Prophets and Mystics
So far, from the tenor of these discussions one might suppose that the only access men have ever claimed to higher knowledge has been either through prophecy or philosophy. Such is far from the case: Many types and degrees of inspiration have been claimed by men through the ages, and it is time to discuss one of the most important of these, namely mysticism. Authorities on mysticism are agreed that the thing is extremely difficult if not impossible to define; yet there is a common ground upon which the experts all seem willing to stand, namely that mysticism is "an intuitive and ecstatic union with the deity obtained by means of contemplation and other mental exercises." That is the definition of Eduard Lehmann, the great Swedish scholar of comparative religions, who finds the mystic experience to be present among people in all ages and in all parts of the world, even among the most savage.1 In the words of another authority, mysticism "under various aspects appears among all races and in all periods whenever religion and the relation of the soul to the unseen powerfully occupy the attention of men."2 The universality of the mystic experience is matched by its remarkable uniformity in certain aspects. When a tenth-century Persian, a thirteenth-century French lady, a seventeenth-century Englishman, and a modern Hindu all report certain peculiar and unusual sensations in almost identical words we must grant that there is something behind what they say; for while any collusion between them is impossible, yet they tell a remarkably uniform story. There certainly is something to mysticism. Is it the same thing that animated the prophets of old? Is mysticism a form of revelation? Historically and psychologically the answer is a definite negative. Consider the historical aspect of the thing.
The very universality of mysticism shows that it is not peculiarly Christian or Jewish; it is the peculiar property of no nation, race, society, or church. Only by a determination to see mysticism in everything can one detect it in the Old and New Testaments, which, as scholars are constantly discovering, are remarkably free of mystic elements. We will recall that it never occurred to Augustine that one might view the Bible as a mystic book until Ambrose "drew aside the mystic veil" and showed him the hidden meaning of things which if taken literally appeared to him simply as "perversity." Taken as it stands, the Bible is anything but a mystic document.
How then did mysticism get into the Christian church? In the same way it invaded the Jewish—through the schools. It is a remarkable thing that specialists in describing the mystic practices of various religions—Hindu, Buddhist, Shamanistic, Taoistic, Sufistic, etc.—always refer to Neoplatonism as supplying the best illustration. In Neoplatonism we have the classic meeting ground of the intellectual and the "spiritual" quests for God. "The theology of Judaism was studied side by side with the works of Plato and Aristotle, and thus was produced that curious blend of Jewish and Greek thought," whose classic representation was Philo of Alexandria, the fountainhead of Jewish and later of Christian mysticism. It may seem strange that the intellectual and the mystical should run thus side by side in the search for God, but it is really quite natural. "Aristotle's active reason,'" as Abelson further points out in this connection, "possesses a decidedly mystical turn."3 And why not? Positivism is constantly bumping into brick walls, and the mind can only continue its course by repeated recognition of its limitations: these recognitions are momentary surrenders to mysticism, expedient admissions that the mind might move forward even where logic breaks down. Whenever Augustine finds himself in a logical deadlock, he releases the tension by the ecstatic declaration: "Still, I will cling to God!" after which he can return to his intellectual quest refreshed and relaxed. According to Jones, "The fundamental metaphysics in which the doctrine of Christian mysticism is grounded is Greek rationalistic metaphysics, formulated by Socrates and his great successors, Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus."4 According to Chapman, a Catholic writer, "Clement of Alexandria is the first Christian writer on mystical theology," having taken over from Philo the idea "that God is to be sought, as Moses sought Him, in the darkness."5 Next comes Origen, to whom the cynical Celsus points out, referring to the mystical parts of his writings, that no real Christian would know what Origen was talking about. To this Origen's reply was what might be expected: that all true Christians are mystic. They close their physical eyes, he says, to see only with the spiritual,6 just as he had declared earlier that all true Christians would, if they could, do nothing but study philosophy. We seem to be telling the same story about mysticism that we did about philosophy: The same men are introducing it into the church and using the same arguments. Why? Because they all have the same Neoplatonic background. We quoted Grabmann as attributing Augustine's great influence to the fact that he was "the greatest Christian Neoplatonist," and along with that his Confessions have been described as the purest mysticism. Anyone who mingled Neoplatonism with Christianity would necessarily have to bring in the mystical as well as the intellectual element, for the wedding of the two is the essence of Neoplatonism.
The founder of Neoplatonism was Ammonius Saccus. Porphyry reports that this remarkable man was born of Christian parents but left the church and returned to the religions practices of the pagan Greeks, opening a school in Alexandria, where he laid the foundations of a new interpretation of Plato: hence Neoplatonic—the new departure from the old teaching of Plato being the doctrine that God is unknowable to the mind and must therefore be sought in the mystic darkness. 7 It is a significant fact, and one diligently bypassed by church historians, that the founder of that school of thought which was completely to remake Christian doctrine was himself an apostate from the church. Just as he was not satisfied with what he found there, so those who introduced his teachings later into the church were likewise unsatisfied with what they found—St. Augustine being the best but by no means the only example: Neoplatonism whenever it appears in Christian theology is an attempt to improve upon the gospel.
The essentially unchristian nature of mysticism is apparent from the surprisingly late date at which it was introduced into the church. It was not until Maximus the Confessor in the seventh century that "mysticism and dialectics were fused together in their authoritative form," and "Pseudodionysius and Neoplatonism were officially adopted by the Church."8 The Pseudodionysius, the cornerstone of Christian mysticism, was produced by an unknown writer, probably a Syrian, at the end of the fifth century. From the sixth century on and for more than a thousand years, the whole church firmly believed that it was the work of that Dionysius who had been a disciple of the Apostle Paul, and "thus," writes Harnack, "Neoplatonism and mystic cult practices were accepted as classic Christian," i.e., as part of the genuine apostolic heritage!9 The writer of the pseudo-Dionysius "is influenced," according to a Catholic authority, "mainly by the Neo-Platonist Proclus. . . . He asserts the transcendence of God with extreme expressions, exaggerated from the Platonic."10 In the opening lines of the pseudo-Dionysius we read: "Leave behind both thy senses and thine intellectual operations, and all things known by sense and intelligence, and all things which are not and which are, and set thyself, as far as may be, to unite thyself in unknowing with Him who is above all being and knowledge; for by being purely free and absolute, out of self and of all things, thou shalt be led up to the ray of the divine darkness, stripped of all and loosed from all."11 This is the typical language of mysticism.
The Neoplatonic origin of Christian mysticism and its late introduction into the Church along with the philosophic substitute for revelation show plainly enough that we are not dealing with the prophetic gifts of the early church but a substitute for them. That mysticism is something totally different from the ancient "gifts of the Spirit" will appear if we consider its salient and universally recognized characteristics.
The foremost present-day Protestant student of mysticism writes: "From the nature of the case this experience of ecstasy and absorption is something unutterable and incommunicable. . . . It is not like anything else, consequently there are no terms of description for it." The mystic, having found God, "cannot hint to human ears any descriptive circumstances about the actual character of God."12 Of the four marks of mysticism, according to William James, the first is its ineffability.13 There is nothing in the mystic experience that can be conveyed to others. According to the Catholic definition, "mystical theology" originally meant "the direct, secret, and incommunicable knowledge of God received in contemplation."14 As against this, the whole calling of a prophet is to communicate the will of God to men; he is a mouthpiece and a witness, and he tells what he has seen and heard; he is a man with a message. The mystic, on the other hand, has no such message: Mr. Rufus Jones becomes positively indignant at the thought of contaminating mystic purity with anything as crass and tangible as a message. Mystics, he says, "have not had secret messages from sociable angels. They have not been granted special communications as favored ambassadors to the heavenly court. They have been men and women like the rest of us," and their mystical experience is rather an enrichment of the individual mind, an increase of its range and depth, an enlarged outlook on life, a heightening of personality. It is much like what happens with the refinement and culture of artistic taste, or with the appreciation of beauty in any field.15 In other words, the visions of mystics are not like those of prophets at all. What they convey is not knowledge, says Jones, but rather an "increase of serenity."16
Even when mystics do come forth with concrete revelations, according to Jones, these "prove always, when they are examined, to have an historical background." The greatest mystics are bound in their mystic experiences by their social conditioning. Thus we are told that "some of the many confusions and apparent contradictions in St. Theresa's writings may be explained by her having subordinated her own views to the dicta of some of her confessors." 17 Can one imagine a prophet changing his visions to suit instructions? "While they were persecuting me, reviling me, and speaking all manner of evil against me falsely for so saying," wrote the Prophet Joseph of his first vision, "I was led to say in my heart: Why persecute me for telling the truth? I have actually seen a vision, and who am I that I can withstand God, or why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen?" Mystics are a more flexible sort. "It seems," writes Lord Raglan, "that mystics are always persons who have been brought up in an intensely religious atmosphere. . . . The actual type of mystic experience is always strictly conditioned. The experiences of mystics, however strange they may seem, are never new. . . . Savage mystics and visionaries always have the experiences which they are expected to have. . . . The experiences of mystics are never original."18 These generalizations of Raglan's show the glaring contrast between the socially conditioned mystic and the socially obnoxious prophet. The dependence of mysticism on the social milieu is further illustrated by the fact that there are fads and fashions in mysticism. The mysticism of the thirteenth century was very different from that of the post-scholastic mysticism in which a great number of inspired ladies had revelations. In the seventeenth century, mysticism went completely out of favor with the churchmen; in the eighteenth, it took forms of extreme self-dramatization and became a spectacle in literature and art; in the nineteenth century, it almost died out entirely or took the form of transcendentalism; in the fifth century, it was monastic; most recently "nature-mysticism" has been in favor. The mystics invariably follow the fashion of the hour, both as to whether they should be mystics at all and what form their mystical discipline should take. No such choices are open to the prophet.
While the mystic experience itself is ineffable and incommunicable, the means by which it is arrived at comprise a set and established discipline which the aspiring mystic must always learn from a teacher. Dean Inge gives as the first of his four characteristics of mysticism its esoteric nature, which can be learned only in silence and subordination at the feet of an expert. 19 The great bulk of mystic writings, Christian and non-Christian, is taken up with discussions of the course of study and action to be followed by any person who would achieve the mystic experience. Elaborate systems of discipline are carefully worked out; mental techniques must be acquired; above all, clearly marked steps of progress, usually three—(in St. Theresa's system seven)—are set before the student. This disciplinary procedure, the way of illumination, is the chief mark of mysticism throughout the world. Thus in theory the Buddhists deny any but rational and scientific knowledge, yet "where such practices [concentration, trances, ecstasies, etc.] are found, there is 'mysticism.'" 20 Recall that Lehmann defined mysticism as a "union with deity obtained by means of contemplation and other mental exercises." This is a totally different thing from the "good works" by which the saints become deserving of revelations. They do what God prescribes for their good, and in return he gives them what he wants to and in the way and the time he wants to. The mystic, on the other hand, works his way forward to an expected objective; he knows what he wants, and he knows there is a way to get it; a tried and tested procedure has been handed down from mystic to mystic through the ages.
Earlier we quoted from the Didaché the true test of a prophet, namely that if he attempts to teach his gift to another he is not a true prophet. The mystic gift, on the other hand, must be taught. It is an interesting thing that the Montanists, though they practiced true mystic techniques, were false prophets. They tried to use the steps of the mystic discipline to arrive at the gift of prophecy and of course failed. Though one person can tell another exactly how to have an opium or marijuana dream, he can never tell the other what the dream is like—he can only wallow in vague superlatives. It is so with mysticism. The great mystics tell us what we must do to have a mystical experience, but the experience itself is ineffable. With the prophets it is the very opposite. The mystic has his experience as the dreamer has his dream—all to himself. The mystic, according to Jones, finds "in a consciousness transcending images, ideas or states of any kind, a junction of soul-centre with Absolute Reality—'a flight of the alone to the Alone.'" 21 Since we know that the mystic experience must be induced, usually by long years of dedicated practice and determination, and since it is wholly the experience of the Alone by the alone, how can we deny that it is self-induced? "Introspective" is Dean Inge's word for it. The mystic deliberately works himself into a state. This is what impresses students in the extremely unmystical nature of supernatural experiences in the New Testament. On Pentecost a large group shared a common experience, saw certain sights, and heard certain sounds; so it was at the baptism of Christ, on the Mount of Transfiguration, at the Ascension—always there was a plurality of witnesses; always they are surprised by what happens; always definite things are seen and heard, and definite knowledge is imparted to the human race. There was nothing self-induced and nothing expected in these experiences. The Way of Light in the ancient Christian Doctrine of the Two Ways is not the Mystic Way of Illumination: we are told fully and explicitly what it was, namely the keeping of the Lord's commandments, the reward being not the sudden flash of mystic illumination nor involvement in the Cloud of Unknowing, but a strong and steady testimony of the gospel.
Not only are the mystics wholly alone in their private and incommunicable inner clouds of darkness, but also when they compare notes, we can never find out where they stand. Of the post-scholastic mystics we are told that "the accounts given by these various seers are impossible to reconcile with each other," and that "the value of all these revelations varies according to the intellectual power of the recipient. . . . Delusions," furthermore, "are always exceedingly common in such cases, even in real mystics of holy life, and may occur in the case of saints who have insisted that all their words came from God." We must not deny that they are real, holy revelations, according to our Catholic authority, "simply because they are mistaken or even absurd."22 But if that is so, what have we got? The Dominicans, Benedictines, Carmelites, and Jesuits all hold radically different opinions as to who, if anyone, has beheld the beatific vision; St. John of the Cross, one of the greatest mystics, will have nothing to do with visions and locutions, which he ascribes to bodily weakness, while other doctors of the soul urge such experience upon their disciples as the culmination of the Mystic Way. Such mystic revelations, we are reliably informed, "are commoner in women than in men, and are more frequent in persons of feeble intellect." 23 Finally there is the confession so often met with in the great mystics, that, in the words of Gregory the Great, "it is impossible in this life to see God as He is—that is reserved for Heaven."24 What you get instead is such vague expressions as those which Rufus Jones has reverently collected: one mystic feels "an overbrimming sense of presence," another is "inclosed in a warm lucent bubble of livingness," another "hires sunshine for leaden hours," and so forth.25 Plainly the mystics are in a class by themselves, with their big, vague, inexpressible, self-induced, hotly pursued moments of indefinable and incommunicable union with something whose nature totally escapes them. They are a bona fide historical phenomenon, but not necessarily a Christian one. They are a fascinating society, but as unlike the prophets, ancient and modern, as humans can be.
When revelation ceased from the church, an intellectual substitute was ready to hand in the culture and learning of the schools; the same schools also came forward with a "spiritual" offering which the church gladly accepted. That was mysticism. Few if any scholars will deny that Neoplatonism is the source of Christian mystic theology, Catholic and Protestant, and none will deny that it is a key representative of a universal pagan world mysticism. The gospel lies wholly outside this historical current. It has been restored in these latter days by direct revelation, and has flourished in the earth for over one hundred years, without ever having to draw upon the dubious resources of mysticism. One alone among all the churches in the world since the days of the ancient Apostles has been able to resist the blandishments and dispense with even the occasional services of this useful but highly unreliable discipline. Here we have another most convincing test and vindication of the prophets.
1. Johannes Edvard Lehmann and A. Bertholet, eds., Lehrbuch der Religionsgeschichte, 2 vols., 4th ed. (Tübingen: Mohr, 1925), 1:77—79, 126—30. Lehmann's definition is in James Hastings, ed., Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, 13 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1951), 9:85. Appendix A of William Inge's Christian Mysticism (London: Methuen, 1899), 335—48, lists twenty-six "Definitions of 'Mysticism' and 'Mystical Theology.'"
2. Nicol MacNicol, in Hastings, 9:114.
3. Joshua Abelson, in Hastings, 9:109.
4. Rufus Jones, in Hastings, 9:84.
5. John Chapman, in Hastings, 9:91.
6. Origen, Contra Celsum VII, 39, in PG 11:1477.
7. Sources given in Friedrich Überweg, Geschichte der Philosophie des Altertums (Berlin, 1876), 281ff.
8. Adolph Harnack, Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte, 5th ed. (Tübingen: Mohr, 1931), 452.
9. Ibid., 499.
10. Chapman, in Hastings, 9:93.
11. Dionysius Areopagitae, De Mystica Theologia I, in PG 3:997—1000; the translation is Chapman's.
12. Rufus Jones, Pathways to the Reality of God (New York: Macmillan, 1936), 22—23. It is, he says, "bafflingly incommunicable," p. 37.
13. See generally, William James, Pragmatism (New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1907), 151.
14. Chapman, in Hastings, 9:90.
15. Jones, 43—46, and in Hastings, 9:84.
16. Jones, 40.
17. Chapman, in Hastings, 9:99.
18. Fitz Roy (Lord) Raglan, The Origins of Religion (London: Watts & Co., 1949), 21—22.
19. See generally, Inge, Christian Mysticism, "Lecture I," 3—36, cited by Rufus Jones.
20. Louis Poussin, and Edward Thomas, in Hastings, 9:86.
21. Jones, in Hastings, 9:84.
22. Chapman, in Hastings, 9:97.
23. Ibid., 9:99.
24. Ibid., 9:94.
25. Jones, 26-38.