Mystical Union: The Trouble with Terms

This is the fourth in a series of posts on Mystical Union with Christ.  For those of you who read the second and third posts, but missed the caveats in the introductory post of the series, you can find it here.

Well, opposition to my “Mystical Union” stance has certainly intensified.  To be honest, the manner of it has stung a bit.  On the other hand, it’s been helpful to me, because resistance highlights the specific “pressure points” that give me an idea of what needs more elaboration and clarification.

One of the big ones is just the fact that I, a scion of conservative, evangelical, free grace, and other theological adjectives, am daring to use the word “mystical” in a good light.  I touched on this in my first post, and in a well-received paper I presented at GES a year ago (audio here around the 27:00 mark), but further discussion seems to be in order.

So let’s have that discussion.

Galatians 2:20 means something.  Paul experienced another Person that was not himself living within him.  John 15 means something.  We too can experience living connection to Christ, our Vine from which we draw sustenance and by whose nature we bear fruit.  And when we walk with Him, we do have that experience.  In spite of our sins and follies and finitude and whatever errata may have crept into our doctrine — and be honest, we’ve all got some — if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.  That’s the promise, and God’s promises are true.

We are, in that way, united to God and one another — not off somewhere in the aether where it doesn’t matter, but right here, right now, practically.  Which is to say, mystically.

This idea sometimes makes conservatives freak out.  (There’s a major epistemological issue here that’s a subject for another post.)  They want something measurable, something they can photograph or copy in triplicate, something objective.  But there is a subjective element to the Christian faith, a reality that takes place within us.

Jesus promised this, and if it’s not real, then to hell with the whole of Christianity.

Of course, the reason they’re freaking out about me saying anything good about mysticism is that there’s a lot of false mysticism out there — but the existence of the counterfeit doesn’t invalidate the genuine article. I once had a counterfeit $20 in my hand, but I don’t, on that account, refuse all $20 bills.  The word actually does have a decent pedigree, stretching into far antiquity at one end and reaching up into historic Protestantism on the other.  For example, John Calvin once used it thus:

Therefore, to that union of the head and members, the residence of Christ in our hearts, in fine, the mystical union, we assign the highest rank, Christ when he becomes ours making us partners with him in the gifts with which he was endued. Hence we do not view him as at a distance and without us, but as we have put him on, and been ingrafted into his body, he deigns to make us one with himself, and, therefore, we glory in having a fellowship of righteousness with him.  (Institutes III.xi.10)

Historically, certain strands of the Christian church have used the term “mystical” to describe the realities that Galatians 2:20, John 15, and other passages are talking about.  Although our fathers have certainly gone some strange places with the word, at the core of it is an attempt to talk about the reality of a believer’s experience with God.

Given the various abuses that have cropped up around the term, I avoided it for a long time.  In the end, though, I’ve returned to it, and not entirely by choice.  As I began to see these truths clearly in Scripture, I tried a number of different words, seeking to convey what I was seeing.  Here’s what I found.

When I used the word “spiritual,” nobody understood that I was talking about a real thing happening right here and right now.  When I talked about Christ being present spiritually, people heard “as opposed to back in, say, AD 30, when He was really here.”  The connotation was some abstract transaction taking place in the heavens, far removed from us here and now.  Or worse, they heard “Christ is really in heaven at the Father’s right hand, but He’s here spiritually.” — which is to say, not really. Because I was shooting to convey a here-and-now reality, the word “spiritually” didn’t do the job for a lot of the people I was talking to.

I tried talking about relationship with Christ, and I really thought that would solve the problem.  How naive I was — “relationship with Christ” has been bandied about so much that it has lost all meaning altogether.  For most evangelicals, “relationship with Christ,” like “Christian life,” means “whatever I do that’s God-related.”  To use C. S. Lewis’ phrase, that term has been “sold, raped, flung to the dogs.” A few people — people who were already consciously living the truths I was trying to convey — understood what I was saying. But they were as baffled as I was when it came to finding the right vocabulary to convey it to people who didn’t already understand what we were talking about.

I tried talking about “experiential” knowledge of God.  That worked for some people, but there were problems there as well.  A lot of the very intellectual folks in my immediate circle nodded sagely and said they understood, but on investigation, it wasn’t true.  They were interpreting “experiential knowledge of God” as “gaining experience applying principles.”  Every Pharisee had that kind of experience — that wasn’t what I was talking about.

And so I found myself, at last, turning to “mystical” as a descriptor for the sort of thing I was talking about.  It conveyed the personal, immediate nature of the biblical truths I was trying to convey.  It was very clearly not just talking about applying principles, or about nebulous abstractions out in the aether somewhere.  In short, its use cut across the miscommunications I was struggling against.

Of course, it wasn’t perfect.  There are two problems with “mystical.”  The first is that it’s not a biblical word.  But we once settled on “Trinity” despite the fact that it’s not in the Bible, because we needed a word for that meaning.  I’m feeling similarly settled on “mystical” at this point, although I concede that could change.  As I said above, the term does actually have a decent pedigree.

Second, “mystical” has bad connotations in conservative circles. But I’m running out of terms to use, and this one lacks a number of significant flaws that the alternatives have.  Are there other possibilities?  I’m open to suggestions, as I’ve said before.  So far, I’m not getting any suggestions at all (let alone good ones) from the people who are upset that I’m espousing some form of mysticism.  How about it, guys?

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5 Responses to Mystical Union: The Trouble with Terms

  1. Bobby Grow says:

    Tim,

    I honestly don’t think folks who most vociferously disagree with you (in the other pertinent threads) really “want” to hear anything than they’ve always already heard. They’ve held the some posture towards anything other than the idiosyncratic ways of communicating things that they have ever since I’ve been in the blogosphere.

    The issue as a conceptual/material issue, as you highlight in this post; not a semantic/legalistically construed matter that your opponents are constantly hung up on!

  2. Tim Nichols says:

    Bobby,
    I think you’re wrong about some; other of my interlocutors you are most certainly right about. I take comfort in the fact that they can’t un-hear what they’ve already heard. May it one day bear fruit.

  3. Bobby Grow says:

    @Tim,

    I’m sure your right; I probably weighted my comment with those who are most vociferous, in mind 😉 . Keep up the good work!

  4. Tim, you’re right, I can never “un-hear” what I’ve already heard. You have made a public call for repentance from the GES for their convictions about the gospel. Sorry, I don’t mean to be “vociferous”, but one does not repent of the milk of the word.

  5. Tim Nichols says:

    Gary,

    Re. repenting of the milk of the word: Indeed one does not. One can, and should, repent of theological barnacles from Greek philosophy and other sources that are causing problems in the way one reads the milk of the Word, and one ought to know one has a problem when the way one reads one part of the milk directly conflicts with actually obeying another part of the milk. Naturally we disagree here, and I think I have an angle of approach on it that might clarify things for you, but that discussion is presently going on behind closed doors elsewhere, and I’m not prepared to have it in public at this time. However, I’ll be more than happy to share it with you in private, if you’re willing to take this to email or phone. It’s up to you, brother.

    I will add this, for whatever it may be worth to you: When the principals to the disagreement are all still friends, and engaged in the process of working through the disagreement, but the secondary parties like yourself are bitter and angry and ready to walk away, something is deeply wrong. For the sake of your own spiritual and relational health, you need to look into that.

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