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Mysticism, Ecumenism and Christianity

For years the leaders of various branches of Christianity and other religions sought to whittle down controversial doctrines to a bare core that all could accept, but too many controversies prevented any serious oneness around religion.  Unity shifted to common causes like poverty, injustice, peace, and loving one another, but this bond was temporary and isolated into sporadic unity. Now a grass-roots movement is spreading across the globe that could be the basis of the world church ecumenism that has little to do with the Bible.

 On October 27, 2011 Pope Benedict XVI met with Buddhist monks, Islamic scholars, Hindus and other non-Christian religions to pray for world peace in Assisi, Italy.  What possible expression could they all have in common?

For those who follow closely the trends in the Roman Catholic Church recent pronouncements indicate a “New Expression” of the Gospel. In the Instrumentum Laboris of the XIII Ordinary General Assembly in Vatican City, 2012, the Synod stated, “The Christian faith is not simply teachings, wise sayings, a code of morality or a tradition. The Christian faith is a true encounter and relationship with Jesus Christ… The goal of all evangelization is to create the possibility for this encounter, which is, at one and the same time, intimate, personal, public and communal” (Section 18).

 In this context the Roman church claims that this “personal encounter with Christ” takes place through the Eucharist worship.  This presumption of the physical presence of Christ in the “bread” is the demonstration of Catholic “faith” and the mystical means of forming “one mystical person with Christ the head, the [Roman] Church acts in the sacraments… [which] are necessary for salvation” (Catechism, 1129).

 Richard Bennett and Timothy Kauffman (The Trinity Review, No. 310, March-April 2013) explain how this concept of a “personal encounter” is also a growing buzzword of mysticism and Neo-orthodoxy—that is also used by the Emergent Church movement to focus on experience rather than objective Biblical truth. They see this effort as an attempt to transmit faith by a direct experience that bypasses the mind.  If faith is transmitted by hearing and trusting in the Word of God (Rom 10:17), then this “encounter” faith is mere presumption in a personal experience based on feeling and imagination, thus void of reality, no matter how real it may seem to the individual.

 Are these deviant groups the only one succumbing to this subjectivist error? Just ask those who profess to be Christians why or how they became a Christian. Here are some common answers: “I have always been a Christian,” “I love to worship God,”  “God healed me so I must be a Christian,” or “I feel God’s love so He would never reject me.”  Rarely does someone say anything like, “God’s Word convinced me of my sin and lostness, then it showed me how Christ paid for my sins on the cross. I accepted Christ’s gracious offer of total forgiveness as my only hope for eternal life.”

All over the world “Christians” and Hindu/Buddhists, etc., sound alike in their religious expression and seem to have had the same kind of direct mystical experience without the aid of doctrine and ideology. James W. Coleman believes that this “mystical ‘encounter’ with the transcendental is the discovery of the universal core that binds all religious life and all the world’s warring peoples together.” (James William Coleman is Professor of Sociology at the California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Into-the-Mainstream-Buddhism-Mysticism-and-Ecumenism.html

David Cloud’s book, Contemplative Mysticism, A Powerful Ecumenical Bond, describes the form of mysticism which originated with Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox monasticism as now permeating every branch of Christianity.  The book documents how this mystical experience “leads inevitably to a broadminded ecumenical philosophy and to the adoption of heresies. For many, this path has led to interfaith dialogue, Buddhism, Hinduism, universalism, pantheism, panentheism, even goddess theology.”  The book describes the contemplative practices, such as “centering prayer, visualizating prayer, Jesus Prayer, Lectio Divina, and the Labyrinth.”

Symptoms of these errors are “downplaying the centrality of the Bible, ignoring the fact that multitudes of professing Christians are not born again, but have exchanged the God of the Bible for a blind idol, ignore the Bible’s warnings against associating with heresy and paganism and downplay the danger of spiritual delusion.” (Way of Life Literature, Port Huron, MI).

Mysticism is an attempt to commune with God experientially and to find spiritual understanding beyond the pages of the Bible by means of Roman Catholic monastic practices. There are three characteristics of this mysticism:

 First, mysticism emphasizes a direct experience of God. Chamber’s Dictionary defines mysticism as “the habit or tendency of religious thought and feeling of those who seek direct communion with God or the divine.” Leonard Sweet defines mysticism as an “experience with God” in the metaphysical realm that is achieved through “mind-body experiences” (Quanturn Spirituality, 1991, p. 11). Anthony de Mello says, “…we are, all of us, endowed with a mystical mind and mystical heart, a faculty which makes it possible for us to know God directly, to grasp and intuit him in his very being…” (Sadhana: A Way to God, p. 29).

Ursula King says, “Mystics seek participation in divine life, communion and union with God” (Christian Mystics, p. 4). Thomas Merton says: “Meditation is for those who are not satisfied with a merely objective and conceptual knowledge about life, about God—and about ultimate realities.  They want to enter into an intimate contact with truth itself, with God” (Spiritual Direction and Meditation, p. 53l).

 Second, mysticism emphasizes finding spiritual insight beyond thought and doctrine.  It is focused on experience, feeling, emotion, intuition and perception.   Leonard Sweet says, “Mysticism begins in experience; it ends in theology”  (p. 76) of some sort.  Thomas Merton defined mysticism as an “experience with wisdom and God apart from words.”  Christianity Today says there are “many young evangelicals who are tired of ‘traditional Christianity’ and want ‘a renewed encounter with God’ that goes beyond ‘doctrinal definitions’ “ (“The Future Lies in the Past,” Christianity Today, Feb. 2008).  Thus mysticism is an attempt to experience God beyond the interpretation of Scripture, beyond doctrine, beyond theology.  Spencer Broke of the Ooze says: “A move away from intellectual Christianity is essential.  We must move to the mystical” (Emerging Churches, p. 230).  Thus mysticism seeks to reach beyond what can be understood with the mind, beyond the teaching of Scripture.

 “Thus while neo-orthodox theologians often sound as if they are affirming traditional beliefs, … they relegate all theology to the realm of subjective relativism.  … Mysticism is perfectly suited for religious existentialism; indeed, it is the inevitable consequence.  The mystic disdains rational understanding and seeks truth instead through the feelings, the imagination, personal visions, inner voices, private illumination, or other purely subjective means” (MacArthur, Reckless Faith, 25, 26, 27, 28).

 Third, mysticism accepts extra-scriptural dreams and visions and insights as revelations from God and, in fact, expects them as a natural product of the contemplative experience.

Thus the groundwork has been laid.  Nearly every form of religion agrees and its devotees are practicing intimate encounters with their “God” with little or no knowledge of God’s Word, while they sincerely believe that they are communicating with a real deity.  The devotion of the Buddhist to Lord Buddha and Bodhisattvas seeking the elusive and mystical epiphany of enlightenment transcending life’s comprehension to experience a transcendental reality.  In Hinduism the quest for a mystical union with the Brahman or world-soul through murti (sacred image) tries to understand the presence of God and develop a relationship with him at least in one’s mind.  It is described as “a family relationship, being sweet, loving, and devoid of fear and awe” (in the heart of Hinduism).  It’s all about what is perceived as a real encounter with something “real” outside of one’s self. The experience becomes their reality.

 Who needs an objective truth to understand and depend upon, when a real but mystical encounter with something god-like fills a void and temporarily satisfies the soul? It is similar to fans of movie stars who believe that they know the star and they feel love for the movie star as though they had a real relationship. Whatever they feel, there is no truth to it. This imaginary mystical encounter is inwardly satisfying so it cannot be questioned or analyzed without provoking an emotional resistance.

 This is the experience that will unite the world religions. They already practice similar encounters. They only have to recognize each other experience as genuine though under distinct nomenclature to form the world religious ecumenical unity. How far has this quest for an “encounter” penetrated the evangelical churches eliminating any interest in discernment or even importance of the truth?

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