Several years back, I got myself in a pile of trouble for talking about mystical union with Christ. Folks in the tradition I grew up in were…resistant, to put it mildly.
With some further years and miles on me, I’m able to reflect on that discussion and see that not everyone was resistant for the same reasons. Best I can tell, there were about six different reasons people didn’t like me talking about mystical union with Christ.
The first reason is the associations the term “mystical” carries with various weird things. “Mystical,” like “intellectual assent” and “legalism,” is a theological cuss word in some circles, and this can be an issue. I expected to encounter this problem when I chose to use the word, but as I said at the time, I don’t believe there was a better choice. With additional years of reflection and considering the alternatives, I still don’t.
The second reason — and this actually surprised me, although it shouldn’t have — is the respectable pedigree that “mystical” has had throughout church history. Evangelical conservatives often harbor a deep contempt for the historical church, and anything the church fathers approved of is automatically suspect.
These first two classes of objectors are suffering from prejudices that need to be overcome. A kid named Fred might have bullied you in second grade, but that doesn’t make every guy named Fred a bully. The word “mystical” might be associated with some people and ideas that you find distasteful, but like the man said: “in understanding be men.” There are realities here the Bible talks about, and believers should talk about them too. Don’t refuse to join the conversation just because someone uses an adjective you don’t like.
A third reason some people object is that they simply don’t understand what I’m saying. For whatever reason, my way of explaining the truths of John 15, John 17, Galatians 2:20, Romans 8:11 and other passages simply doesn’t resonate with them. I suspect many of them haven’t lived these things for themselves, and like virgins hearing a conversation about sex, they simply can’t relate. But many of them, I’m sure, have the experience of walking with God, and for whatever reason, simply aren’t able to talk about this aspect of it.
Fourth, some people object because they don’t see how there can be good grounds for assurance of salvation in this way of understanding relationship with God. To them, all this talk of relationship just seems so slippery and messy. Assurance can’t be allowed to rest on a miasma of relationship talk; it needs a foundation of objectivity in order to remain solid and dependable. These folks are correctly wary of anything that endangers assurance, and in their minds that means all this business about mysticism and relationship has got to go.
The third and fourth classes of objectors are suffering from legitimate misunderstandings, and with them, I hope for the opportunity to have long conversations over meals and drinks. As we explore how they would describe their own life experience of walking with God and living out John 15, John 17, Galatians 2:20 and so on, I learn a lot about how other Christians talk, and we are able to explore ways of bridging between my language and theirs. Or if they’re struggling with the assurance side of things, we often talk about their experience and mine, and frequently find that our stories are not so very different. Again, at that point we will have room to explore how to talk about that and relate theology to it.
Finally, there are two groups of objectors who understand very well what I’m trying to say.
The fifth group is composed of people who also live the reality I’m seeking to talk about, but they believe I’ve made an unwise choice of terminology. Basically, we agree on (most of) the doctrine and the praxis; we just don’t yet have a common language for it. I suspect their stance is mostly a result of their theological training scaring them away from all things subjective, with the result that they can’t talk about the very real subjective elements of a relationship with God. These people are fun to talk with, and I do, often. They are fellow workers in the same field of endeavor, and I’m glad to be working alongside them.
The other group understands what I’m saying, and they hate it. They hear me saying that a person can know his Bible inside and out, and “love” God the way John Hinckley “loved” Jodie Foster, the way Saul of Tarsus loved Yahweh. They understand that I’m saying if there is no acceptance of God personally and on His own terms, then they’re not loving God; they’re stalking Him, and it will end in murder.
These people have invested themselves heavily in academic understanding of doctrinal principles because that’s what they wanted the Christian life to be about. They haven’t really come to know God as the One who loves them, with all the subjective experience that implies, and they don’t want to. They’re furious when I talk about real relationship with God, and no wonder–I was aiming right at ’em.