You see what I got there?
Great post from Rachel Held Evans about mysticism, spirituality and the Bible:
“You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” – John 5:39
It has become something of a sport for folks in the evangelical, neo-Reformed tradition to take to the internet to draw out the “boundaries of evangelicalism,” boundaries which inevitably fall around their own particular theological distinctions and which seem to grow narrower and narrower with every blog post on the topic.
Pastor and blogger Tim Challies recently added a few more stones to the fortress wall in a blog post entitled “The Boundaries of Evangelicalism.” In it, Challies writes about his concerns regarding “the power and prevalence of mysticism” in the contemporary church and posits that true evangelicalism rejects all forms of this “mysticism” and instead embraces the doctrine of the Reformed tradition and its emphasis on knowing God through Scripture alone.
“God has given us his Word to guide us in all matters of faith and practice. When we commit ourselves to mysticism, we commit ourselves to looking for revelation from God and experiences of God that come from outside that Word. We reject his gift–his good, infallible, inerrant, sufficient gift–and demand more. Because God promises us no more, we quickly create our own experiences and interpret them as if they are God’s revelation. Yet the Bible warns us that we can do no better than God’s Word and have no right to demand anything else. The question for Evangelicals today is just this: Will God’s Word be enough? Because whatever does not lead us toward God’s Word will always, inevitably and ultimately lead us away.”
The post is so full of historical inaccuracies, theological problems, and contradictions that it’s hard to know where to start, but I want to make clear from the get-go that my response to this post should not be seen as an attack on Tim Challies himself, (who I respect and like), but rather a response to the general belief that God’s presence is limited to the pages of Scripture and that all forms of contemplative or experiential spirituality should therefore be dismissed out of hand or regarded with suspicion. As evangelicalism in the U.S. has been working its way through something of an identity crisis over the past few years, and as many young evangelicals like myself have reconnected with the spiritual disciplines, this seems to be a recurring point of contention, and therefore one that should be addressed.
Challies defines mysticism as “those forms of Christian spirituality which attempt direct or unmediated access to God” and mentions, generally, the popularity of books on spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation and, specifically, books by Christian authors like Sarah Young and John Eldredge. In the past, Challies has been highly critical of Ann Voskamp’s spirituality in One Thousand Gifts, chastising her for her experiencing the presence of God in nature and in a Catholic cathedral, and for being influenced by the likes of Henri Nouwen, Brennan Manning, Teresa of Avila, Brother Lawrence, Annie Dillard, and Dallas Willard. One of the commenters after Challlies’ post also mentioned Richard Foster, Thomas Merton, centering prayer, contemplative prayer, lectio divina, and prayer labyrinths, which the commenter describes as efforts to “access God in a pagan/occult way.”
Oh no, oh no, Catholic saints! Ack. Odd then, that Challies would define mysticism as “those forms of Christian spirituality which attempt direct or unmediated access to God”. So he’s saying that the Bible stands in for Christ who is, according to its own pages, is the only mediator between God and man?!? So Catholics have dead holks and truly-true Reformed Christians have a book?
According to Challies, mystics are those who experience “a direct inner realization of the Divine,” and an “unmediated link to an absolute.” He goes on to argue that mysticism is any connection with God outside the context of Scripture.
Challies writes, “Mysticism was once regarded as an alternative to Evangelical Christianity. You were Evangelical or you were a mystic, you heeded the doctrine of the Reformation and understood it to faithfully describe the doctrine laid out in Scripture or you heeded the doctrine of mysticism. Today, though, mysticism has wormed its way inside Evangelicalism so that the two have become integrated and almost inseparable.”
I have no idea where Challies got the idea that “mysticism was once regarded as an alternative to evangelical Christianity.”
Word. Neither do I. It’s a very odd way of looking at Christian history.
From the events of Pentecost, to the practices of communion and baptism throughout Christian history, to the writings and teachings of the desert fathers and mothers, to the Reformation, to the divine offices being prayed continually throughout the world today, to the Azusa Street revival, to the spread of Christianity in the global South and East, the story of Christianity is the story of regular people connecting in powerful ways to the presence of God.
As I’ve written numerous times before, I grew up Pentecostal. I left those churches at 22 and joined a nondenominational church for five years. For the last few years I’ve attended an Anglican/Episcopal church. In all my years of attending church, I’ve believed in the real, transformative power of the Holy Spirit. While I’ve never shouted, I’ve fallen on my knees in prayer and worship and cried cleansing tears of joy and healing. I’ve also come to love sitting in the park, praying and meditating on the Psalms. What people mistakenly describe as the beads around my neck is actually a rosary, which I use to keep track of various prayers. I’ve got a little Anglican one, too, which I use to say the Agnus Dei.
It might be my childhood spent in church’s with roots in Holiness and Azusa Street that has helped bring about my current love of spiritual practices. I’ve always felt Christianity, with such sacrements as baptism and communion, is holistic, encompassing the mental and spiritual. So I rejoice when I see praise dancers. I feel connection at the sight of candles, tiny symbols of the Light, or smell incense, a symbol of our sweet and sincere worship being lifted to Heaven. Our Lord was incarnated. I believe our faith is incarnational. I know I’d never fit in a church that seems to lose Jesus in favor of the Bible.