Mystical Theology: Definition, History, Viewpoints, Why It Matters
French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
Christians believe that there is a supernatural realm and that human beings are spiritual beings. Therefore, many people conclude that human beings are capable of supernatural experiences. However, should human beings seek these types of experiences? If yes, how important are those types of spiritual experiences?
Also, many Christians have asked whether they can learn anything about God or the world from those types of spiritual experiences? Can a person learn truth from spiritual experiences without reading the Bible? These are the types of questions that are woven into mystical theology.
What is Mystical Theology? Mystical Theology is an approach to building theology through mystical experiences. Mystical Theology is an approach to theology and spiritual knowledge that seeks to learn the truth about God and the world primarily through direct spiritual experiences, contemplative prayer, and meditation while also placing significantly less emphasis on learning intellectually from Bible study, systematic theology, or academic sources.
In others words, mystical theology is the quest of seeking to understand God, truth, the world, and morality by engaging in these mystical or spiritual practices. Mystical theology is sometimes referred to as Christian mysticism and the Christians who promote mystical theology are sometimes called Christian mystics.
Pagan Mysticism vs. Christian Mysticism
Mysticism has been around a long time. It has existed in many different forms. Its earliest forms come from the Eastern world, rooted in Buddhism and Hinduism. Some forms of mysticism also existed amongst pre-Christian Europeans and Native Americans too. There are hundreds of forms of pagan mysticism still popular around the world today.
Many mystical peoples have believed that human beings can unite with or be absorbed into a Deity (or some grander spiritual force) through various spiritual practices. They have believed that being united to the Deity would give them some better understanding of both the material world and the spiritual realm.
Pagan mystics have often engaged in various spiritual practices to acquire knowledge that they believe can not be obtained by merely using human intellect.
Some variations of pagan mysticism have also promoted the idea that human beings could rid (purge) themselves of all desires through certain spiritual practices. This goal of purging yourself of desires is still prevalent in some modern Eastern cultures.
The spiritual practices of pagan mystics often include meditation, contemplative prayer, rituals involving fire, chanting, repeating mantras, smoking or ingesting mind-altering substances, exercises, and dances. In some rare instances pagan mysticism has also included self-mutilation, starvation, animal sacrifices, or sexual acts.
When many people think of the word mysticism, they often think of those pagan variations of mysticism. Or they think of crystal balls or Ouija boards. Therefore, some modern Christians (understandably) argue that all Christians must stay away from any and all mystical practices—anything that even appears to be mystical should be considered bad.
However, that has not necessarily been the consensus approach throughout church history. Some segments of the early church adopted some spiritual mystical practices.
Many Christians throughout the ages have engaged in forms of mysticism. There have been Christian leaders throughout history that have argued that Christians can, and should, engage in some mystical spiritual practices; but, of course, Christians should engage in these practices very differently than how the pagans engaged in them.
Four Approaches to Mystical Theology
1. Emphasize Spiritual Experiences
Some people would say the primary way to learn about God is by experiencing him spiritually. This group places a heavy emphasis on direct and personal experiences with God and make those events the primary basis of knowing God’s character.
These pro-mystics tend to cheapen the written word of God and place little value on theological education. They are the ones likely to claim that they receive revelation directly from God or they rely upon their personal spiritual experiences to determine what they believe about truth.
2. Emphasize the Word of God Only
On the opposite side, there are those who argue that Christians should not engage with the spiritual realm at all and must steer clear of anything that appears to be mystical in nature. These Christians assert that learning comes solely through the Word of God. If we are to contemplate anything, it should be the words and concepts in the Bible alone.
Some modern Christians in this category have characterized mysticism as being nothing more than a self-delusion, wherein people believe they have experienced God through some spiritual practice, but it’s actually just a delusion or some dreamy confusion. Other modern Christians in this category have claimed that mystical spiritual practices do indeed effectively engage the spiritual realm, but that it actually opens the door to demonic activity.
3. Balance the Word of God and Spiritual Experiences
A third approach seeks to holds things in balance. Christians in this category would argue that we can learn both from our spiritual experiences and from the Bible, and that we ought to learn from both equally. They’d agree that Bible study and theological education has value, but diligent study is often seen as being on par with spiritual practices and mystical experiences.
4. Embrace Spiritual Experiences as Subordinate to the Bible
The fourth approach would say that the only place where we can learn truth is scripture. However, we could engage in spiritual practices, and some elements of mysticism, as a means of strengthening our intimacy with the Lord or with hopes of enhancing our understanding of things we’ve learned from Scripture.
This category would argue that spiritual experiences can be helpful as long as they are subordinate to the Word of God. This approach invites us into the spiritual realm primarily through the written Word of God. We can engage in spiritual experiences and learn from them, but we must place our highest emphasis on Scripture and we must always subject our experiences to the Bible, allowing the Bible to govern all of our conclusions.
Is Christian Mysticism Dangerous?
The potential problem with Christian mysticism comes when people engage in spiritual practices and cultivate spiritual experiences and then decide what they believe to be true about God, eternity, angels and demons, morality, and the world based primarily on those spiritual practices and experiences, rather basing their beliefs on God’s revealed Word.
I’ve been asked many times: “Should Christians be against spiritual experiences?” My answer is always something like: Well, it depends on your motivation.
Spiritual experiences have the ability to stir your affections for God and enhance your intimacy with God. Spiritual experiences can also help reinforce the truths revealed in God’s Word and can strengthen our resolve to fight sin. If that’s what you want, then spiritual experiences can be very good. But these types of experiences ought not determine what we believe to be truth.
If you’re wanting spiritual experiences to reveal new truths to you, then you’re doing it wrong. Truth starts in the mind, primarily through reading and understanding God’s written Word, and then truth moves down into our affections and it stirs the heart.
History of Christian Mysticism
Some modern Christians have criticized mysticism altogether, claiming that mystics seek to understand truth only by experiencing God in a spiritual sense, without any Scripture or other sources of knowledge. While this summary may accurately describe some Christian mystics, Christian mysticism is often more nuanced than that.
Mystical theology doesn’t always rule out other sources of knowledge. It just embraces and more heavily emphasizes the experiential aspects. C.S. Lewis once commented:
“Many religious people have physical symptoms like the ‘prickles’ in the shoulder. But the best mystics set no value on that sort of thing, and do not set much on visions either. What they seek is a direct experience of God, immediate as a taste or color.” —C.S. Lewis
Good Christian mystics have typically promoted spiritual practices that seek to fill the Christian with more of the Spirit of God. This approach to mysticism especially appealed to Christian monks in the early centuries of Christianity. Many monks would spend hours in contemplative prayer and meditation.
Christian mysticism flourished most in the Medieval era. Mysticism, however, became significantly less popular in the wake of the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment. Today, the majority of conservative Protestants are hesitant about mystics while Roman Catholics and liberal Protestants tend to be much more open to learning from mystics.
Some of the best historical examples of influential Christian persons that promoted mysticism include Origen, John Cassian, Benedict of Nursia, Hildegard of Bingen, Bernard Clairvaux, Francis Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Marguerite Porete, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, Simone Weil, Thomas Merton, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
Christian mysticism has been a significant part of Christian history. Modern Christians can learn from the writings of mystics, but some discernment is needed.
Engaging in mysticism demands caution. There are certainly pitfalls that need to be avoided. There’s a lot of weird stuff out there that gets a pass under guise of being spirituality. And this is not a new thing; there’s been weird and heretical mystical stuff being taught since the first century.
The most infamous mystic from church history was Meister Eckhart. He talked extensively about our union with Christ, and he believed that Christians could enhance their union with Christ through encountering the spiritual realm.
However, Eckhart’s teachings seemed to imply that the essence of a human being could become one with the essence of God. He claimed that he learned this through his own meditation and contemplative prayer. He blurred the distinction between the Creator and the creature. If you followed Eckhart’s logic and teachings, you’d likely end up with dangerous heretical views.
Syncretism vs. Christian Mysticism
Some modern Christians have said that Christian mysticism is nothing more than syncretism. Syncretism is the process of assimilating and blending aspects of two different religions.
As the true Christian religion spreads to new regions of the world, some indigenous peoples convert to Christianity, but they also hold onto pieces of their old religious practices. They replace genuine Christian practice with pagan practice and they ignore some Christian doctrines while continuing to embrace some pagan beliefs. They blend pagan mysticism with Christianity, which ultimately leads to a variation of Christianity that does not actually resemble genuine Biblical Christianity.
Christian mysticism, however, is not syncretism. Christian mysticism does not aim to replace aspects of genuine Biblical Christianity. Instead, Christian mysticism aims to utilize some of those spiritual practices with the goal of enhancing how a person experiences genuine biblical Christianity. While many spiritual practices have indeed been used by pagans to promote bad religious ideas, Christian mystics believe that some spiritual practices can be redeemed for good.
Spiritual Experiences vs. Scripture
Many Christians throughout the ages have maintained the importance of directly experiencing God and being open to influential spiritual experiences. These experiences are probably fine for most when they merely focus on cultivating affections for God and personal holiness.
But the big problem arises when some people begin to claim that they can receive revelation directly from God through spiritual practice.
Another red flag is when people begin to rely upon these spiritual experiences as the means by which they determine what is truth. The Bible ought to be the authoritative source for truth. Renowned theologian Carl F.H. Henry said it this way:
“The Bible is the reservoir and conduit of divine truth. The Scriptures are the authoritative written record and interpretation of God’s revelatory deeds, and the ongoing source of reliable objective knowledge concerning God’s nature and ways.” —Carl F.H. Henry
The Bible is the primary source of truth, and everything we think we learn must be subjected to the Bible. When we engage in spiritual practices that we think teach us things, we must compare what we learn to the teachings of the Scripture. However, some professing Christians, in their quest for truth, have tragically discounted or ignored the Bible as they’ve engaged in their mystical experiences.
At the heart of most of the debates related to mysticism are questions about truth, questions like: Can we learn anything about God or the world from spiritual experiences?
Or questions like: Can a person learn truth from spiritual experiences without reading the Bible?
But not all proponents of mystical theology agree on how to properly incorporate or utilize the Bible while they are engaging in spiritual or mystical practices.
Why Does This Matter?
Most mystical theology is all about experiencing God and believing certain things we learn from those experiences. However, that can be dangerous because, as humans, we tend to dramatize, exaggerate, or misunderstand things we experience.
For example, stories exist of people having visions of heaven or hell or other elaborate afterlife adventures. Those stories are then told to others who begin to build their entire theology on these dreams. Instead, we should build our theology on the bedrock of God’s word, and if experiences contradict the Bible, we should reject them.
Ultimately, we should always subordinate mystical theology and spiritual experiences to quality Bible study. If your experience teaches you something contrary to the Bible, you ought to reject what you supposedly learned from that experience. This can be difficult for us because what we perceive can so often feel so real.
Proverbs 14:12 says, “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end, it leads to death.”
A potential danger with mystical theology is that it could lead us to think a certain way is right, but ultimately, that way could lead to destruction. Our approach to theology greatly influences our lives.
What About Foster and Willard?
While many mystics have gone off the deep end, there are a few mystics that have stayed within the bounds of orthodox Christian theology. Authors such as Richard Foster and Dallas Willard are certainly still orthodox in their theology, while still frequently promoting meditation and contemplative prayer.
Some evangelicals have labeled Foster and Willard as heretics, but that’s probably unfair. However, I do understand why some modern Christians are concerned about guys like Foster and Willard. Both men (and some other authors that they’ve influenced) often use language and ideas that seem strange or overly ethereal.
To be honest, I personally don’t love Foster and Willard’s books. They are not my cup of tea. But that’s more about literary style and secondary doctrines. I certainly don’t think they’re heretics.
However, Foster and Willard have indeed emphasized some practices that feel weird at times, and some evangelicals have argued that these types of authors potentially open the door for readers to go down a pathway leading to more dangerous forms of mysticism (sort of a slippery slope), therefore many faithful Christian preachers would advise against reading Willard and Foster altogether.
My take: I agree that it’s probably wise for most new Christians to completely avoid mystic-like authors, at least for a while, early in their faith journey. But as a believer grows and matures, I think they can develop the discernment needed to engage with mystics, without going too far. These are the types of situations when its immensely helpful to have a good pastor and spiritual mentor.
Dangerous Modern Mystics
There have been plenty of mystics that have gone far beyond Willard and Foster, over emphasizing the experiential aspects of the Christian life.
For example, Chinese author Watchman Nee was known for offering quality insights into the Christian life and nature of man, but he also offered mystical ideas that seemed to put far too much emphasis on learning from spiritual experiences. He also alluded to receiving direct divine revelation.
A more recent example is the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) movement led by popular preachers like Bill Johnson and Kris Vallotton. The NAR preachers promote heterodox Word of Faith teachings, which is bad enough, but they also teach that believers can receive revelation from God, can experience glory clouds, and can absorb the spiritual powers of dead Christians through the practice of grave sucking.
There are many other popular teachers that have offered mystical ideas that undermine the authority of Scripture including popular men like John Crowder, Benjamin Dunn, Todd White, Rick Joyner, Matt Spinks, Richard Rohr, and Todd Bentley. Even popular authors like Sarah Young and Don Piper seem fine but have promoted mystical ideas that are very concerning.
These preachers and authors are diverse, they are all quite different from each other, but what they all do have in common is that all of them have offered ideas that seem closer to New Age practices than genuine Biblical Christianity.
Richard Foster’s classic book Celebration of Discipline has been tremendously influential on North American evangelicals. Foster emphasized spiritual practices, that seem mystical—he called them the spiritual disciplines. Willard, likewise, has written extensively about enhanced spirituality via spiritual disciplines.
Christians have long used the language of spiritual disciplines, that’s not new vocabulary, but the manner in which Willard and Foster talk about these practices seems a bit more mystical than how most Christians have traditionally talked about these disciplines—they place more emphasis on spiritually encountering God directly and they focus more on learning about truth through spiritual experiences.
Of course, if mysticism is untethered from Scripture, it can certainly be dangerous. There are certainly some mystics that have gone outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy (like some of the names given herein). The idea of the slippery slope is not crazy. Therefore, all spiritual practices must be properly vetted and informed by God’s Word.
Spiritual disciplines can and should bolster our commitment to God and to the Bible, hopefully ushering us into a deeper intimacy with God. God is delighted and glorified when we plunge deeper into enjoying him in both Spirit and truth.
What is Mystical Prayer?
Mystical prayer seeks to communicate with God, hoping to bring the person peace. People who use mystical prayer begin by examining their own hearts and calming themselves. God examines the heart so these mystics resolve to ready their hearts for his peace. Then, they completely silence themselves before God, trying not to think about anything and to be still.
This type of prayer is similar to meditating. Both involve quietness, concentration, and daily practice. People who pray mystically believe it brings you closer to God. They hold that it helps you calm yourself and let go of difficulties. For them, this type of prayer aids their worship because it puts God first, better enabling the person to praise and thank God.
However, Christians must be careful with what they choose to engage. Be watchful that you do not open the door to something that is truly untethered from Christian orthodoxy. Find a good pastor or spiritual mentor to help walk you through these matters.
 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin quoted by Norman Jetmundsen in “The Subtle Power of Evil and God’s Antidote,” C.S. Lewis Institute, March 3, 2005, https://www.cslewisinstitute.org/resources/the-subtle-power-of-evil-and-gods-antidote.  C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, vol. 3, edited by Walter Hooper (New York: Harper One, 2009), 109; this Lewis quote herein has been edited for clarity and brevity.  Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 1, God Who Speaks and Shows: Preliminary Considerations (1976; repr. Wheaton: Crossway, 1999), 13.