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Is there room for mysticism inside the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)?

Lydia Griffiths maintains there is rich diversity among Protestant religious thinkers when it comes to a transforming relationship with God.

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Presbyterians have a reputation of being a stoic and serious group of Christians. Fueled by a history of reform, and a stripping away of anything deemed non-Biblical and not found within Scripture, Presbyterians practice within the austere Protestant and Reformed traditions that shaped Christianity for the last 500 years. Many early and modern Protestant churches, with their whitewashed walls, lack of religious iconography and spare architecture, stand in blunt contrast to the sensory-infused worship of Orthodox and Catholic traditions. In most Protestant denominations, stern pastors lead sober congregations to salvation through Scriptural literalism, and their doctrines shape the Christian landscape of the United States. Of course, much of this image is a perceived stereotype that does not encompass the rich and nuanced cultures and histories of Protestant and Presbyterian traditions.

One element of early Christianity that Reformers discarded was the practice of mysticism, or direct, personal spiritual experiences of God. The term “mysticism” is fraught with misunderstanding and due to its very nature, cannot be captured by one concise definition. Mysticism, as written about by theologians like Origen of Alexandria, Margery Kempe and Teresa of Avila, had been a core part of Christianity until the Reformation rejected it. Until recently, scholar-theologians maintained that Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin had no need for mysticism and held it in disdain. Influential theologian Adolph von Harnack  proclaimed mysticism to be “medieval,” “Catholic” and more Neoplatonic than Christian. The 2019 book Protestants and Mysticism in Reformation Europe, by Vincent Evener and Ronald K. Rittgers, asserts mysticism “always and everywhere obliterated the distinction between God and creation and minimized the fallenness of human beings, all in order to commend human ascetic and contemplative effort as a path to essential union with God.”

Until as recently as the mid-twentieth century, theologians held that mysticism fundamentally contradicted Protestantism, with von Harnack insisting in his book History of Darma that mysticism was “not pure obedience to the church.” Theologian Albrecht Ritschl, in The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation: The Positive Development of the Doctrine, claimed mysticism was an attempt by medieval mystics to “to attain blessedness in the ecstatic knowledge of God, or the annihilation of their wills” and that Luther was deliberately antagonistic to all mysticism. The claims that mysticism was an elite practice that led to hostility to the authority of the church, sacraments and doctrine shaped Protestant theological thought for decades, Evener and Rittgers wrote.

Until as recently as the mid-twentieth century, theologians held that mysticism fundamentally contradicted Protestantism…

Thanks to the work of theologians like Albert Schweitzer, Bernard McGinn and Fr. Dennis E. Tamburello, many scholars now accept that Luther and Calvin were likely in conversation with mysticism rather than rejecting it. But is there room for mysticism in the Protestant church founded on John Calvin’s doctrine — and specifically, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), which is the largest Presbyterian denomination in the country? Both McGinn and Tamburello wrote that Calvin’s ideas of union with God use mystical language similar to the mystic Bernard of Clairvaux, which suggests that, although traditionally considered antagonistic to mystical experiences, the modern-day PC(USA) has precedent and space for mysticism in their Christian experience.

Mysticism as “presence”

Mysticism defies definition. Some see it as mysterious or supernatural, while others, as McGinn writes, consider it the hidden core of religion. McGinn offers an understanding of mysticism as an element of Christianity and “practice that concerns the preparation for, the consciousness of, and the effect of what the mystics themselves have described as direct and transformative presence of God.”

The term mysticus, meaning “hidden,” and the more modern term mysticism do not appear in the Bible. However, Paul’s central themes revolve around the notion of being “in Christ.” Galatians 2:20 states “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” John 17:21 emphasizes this union: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.”

Mysticism defies definition. Some see it as mysterious or supernatural, while others, as McGinn writes, consider it the hidden core of religion.

Most scholars cast mysticism as a union with God, and while union is one aspect of mysticism, it is a narrow definition, excluding the majority of mystics, McGinn writes. This monolithic view is how many 19th and 20th century Protestant theologians wrote about mysticism, which McGinn says incorrectly colored the Reformation’s relationship to the practice.

McGinn offers the word “presence” to better understand mysticism. It is a way of life. Mysticism is a certain kind of encounter between human and God, and it includes “everything that leads up to and prepares for this encounter, as well as all that flows from or is supposed to flow from it, for the life of the individual in the belief community is also mystical, even if in a secondary sense.” Redefining mysticism through this lens allows a varied and nuanced approach to re-examining Protestant mysticism and creates space to expand the notion that theologians like John Calvin were not only aware of mysticism, but also not as hostile to it as 19th century scholars claimed. Rather, there is rich diversity among Protestant religious thinkers when it comes to a transforming relationship with God, and that opens up dialogue for Protestant mysticism as a necessary, albeit complex, category.

Against, or in step with, founding doctrine?

I am a member of the PC(USA) and grew up in the congregation and community. There has always been a sense of seriousness grounded in reality. Some PC(USA) churches have leaned into mysticism, and a search for “mysticism” on the PC(USA) website brings up books and articles about mystics such as Julian of Norwich and Teresa of Avila, whose words helped provide meaning and guidance during the Covid-19 pandemic. Some Presbyterian pastors openly discuss mysticism as a valuable component to deepen one’s connection to God. But if Calvin disliked and distanced himself from mysticism, then is the PC(USA)’s embrace of these practices going against founding doctrine?

Friar Dennis Tamburello argues in “The Protestant Reformers on Mysticism,” a chapter in The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Christian Mysticism, that Calvin and Luther had positive stances on mysticism, but with “distinctively Protestant tones.” Tamburello, a professor of religious studies at Sienna College, uses McGinn’s definition, citing mysticism as a way of life and “attempt to express a direct consciousness of the presence of God.” Early mystics had no concept of “practicing mysticism,” and Christians believed that faith was felt, not seen. The goal was to have an encounter with God. Anything experienced before or after that encounter could also be called mystical. Protestant authors displayed an awareness of encountering God in all aspects of life, not just in worship or prayer. Protestantism does reject “speculative forms of mystical theology” but emphasize God’s presence in lives and communities, leaving some room for an individual to experience that direct consciousness of the presence of God.

Early mystics had no concept of “practicing mysticism,” and Christians believed that faith was felt, not seen.

John Calvin was a French theologian who lived and wrote much of his doctrine from Geneva, Switzerland. He wished to join the priesthood, but at the urging of his father, went to law school instead. Afterwards, he traveled to Paris where he encountered Martin Luther’s radical theological ideas. While there, he wrote Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin did not set out to reform the church but became involved when the city of Geneva, which had recently evicted the priests loyal to Rome, asked him for help. Reformer William Farel pleaded for Calvin to stay, and when Calvin initially declined, Farel informed him that the request came from God. Filled with awe and fear, Calvin accepted the position.

Calvin believed that the Catholic Church had strayed from and distorted the Biblical tradition. Calvin saw the church as having two functions: “preaching the Biblical word and administering the sacraments,” Feldmeier writes. Faith was public, and Scriptures, although subject to interpretation, held the possibility of an authentic revelation. Calvin believed in Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist and, in sharp contrast to Vatican doctrine, that the church was a democratic institution. He advocated for the priesthood of believers. Other aspects of Calvin’s theology were more restrictive, such as in his limitations on dancing and his notions of predestination.

While the Reformation represented a clear break with the Catholic Church, Reformers did not reject all of medieval spirituality. Martin Luther, originally an Augustinian friar, reflected on speculative theology prior to his reform movements. And, even after he rejected Catholicism, traces of mysticism run throughout his work, and he maintained strong ties to Bernard of Clairvaux’s ideas. However, the notion of union in the Reformed tradition stresses faith as the primary attitude to God, while, as McGinn notes, “Bernard presupposes faith and emphasizes ecstatic love.”

Calvin did not write explicitly about mysticism, and for generations it was assumed he rejected it. However, recent scholarship suggests that he might have had a more accepting outlook on the mystical dimensions of his thought. Although Calvin’s overall attitude toward mystics suggests his disapproval of them, there were a few, like St. Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux, whom Calvin did not outright dismiss. Tamburello notes that closer examination indicates that Calvin even showed appreciation of mystics. Calvin did not seek these authors out because of their mysticism, but because he shared their theological views and he perhaps had more in common with them than he himself realized. Calvin sought the presence of God in everyday experiences. When viewed with McGinn’s expanded definition of mysticism to that includes “presence,” Calvin’s search contains mystical elements, particularly when it comes to a union with God.

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Union, presence, piety

In Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin writes about this union in several different ways. For example, “Christ is not external to us, but dwells in us; and not only unites us to himself by an undivided bond of fellowship, but by a wondrous communion brings us daily into closer connection, until he becomes altogether one with us.” Calvin does not define exactly what this union looks like, and only provides examples of times when unity with Christ exists. Calvin connects union with piety, writing “By piety I mean that union of reverence and love to God which the knowledge of his benefits inspires.” Tamburello argues that Calvin was ultimately interested in “promoting a relationship with the living God” and not just intellectual speculation.

Calvin’s understanding of the sacraments shed more light on his notions of unity. Baptism for Calvin is “the initiatory sign by which we are admitted to the fellowship of the Church, that being engrafted into Christ we may be accounted children of God.” Tamburello argues that Calvin’s three signs of true membership in the church – union with Christ through profession of faith, participation in the sacraments and leading of a moral life – are examples of “ordinary mysticism” that is “an experience of intimacy with God in
and through everyday piety and Christian living.”

Randall C. Zachman, professor emeritus of Reformation and post-Reformation theology at Notre Dame University, re-examines Calvin and his relationship with God’s love. Zachman argues in Reconsidering John Calvin that Calvin’s goal was to be “ravished with wonder before the beauty, majesty, and goodness of God, for this wonder reduces us to nothing, and thus provides the best foundation for genuine and profound humility before God.” In other words, if you know yourself, but know nothing about God, you do not really know yourself, and vice-versa, thus laying groundwork for a relationship-based union with God.

Although Calvin only used the word mystica a few times in Institute and rejected the idea, as Tamburello writes, that “mysticism involves an ‘essential’ union with God,” it is worth noting that Calvin’s understanding of union with Christ used similar language to Bernard of Clairvaux. Both Calvin and Bernard evoke bridal imagery to help explain their notions of union, but Calvin believed that union was a product of the Holy Spirit, and that union was never “essential,” even if it was mysterious. To Calvin, unio mystica – union with God – was due to God’s grace:

I acknowledge that we are devoid of this incomparable gift until Christ becomes ours. Therefore, to that union of the head and members, the residence of Christ in our hearts, infine, 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.

Unlike the argument that Protestantism distanced itself from God and union, Calvin suggests that God “designs to make us one with himself.” Calvin’s union revolves around faith and that we are the flesh of Christ’s flesh in a mysterious union. This union with Christ, as noted by Tamburello in Union with Christ: John Calvin and the Mysticism of St. Bernard is not a dissolution of self. Calvin’s idea of union is spiritual, not physical.

Perhaps the most interesting and important point that Tamburello makes is the idea that the Reformation was at least as much a spiritual phenomenon as it was a dogmatic one. The Reformers drew indirectly and unconsciously from the knowledge of medieval spirituality. This challenge to the traditional view of Protestantism suggests that mysticism remained a core part of Reformation traditions.

Alternatively, Clive Chin argues in the Torch Trinity Journal that Calvin’s notion of “the believer’s mystical union with Christ is not mystical in the sense of moral imitation, nor substantial in the ontological sense, but real in a genuine, spiritual sense.” Chin challenges Tamburello’s methodology of comparing Bernard Clairvaux’s and Calvin’s ideas of unio mystica. Chin states that Tamburello does not consider the historical context. Calvin’s unio mystica was in opposition to contemporary mystic Osiander’s ideas and offered a real and spiritual union with Christ that was not a “gross mixture of substances between Christ and the believer.”

Calvin’s engagement with Bernard Clairvaux’s mysticism brings me to the question: is there room for mysticism within the modern-day PC(USA)? If Calvin did not specifically condone it, can the church, founded on his tenets, claim this tradition?

The PC(USA) is a confessional church. In the Reformed Tradition, “confess” means to “openly affirm, declare, acknowledge or take a stand for what one believes to be true.” Confession takes two forms: first, people who confess their faith, and second, as an officially adopted statement of faith outlining the church’s beliefs. The Book of Confession contains the confessions throughout the church history, and threads of mysticism appear.

The PC(USA) practices two sacraments: Baptism and Communion. The church believes that “there is in every sacrament a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified; whence it comes to pass that the names and effects of the one is attributed to the other.” The use of the word union brings to mind McGinn’s notion of mystical union with God and what happens before and after as mystical experiences.

Another mystical thread in The Book of Confessions is in the Westminster Confession of Faith’s “The Larger Catechism.” Membership in the PC(USA) offers benefits in the “visible” and “invisible” church. The invisible church is “the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one under Christ the head.” The goal of church membership is to reach a union with God, which is achieved through “communion with him in grace and glory.” Union with Christ and God’s presence comes from God’s grace. After they have reached this grace-granted union, the elect “are spiritually and mystically, yet real and inseparably, joined to Christ as their head and husband, which is done in their effectual calling.” The language of union as marriage draws Bernard Clairvaux into the conversation, as well as McGinn’s expanded notion of mysticism as any experience beyond, simply, union. Grace and presence are different words expressing an ancient feeling.

The goal of church membership is to reach a union with God, which is achieved through ‘communion with him in grace and glory.’

Another important aspect of Presbyterian confessional nature is its inherent flexibility. The Book of Confessions recognizes the historical and contextual reality of the inherited and continued confessions of faith. It acknowledges that each confession came from a particular time and historical setting and should not be altered to conform to “current theological, ethical, or linguistic norms.” The confessions express what the church used to be, what it currently is and what it strives to be. Furthermore, The Book of Confessions acknowledges that confessions must be read in their original context and allowed some flexibility with relation to contemporary language and theology. Confessions are not “timeless expressions of truth” or just historical artifacts. They are most informative when they have “freedom to speak in their own voices … [and] speak now to the church and the world.” This flexibility allows room for new doctrine and faith to grow as the needs of the congregation change. It also opens the door for an invitation to mystical aspects, which several PC(USA) pastors actively embrace.

Rev. Cynthia Rigby challenges Reformed theology, saying it does not seek to be Reformed but seeks to be Christian. In an article in the Presbyterian Outlook, “Grace, Mystery, Beauty and Freedom: Four Takeaways of Reformed Theology,” Rigby looks at the relationship with God in a way that helps us to see “where and how God is present in the world.” To Rigby, spirituality and Christianity are about finding God in the ordinary and everyday. Part of this is about honoring “mystery without setting aside intellect,” she writes. “Mystery” is the word Calvin used to describe the mystical unknown. Rigby’s Reformed theology has wedded concepts of “Word and Sacrament, interpretation and mystery and the metaphysical and the mystical.” Reformed theology has “magic” that is called “mystery.”

Likewise, Rev. N. Graham Standish writes about a “Congregation of Mystics,” and how something essential is lacking in the modern church. Grappling with life’s big questions led him to discover mystics, their theology, and answers rooted in an “experience of, rather than speculation about, God. They saw church as the place of a living encounter with God rather than a place ruled by an ethical, moral, theological equation.” Standish suggests that if modern churches wish to move from purely functional to spiritual there needs to be an infusion of mystical texts and experiences of God. In his view, churches are dominated with concern for function and “adhering to tradition for tradition’s sake,” forgetting that ministry should also aim “to be truly transforming and lead people to Christ.” He faults churches on how they value leadership, writing that “[w]e don’t generally call mystics to lead mystics.” Mystics emphasize “the experience of and service to God over everyday functioning,” so Standish calls for leaders who are “mystics operating in the “real” world and concerned with the function of the church, as well as the mystical/spiritual nature of Christianity. By ignoring the mystical side of Christianity, the church dismisses the mystical experiences of many church members. Pastors need to be open to the mystical experience, sharing their own with their congregations, which would open the “church spiritually by making spiritual seeking and experience the norm rather than the exception.”

A quick search through the PC(USA) website shows it is clear that mysticism is working in the community. Rev. BJ Woodworth has led workshops that focus on a mystical union with God, “one of the greatest themes in the New Testament.” To Woodworth, Christianity is summed up by the word “with.”

“With … in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God. We were with God! But we chose to live without God, separate, independent — so the prophets spoke of God coming to be with his people.”

Woodworth cautions against conflating participating in the divine life of the Trinity with participating in the essence of God, which would sever the distinction between God and humankind. We are, however, transformed into Christ’s likeness.

The PC(USA)’s awareness of historical and cultural context lays the foundations for a practice and faith that not only has room for mystical experience, but also encourages growth and change while also honoring tradition.

Although it might not have been Calvin’s intention, mysticism is working within the Presbyterian Church, even if not officially recognized as a proper dogmatic approach. In many ways, Calvin’s return to Scripture as the source of knowledge opened space for PC(USA) members to seek experience of God’s presence in the ordinary. The PC(USA)’s awareness of historical and cultural context lays the foundations for a practice and faith that not only has room for mystical experience, but also encourages growth and change while also honoring tradition.