Mysticism, an Evangelical Option? by Winfried Corduan


Mysticism is big, not only in Eastern religions and occult practitioners, but also in Christianity as well. The question at hand is: is it an option for the evangelical? Is it something to be sought; does it fit with the Scriptures? Winfried Corduan attempts an answer, but not before he gives a solid overview of the history and theories that surround mysticism.

After examining and rejecting a number of definitions, the author settles on this one: “Mysticism is an unmediated link to an absolute.” By this definition, visions, dreams or other unexplainable phenomenon would not qualify as “technically mystical unless that consisted of some direct contact with the absolute” (p.28). “The mystic,” we are told, “believes that there is an absolute and that he or she can enjoy an unmediated link to this absolute in a supernatural experience” (p.32).

The problem (or at least one of several problems) is that every mystic describes his experience in line with his belief system (pp.47-51). Hindus believe they have union with the Hindu deities, the American Indian thinks he has contacted the Great Spirit, and the Christian mystic believes he is receiving revelation from God. Of course they cannot all be correct. How is one to distinguish a true mystical experience from one that is purely emotional? The author does not handle this issue with any depth. Mysticism in itself is such a slippery concept that it is very hard to nail virtually anything down on the subject (p.61). Everything is in the realm of subjectivity, opinion and theory. The author does devote chapter 4 to the question of whether mysticism has an objective referent. Corduan’s answer is “maybe,” but only if the belief system behind the experience is valid. And, since only Christianity is valid, only the Christian can have a truly mystical experience in which he has contacted the Absolute. What the Eastern mystic experiences is not explained.

Despite numerous theories, many contradictory, the conclusion is that mysticism defies parameters. We are not talking about empirical truth or biblical texts; we are talking about the purely subjective experiences of people from all times and all religions. So mysticism defies definition or logic, but there are some common agreements among mystics: 1) insiders claim special understanding; 2) language is inadequate; 3) concepts are deficient; and 4) logic is peculiar (pp.91-92).

Chapter 6 traces some of the famous Christian mystics throughout history – Augustine, Meister Eckhart, St. Teresa, St. John of the Cross and Evelyn Underhill. Our author believes that the mysticism of an Augustine is orthodox but unbalanced. Augustine saw his experiences as the apex of Christian living, the epitome of God’s work in a life. Yet the Bible neither teaches this nor encourages the believer to seek such experiences. John and Teresa set the standard for mystics with the concept that the only way finite humans can know God is through mysterious, unexplainable experiences in which the soul is in direct contact with the Divine. Corduan is astute in his evaluation: “The Christian wishing to learn from them cannot get around the question of why, if this experience is the culmination of the Christian life, the union and the way to achieve it are not taught more clearly in the Bible” (p.111; cf. p.119).

The final chapter handles the question of whether the New Testament teaches mysticism. The author believes that it does, but it is not a mysticism recognizable to either the mystic or skeptic. To Corduan, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, the union with Christ (“in Christ”) and the intimate relationship with the Father, are mystical experiences. “Thus in the final analysis what we find in the New Testament is Trinitarian mysticism” (p.132).

If the author wishes to call this mysticism then so be it, but I would say he is standing virtually alone. True mystics are describing something very different when they speak of their experiences. Even Christian mystics believe they have touched God in a unique way, have received divine truth and /or direction not found in any other source and they have experienced the “high holy” moment of life. This is not how Corduan defines mysticism. So why use the term? It merely confuses and satisfies no one. The danger as Arthur L. Johnson points out is that, “The Scriptures nowhere teach that God gives us any knowledge through ‘spiritual experience.’ Knowledge of spiritual matters is always linked to God’s propositional revelation, the written Word” (p.120). Corduan would agree, but leaves room for a “mystical experience that gives a person subjective confirmation of biblical truth. . . . no new knowledge is revealed, but a new feeling of certitude about the already-revealed knowledge results” (p.121). But we must ask, is such confirmation necessary, and more importantly is it taught in Scripture? I believe not. As for the point of the book: is mysticism an evangelical option? It all depends on what is meant by mysticism. If mysticism is a union with God, then we who are united with Him are a sort of mystic. If mysticism is the special experience of connecting with God in such as manner that we receive esoteric knowledge, revelation, insight or confirmation, then mysticism is unbiblical and not an option for the child of God.