Mysticism and Word
According to Chambers’ 21st Century Dictionary (1999) the primary meaning of mysticism is ‘the practice of gaining direct communication with God through prayer and meditation’. Probably few Christians today would deny that such communication happens. Mysticism in some other faith systems includes different ideas such as the absorption of the individual totally into the divine, but in Christian mysticism human identity is maintained and even enhanced. The question arises, how mystical communication relates to the authority and inspiration of the Bible. My own belief is that mystical experience should be tested and interpreted by the Bible, and by such elements of the Christian tradition as are supported by the Bible. But tension may easily arise between mysticism and Scripture. I suggest that the tension may be creative.
In my recent reading I have been learning about Thomas Traherne who ministered at the time of the Restoration of King Charles II, after the Civil War and the Commonwealth. Traherne was born around the year 1637, joined Brasenose College, Oxford in 1652, and was ordained in 1660. He served the parish of Credenhill, also ministered at Hereford Cathedral, and was chaplain to the household of Sir Orlando Bridgeman. He died at the age of 37.
Because of his sense of wonder and praise for the gifts of creation, Traherne has been much valued by many who seek a Christian, spiritual dimension to ecological concern. I came to his works without any real knowledge of English theology in his time. Coming freshly to his Centuries of Meditations, I struggled for want of a wise guide. I found one in Denise Inge’s collection, complete with commentary: Happiness and Holiness, Thomas Traherne and His Writings (Canterbury Press, 2008). The passage I quote below from Traherne reproduces the original spelling and punctuation as used by Inge.
As she remarks, ‘the discovery of Traherne’s manuscripts reads like a novel’. Only one of his works (Roman Forgeries) was published in his lifetime. Centuries of Meditations was discovered near the end of the nineteenth century in a market barrow and published in 1908. More discoveries and publications followed in the twentieth century, and a succession of new discoveries and publications has taken place in the twenty-first. Some documents probably still await publication.
As well as being a theologian of the created world, Traherne is now known to have been a strong defender of the orthodox Christian faith, and of the doctrines and polity of the Church of England. In his early life he was strongly influenced by the Puritans: his principal at Brasenose College, Oxford, was a Puritan; Traherne’s appointment to Credenhill was approved by Puritan ministers. Inge suggests that ‘Traherne could never entirely leave behind the Calvinist doctrines of his Puritan days, despite his frequent attempts to qualify and moderate the more extreme interpretations of Calvinism.’
He was influenced at a later stage by the Cambridge Platonists. These philosophers followed Plato in some respects but not in others, stressing the goodness of creation, and ‘the sovereignty of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful’. Their work integrated ‘the intellectual and the mystical, God’s sovereignty and human freedom, the body and the soul, God’s transcendence and immanence, morality and grace, the inner life and external political obligations’ (Charles Taliaferro and Alison J. Teply, Cambridge Platonist Spirituality (Paulist Press, 2004)). The Cambridge Platonists were thus far removed from the Puritans with their strong emphasis on the Bible, the Cross and Justification by Faith.
The mystical element in Traherne is exemplified in a rather well-known passage from the Centuries of Meditations:
‘You never Enjoy the World aright, till the Sea it self floweth in your Veins, till you are Clothed with the Heavens, and Crowned with the Stars: and perceiv your self to be the Sole Heir of the whole World: and more then so, becaus Men are in it who are evry one Sole Heirs, as well as you. Till you can Sing and Rejoyce and Delight in GOD, as Misers do in Gold, and Kings in Scepters, you never Enjoy the World.’ (First Century, 29).
Some have accused Traherne of pantheism – the belief that the sum-total of all that exists can be equated with God. But that reading of Traherne is difficult to sustain, since the world for him is given by God and clearly distinct from God. Inge thinks he is closer to panentheism – all things are in God, but God is not limited to creation. But Traherne often adheres to mainstream Christian theology so closely that even that interpretation may be questionable. On the nature and saving sacrifice of Christ, and other cardinal doctrines, he is faultlessly orthodox.
So we arrive at our central question. As exemplified by Traherne, does Christian mysticism contradict biblical faith, or do the two illuminate each other? I suggest the latter position. To take just two examples, how should we interpret the words in Psalm 19 (NRSV): ‘The heavens are telling the glory of God, And the firmament proclaims his handiwork’; or Romans 1:20 (NRSV): ‘Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made’?
Passages like these suggest intuitive awareness rather than merely rational communication.
In the ranks of ‘Green’ Christians are some whose approach is primarily scientific, and others who are motivated to a large extent by an intuitive, mystical awareness of God upholding and caring for all creation. We are all somewhere on this spectrum between scientific objectivity and spiritual awareness. I would contend that Scripture is both the map and the compass for all of us on our journey – helping us to interpret different perspectives on our journey, and set its direction.
Francis Bacon (1561-1626) promoted the idea of God’s two books – the book of words and the book of works. And if God is the author of both, the two cannot contradict each other (R.J. Berry, God’s Book of Works, The Nature and Theology of Nature (T. & T. Clark. 2003)).
For many Christians, the revelation of God in nature is far from being a deduction from a merely cerebral study of the natural world. The perception of God’s glory and power in creation also involves intuition and the discerning of a felt presence. The resurgence of charismatic gifts in the Church has helped to redress the balance in general between the cerebral and the more direct, intuitive communication of God’s truth. Some ecologically aware Christians will arrive at an ecological awareness through scientific analysis, illuminated by their faith; others through poetic and aesthetic awareness, or through quiet meditation. For all of us the Scriptures stand as the guarantor of truth. And in the end, I suspect that the various routes are not as distinct as they may sometimes appear.
Keith Innes was in parish ministry from 1958 until his retirement in 1997. Since then he has studied and written on biblical eco-theology. His notes “God, the Earth and Humanity in the Book of Micah” and “British and American attitudes to nature” are available on the JRI Briefings page of this website
Photo: The entrance to Brasenose College, Oxford (Martin Hodson)