Christian Mysticism Keeps Us Sane

By Mark Judge Published on March 15, 2024

“Mysticism keeps men sane.”

That famous quote by G.K. Chesterton from Orthodoxy is as vitally important now as when he wrote it over a hundred years ago. Mysticism is when God breaks into our life and we can feel His presence. It can happen during prayer, when experiencing art, playing a sport, or when we are in love.

The key to these “numinous” moments is understanding that something is coming from outside yourself; it is not your psyche or ego or “God within” that generates a mystical experience. It is coming from a different place, which is what makes it so brilliant and transporting.

Examples abound. I recently wrote about Lauren Daigle’s brilliant new album. When she and her band hit high points in the record (check out the glorious climax of “Waiting”), I’m transported to another place. I have never gotten over the part in the Bible where Jesus says to Pilate; “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to bear witness to the truth.” I get chills at the power of those words even now, just typing them. I did not generate the truth of Jesus from my own mind. I accept it from the source, which is God.

Multiple Kinds of Mysticism

In his fantastic recent book The Church in an Age of Secular Mysticisms, Christian youth pastor Andrew Root explores Christian mysticism and its counterfeit, modern secular mysticism. Root ingeniously argued that the contemporary culture war is not about the religious versus the secular, but rather a competition among three different forms of mysticism.

Root puts modern mysticism into three categories: Beyonder, Heroic Action, and Inner Genius. Beyonders are Christians who believe in something “beyond human flourishing”— that we have souls and can encounter Jesus both in this life and the next.

Heroic Action mystics are those who believe that through athletics or sheer human will, we can come to a place of success and self-knowledge.

The Inner Genius is the person who attains “enlightenment” or self-worth through practices such as yoga and meditation. They conclude that the answers to life can be found within themselves.

Root is a careful thinker and empathetic pastor. He expresses admiration for Heroic Action, with its grueling physical punishment, as well as the Inner Geniuses’ quest for self-knowledge. He notes that both groups “use mystical language” and offer “a kind of mystical experience without God.” Modern secular mystics frequently speak of “being your best self,” “self-care,” and tapping into “the spirit of the universe.” You are your own source of divine strength, they say.

With Heroic Action, there’s “a will-to-power of what you can accomplish and what you can overcome.” With the Inner Genius, “you realize that you have what you need and that you are really special. You found a way to find your voice. You find your union and connection to the universe” via a “performative self dynamic.”

A Slippery Slope

Root has read dozens of celebrity autobiographies as well as secular self-help books and concludes, reasonably, that America is not crowded with secular atheists but rather would-be mystics.

There’s only one problem: Without God, these modern mystics are not only going to come up short, but may wind up in a bad place. Root preaches that the healthiest kind of mysticism is that preached by Martin Luther, who argued that we need God to truly deliver us from ourselves and permanently heal our sins.

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“These other forms of transformation cannot go to the depths we really need,” Root said in a recent interview. “The action you need to do is surrender and stop. The very thing that can save us is outside of us. That’s a hard message today. [Secular mystics] are far outside the church. The more they tried to save themselves, they more they spun out and entrapped themselves.”

The transformation we need does not come by doing more and optimize ourselves, Root concluded. “It’s [to] open your hand and reach for God.” Those who try their own secular mysticism can also find themselves trapped in the occult, which is a real prison.

Power Through Powerlessness

One example of healthy mysticism is Alcoholics Anonymous. That famous twelve-step fellowship is founded on the idea that we are powerless over addiction and the solution is to surrender to God. This flies in the face of the self-worshipping modern mysticisms, but its members seem genuinely tranquil and free of what was tormenting them.

I would add only one thought to Root’s thesis. I think it’s often possible that we can be co-creators with God. That is to say, God knows everything about us and everything about our will, our thoughts and dreams, and the art that we have or ever will create. However, I also think that God delights in us creating new and beautiful things like songs and poems and paintings.

It’s a paradox. He allows us to be co-creators in the sense that He delights in things that glorify and praise Him while being the origin and creator of those things Himself. It’s why when listening to music like Lauren Daigle’s it’s possible to feel the thrill of genuine art for the first time yet also know that you are receiving ancient wisdom — and from a source that is not your own sinful head.

 

Mark Judge is a writer and filmmaker in Washington, D.C. His new book is The Devil’s Triangle: Mark Judge vs the New American Stasi.

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