Mysticism, theology, evangelism, and social action

The Penitent Saint Francis by Annibale Caracci, Capitoline Museum
St Francis, a man who loved God and neighbour (my pic)

I sent an e-mail to my friend who’d given the talk spoken of in this post, outlining the same things I outlined here on the blog. His response included:

Thanks for this. … I am no Eastern Orthodox but Presbyterians need a good dose of EO and the EO could use a little Presbyterianism. I like to think of my theology as a Presby ressourcement. That sort of mystical theology is totally absent from the Free Church.

I, myself, am not a Presbyterian, but the call to mystical theology for low Protestants is important.

The image of people who are interested in evangelism and church-planting, who want to see their culture reached for Christ is not — fairly or otherwise — typically that of the mystics. Which is a shame.

Another tale.

A couple of my friends run a Greek theology reading group. A third friend joined them a few times (I went once for St Basil, ‘On the Holy Spirit’), but (I am given to understand) his general attitude towards the discussion was, ‘But what does all this have to do with the man on the street in Glasgow?’ (Why Glasgow?)

In my mind, ‘the man on the street in Glasgow’ — in this instance — is in need of social assistance. (This is not intended as a general statement on Glaswegians.) Why should we worry about St Gregory of Nazianzus and Trinitarian theology when there are starving people out there? In Glasgow?

The image of people who are interested in social action/activism, who want to see the poor clothed and the hungry fed is not — fairly or otherwise — typically that of the systematic theologians. Which is a shame.

Somewhere in his book The Inner Experience, Thomas Merton references St John of the Cross as teaching that one should spend more time in contemplation (used here in its mystical sense) than action — that actions ungirded in the contemplative life are prone to be willy-nilly and of less use. How do we know we are doing them for God’s glory? What is His will? That sort of thing.

That’s one approach to contemplation in a world of action (social/evangelistic).

The other is this: Good theologia and good theoria (contemplation), good thoughts about God and good thoughts in God, dogmatics and mysticism — these, in fact, lead to just behaviour and holy living and Gospel-telling.

Think on St Francis, who was a mystic if ever there was one. But his fervour for prayer, dispassion, contemplation was as tied to a fervour for preaching and for helping the poor.

Solid theology and ‘mystical’ practices give heart and soul to our activities in the world.

Perhaps it is our lack of deep thinking and deep praying that weaken our witness of love to a world eroded by hatred and false loves at every turning.

By looking upon God, whether through the intellectual truths of theology or through the noetic experience of mysticism, we can be suffused with His power, His light, and His love for a broken world.

Maybe then we’ll be worth listening to.

5 thoughts on “Mysticism, theology, evangelism, and social action

  1. I generally agree with your post. I’ve always preferred models that combine the contemplative and the active life. The Franciscans are a prime example of this. While I think that there are aspects of Eastern spirituality that would greatly benefit the West (like fasting), I am honestly quite suspicious of otherworldly mysticism in the East or the West (John Climacus, Pseudo-Dionysius, Teresa of Avila, hesychasm at Mt. Athos). Eastern spirituality seems to me to be too otherworldly/always concerned about salvation. I agree that prayer should precede every work but otherworldly mysticism can easily become a selfish endeavor. New agey people may find Christian mysticism attractive but they may not have the right state of mind/discipline which could lead to something quite the opposite of holiness. I trust that spiritual directors at monasteries train nuns and monks to avoid trusting one’s emotions, but I’ve never found a predominantly contemplative life attractive. What do you think of charismatic movements? Where I live (America) is a very emotion-based society. Christianity is too emotional. Pastors try to manipulate people’s feelings with their sermons. As a result I have grown quite suspicious of practices that overemphasize the interior life.

    • I think that the purely contemplative life is counter to the oldest stream of tradition in Christian spirituality; when we look at Christ’s commands, they assume we are amongst other people. I, too, find the Franciscans refreshing in this aspect because they draw us up into the mystical encounter with God and then out to encounter the world. There can be too much of a stress solely upon personal salvation/discipleship in some mysticism, however. The deep spirituality of the contemplative life, whether inspired by St Francis or Pseudo-Dionysius, is to be part of a rounded life of discipleship, and not simply ‘navel-gazing’ (as the Byzantine opponents of hesychasm accused St Gregory Palamas of doing too much).

      One of the aspects of the Christian East I appreciate is the idea of a spiritual father who can help us on the journey and direct us in our particular circumstance. A good director would keep one from becoming too self-absorbed on the one hand and too outward-focussed on the other. What I long for is a balance between the inward and outward life. That is, between the praktikos and theoria. Climacus, as it turns out, is mostly about the praktikos and assumes the inner life to be ongoing, but that holineesss is a prerequisite.

      I think the charismatic movement has hit on certain emphases that some forms of Anglophone Christianity have been lacking, but the emotionalism that often accompanies it is a problem. I certainly think we should learn to be led by the Holy Spirit in all things and at all times, but I don’t see how subjective emotions should be the guiding force of Christian spirituality and the encounter with any Person of the Holy Trinity, given that they are as susceptible to how much sleep I’ve had or how my wife and I are getting along that day as they are to spiritual forces. I’ve a few posts up my sleeve on emotion that I’m hoping to post in a few days after I submit my PhD.

      • I look forward to reading your posts – as always. Good spiritual directors like good confessors (ideally the same person) are priceless. A dose of discipline would do Western Christianity much good. All of this reminds me of how much the East and the West need each other.

  2. This reminds me especially of Josef Pieper’s book Leisure: The Basis of Culture. Our roots must go deep if we are to bear much weight in the world. “Good deeds” detached from the inner spiritual and sacramental life comprise at best a philanthropy lacking the deep, healing touch of divine holiness, and at worst a hypocritical and likely impotent attempt to reshape the world as we want to see it.

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