Yes, there is such a thing as evangelical mysticism

These days all you have to say, in order to be blacklisted from the rolls of evangelical Christianity by certain self-appointed watchdogs, is that you are a fan of “contemplation” or “mysticism.” Voila! you are apostate: probably sliding into Eastern mysticism, and certainly a dangerous person for right-thinking evangelicals to hang around.

A colleague of mine at Bethel San Diego, the theologian Glen Scorgie, has lately been spelunking the little-studied area of “evangelical mysticism.” Among a select group of 19th- and 20th-century evangelical spiritual writers such as A. W. Tozer and Andrew Murray, the Catholic mystical writers were not at all off-limits for evangelical study and praxis.

I’d go further. If you define mysticism as Bernard McGinn does, as  a direct, intimate relationship with God in Jesus, accessed through certain disciplines, then I would argue that mysticism has been present in evangelicalism from its beginnings in the 18th century, and indeed from its immediate roots in the 17th. Here’s a clip from the beginning of a paper I gave in 2007 to the Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue here in St. Paul. I use the term “immediatism” here, but I mean by it mysticism, in the sense defined above:

“Immediatism” in evangelicalism’s DNA

American Evangelicals have mysticism, or what I would call immediatism—the belief that the average layperson has direct, individual access to God, with no other mediator beside Christ—in the bloodstream. We find this at the very roots of American evangelicalism, among the first Puritans. As we were first taught in 1939 by the grand revisionist and revivifier of the Puritans, Perry Miller, this was “an emotionally vibrant and spiritually vigorous group in the tradition of Platonic idealism and Augustinian piety; their zeal came from an insatiable quest for the spiritual ideal of union with God despite their human imperfections.”[1] From the Puritans on, this same immediatist quest, pursued through “experiential Christocentric” devotions, has characterized almost all American Protestants in what we might broadly call the evangelical stream—particularly the groups stemming from Anglican nonconformists of various kinds: Baptists, “New Light” Presbyterians and Congregationalists, and Methodists. We may trace a straight and unwavering line from the Puritans’ 17th-century “Augustinian Strains of Piety,”[2] which led them to require a compelling conversion narrative from each new churchmember, to John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience of having his heart “strangely warmed,” to the ecstasies of modern charismatic worship (Augustine himself, we should remember, spoke of desire transformed, not abrogated, and cried out in his Confessions, “Inebriate me, O God!”).

One case should prove the point about how this tradition of spiritual immediatism continues to characterize American evangelicals: If evangelicals today have one “patron saint” aside from Billy Graham, it is undoubtedly C. S. Lewis. Significantly, in his apologetic writings, Lewis frames the movement of the person toward faith as an Augustinian quest of desire. Augustine’s dictum “Our hearts are restless until they rest in God,” is transmuted in Lewis to the romantic experience of sehnsucht—longing for the divine—and thence, in modern evangelical lore, to “the hole in our hearts” or even, for evangelical kiddies, “the hole in the donut.”

There has always been a latent tendency among Protestants to distrust tradition as potentially leading us away from God, back into what Luther, the “original evangelical,” had called the “Babylonian Captivity of the Church.” We have been captivated by the inward, mystical road to God, though in forms much more “modern” than desert monasticism, or even Benedictine monasticism. We are, perhaps, more Platonic than Aristotelian—more interested in grasping the Whole than playing around with the particularistic parts. We are nervous of sacramentalist claims to meet God through such disturbingly physical, mediated forms as art, ritual, and so forth. The “free church” emerged from a desire to be “free” not only from state control and all the elaborate hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church—developed as it was in the feudal period—but free, too, from the perceived tyranny of material mediation of God’s grace: vestments, organs, and so forth.

I begin with these observations because I believe that these “Augustinian strains of piety” have, along with other factors, helped to push evangelicals into a loose, pragmatic attitude toward all structural elements of faith and church life. Mysticism in all its forms is inherently individualistic and impatient of organizational structures and constraints. In the case of evangelicalism, this mystical immediatism has fed a kind of “hole in the ecclesiological donut”—where everything that inhabits the realm between the individual (or at least the local fellowship) and the church universal is negotiable and, ultimately, a matter of adiaphora.[3] In other words, as historian Bruce Hindmarsh argues, the evangelical movement represented “an unparalleled subordination of church order to evangelical piety.”[4] In the realms of the ecclesia—the realm of tradition—almost all inherited forms have been negotiable. This has been true notwithstanding the tradition-oriented tendency of evangelicalism’s Anglican parent to center Christian identity in the forms of corporate worship.[5]

But does this mean evangelicalism can never learn from the Great Tradition? No it doesn’t, as I argue here.

[1] Anne T. Fraker, in her summary of Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (NY: Macmillan, 1939), in her Religion and American Life: Resources (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 94-95.

[2] Perry Miller’s term, in the above-cited work.

[3] Bruce Hindmarsh, “Is Evangelical Ecclesiology an Oxymoron? A Historical Perspective,” John G. Stackhouse, ed. Evangelical Ecclesiology: Illusion or Reality (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 15-38.

[4] Hindmarsh, “Is Evangelical Ecclesiology an Oxymoron?” 15.

[5] Evangelical Anglican J. I. Packer has argued, in his “Stunted Ecclesiology?” (J. I. Packer, “A Stunted Ecclesiology?” in Ancient & Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-Orthodoxy in the 21st Century—Essays in Honor of Thomas C. Oden, ed. Kenneth Tanner & Christopher A. Hall [Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002]) that evangelicals are not as stunted in theory in their ecclesiology as is often said, though they may fail to come up to the theory in practice.  An interesting footnote: the Anglican communion shares their centering in worship with Eastern Orthodoxy, which seems to make a bridge across which a few young evangelicals in the 20th and 21st centuries have felt comfortable walking—right into Orthodoxy. According to some Wesley scholars, this affinity is not without substance or precedent, as Wesley is supposed to have been influenced deeply by certain Eastern fathers.

One response to “Yes, there is such a thing as evangelical mysticism

  1. Pingback: Is There Such a Thing as Evangelical Mysticism? « Biblical Paths

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