interprets as encounters with the divine. Mysticism has usually been pursued within the context of monasticism; monks and nuns typically live a life of solitude and silence conducive to mystical practices. The core of mysticism is its embrace of techniques that are intended to achieve altered states of consciousness.
Mysticism is not part of biblical Christianity. There is no biblical support for mysticism in general nor for such mystical practices as chanting meditation, transcendental meditation, or astral projection. Mysticism, like the monasticism it has been associated with, appears to have been engrafted into Christianity from Buddhism and other pagan, Eastern religions during the same period of time when countless pagan practices and beliefs entered a deeply compromised church. Roman Catholic mysticism is simply a thinly “Christianized” form of Eastern mysticism. Mysticism has demonstrated the ability to adapt to almost any religio-cultural circumstances.
During the Reformation, the reformers largely rejected mysticism along with monasticism. The mystics focused upon experience, but the reformers insisted that Scripture was paramount, and its general, objective revelation superior to the personal, subjective revelations of the mystics. Martin Luther's insistence on the superiority of Scripture to mystical experience is seen in his rejection of the theology of Thomas Müntzer (1489-1525, executed for his role in the Peasants' War), who was heavily influenced by the Rhineland Mystic, Johannes Tauler (1300-1361). Müntzer's theology was based upon mystical experience; he began to teach the supremacy of the “inner light,” which he interpreted as the revelation of the Holy Spirit, as against the authority of Scripture. Luther's response was to declare that he would still accept Scripture even if Müntzer “had swallowed the Holy Ghost, feathers and all!”
George Fox (1624-1691), the founder of the Society of Friends (popularly known as the Quakers) created a culturally Protestant mystical sect. Fox believed that each person has an “inner light,” which Fox interpreted as Christ dwelling within us. Like almost all mystics, Fox believed and taught that Scripture was not always infallible and could be overruled by the “inner light.” Quaker worship consists of silent meditation; sometimes, a speaker will be led to speak audibly to the congregation, but often the entire hour will pass in silence. The purpose of sitting is silence is to wait for God to speak directly to the individual, i.e., to wait for a mystical experience. Like many other mystics, Quakers tend to subscribe to panentheism (the belief that God is in everything and everyone) and universalism (the belief that everyone will eventually be saved).
Given that the Quakers are mystics, it is not surprising that Quakers have been instrumental in the fairly recent, widespread introduction of mysticism into mainstream Protestant evangelical practice. Richard Foster and Dallas Willard crossed paths in a small Quaker church in Van Nuys, California, when Willard (though a Southern Baptist) was attending there and Foster was called there as a young pastor fresh out of seminary. Both men have been important writers and theorists promoting mystical practices in wider Christianity, but Foster has been especially important. Foster's 1978 book, “The Celebration of Discipline” was a huge bestseller; Christianity Today listed it as one of the top ten Christian books of the 20th Century. Yet Foster promotes the practice known as astral projection:
In your imagination allow your spiritual body, shining with light, to rise out of your physical body. Look back so you can see yourself … and reassure your body that you will return momentarily ….Go deeper and deeper into outer space until there is nothing except the warm presence of the eternal creator. Rest in his presence. Listen quietly...[to] any instruction given. p. 27.
A mystical practice promoted under the rubric of “spiritual formation” is usually called “centering prayer” or “contemplative prayer,” but it is not prayer at all. It is an Eastern meditative practice known as chanting meditation or transcendental meditation. This form of meditation seeks to create a mental void where all conscious thought is blocked out. To achieve this mental void—known as “the silence”--the person repeats a single word or short phrase over and over. In Hinduism, this phrase is known as a “mantra.” The mantra may need to be repeated 20, 30, or even hundreds of times to achieve the mental void. In teaching His followers how to pray, Jesus warned against using “vain repetitions, as the heathen do,” because God hears us the first time we say something (Mat. 6:7). But, again, “contemplative prayer” or “centering prayer” is not prayer; rather, it is a technique for bringing about a mystical experience.
The goal of this technique is the mental void or the silence. Mystics within Christian cultures sometimes argue that at the center of one's being, there is God, and the purpose of the silence is to allow God to speak from within. They believe that the “inner light” is God who dwells within every man. But Christ directed us to pray “Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name” (Mat. 6:9). God dwells in heaven (1 Kings 8:43; 2 Chron. 6:30; Psalm 103:19; Mat. 5:45; 23:9), which is an actual place (Acts 1:11; Heb. 1:3; 8:1, 5; 9:24; 1 Pet. 3:22; Rev. 4:1-2). Mystics quote Luke 17:21, “the kingdom of God is within you” as evidence that God lives inside every person, but the Greek word translated as “within” can also be translated “among,” and it is clear from the context that Christ is not saying that the kingdom of God is inside of us. The Pharisees had asked Jesus when the kingdom of God would come, and Jesus responded that the kingdom of God [Jesus Himself] is among you right now. In the following verses, Jesus points out that his Second Advent will also be a visible, physical appearance, just like His first Advent.
The “silence” that mystics hope to achieve by repeating their mantra is really a trance, and it is properly understood as a form of self-hypnosis. When a person is in an hypnotic trance, he is highly susceptible to suggestion. In Christian cultures, proponents of this technique would have us believe that we will encounter the God of the Bible in this meditative trance. But the fact that the technique is not authorized in Scripture, and originated and is commonly used in Eastern religions, suggests that we might encounter some other spirit. Adventist pastor Rick Howard writes:
. . .when a person enters this silence . . . they are entering a place where the powers of evil angels can create whatever illusion they desire. . . . the modern-day Christian, upon entering the silence, will believe they have come into the presence of God, when in reality they are under the control of the same demons as the psychics, spirit mediums, and ancient mystics of the church, those of any religion or group that relies on supernatural experiences as evidence of their contact with God” The Omega Rebellion, p. 51
The spirits that work in the silence will work within a given mystic's belief system. They will not—at least not at first—suggest anything alien or contrary to the mystic's existing belief system. Ray Yungen writes:
Please pay attention to this! God does not work in the silence, but familiar spirits do. Moreover, what makes it so dangerous is that they are very clever. One well known New Ager revealed that his guiding (familiar) spirit candidly disclosed: 'We work with all who are vibrationally sympathetic; simple and sincere people who feel our spirit moving, but for the most part, only within the context of their current belief system.'” A Time of Departing, p. 87
What tends to happen over time, however, is that the mystic enjoys the mystical experiences more than any other aspect of his faith. The experiences are called “extremely pleasurable” and even “ecstatic.” The mystic eventually places more credence in his personal experiences than in Scripture. This makes perfect sense, because the mystic believes he is experiencing God, so why give more credence to an old book than to God?
But, of course, the power behind the mystical experiences is not God, and it gradually and almost imperceptibly leads the mystic toward false doctrine. Typically, the false doctrines include at least one, and usually more than one, of the following four:
- monism = all is one, all reality is a unified whole, with no sharp demarcation between Creator, creation and creature;
- pantheism = everything is God, the tree, the flower, the bird the cat, the human—all are God;
- panentheism = God is inside of everything and everyone; and
- universalism = everyone will ultimately share in eternal life.
These four false doctrines crop up so frequently in mystical thinking across the ages and across the boundaries of culture and formal religion that the demons working the “silence” beat must all be following the same playbook.
These ideas soon lead to a false ecumenism and a blurring of religious demarcations. Scripture is very clear that Jesus Christ is the only way to God the Father, and our only hope of eternal salvation; those who do not have Christ are lost. (John 3:16, 36; 14:6; 1 John 5:12). But mysticism chafes at such dualistic, black/white, right/wrong thinking, emphasizing oneness and universalism instead.
The doctrine of the atonement tends to be lost in mystical thinking; what need is there of Christ's work of mediation in the heavenly sanctuary when anyone, from any religious tradition—Buddhist, Hindu, Sufi, Christian—can have a direct, unmediated experience with God? The mystic removes 'sin' by performing meditative exercises to bring himself into a perceived state of oneness with God. The atonement, the sanctuary, and most of the rest of the Bible make little sense in a mystical context. This isn't surprising because mysticism is external to, and long pre-dates, Christianity.
What is the Review up to?
A recent article in the Review titled “What is a Mystic?” painted a very different picture of mysticism than what I have just described. The Review article implied that mysticism is really nothing more than a vibrant prayer life and an appreciation for the fine historical hymns of Christendom. But mysticism is thousands of years old; it is far too late to try to redefine it as traditional Christian spirituality. Mysticism is what it is: a dangerous, pre-Christian shortcut to the supernatural that exalts subjective experience and de-emphasizes objective revelation, doctrine, incarnation, atonement, prophecy, and the eschaton.
The Scripture references in “What is a Mystic?” do not support mystical practice. Colossians 2:10 says nothing about a mystical union with Christ; it speaks of righteousness by faith in Christ, as opposed to human effort and legalism. Galatians 3:26-29 addresses a similar concern, namely that salvation comes through faith in Christ rather than through race, status, or gender: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:26-29). Peter does speak about “participating in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), but the context shows that we do this by faith in God's promises, not by seeking a mystical experience. In 2 Corinthians 2:16, Paul speaks of having “the mind of Christ,” but we assume the mind of Christ by internalizing Christ's precepts as described in the Gospels, not by emptying our minds of conscious thought in pursuit of a mystical experience.
Likewise, there is nothing in the corpus of the writings of Ellen White that supports mystical practice. In the chapter on “Faith and Prayer” in the book Education, it is made clear that prayer is an exercise of faith in God and in God's word, not the pursuit of a mystical experience. The need for faith will never be replaced by mystical experiences in the believer's life. In the chapter on “the Privilege of Prayer” in Steps to Christ, it is made exceedingly clear that prayer is intelligent, verbal communication:
. . . we need also to pour out our hearts to Him. In order to have spiritual life and energy, we must have actual intercourse with our heavenly Father. Our minds may be drawn out toward Him; we may meditate upon His works, His mercies, His blessings; but this is not, in the fullest sense, communing with Him. In order to commune with God, we must have something to say to Him concerning our actual life. Prayer is the opening of the heart to God as to a friend” p. 93
There is no hint that communication with God occurs in conditions of “darkness” or “silence” or “beyond the plane on which the intellect can work.” To the contrary, prayer is communication:
Keep your wants, your joys, your sorrows, your cares, and your fears before God. You cannot burden Him; you cannot weary Him. He who numbers the hairs of your head is not indifferent to the wants of His children (Steps to Christ, p. 100).
Nothing in the writings of Ellen White can accurately be called “Christian mysticism.” Her writings contain traditional Protestant Christian spirituality.
The article, “What is a mystic?” recommends the English mystic Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941), and particularly her short book, Concerning the Inner Life, based upon lectures given in 1926. Within the first ten pages of this volume (which is available online), you will find references to some of “the usual suspects” of mysticism, including George Fox, Johannes Tauler, and Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), the founder of the Jesuit order. Underhill quotes with approval (on p. 10) the Ignatian mantra, “I come from God—I belong to God—I am destined for God,” but this mantra seems to deny human freedom, and the necessity of Christ's mediation to our salvation. We cannot will our way to heaven by repeatedly chanting, “I am destined for God.” Underhill also recommends a mantra of the founder of the Franciscan order: “Think of St. Francis of Assisi repeating all night: 'My God and all! What art thou? And what am I?' Is not that a perfect prayer of adoration?” (p. 30-31)
Concerning the Inner Life is mysticism lite. Underhill's most systematic and important work was her 1911 book, Mysticism (also available online). There you will find a thorough discussion of the “Divine Darkness” or the “cloud of unknowing” in which mystical experiences occur. The mystic must “pass beyond the plane on which the intellect can work.” There you will also find a discussion of the “ecstasy” and “rapture” experienced by the mystic when he is in a state of altered consciousness referred to as a “trance.” This condition may involve anesthesia, such that the mystic does not feel pain during the trance. There you will find a discussion of “the dark night of the soul,” during which the mystic can no longer achieve his ecstatic mystical experiences, and must live on the memory of past experiences. There you will learn that Evelyn Underhill is a full-blown mystic in the tradition of mystics down through the ages, including pre-Christian, pagan mystics.
“Over the past three decades American Christianity has been revolutionized by a renewed emphasis on holy living and spiritual disciplines,” writes the author of “What is a Mystic?” Something significant has indeed been happening in American Christianity over the past few decades, but it is not an emphasis on holy living. It is known as the “emerging church” movement, a somewhat amorphous critique of, and alternative to, Protestant ecclesiology, and an attempt to turn mainline Christianity to pre-Reformation (and post-Christian) practices and forms of worship. Introducing mysticism into Protestantism—via the teachings of Richard Foster, Brian McLaren, Leonard Sweet, Phyllis Tickle, Richard Rohr and many others—is central to the emerging church movement. The ultimate goal of the emergents is to win Christians over to a syncretistic, non-biblical worldview that combines elements of Christianity with elements of all other world religions, including paganism. There is no place for biblical eschatology in this worldview; no place for a Second Coming of Christ, a resurrection of the dead, a final judgment of the unsaved, a millennium in heaven, and an Earth made new.
In his inaugural sermon at the 2010 General Conference session, Elder Wilson warned us to:
Stay away from non-biblical spiritual disciplines or methods of spiritual formation that are rooted in mysticism such as contemplative prayer, centering prayer, and the emerging church movement in which they are promoted. Look within the Seventh-day Adventist Church...
Mysticism is not part of our tradition in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, nor should it be. Rather than promote mysticism in our official publications, we need to expose it for what it is: a dangerous, occult avenue by which the adversary insinuates false doctrine into the minds of individuals and ultimately into the church.