Mysticism is a rather broad and vague term, but it generally has to do with a spiritual communion with some type of ultimate reality or higher power. Christian mysticism brings the principles of mysticism into a pursuit of God in Christ. A Christian mystic believes that a relationship with God is intuitive and seeks closeness to God through subjective experiences and direct communion with Him. In Christian mysticism, the knowledge of God may be informed by the Bible, but there are other means of knowing Him, too. Christian mystics often emphasize the spiritual disciplines of prayer, meditation, fasting, solitude, and silence. Christian mystics seek an actual experience with God Himself, not mere knowledge about Him. In reality, all Christians are interested in knowing God Himself, not just facts about Him, yet not all Christians would be considered mystics.
Countering Christian mysticism is what we might call Christian intellectualism, which seeks to approach God objectively and rationally, avoiding sentimentality and any notion that feelings can lead to truth. Christians who are more intellectually oriented may emphasize communion with God through personal Bible study, listening to biblical preaching, and fellowship with other believers. Many Christians would say that they experience God as He really is through these mediated experiences. They would say that the Bible does more than communicate facts about God but that it actually allows one to get to know Him directly. God does speak to us directly—through His written Word. It seems that most Christians and most Christian traditions will tend to be either more mystically based or more intellectually based.
Statements such as “I follow Christ, not creeds” smack of Christian mysticism. Anyone who downplays the role of theology in the church or who speaks of going “beyond doctrine” is following the path of the mystic. Such a person will usually gravitate toward practices such as contemplative prayer or walking through labyrinths. He or she may also begin to fixate on the work of the Holy Spirit to the exclusion of other areas of biblical instruction.
Some of the more well-known mystics within Christian history include Gregory of Nyssa, St. John of the Cross, Thomas à Kempis, Teresa of Avila, Madame Guyon, and George Fox. Twentieth-century mystics (“Christian” in the broadest sense of the term) might include Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and Brennan Manning. Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, has been a significant influence in introducing mysticism to evangelicals. At its root, the Charismatic movement is Christian mysticism, as it teaches people to seek overwhelming spiritual experiences, manifestations of glory, and extrabiblical revelations in their pursuit of a deeper relationship with God.
Are there mystical elements in Christianity? Absolutely. Is it right to desire to live and experience the Christian life, rather than just study it? Absolutely. Every Christian should want to know God personally and have direct communion with Him. No believer is content with just knowing facts about God. The problem is that some mystics would eschew biblical facts about God in favor of their own experience. We must be careful because, if we jettison the facts that God has revealed about Himself in Scripture, we will have no way of knowing if our “direct experience” of God is accurate. The unguided mystic, untethered from Scripture, may have a direct experience of something or someone other than the One True God.
A. W. Tozer, who has been called a Christian mystic because of his emphasis on true knowledge and personal experience of God, brings balance to the discussion:
“Some of my friends good-humoredly—and some a little bit severely—have called me a ‘mystic.’ Well I’d like to say this about any mysticism I may suppose to have. If an archangel from heaven were to come, and were to start giving me, telling me, teaching me, and giving me instruction, I’d ask him for the text. I’d say, ‘Where’s it say that in the Bible? I want to know.’ And I would insist that it was according to the scriptures, because I do not believe in any extra-scriptural teachings, nor any anti-scriptural teachings, or any sub-scriptural teachings” (transcribed from “What Difference Does the Holy Spirit Make?” delivered January 1, 1960, and accessed on sermonaudio.com, 8/23/19).
Perhaps Christians who emphasize the intellectual side of their faith would do well to include some of the more mystical spiritual disciplines as they seek to understand God. And perhaps those who emphasize the mystical approach would do well to include some of the more intellectual disciplines (exegetical Bible study, systematic theology, apologetics) as they seek to experience God.