Mystical Christianity

The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all.

—Fr. Karl Rahner

For many years now, I’ve had a growing conviction that the great Catholic theologian Fr. Karl Rahner was right to have claimed: “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all.”

What does this mean, to be a mystic?  And why will Christians not exist at all if they are not of this order?  To understand this we must begin with an understanding of what mysticism is and what a mystic is.

In a general sense a mystic is one who has a fundamental and overwhelming sense of an indwelling relationship with God that he or she seeks to give meaningful form to in their exterior life circumstances and overarching behavior.  While this understanding of a mystic may well extend to other spiritual paths, for a Christian this path is lived out and described within a context that uses as its center Christian vocabulary.  It is important to understand that mysticism does not imply some type of rather removed, airy-fairy, or “out there,” disconnected from everyday life, phenomenon.  It is rather to be understood as a genuine experience of Christ that has come to emerge from the very heart of one’s existence.  It is a union of Heaven and earth within one and a union that has very practical implications for how one lives “in the world.”.  This is quite distinct from simply following rules of behavior and moral codes.  It is more about inner alignment and pure action.  It is about seeing action, thought, and intention as simply emerging naturally and spontaneously from the inner ground of one’s being in Christ.  Mysticism is above the level of myth, theology, doctrines, and creeds, valuable as these may be at a certain more elementary level.  Using the language of Christianity it is about coming to that point wherein we can say, as did St. Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”  Gal. 2:20.  St. Paul here relates an indwelling awareness of Divine union.

For the mystic following the Christian path, the life and being-ness of the Lord Jesus Christ serves as the template from which their self-perception and life grows.  This is in juxtaposition to one understanding Christianity solely on a mental, or we might say informational, level of theology, canons, scripture and doctrine.  On this mental level the focus and goal of understanding is not on a path of ascension in Christ consciousness but rather on the grasping of teachings that explain Jesus in one way or another, and usually, as atoning for the sinfulness of mankind.  We will come back to this later, but failing to comprehend the spiritual life as St. Gregory of Nyssa envisioned it as a process of endless growth, one can end up believing they are living the spiritual life by simply acquiring mental understandings of Christianity.  Christianity at this elemental level can also be used as a spiritual bypass.  Here one acquires spiritual knowledge and adopts spiritual practices as a way to sidestep or avoid facing and dealing with unresolved inner psychological and emotional issues.

The word, mysticism, itself being a noun, carries with it a variety of meanings.  Wikipedia indicates the word to be popularly known as becoming one with God or the Absolute, but also referencing any kind of ecstasy or altered state of consciousness which is given a religious or spiritual meaning.

The idea of becoming one with God, or a sense of achieving union with God, is a common understanding in ancient Eastern Orthodox Christianity as well as within Roman Catholicism.  In one sense it’s strange.  If, as is proclaimed in the Nicene Creed, God is One, then how can anything or any being be or exist outside of God?  Everything and everyone already is within God.  So if nothing can be outside of God how then do human beings become one with God?  If we are fundamentally always within the oneness of God then this is an a priori state of being.  So, let us explore this further.

There is a doctrine of pantheism, wherein God is conceived of as a whole and that wholeness is seen as manifesting within and as the whole universe.  This can be seen in Advaita Hinduism that has as a basic claim that Atman is Brahman. There is also the doctrine of panentheism that holds the understanding that God is greater than the universe and includes and interpenetrates it.  In pantheism God is man and man is God.  In panentheism God is beyond man, beyond the universe, and yet fully interpenetrates it.  This is perhaps a fine distinction but a significant one when it comes to Christianity and understanding what it means to be a Christian mystic.  Historic Christianity has held to the doctrine of panentheism and yet within it there are mystics who have experienced and taught oneness with and in God. St. Paul’s famous statement just referenced about himself is an example.   We might also consider the words of the Dominican teacher, preacher, and mystic Meister Eckhart (circa 1260-circa 1327), “The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.” 

How might we reconcile this:  panentheism within pantheism?  Duality within Oneness.  A mystical theological solution to this seeming dilemma is, I suggest, to be found in a contemporary understanding of human consciousness.  This will enable us to see an incarnational dynamic to a mystical Christian consciousness as opposed to seeing the mystical dimension solely as something primarily floating “out there” in the spheres disconnected from our present life circumstances and experience here on this earth.  To illustrate this we might consider Jesus’s prayerful statement, “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us.” Jn 17:21.  Here Jesus is praying to the Father (as separate from Himself) and yet in this passage as recorded affirming that He and the Father are one.  Duality being expressed within non-duality.  Panentheism being expressed within pantheism.

From a materialistic standpoint how we are conscious beings has been understood as arising from the denseness of the material brain.  The brain, it is said by the materialist, is producing consciousness.  This is generally quite a common understanding.  With the death of the body there is then no consciousness.  From this purely materialistic understanding of consciousness Christianity becomes limited to the stories, theories, doctrines, psycho-emotional experiences, behavior, etc to which Christian language and wording is attached.  With the death of the body, all of this ends.  There is no more a living Christian being.

Among both Christian and non-Christian mystics, as well as from the emerging field of quantum physics and studies and writings on consciousness, however we can discover a different understanding of consciousness.  This is an understanding that sees consciousness Itself as primary and evolving and using the brain and material body for earthly functioning and expression.  A common saying expressed in varying ways is that consciousness sleeps in the stone, dreams in the plant, awakens in the animal, and slowly becomes aware of itself in man. –Pythagoras.  This same understanding is expressed in Rumi as consciousness sleeps in minerals, dreams in plants, wakes up in animals, and becomes self-aware in humans.  I will add, thenbecomes aware of its nature as Pure Love.   With this understanding we can see the Lord Jesus functioning from an evolved level of consciousness that is able to contain a dualistic perspective within a oneness perspective.  We might say a human level within a Divine level, or a level of Divine embrace.  And is not this what is proclaimed of Him, that He was both human and divine?

While it may be rare and not at all emphasized in the Christian world at large, who has not heard of the Divine as being an integral part of our own nature?  But what about the other aspect of our nature, the human aspect?  Like Jesus we are this composite of human and Divine.  Our human composite is our physical-psychological-emotional body, our egoic structure of desires and conditioning along with the various passions or vices of anger, lust, greed, etc.  All these are within the limited, confined and filtering consciousness that is how we exist and operate as a soul at a lower level of functioning and against which we struggle as we climb the interior ladder of Divine ascent.  This ladder has been understood by some as having a limited number of rungs to climb with one able to fall back or off the ladder. St. Gregory of Nyssa, on the other hand, envisions the spiritual life as endless growth where there is no plateau to reach.  One simply keeps progressing in a dynamic way from the limitations of human nature alone and into the endless nature of Divine Love Itself.  As Catholic Bishop Frank W. Pigott of the Liberal Catholic Church has written in The Parting of the Ways this is a spiritual evolution that to reach the Christ level will, in many cases, take ages and in all cases, must involve effort.

In order not to be deceived along the way through our own shortcomings and errors, we must understand that the only real method of authentic growth is to examine and judge ourselves.  Especially we must see and transcend deeper desires and motives that can often lurk behind our attitudes and actions.  As Kazrat Inayat Khan, the founder of the Sufi Order in the West and teacher of Universal Sufism, has written, “Our follies and errors are natural; but when we defend ourselves, making virtues of our shortcomings and trying to hide our errors, it is as if we nurtured our errors, trying to make them grow.”

We see the Lord Jesus, after fasting forty days and forty nights and being hungry, being led into the wilderness and there being tempted towards earthly appetites, commonly interpreted as towards hedonism (hunger and self-satisfaction), egoism (misuse of power), and towards materiality (wealth and kingdoms). He did not, however, have the inner vulnerability to give in to these. In the face of human temptations He reaffirmed within Himself His inner Divine alignment.  Likewise we might consider Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Here we see His consciousness at the human egoic level that does not want to disappear, to die.  He prays, “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me:”  Then almost immediately there is a movement within consciousness, “nevertheless, not my will, but Thine be done.”  Lk 22:42.  His consciousness, moves from a place of limited human self-concern, and the door is opened to acceptance of the Divine Will.  Recognize that this was a movement within Him, a movement within consciousness.  A movement from consciousness limited to the dense physical self-preserving level to the Divine level.  Here by an act of willful surrender the doorway on the path to the fullness of Divine Consciousness is opened.

We too, being a composite of both the human and divine, face and struggle with lower level temptations on the inner pathway of consciousness that leads into a continuing fuller consistent dynamic alignment with the Divine.

For those on the Christian mystical path we can see in the Lord Jesus an awareness of His Oneness and unity with the Father (a non-duality), and yet we can also see moments of interior struggle and a plea to “remove this cup from me,” a plea to God perceived as beyond Himself (duality).  In the journey from duality to non-duality, from a sense of separateness from God to a non-dual awareness of unity with and in Him, Jesus becomes our Lord and Master, a model, a template of the mystical life.  None of us will likely have to suffer as He did, but if we are going to be a living vital incarnate Christian mystical presence, we must take the pattern of His life, teachings, and personal experience very seriously and integrate this within ourselves. Failing to do so it is easy to understand why Fr. Karl Rahner would say, “the Christian of the future will be non-existent.”  Failing to do so would leave the Christian life simply a collection of myths, stories, doctrines and Church canons on the shelves of libraries.  Realizing the mystical evolutionary dimension of Christianity just might, however, enable us to grasp more fully the recorded saying in the Gospel of John, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.  Rev. 22:13.  And it might enable us to sense ourselves as an intimate and vital part of this evolutionary scheme of Divine Love.  As Meister Eckhart (d. 1328), a Christian Dominican teacher, preacher, and mystic, asserts, in love only one exists, not two, because, as he says, “in love I am more God than I am in myself.”