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Why Christianity Should Re-Embrace Mysticism

“God is dead''. Nietzsche’s brutal cry still rings with an apocalyptic tenor when stamped in black ink on the page; and whilst I am no longer an existentially-angst ridden teenager, I nevertheless find myself in agreement with him here. God is dead — and we are responsible. The modern church has reduced him to nothing more than a big, bearded human in the sky. He has been made mortal — and with that they have killed him. To save God, we must return him to the realm of the transcendent, and let go of our need for understanding: Christianity must embrace its lost sense of mysticism.

Christianity is no foreigner to mysticism — a powerful sense of numinous presence, experienced only through deep contemplation and meditative practices. Influenced by Plato, who viewed the material world as a mere reflection of perfect and ungraspable forms, the early Church fathers recoiled from humanising God. Contemplative monasticism then gave rise to figures such as Theresa of Ávila and Julian of Norwich, who described their visions of God with a semi-erotic rapture and ecstasy. Later, Medieval Christianity saw the world as a book of indecipherable signs, open to poetic and vaguely occult interpretation.

Sadly, the Church has lost its mystical origins. The Enlightenment brought with it an emphasis on logic and rationality, reducing God to a set of deductive arguments and inference to the best explanation. God was no longer some numinous and indescribable being far beyond our understanding; he was institutionalised through organised religion—as secular and political as it was spiritual — and codified into a neat set of theological doctrines. It is this conception of God which dominates the Christian Church today. An anthropomorphic entity in the clouds, who — dependent upon which denomination you subscribe to — swings between loving, cuddly teddy-bear and stern, paternalistic task-master. The move away from mysticism has fatally reduced our conception of God.

Consequently, today’s church lacks any kind of excitement. As a member of chapel choir, I sit through weekly services in which I find myself as spiritually moved as a loo-brush. The music is wonderful (dirge-like hymns aside); but the liturgy is, quite simply, dull. The magnificence of the divine has been reduced to bleak lines of text recited from a pamphlet by a gloomy congregation. In fact, I find the Christian church in general equally drab. Ministers read stilted sermons from funereal lecterns as though held at gun-point; and figureheads like Archbishop Justin Welby have as much charisma as a grey-suited bank-manager. There is little to inspire transcendent union with God. I’m not asking for euphoric Bacchic rites, or ayahuasca-induced revelations—as much as I think they sound excellent fun — but surely a little sense of wonder might go some way? Some magic, some drama! Anything to get away from the notion of church being a place where solemn, square people go glumly to — as Alan Watts so delicately put it — “ask God not to spank them”.

It is no wonder then that people are fleeing from the church. Of course, at the other end of the spectrum are the evangelical denominations, with their happy-clappy hymns and rock bands. Grinning, overly-enthused, ministers bound along stages in packed concert arenas; high on the Holy Spirit (or perhaps something a touch more temporal), they seem set to self-combust with the joy of the almighty. Isn’t this the anecdote to the death of God–a church that’s fun?! On the contrary — people may be leaving organised religion, but they are increasingly identifying as ‘spiritual’. The surge in the popularity of meditation, and assimilation of traditionally Eastern religious practices like yoga into Western culture, highlights a demand for more reflective, personal ways of worship. In a world disenchanted of magic by the calculating logic of science, and devoid of mystery with the onset of technological instancy, people are crying out for the unknowable and the ineffable. If Christianity wants to re-gather its sheep, it must return to its mystical roots.

Not only is it what people want, it is what they need. Twenty-first century life is fast-paced and exhausting — we are living lives that we are ill-equipped for. Meanwhile, technological advancement has given humanity the false impression that it is master of the universe; and we are running the risk of developing technologies which control us more than we do them. We don’t merely need a god who listens to us whine, and can be called upon for help in difficult times — we have therapists for that nowadays. Instead, we need to be put in touch with something far beyond ourselves — something ungraspable, to make us recognise our smallness and insignificance. That’s exactly what mysticism offers us.

If Christianity were to re-embrace mysticism, it wouldn’t only save God — it might just save us, too.

Illustration by Ahira Varkey

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