Many in the Western church are choosing experience over truth. Mysticism is now touted as the means to directly experience God, without our “divisive” doctrines. It is described as the hope of finding common ground among the various religions, through shared mystical experiences. In this regards, sociologist, Tony Campolo, writes:
A theology of mysticism provides some hope for common ground between Christianity and Islam. Both religions have within their histories examples of ecstatic union with God…I do not know what to make of the Muslim mystics, especially those who have come to be known as the Sufis. What do they experience in their mystical experiences? Could they have encountered the same God we do in our Christian mysticism. (Roger Oakland, Faith Undone, 108)
According to Campolo, we can plug into God through mystical techniques and experiences. He claims that he has been able to achieve “intimacy with Christ” through “centering prayer” (113) – for him, the repetition of the name of Jesus. However, he suggests that Muslims—and probably others – may also be able to achieve this same “intimacy with Christ” through the use of similar mystical techniques.
This raises several questions: “What is an ‘ecstatic union with God?’” The Bible makes no mention of such a thing. The Biblical silence is suspicious, especially in light of the fact that Scripture claims to provide everything that we need for a relationship with God:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:16-17)
If mysticism is the means for world unity and peace, we should expect that Scripture would say something about this!
If anyone had experienced an “ecstatic union with God,” it was Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. However, instead of teaching His disciples about how to have an “ecstatic union with God,” He instructed them to not tell anyone about what they had seen (Matt. 17:11). If there ever had been a teachable moment to introduce mystical methods, it was then!
Moses also had a fantastic mountain-top experience, through which his countenance was transformed. However, instead of telling the Israelites about how they too could experience God, he related to them God’s words (Exodus 34:29-34). Rather than focusing upon having an experience, Moses placed the emphasis upon the Word of God.
Campolo fails to recognize that there is a steep price to be paid for genuine experiences or revelations from God. God had taken Paul on a journey to heaven. However, lest he become proud about what he had learned and experienced, God chastened him severely (2 Cor, 12:1-10)!
However, it is important to realize that each one of these transformative experiences had been the product of God’s initiative and not human manipulations. In fact, the idea that we humans can coerce an “ecstatic union with God” is sheer arrogance.
At a low point in his ministry, Moses did request a divine revelation: “Show me your glory” (Exod. 33:18). However, God delivered in the form of doctrinal content rather than an ecstatic experience. He placed Moses in “the cleft of a rock,” while “His glory passed by” (33:22) and He honored him with His Self-disclosure (33:19).
But do we really encounter God through mystical techniques, and what assurance do we have that we aren’t really plugging into something malevolent? The mystic Richard Foster claims that practitioners must use caution. He admits that in contemplative prayer “we are entering deeply into the spiritual realm” and that sometimes it is not the realm of God even though it is “supernatural.” He admits there are spiritual beings and that a prayer of protection should be said beforehand – something to the effect of “All dark and evil spirits must now leave.” (Roger Oakland, 99)
Foster is presumptuous if he thinks that just a “prayer of protection” will suffice. In view of these spiritual threats, he should be asking if he has taken the wrong path, an unbiblical one, one that has taken him outside of the parameter of God’s protective hand! In view of the fact that the Devil poses as an agent of the light (2 Cor. 11:14), what guarantee does Foster have that he hasn’t been deceived?
This leads us to the next question: “Can people of other religions employ mystical techniques to experience God?” For one thing, God is the last Person that the unredeemed wants to experience. Naturally speaking, we hate God (Rom. 8:8:6-7) and can’t stand His presence:
This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. (John 3:19-20)
Even the children of Israel couldn’t tolerate His presence:
When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” (Exodus 20:18-19)
The last thing they wanted was a more intimate encounter! Surprisingly, God was pleased that Israel had this awareness and, therefore, wouldn’t try to pursue a mystical union with Him. Without what Jesus had accomplished on the cross, He too didn’t want to be in Israel’s presence. He explained that He might destroy them if He came into their presence:
I will send an angel before you and drive out the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way.” Exodus 33:2- 3
Campolo suggests that the Muslims might also be experiencing God, apart from faith in Christ. However, if they were to experience God, they would be experiencing His wrath:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness. (Romans 1:18)
It is only through faith in Jesus that we have been redeemed from the wrath of God: It is only through Him that we can enter boldly into His presence:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:19-22)
Mysticism would not be quite so offensive if it only claimed to influence our personal experience. However, it also claims to influence God! Campolo writes:
The constant repetition of his name clears my head of everything but the awareness of his presence. By driving back all other concerns, I am able to create what the ancient Celtic Christians called “the thin place.” The thin place is that spiritual condition wherein the separation between the self and God becomes so thin that God is able to break through and envelope the soul. (114)
Campolo claims that “constant repetition … to create…the thin place” out of a thick separation between he and God, enables his less-than-omnipotent god “to break through and envelope the soul.” In essence, Campolo has become the prime agent of reconciliation!
However, Scripture assures us that God already lives within us to such an extent that we can confidently say:
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. (Galatians 2:20)
Mysticism preaches a different Christ, One who is not omnipotent and cannot break through to us without our mindless repetitions or other techniques. Jesus even warned us against this practice:
And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. (Matthew 6:7)
Repetitions might make us feel connected, but they have nothing to do with our relationship with our Savior! Instead, God wants truth, not repetitions, in our inmost being (Psalm 51:6). This truth should entail contrition and repentance and not ecstatic union!
Perhaps most troubling of all, Campolo claims that, through his “centering prayer,” he is the one who has removed or thinned the separating barrier between him and God. However, God claims that this is a barrier that He has eliminated through the cross, renting the separating temple veil in two! Of course, this is not to deny that we do erect barriers through our sins. However, we address such barriers through confession and repentance and not mystical practices!
In general, the mystics teach a different Christ, a Christ who is not so much concerned about truth, faith, doctrine, righteousness, repentance, obedience, and holiness as He is about learning techniques – repetitions, centering prayer, imaginations, visualizations and practicing silence. These are practices that find absolutely no biblical support.
Nevertheless, experience is essential to the Christian life. However, we enjoy this experience through the blessings of learning about our Lord (2 Peter 1:2-3; 1 Cor. 3:18; Jer. 9:23-24).
Our experience/feelings reflect what we understand! Having experienced decades of depression and self-loathing prior to coming to Christ, these tendencies had been deeply imprinted upon my flesh. They were so deep that I even felt that God loathed me. It seemed that God had created humanity for His own sadistic entertainment – plenty of laughs. However, one evening, He made very real for me the cross, His own suffering and compassion (Hebrews 4:15; Isaiah 63:9). My tears of gratitude have not ceased flowing since!