Bruce Demarest: Mysticism: Peril or Promise?
What Do We Mean?
Satiated with consumerism, technological gizmos, and frenetic activity, people of all stripes are exploring the mystical realm. We all resonate with moments of elevated wonder triggered by a beautiful sunset, rapturous music, or the birth of a baby. In a depersonalized age, image bearers are searching for relationship with something or Someone larger than themselves that will ease the dullness of daily life and energize the soul. Christians, in particular, hunger for more intimate experience of Jesus Christ and greater awareness of the Spirit’s ministry within.
To understand mysticism I find it helpful to distinguish between hard, occult, and soft forms of mysticism. Hard mysticism alleges the merging of human nature with the essence of the Absolute or God, in such a way that self-consciousness is lost. The Buddhist seeks absorption into Nirvana (an egoless state), and the Hindu, merging of the self (Atman) with Brahman (universal deity). Meister Eckhart (1260–1327) was one of the few Christian mystics who made statements that border on hard mysticism. Occult forms of mysticism (e.g., est, New Age, Psycanics) seek transcendent insights and experiences through mind-altering substances and/or esoteric practices. Both hard and occult forms of mysticism are fundamentally opposed to orthodox Christianity.
While I appreciate his division of mysticism into soft, hard and occult forms, I find that it is too artificial a division. To limit 'soft' mysticism to orthodox Christianity, 'hard' mysticism to Buddhism and Hinduism, and 'occult' mysticism to New Age is to limit our understanding of mysticism.
Demarest is right to point out the numerous mystical experiences in the biblical records. However, as he also points out, Meister Eckhart and the Rhineland mystics may be included in 'hard' mysticism and if I may suggest 'occult' mysticism (as defined by Demarest) too. The ascetic practices of the desert fathers and mothers are dangerously close to 'occult' mysticism. Would we exclude Meister Eckhart and the desert fathers and mothers from 'orthodox Christianity'?
Buddhist mysticism seeks awareness of the non-self rather than 'absorption into Nirvana.' Hindu mysticism seeks a transcendent insight that will leads to a better karma. Christian mysticism seeks intimacy with God. Personally, I will prefer describing mysticism as from the traditions such as Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi, Native American etc rather than soft, hard and occult.
The taxonomy of Christian mysticism will include Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican, Lutheran, Roman, Orthodox, Pentecostal...