– Foreword by Stanley Ridge
1. God’s mystery, mystical faith and science
2. Greek mysticism and early Christianity
3. Christ-mysticism: from Augustine to Bernard of Clairvaux
4. Christ-oriented mysticism and the Enlightenment
5. The mysticism of Deism
6. Science and mystical faith in the age of relativity and astrophysics
7. Christ-mysticism and the hidden God
— by Stanley Ridge
he word “mystery” can entice one to read a good detective story. It may also refer to something puzzling, or, at the other extreme, to something which has defeated every effort to explain it. More seriously, it can be used dismissively to suggest dishonest mystification or deliberate avoidance of hard facts. The related word, “mystical”, also has a predominantly negative meaning in modern discourse. It is often used contemptuously to indicate “out of touch with reality”. This loose cluster of meanings leaves little room for the profound and positive sense of the words that underpins Jaap Durand’s engaging study.
We would not be talking about God if we could not know Him in our world.
Almost a century ago, Rudolf Otto wrote of the “holy” as the mysterium tremendum et fascinans: the mystery that inspires fear and yet attracts us to it. His resort to Latin was not a show of learning. At that stage when Latin was a normal part of secondary education, few readers would, in any case, have been impressed. Rather, through resorting to Latin, Otto was able to signal an important meaning of “mystery” not generally available in modern discourse. This mystery is not a discreditably vague alternative to hard facts. Rather, it is in a continuum with the hardest of them at the frontiers of knowledge. In other words, we would not be talking about God if we could not know Him in our world. But that knowledge, while a source of grace for us, points beyond the boundaries of what we now know, giving us a sense of a richer understanding to come. As St Paul says, “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cor 13:12).
In this remarkably concise and insightful book, Jaap Durand explores the mystical from ancient times to the 21st century. He first takes us on an illuminating survey of the elements of monotheistic mystical thinking in ancient Greek writings and how these elements were used by early Christian thinkers attempting to articulate the faith in intellectually accountable ways in a world where the Greek tradition was dominant. Throughout the book there is a deep respect for honest engagement and the wrestle with words in the face of the irreducible greatness of God. This means that the thinkers are discussed as people of integrity, really trying to find a vocabulary for their profound experience. These lines of thinking consolidate in two streams between the 5th and 6th centuries: the mainline 5th century theology of St Augustine which continues to be influential today, and the deism first fully articulated by Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite in the 6th century and regularly recurrent since.
Augustine's extensive writings bring together two characteristics which to many in the 21st century seem quite incompatible: a mystical awe and a penetrating rational intellect.
The North African, Augustine of Hippo, is one of the most prolific and influential of early Christian theologians. His extensive writings bring together two characteristics which to many in the 21st century seem quite incompatible: a mystical awe and a penetrating rational intellect. For Augustine, a personal relationship with God is the route to all grace and fulfilment: Our hearts are restless, he says, until they find their rest in you. That underlies all his systematic thought. Augustine’s example, showing what could be done in reconciling heart and mind, deep personal faith and rigorous thinking, places him in the mainstream of western Christian theology, appealed to by thinkers across diverse traditions in the Church.
Jaap Durand treats Augustine with subtle sophistication, emphasising his intellectual faith journey rather than his conclusions. However, with one exception, giving an account of the line from Augustine is not within Durand’s project. The exception is the 12th century Cistercian monk, Bernard of Clairvaux, who is distinctly in that line. Giving some intimations of another catholicity, Jaap Durand points to Luther and Calvin’s appreciative references to Bernard four centuries after his death, despite their doubts about some of his more “Catholic” practices. This reveals a greater tolerance and openness and wrestling with meaning than the Reformers are sometimes credited with. From there, the line from Augustine and Bernard runs to the original thinking of the 17th century Catholic, Blaise Pascal, and of the modern Francis Collins. We shall return to them.
Deism is the alternative stream. Jaap Durand tactfully and economically traces its history. In its Christian form, deism is first fully articulated in the very influential work of the Syrian monk, Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, nearly a century after Augustine. In a literary ploy, the writer presents himself as the Dionysius, member of the Areopagus, who came to faith under Paul’s ministry in Athens. By placing himself in that company, he is probably signalling his intellectual respectability. The later Dionysius seems to have been a pupil of Proklos, the leader of one of the last philosophy schools in Athens, whose dependence on Plato was accompanied by a strong Aristotelian intellectualism. Dionysius shows this influence. And it is an influence which recurs often, most prominently, perhaps, as a major formative force in thirteenth century scholasticism and the work of Thomas Aquinas. But the deistic line is a different matter. While Augustine and Dionysius both stand before the impenetrable mystery of God, Augustine is placed on the path of knowing by the grace of God. Dionysius finds himself increasingly faced with the totally incomprehensible, with the contemplative move into the cloud of unknowing in which a paradoxical union is found with the ultimately unknowable.
With the rise of a modern scientific mindset in the 17th century, deistic mysticism takes on a different complexion.
This influence recurs down the centuries. Among others in the tradition are the 14th century English author of The Cloud of Unknowing, his contemporary, Meister Eckhart, and the 16th century St John of the Cross. With the rise of a modern scientific mindset in the 17th century, deistic mysticism takes on a different complexion: it recognises the mystery, but gives priority to what is accessible to the mind. This new emphasis is markedly there in Descartes, and shows up in an interesting agnostic form in the work of Stephen Hawking.
That brings us to the heart of the book: a sympathetic exploration of how two prominent 17th century scientific intellectuals and two eminent modern scientists reveal their engagements with matters of faith.
Descartes and Pascal were known to one another, with the older Descartes recognising Pascal as very talented but complacently questioning his ability to think as radically as he did. However, the key difference between them of interest to this study lies in their views of faith. Pascal’s Augustinian views were out of favour with the powerful Jesuit lobby, which ultimately secured equivocal papal support for their suppression. But what is ultimately teased out with great tact by Jaap Durand is Pascal’s intellectual alignment of his faith with his scientific work. Much of this engagement was public, but the discovery, after his death, of a record of an intimate mystical experience sewn into the lining of his coat came as a surprise. Descartes, by contrast with Pascal, is cryptic about matters of faith, yet open about the mystical experience which set him on the path of his life’s work. Officially a Catholic Christian, his method of doubt, which leads to a recognition of the primacy of thought, fitted ill with the predominant theology of the day. It made the existence of God as a perfect being a necessary implication of the imperfection of human thought. In these terms, God is at such a remove that Pascal’s view of Descartes as a deist carries a certain credibility. But Jaap Durand does not leave matters there. Recognising that Descartes’ mysticism is quite different from Pascal’s, he pursues its roots back to Dionysius as in a second tradition within Christianity.
All the preceding arguments come into focus in the consideration of the two modern scientists, both at the forefront of scientific work in our time: Stephen Hawking and Francis Collins.
All the preceding arguments come into focus in the consideration of the two modern scientists, both at the forefront of scientific work in our time: Stephen Hawking, the eminent Cambridge theoretical physicist, and Francis Collins, the leader of the human genome project. Hawking is an agnostic whose cutting edge scientific work several times brings him to acknowledge the possibility and even the probability of a creator God. Francis Collins, by contrast moves from vigorous atheism to sophisticated faith in the course of his pioneering scientific work. Jaap Durand’s engaging and intellectually generous telling of their stories, along with his profound reflections in the closing chapter of the book, open up many important perspectives for thinking people, not least for thinking Christians.
— Stanley Ridge
1. God's mystery, mystical faith and science
This book is concerned with the mystical in the lives of some eminent scientists in the western world, and with the fruitful relationship between the scientific mind and what we might call a mystical disposition. While this theme could fruitfully be explored in relation to scientists of many faiths, this study focuses on the dominant traditions within the Christian church. Two mystical traditions are traced from the classical period, through their distinctive articulation in the fourth to sixth centuries CE by Augustine and Dionysius, and on to modern times. The Augustinian line is related to a personal faith in Christ, and the Dionysian line is deistic. The theme of science and mystical faith is pursued in the stories of four eminent scientists whose work has influenced the development of their disciplines. They are chosen from two intellectual watershed periods: the Enlightenment, and the era of relativity. René Descartes and Stephen Hawking are seen as in the line from Dionysius, and Blaise Pascal and Francis Collins as Augustinian Christians.
Some issues relating to the notions “mystical” and “mysticism” must be clarified here. The words are capable of sustaining a variety of meanings, so, to avoid misunderstanding, I shall begin by explaining how I understand them. Any human reaction to apprehending the mystery of God and God’s existence is by definition “mystical”, no matter what the nature of that reaction might be, so it should be clear from the start that I in no way wish to suggest that only the Christian faith has a mystical side to it. Indeed the mystical may extend beyond the boundaries of any religion to a profound, awed response to what is known but lies beyond understanding.
“Mysticism” is a more problematic word. There is a large and valuable literature on many manifestations of mysticism around the globe, and one can validly talk of the mysticism, say, of St Augustine or Mahatma Gandhi. However, the suffix “ism” can suggest something that has the “absoluteness” or “finality” of an ideology. The mystical is by definition an awed response which can have no such absoluteness or finality about it. As my chief focus is on Christians, I prefer to speak of mystical faith rather than mysticism. “Mystical faith” has more open connotations. It refers to the believer’s profound amazement at and trust in God’s grace in Jesus Christ. This grace is a “mystery”. In 1 Timothy 3:16 we read: “Great indeed … is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh …” As we shall see later in this chapter, “mystery” and “mystical” are closely linked in etymology.
Another clarification is necessary at the start. I should like to explain concisely why I have juxtaposed science and mystical faith. The title God’s mystery: The story of science and mystical faith, may give the impression that this is a rather transparent effort to introduce the topic of the existence or non-existence of God. It could also suggest that mystical faith assumes the existence of God by contrast with science which presupposes the possibility that God does not exist. Such impressions would be incorrect. Belief in the non-existence of God, the hallmark of full-blooded atheism, is not a serious concern in this discussion. While atheist ideology does assert itself aggressively at times (as in the case of Richard Dawkins) most scientists do not appear to lay much store by it. That statement, however, needs qualification. Atheists in various scientific fields seldom directly assert an atheistic belief, but may often deal with their subjects in a way that implies an atheistic point of departure. At all events, it is not the atheistic frame of mind which is of interest in this study.
Nor is agnosticism. The word “agnostic” refers to someone who in a literal sense does not know. In religion, the word denotes someone who does not know whether God exists or not, and usually someone who is not particularly concerned to find out. To my mind, such a form of “belief” is, strictly speaking, an unwillingness to make a clear choice. But it, too, falls outside what this study is interested in.
My main concern in bringing together science and mystical faith is to explore the grounds of compatibility between them. To do so it is important to explore the two main streams of belief in God underlying the cases to be studied.
Among western scientists who deal with the basic aspects of life through mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology a number do profess some sort of belief in a God, but would definitely not call themselves Christians. This kind of belief takes a number of forms but can broadly be called deism. It is one of the most common non-Christian responses to the mystery of God and his existence, and it deserves our attention as the most important alternative to the Christian faith prevalent among scientists in the western world.
Deists believe that God exists, but this belief is a conclusion drawn from the evidence of intelligent design. God is the Creator. The marks of his design can be seen everywhere. Somehow He has seen to it that all things develop according to a natural order. To be happy, human beings must fall in with this natural order and comply with it, but there is no possibility of a direct relationship with Him. He is a distant God, exalted above his creation in blissful self-centredness. Deism represents a closed worldview. Whatever makes things happen or develop is already an intrinsic part of creation. There is no need for God to intervene in what He has already created and given means of sustaining itself.
Partly nurtured by Greek intellectualism, deism has a long history in the West. Over the last few centuries, there has been an intense process of secularisation which has made an indelible mark on civil society. Especially since the so-called Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, there has been strong resistance to anything perceived as endangering the moral and intellectual authority of humankind. This has generally not turned into atheism, although the whole idea of God has receded more and more into the background in favour of “man the measure”. A late 17th century book, Christianity not mysterious, by John Toland, epitomises this development in the west. The mystery of God no longer exists, and Christianity has been reduced to a kind of civil religion giving some form of spiritual authority to the dominant official morals and values of society. But this is deism by reduction. The kind of deistic belief reached by scientists is rather a creative response to the intricate design of the physical world, leading them to posit a creator.
There is something very seductive about all forms of deistic belief in God. They are undemanding in comparison with the Christian faith. Christians profess God as their Father in Jesus Christ with whom we may enter into a faith relationship. This is not unproblematic. Professing the Fatherhood of God opens up a number of questions that a deist never faces. These questions concern the inexplicable and incomprehensible that we encounter on an almost daily basis, particularly questions about suffering. How do we explain all the suffering in the world when we believe in the Fatherhood of a loving God? How do we explain Jesus’ words from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you deserted me?” For the deist, untroubled by any sense of the Fatherhood of God, such questions do not raise any kind of existential problem. The God of the deist exists in majestic detachment and cannot be blamed for what happens on earth. Yet, as we shall see in the lives of two eminent scientists, Descartes and Hawking, God’s creative work can still inspire awe and wonder.
Christians live with the mystery of God, along with the problematic questions. Belief in the mystery of God’s revealing Himself in his Son’s incarnation, death on the cross and resurrection is, in its deepest sense, a belief in God’s grace. The grace of God is Christians’ constant companion in life. They can respond to this mystery only in faith. Because their faith is a response to God’s mystery, the mystical is an essential feature of their Christian life.
In the second chapter I shall give more attention to mysticism and mystical faith. At this stage it is important only to point out that there are many natural scientists for whom atheism or deism are not options. Indeed they believe that they live in a direct relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Their lives are characterised by what I call a Christ-centred mysticism. We shall tell the stories of two of them, Pascal and Collins, in some detail.
This book is a confession. I write it out of my deep admiration for those who venture into the field of the natural sciences with the mysticism of the Christian faith. I am very much aware that being a Christian in their fields of study is no easy matter. The informing secularism of the culture or ideology which often accompanies science is indifferent to belief, if not impatient of it or actively hostile to it. In the circumstances, triumphalist scientific truth often overrides wider concerns with what is true. For the scientist who is a Christian, a concern with what is true in the wider sense involves both an intellectual struggle to be heard in the prevailing climate and a personal struggle to accept the limits of intellect in awe at the greatness of God.
The struggle is not exclusive to scientists, though they may face it with a particular intensity. A few years back, in a hotel room in Durban where I was staying for a meeting of the then Committee of University Principals, I read for the first time the Credo of Feodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: “If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ and not with truth”. That was one of the mystical moments in my life of faith.
In exploring the stories of great scientists who have wrestled with the questions that arise when we reflect on ourselves and the world we live in and have responded at least mystically, and in some cases with mystical faith, we have to recognise the limits of science.
I use the word “science” as the person in the street would do. And I use the generally accepted idea of a scientist as someone studying and researching in the natural sciences: fields of study that have to do with nature, the physical world we live in and human bodily existence as distinct from the spiritual and the social. To these, of course, must be added the most basic of all sciences, mathematics, which has to do with the numerical and the spatial. The huge volume and fascinating detail of the knowledge they discover and articulate and its value for modern life must be appreciated. However, one can submit all aspects of natural life to scientific investigation without ever asking the philosophical questions: Why? From where?
When scientists do deal with such philosophical questions they usually recognise that they are dealing with matters inaccessible to the discipline directing their research in their specialist fields of study. They are on the terrain of the philosophy of nature, where the strict prerequisites of experimental proof and the verification of facts and figures are not relevant. This is not to say that they are leaving intellectual rigour behind or ceasing to require it of others working in this field. People who are serious in their efforts to deal with questions of a philosophical nature know that there can be no compromise on the rational. Physical scientists cannot reasonably expect matters like religion and faith, love and friendship to be subjected to verification procedures like those in their laboratories, but they have every right to expect logic and coherence in the arguments used and the statements made by people exploring these topics.
What, then, of mysticism or mystical faith, both terms carrying popular connotations of haziness rather than precision, and at worst seeming to disappear into an otherworldly fog? Mysticism and science seem poles apart. The mystical may be experienced, but it is not observable or measurable. There is nothing exact about it. How do you determine the validity of mystical feelings? Even within religious circles and in most theologies the mystical is a subject often avoided as belonging to the realm of the transitory and the rationally inexplicable. This raises some obvious questions. Why spend time on something of this cryptic nature? What is the point of bringing together science and mystical faith and asking whether they are compatible? Are we wasting time?
These questions are valid. Perhaps for that reason I never thought that I would dare to tackle this subject. But I was persuaded by a most remarkable fact. As I read the works of some of the most eminent scientists of former and present generations I discovered that mysticism in some form, consciously or unconsciously, was their constant companion in the way they applied their minds to their scientific work. This observation challenged me to see if I could understand at least something of the spiritual lives of scientists who are willing to openly confess their faith.
The task proved to be easier said than done. Biographical and especially autobiographical material is hard to come by. Although many scientists who believe in God do not deny this in the way they deal with their subject or discuss issues of a philosophical nature, they are seldom willing to write about their most intimate religious convictions. This is especially true of those with a personal faith.
For me the break-through came when I reread Teilhard de Chardin. My interest in the relationship between Christian faith and the theory of evolution led me to go back, not only to most of his books, but more rewardingly to his published private correspondence. In Teilhard de Chardin’s literary legacy we discover a scientist who was willing in an unprecedented way to lead us into the world of his religious experience. In his wide correspondence with friends and colleagues across the world he revealed his innermost religious convictions. What is truly remarkable is that his account of his deepest faith is not presented in some kind of appendix to his scientific work, but in the mainstream of his thinking. He succeeded in harmonising his faith with his scientific insights. As a world-famous geologist and palaeontologist – scientific fields that have historically been hospitable to atheism and agnosticism – he made it unapologetically clear in the heart of his scientific work that he was a firm believer for whom the Christ figure was the keystone of all his thinking as a scientist.
Any analysis of Teilhard de Chardin’s world of religious experience makes it immediately clear that it has a deep mystical side to it. One has to ask whether this is explicable simply in terms of his being a faithful Catholic Christian, or whether we have here a kind of religious experience that somehow, incredible as it may seem, is fully compatible with the intellectual makeup of a person deeply involved with the world of the natural sciences. At one level, the faith in which he had been brought up and the theology that he had studied in his training for the priesthood clearly played an important part in shaping the mystical aspect to his later thinking. At another level, Teilhard clearly does not experience any conflict between his mystical orientation and his rigorous scientific work. But that does not resolve the issue. One has to dig deeper. The question goes beyond compatibility to whether mysticism, regardless of religious tradition, is not perhaps a type of spirituality that plays a distinctive role in the life of a scientist. To begin to answer it one needs more evidence.
Teilhard set me exploring. My interest in (and admiration for) the scientist-believer was enhanced when I read about scientists in two periods of extreme intellectual turbulence and exciting renewal: the era of the Enlightenment, and the present age which is still digesting the implications of the theory of relativity. I chose two world-renowned scientists, one from each age, who are unequivocal in professing their Christian faith. I chose another two, also world-renowned, who confront the God-mystery in their work, but apparently without the sense of a personal God. All four people engage with the exactness of the sciences on a daily basis and at the highest level. This engagement could easily lead to a worldview that excludes God, but for them God still matters at some significant level in their work.
We need to return to an earlier distinction. Acknowledging that God may somehow matter in the world of science and scientific research clearly does not imply that this God is a personal God as in the Christian, Jewish or Islamic faiths. As we have seen, God is viewed by some scientists as impersonal: either as a kind of intellectual work hypothesis, in the sense that the Godhead is the explanation of the inexplicable, or more profoundly as the One before the richness and complexity of whose work one stands in awe even if one cannot know Him: the source of being, the transcendent origin of everything, an immanent force in the universe as the mathematical principle according to which things take place. I earlier referred to this cluster of ways of thinking as deism. To the extent that agnostics have room in their thought for the possibility of a God, it is generally also this God of the work hypothesis or immanent force that they have in mind.
If mystical responses are not confined to believers in a personal God, the question arises whether the mystical needs to be related to God at all. The simplest answer is of course that any form of belief where God is important has a mystical element. But that needs to be unpacked in the light of our main interest. What is the significance of that mystical element? The mystical is a substantial part of human spiritual life and so is intimately bound up with human thought. Does mysticism take on a more obvious role in the world of the sciences than in other branches of knowledge? And does that role relate to a particular kind of rationality which underpins the natural sciences?
Associating mysticism with God does not reduce the elusiveness of the concept. The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary describes it as “the experience of mystical union and direct communication with ultimate reality reported by mystics.” The Shorter Oxford Dictionary has: “belief in the possibility of union with or absorption into God by means of contemplation and self-surrender.” And the Collins Concise English Dictionary has as its first definition, “belief in or experience of a reality surpassing normal human understanding or experience, esp a reality perceived as essential to the nature of life.” There could not be a more stark contrast with scientific knowledge.
However, what is mystically apprehended is knowledge. It may be far removed from the kind of knowledge we acquire through scientific experiments or rational discussions, but it is knowledge nonetheless. Merriam-Webster therefore adds a second definition: “the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be obtained through subjective experience, as intuition or insight.” To similar effect, the Shorter Oxford Dictionary has: “belief in or reliance on the possibility of spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect.”
The notion of “mystical experience” is generally taken as synonymous with “religious experience”. This can be traced back to William James (1842-1910), the American psychologist and philosopher, who popularised the concept in his book Varieties of religious experience in 1902. In this book he described mysticism as a distinctive experience from which knowledge of a transcendent nature is gleaned. He even went further and described it as more fundamental than theology or church doctrine. In mysticism, he says, we become aware of the Absolute and our unity with it.
In the context of science, it is interesting to note that James’s idea had its source in the work of the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834). Schleiermacher articulated the notion that an awareness of infinity gave birth to religion. He made this point to defend religious feelings against the attack of growing scientific and secular criticism. It is interesting to note that, as a boy of fifteen, Schleiermacher was educated at the Hernhutter Brotherhood in Niesky. In later life when he became a famous theologian and philosopher, the space created for religious experience in his Hernhutter background stayed with him.
Any able etymologist will tell you that “mysticism” originates from the Greek word musterion which is normally translated as “mystery” or “the unknown”. What the etymologist will not tell you is that the origin of musterion itself is unknown. It is as if we are dealing here with a double unknowable. We do not know for certain, but it is quite possible that musterion derives from the verb muein: to close or to be closed in. If we follow this argument, we finally arrive at that which is closed or hidden, something that is unpronounceable, something about which we are necessarily silent. The silence can be broken only when what was hidden is revealed.
The derivatives “mystic” and “mysticism” keep the character of the word from which they originated. In mysticism we are dealing with something that is not accessible in any simple way. There is something resistant in the word, as if its character of inaccessibility and mysteriousness makes it impossible to describe in comprehensible terms. Understandably, then, modern literature gives more than one explanation of the word, especially when it is used in a religious context.
However, when we consider the various interpretations of the word in a religious context we discover an overall agreement. A mystical experience is a special kind of spiritual experience which takes place when one, in one’s thoughts as it were, descends into the depths of the soul with a view to considering those things that touch one’s deepest being. “Contemplation” is the word most often used for this act of descending into oneself. In the act of contemplation a person tries to come to grips with life’s deepest mysteries. Because these mysteries, more often than not, in some way or another are concerned with God or a person’s conception of God, the religious experience that goes along with them is called “mysticism”. The most popular definition of mysticism in religious literature is therefore a striving toward union with God.
Scholars in the science of religion generally agree that mysticism is not peculiar to the Christian faith, but that it is found in all religions. That is why we sometimes find a generic definition of the term: the innate tendency of the human spirit to live in harmony with that which transcends the visible and the tangible, or what we can call the transcendental order. The theological content we give to this sphere may differ, but the basic purpose of mysticism stays the same: finding harmony or unity with God on the basis of meditative contemplation.
However, even that is not adequate. More than one scholar has pointed out that a mystical experience is not necessarily the outcome of meditative contemplation. Mystical experience or some sort of relationship with the mystery we call God can also arise from visions, or from religious practices like liturgy, prayer and song.
When we look at all the definitions of mysticism it becomes clear that we are dealing with a deeply human phenomenon. Mysticism is a form of human spirituality that resists rational explanation. The predominant idea that it involves union with God is far too limited, despite the fact that such union is essential to mysticism. Perhaps the most satisfying definition would be an awareness of the proximity of a mystery we call God, an experience that defies any clear description even for the one that has this experience. No wonder it is so difficult to explain and so difficult to put into words.
It would be a great mistake to identify mysticism with the pietistic movement of the 18th century when the Enlightenment played a decisive role in the Western world and Schleiermacher was so influential. We have to go much further back in history if we want to understand fully the role of mysticism in the Christian religion. Once we have done that and have had a good look at the roots of Christian mysticism and mystical faith we can resume our story about scientific scholars in whose lives the apparent tension between mysticism and science played a significant role.
In our choice of scientists whose stories we wish to follow, we need to establish certain principles. They must be people from critical periods of history who decisively influenced the direction of thought in science and natural philosophy. They must also evidence mysticism of one of the two main types characteristic of the West.
When we look at the development of scientific thought and the philosophical and theological reflections which accompany it, we discover two main watersheds in Western history: the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, and the modern period in which the theory of relativity of Einstein and his fellow physicists turned things on their head. With these watersheds in mind the choice becomes easier: Find two scientists in each of these two periods who determined the direction of scientific and natural philosophic thought in a decisive way.
It is at this point that mysticism comes into play. The development of scientific thought has a long history behind it, as has mysticism. The most significant and far-reaching distinction between schools of mystic thought in Christendom became evident between the 4th and 6th centuries. From that time we can, in broad terms, distinguish between what I shall call Augustinian Christ-orientated mysticism, emerging from the late 4th century, and the mysticism of the Unknown God of Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, from the beginning of the 6th century. Augustinian mysticism is marked by a very intimate, personal and mystical faith relation with God, while Dionysius’ mysticism fits in more readily with a deistic belief in God in which the idea of a personal relationship is more or less absent.
On the basis of this distinction we can select two influential scientists from each period, one Augustinian in orientation and the other evidencing Dionysius’ type of mysticism. The choice for the Enlightenment falls on Blaise Pascal and René Descartes and for the present period on Francis Collins and Stephen Hawking. The more substantial reasons for these choices will become obvious as the stories unfold.
Of course the development of mystical beliefs in Western Christendom did not start with Augustine and Dionysius. To understand western mysticism, we have to begin our story long before the Christian faith announced itself emphatically in the West. We begin with the Greeks and Greek thought.
2. Greek mysticism and early Christianity
The Greek heritage
As we explore the origins of mystical thought in the West and the specific forms it assumed in Christian theology, we discover that mysticism was part of Greek philosophy long before the Christian era.
A branch of Greek mysticism certainly influenced early Christianity. However, it is important to emphasise that this mysticism did not, as has often been suggested, originate from the mystery religions of ancient Greek heathenism. Since New Testament times resistance to paganism had been so strong that such an influence was out of the question in the early history of Christianity. To discover the origins of mystical thinking in the early church we must look for it in Greek philosophy and not in Greek religion in general.
The reason for the influence of Greek philosophy is not so obvious until we realise that its most important representatives had intimated the existence of one God over against the many gods of Greek paganism.
One of the earliest indications of mystical thought is in the philosophy of Pythagoras (c. 570-495 BC), mathematician and philosopher from Ionia, born on the island of Samos. Although no texts by him are known to have survived, he is credited with the Pythagorean theorem in geometry: in a right-angled triangle the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. As the founder of a religious sect he is the earliest philosopher we know of who gave a mystical connotation to the idea of numbers. It is said that he propounded the idea that numbers are the last and final reality. Between numbers, nature and the human soul there is a mystical connection.
In the religious practices of the sect he founded there are clear indications of a background in one of the Greek mystery religions and it is said that he was taught by a Delphic priestess. But it is not this aspect of his legacy that eventually influenced early Christian thinkers. It was through the mystical strain in his mathematical thinking, passed on through Parmenides and especially Plato, that mysticism was introduced to early Christian thought.
The date of Parmenides’ birth is not known, but most historians consider he must have lived in the 5th century before Christ. The only writing of his that survives, and that in part, is a poem about nature. He takes Pythagoras’ mystical idea of numbers further by declaring that all that exists is one. The One is timeless and unchangeable. Change is an illusion. Parmenides is thus the first Greek philosopher to propound the idea of two realities, the real and the illusionary. In his poem about nature, of which we still have a few fragments, he speaks about truth as a knowledge of that which is (hópous éstin) and that which is not (hóus ouk éstin).
Through Plato (born c. 428 BC) this two-level vision of reality finally entered the mainstream of Greek philosophical thought. Plotinus, Plato’s great follower many centuries later, would be responsible for influencing decisively the mystical side of Christian thought during the first centuries after Christ.
Plato’s influence on early and later Christian theology has indeed been far greater than is generally realised. However, a comprehensive account of his philosophy is certainly not necessary in this investigation of the origins of mystical thinking in Western Christianity. For present purposes we restrict ourselves to a few fundamentals of Plato’s thought.
The one aspect of Plato’s philosophy which profoundly influenced mystical thinking in the early church is the high importance he attached to the idea of the human soul. This concept of the soul relates directly to the two-level world vision we have already encountered in Parmenides.
Plato, along with his famous pupil, Aristotle, and Pythagoras and Parmenides, was a mathematician who set store by the concept of numbers, especially the number one. The One (tò hén) is the timeless and unchangeable principle of everything. He also calls it the Good (tò agathón). This idea which, as we have seen, originated with Parmenides, Plato now joined with his basic belief that the material world as we know it is not the real world: it is only a copy of that real world. The world which we know and experience daily is an illusionary world that keeps on changing. It has no permanency. Over against this illusionary world is the true invisible world that never changes. The real (or ideal) world is the world of ideas and forms. The things we see and experience on earth are but emanations from the unchanging world of forms.
Whatever we experience or create only reflects the form or idea or participates in it. This concept of participation was introduced by Plato to describe the relation to the ideal of the things we deal with. But the participation can never reach the perfection of the ideal world. Everything we deal with is only partly real. However, Plato certainly does not mean that we live in a dream-world. He wants to make us aware that we live in an imperfect, defective, temporary and changing world. Plato’s idea of participation would later take on a more limited meaning when used by the Neo-Platonists to try and explain the relationship between the Creator and the creation.
The way in which Plato divides reality into two opposite parts, the visible and changing over against the invisible and unchanging world of forms, also applies to his idea of the soul. The soul is immortal in distinction from the material body which is mortal. Before the soul became part of the body, it had gained knowledge of the world of forms. Human knowledge does not result from experience but from the recollection of the things the soul came to know in the world of forms. This recollection makes experience possible. We know for instance that something is round or we try to make it round, because the soul remembers the perfect roundness it came to know in the perfect world of forms. A round coin is round because it participates in the perfect roundness and we experience it as round because of the soul’s recollection.
It was, however, not Plato himself who influenced Christian thinking in the early centuries. It was Plotinus (AD 205-270). He carried forward the tradition of Plato’s philosophy in an immensely influential system of thought known as Neo-Platonism. Not only Christian mystical thought but also Jewish and Muslim mysticism later drew on his ideas although he was neither Christian nor Jewish. Clearly, he could not have been a Muslim, because Islam only came into being in the 7th century.
Plotinus was probably a Hellenistic Egyptian. He studied in Alexandria under Ammonius Saccas. Saccas’ father seems to have been a Christian but Saccas himself turned his back on Christianity. His religious practices were clearly in Greek-pagan traditions, but his philosophy reveals good knowledge of Plato. In his lectures at Alexandria he drew on Plato in a Neo-Platonic form in which there was no place for Christ. No writings of Saccas have been discovered but his thoughts have been preserved through Plotinus who sat at his feet. Origen, the early systematic theologian of Christianity was another of Saccas’ pupils.
In much the same way as we saw in our discussion of Parmenides and Plato, the idea of numbers plays a big role in the philosophy of Plotinus. For him, the idea of “the One” is paramount. He connects it with his idea of God. Like most Greek thinkers Plotinus has a view of God as the One that is absolutely transcendent, on the “far side” of everything that exists, and that can even be thought of as not existing. The One is therefore ineffable with no describable qualities. In the final analysis the One is unapproachable.
The extreme deism of Plotinus’ thinking is emphasised by his refusal to accept that this God creates. Nevertheless, God is the cause of everything. The most one can say is that he is the potential force, the possibility that lies behind the actualisation of everything that exists. From all eternity he has the potential to bring forth everything that exists in this world, but he does not do so by any conscious act of creation on his part. Everything comes into existence by a process of emanation in which he does not cede any part of his being.
Plotinus uses the analogy of the sun to explain what he means. This emanation or coming forth is like the rays of the sun which emerge without any conscious deed on the part of the sun. The cosmos is nothing other than the consequence of the existence of the One.
In this process of unintentional radiation or emanation from the One we find the source of Plotinus’ mysticism. There is a reverse sequence. Everything returns to the One. This return to the Absolute is typical of mysticism in Greek philosophy.
The first emanation from the One is the nous. Nous in this sense is the divine logos, the intelligence or the reason of the One. The nous moves away from the One. From the nous, in descending order, flow the world-soul, individual souls and, at the lowest level in the cosmos, the material world or matter. In the same way as light becomes dimmer the further it moves away from its source, the emanation from the One ends in the darkness of matter.
From this darkness of matter the soul must free itself on its way back to unity with the One. This return of the soul to the divine One can take place in one moment of ecstasy. According to Porphyrius, a pupil of Plotinus, his master experienced ecstatic union with the One four times in the period that he, Porphyrius, knew him.
Porphyrius published the writings of Plotinus after his death. The collected works was published in six parts, each containing nine essays. It is called the Enneaden from the Greek for the number nine (ennea). Most of the information we have about the life of Plotinus comes from the biographical introduction to this collection.
As we conclude our discussion of Plotinus, it is important to note that the Platonic idea of forms and ideas plays a very important part in his thinking. In the nous which emanates from the One the ideas or archetypes of all things that exist are present. So it was through Neo-Platonism that the Platonic division of reality into two realms became part of Western thought early in the Christian era, and has kept its hold with remarkable tenacity up to this day.
Like Plotinus, Porphyrius was not a Christian. In fact he wrote a book against Christians (katà Christianoun). Nevertheless, through his publication of Plotinus’ ideas and thought, his influence on the Christian theology of the first few centuries is notable, especially as far as mysticism is concerned.
At a later stage we shall see how Christian mystical theology split into two main branches. This split occurred largely because the original Christian mysticism was not of Greek extraction only, but had an authentic mystical character of its own in the gospel of Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection as proclaimed by the apostles in the first century.
Mysticism in the church and theology in the first two centuries
We have said that the Christian gospel as preached in the New Testament has a marked mystical element. I do not intend at this stage to give a full account of the mystical side of the gospel, particularly as that is encountered in the writings of the apostles John and Paul. Yet it is necessary to make a few points so as to avoid giving the impression that mysticism in the earliest Christian theology was simply borrowed from Greek thought.
Although not exclusively so, the predominant idea in the New Testament is that the acceptance or rejection of the Christian gospel is a matter of faith or lack of faith. Now the acceptance of the gospel by faith and faith alone is undeniably accompanied by some kind of spiritual experience. The way in which a person experiences his own faith, both knowledge of God and trust in Him, cannot simply be put into words or explained. This applies also to the doubt that constantly accompanies the daily struggle of faith. In all of that a mystery lies hidden, the mystery of God Himself, his grace in Jesus Christ and the miracle that we believe … really believe!
Where there is mystery there is also some form of mysticism in relation to this mystery. Without acknowledging the impenetrability of this mystery, faith could easily be reduced to mere intellectual assent, if indeed such assent were possible. How can one assent intellectually to the mystery of God and his grace in Christ without surrendering one’s whole existence to this knowledge, however imperfect?
Indeed, the gospel demands a response in faith. The Reformation’s emphasis on salvation “by faith alone” (sola fide) stands in all circumstances. But who will deny that faith also has its mystical side? Sola fide – absolutely. But we must never forget that the sola fide is indissolubly linked to the sola gratia (grace alone). And who can fathom the depth of God’s grace?
In John’s gospel, Jesus compares the Spirit with the wind that blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes (John 3:8). He also directly links the Spirit with human prayer (John 3:34). These texts warn us to make space for thoughts of a mystical nature in our theological framework. Paul’s many references to the Spirit of Christ that lives and works in us point in the same direction, as does his emphasis on the believer’s being in Christ and one with Him: the life of the believer is hidden with Christ in God (Col 3:3).
It is striking that Paul calls God’s work of redemption a musterion, a mystery (cf Eph 3:2-6). In his letter to the Colossians he calls Christ Himself the musterion of God. In both these letters the mystery takes its meaning from salvation history, the history of the development of God’s plan for the redemption of mankind. For many ages this plan was hidden, but now, in Christ, it has been revealed. Even so, it remains a mystery to be grasped by faith alone. But even faith recognises that this mystery is the mystery of God’s grace which is and remains unfathomable.
The purpose of this brief account of New Testament discourse is to remind us of the need for nuanced judgment of the mysticism we discover in the thinking of the church fathers in the early centuries after Christ. As we seek to understand mysticism in the church and theology of the first centuries, it is profitable to bear in mind that mysticism is closely linked to prayer as the most basic of all the practices of faith.
It would, however, be wrong to use what the early church fathers said and wrote about prayer as our point of departure in discussing mysticism in the early church. The reasons are very simple. Not only are extended discussions of prayer extremely rare in early Christian writings, but the ideas of individuals on prayer do not equip us to try and understand the mystic religious experience of the early church as a whole. More profitable in this regard are the liturgical traditions that emerged slowly in the first two centuries after the death and resurrection of Christ.
The first striking characteristic of early Christian gatherings is the invoking of the risen Christ as the One who brings about union with God. This invoking of Christ is already evident in the Coptic translation of the Didache, one of the earliest Christian writings, probably from the second half of the first century. Didache is the shortened form of Didache Kyriou dia to–n do–deka apostolo–n tois ethnesin (The teachings of the Lord to the heathen through the twelve apostles). According to this Coptic translation the shout of joy “Marana tha” (1 Cor 16:22) was used in very early church practice in preparation for the worship of Christ in the eucharistic meal, when sins were confessed to Him and forgiveness was given in his name.
In these early circles of Christians, mostly of Jewish origin, their liturgical observances were mostly copied from the service in the Jerusalem temple and not from the synagogues. According to the first letter of Clement (circa AD 96) they confirmed that the knowledge of God went way back in history. In the liturgy of the Jerusalem temple the so-called kedusha, the three times holy of Isaiah 6:3 had a fixed place. The kedusha was taken over by Christians with a view to affirming the three times holy of the seraphim and thereby joyfully acknowledging the unity of heaven and earth. The mysticism of this liturgical act in its worshiping response to the mystery of God can be clearly seen. In the kedusha the Christians followed the Jews in their doxological mysticism.
This practice of the early Christian community must not be misinterpreted, however. In no way did it represent a desire to return to the Jewish emphasis on circumcision and keeping the Mosaic law against which the apostle Paul had repeatedly warned. Their practice represented nothing more than a recognition that the Christian faith had its origin in the Old Testament religious tradition. Obviously, the Jewish mystical experience of the mystery of God was part of that.
Whereas Jewish-Christian congregations show a clear understanding of their deep roots in the Jewish religious heritage, the same cannot be said of congregations consisting mainly of converts from paganism. We see this especially in places like Syria where the Christian gospel was welcomed at a very early stage in places like Antioch. Here it was not so much the Jewish but the Greek spiritual tradition that was predominant. In congregations where the majority of members were Greek, gnosticism played an influential role right from the start. In the New Testament this influence is already a factor. The first letter of the apostle John shows an awareness of the need to warn Christians of the danger of gnostic thought which denied that Jesus was the Christ (1 John 2:2) and that He had come in the flesh (4:3).
One of the most important manuscripts which gives insights into liturgical practices in early Syrian congregations is the Ode of Solomon, a lyrical praise song with a clear mystical and gnostic content. A fragment of this Ode is quoted in the third century Latin text of the Coptic manuscript Pistis Sophia. The full Syrian text was discovered by James Harris in 1909. Since then a considerable number of theories about the origin of the Ode have been published, but the consensus is that it originated in Syria around the end of the first century and the beginning of the second.
The Ode is a doxology and Christ is its content, but a few strains of Greek-gnostic thought are clearly recognisable in it. Most scholars do not identify the Ode with the Gnostic heresy against which the church of the first centuries was warned, but it cannot be denied that it has certain gnostic features. The incarnation of God is described as a descent of the Spirit into a human body and this notion became the source of an enthusiastic theology of the Spirit. The most obvious attribute of Greek origin is the division of reality into two parts along the lines we have seen in Parmenides and Plato. The visible world is but an image of the true, invisible, supernatural reality from which it has emerged. The idea of emanation is prominent.
The mystical theme of the unity of the Saviour and the saved also takes on a prominent place in the Ode. Saved souls are identified with the eternal Logos, and the incarnated Logos and the earthly form of the believer are seen as one. The certainty of the believer’s unity with the human nature of Christ also creates the certainty that believers, on the basis of their baptism, are one with Christ’s divine nature.
In this song believers are released from their suffering on an earth which is wrapped in darkness. They are pulled into the light of eternal glory and blessedness. The dreaming mysticism of the meditating singers leads them to the glorious vision of God. The impression is given that the singing of the Ode assists the soul spiritually on the path of salvation and ultimately brings about that salvation. This is one of the earliest surviving indications from the early church that the song in the gathering of Christians could be the mystical medium of becoming one with Christ and God.
Some commentators see a further gnostic element in the Ode in that the cross of Christ is backgrounded and Paul’s hymns from Philippians 2:5-11 and Colossians 1:12-20 play a predominant role. But this is perhaps misleading. In both these doxologies Paul refers to the cross at critical points (Phil 2:8; Col 1:20). Of course it is true of the early church that the cross receded into the background under dominant gnostic influence, but this cannot be said of the Syrian liturgy of which the Ode of Solomon was a significant part.
The theology of the Spirit which we have already alluded to, was responsible in the Syrian church for the mystical idea of the church as chiefly a spiritual reality which on earth constituted the heavenly bride of the exalted Christ. Sometimes the Holy Spirit took over this role of the church. Accordingly the Spirit was at times viewed as the female part of the Godhead and was invoked as “Mother”, the Mother of all believers collectively as well as believers individually. Little survived of this development, but the mystical notion of the church as the bride of Christ would show a remarkable tenacity in Christian tradition. It was only in Origen’s 3rd century commentary on Solomon’s Song of Songs that it was given a clear, if disputable, theological basis.
Any discussion of the Syrian church in the first two centuries would be incomplete if we did not include its most important theologian. Ignatius of Antioch deserves our attention for two main reasons. In him we find the first traces of a mysticism which has the Person and the work of Christ at its centre, making him the first example of what I would like to call a Christ-oriented mysticism, or a Christ-mysticism for short. And secondly, he is such an important theologian for our purposes because he was one of a long line of Christian martyrs.
It is no surprise that amongst the early martyrs we not only find examples of mystical thought, but also of mystical experiences in the faith they lived and died for. After Ignatius, Justin the Martyr shows the clearest influence of the mysticism of Greek philosophical thought, while in the life of another martyr, Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna (ca 69-155), we hear for the first time of a mystical visionary experience.
While we have enough historical material to be able to describe Ignatius’ and Justin’s mystical orientation in theology, Polycarp’s contribution to the mysticism of the early church lies in his mystical prediction of his own death as a martyr.
The story of Polycarp’s martyrdom is told in a letter which still survives, written by the congregation of Smyrna to the congregation of Philomenium (a town in Phrygia). Eusebius, the most important historian in the ancient church, refers to this letter. It tells of the annual games on the day the Asians honoured the Emperor (tò koinòn teis Asias). Because the games were held by turn in the most important cities of the province and they were scheduled for Smyrna, Polycarp’s friends persuaded him to take refuge in the countryside where, as we are told, he continuously prayed for himself, his own congregation and for the church as a whole. He was, nevertheless, arrested and taken back to Smyrna.
Three days before the Roman soldiers came for him he saw a vision of his pillow catching fire. He immediately told his friends that he would be burnt alive. When at last he was brought to the stadium, eleven Christians had already died before him. The crowd demanded that a lion should be set on Polycarp as was the custom, but the commander of the army and the games had decided that the time was past for the fun of Christians being devoured by lions. Polycarp was accordingly burnt at the stake alive. Polycarp’s vision had become a reality during what was to be the last persecution of Christians in Smyrna.
There is no reason to doubt the authenticity of the Smyrna letter. The external testimony in this regard is too strong. In a moving way this letter evokes the horrifying conduct of a hostile mob lusting for blood. It also tells us of a visionary mysticism, not only as something experienced by Polycarp, but as something accepted and acknowledged as authentic in the Christian communities of Asia Minor.
Polycarp was one of the most respected church leaders of his time, but it was not his intellectual capabilities or his theological profundity that made him famous. It was the steadfast faith and the martyr’s death of an old man of eighty six that gave him such a remarkable place in the history of the church across many centuries.
Both Ignatius of Antioch and Justin Martyr died a martyr’s death like Polycarp. However, it is not their martyrdom but their theological legacy that leads us into understanding the mystical side of the Christian faith in that period.
The conditions under which Ignatius died are unknown to us. Somewhere between AD 110 and 117, during the persecution in Antioch, he was condemned and sent to Rome. Unlike Polycarp for whom we have no historical record written by himself, Ignatius left behind seven letters that somehow survived. Among these one was written to Polycarp, while the others were sent to congregations in Rome and Philadelphia. In these letters he calls himself Theophorus (Carrier of God) and Christophoros (Carrier of Christ). In a metaphorical sense he could have meant messenger of God and Christ.
To describe the theology of Ignatius as gnostic would be a misrepresentation. His ideas were too clearly aligned to the thinking of the apostles Paul and John. Yet there are some elements of Greek-gnostic language noticeable when he describes the descent of the Saviour as the preparation for the ascent of the saved. He links this notion directly to martyrdom. Ignatius approaches his own martyrdom with enthusiasm. It is the closing episode of his earthly existence on his way to heaven as the ultimate end. There the martyr, together with all the other redeemed becomes part of the heavenly body of Christ.
The unity of believers with Christ is a recurring theme in Ignatius’ theology. His mysticism with Christ at its centre finds its culmination in the joyful singing of the congregation as he points out in his commentary on Ephesians 4. In the hymns of praise of the congregation, Christ Himself is present. The influence of the Odes of Solomon is clearly evident here.
When Ignatius sees the structure of heaven reflected in the structure of the earthly church we again recognise an echo of the Odes of Solomon. Nevertheless, we do not find in him much evidence of the idea often attributed to early church theology, that God became man so that man could be deified. The term theopoieisis (deification) does not appear in his writing. Despite this fact a number of commentators still think that Ignatius moved in this direction, making him the first in a line which ended in the mystical gnostic theology of Origen more than a century later.
Justin Martyr became a Christian about AD 130, after studying Greek philosophy. He played a significant role in the development of Christian mysticism. Justin was the first church father who consciously incorporated Greek philosophy into his theology. This had two apparently opposite implications. He showed how the Greek emphasis on rationality could play a decisive role in clarifying Christian theology of God and his creation. But a more surprising implication emerged when he applied the mystical conclusions of the Greek philosophers to Christ and the Christian faith. He did this in the way he explored the logos concept. Through the ages, this type of rational-mystical thinking has issued in the acceptance of a deistic God. On the surface the deistic solution looks very rational, but it is actually deeply mystical: an effort to unravel the unfathomable mystery that everything that exists indeed exists and that there is no nothingness.
Justin was born ca 100 AD in the old Jewish town of Sichem (today’s Nablus) of a Greek-pagan family. According to his own testimony he diligently sought knowledge of God and with this in mind turned to stoic philosophy and to the schools of Pythagoras and Plato. Plato satisfied him more than the others, but he still could find no peace of mind. While walking along the beach one day he met an old man who told him that the philosophy of Plato would not satisfy his quest and that he should start reading the old prophets of Israel. He followed this advice. At the same time the Christians’ evident contempt for death made such a big impression on him that, at the age of thirty, he converted to Christianity. Justin became the first great apologist of the Christian faith. He defended his faith against the Roman emperor, Anthony, and his son and successor, Marcus Aurelius. Two of his apologies survive together with an incomplete dialogue with the Jew, Trypho: a dispute that took place in Ephesus.
The idea of the Logos was central to Justin’s teachings about Christ. It is not surprising that he linked Christ to the logos of Greek thought. In the prologue to John’s Gospel Christ is called the Logos, the Word that was with God and was God. Justin now makes full use of the fact that logos in Greek has a double meaning. It can be translated either as “word” or as “reason” in the sense of logical thought. The Johannine Logos he now augments with the Greek-Stoic teaching that the seed of divine reason is spread across the whole of creation. He identifies the historical Jesus with the rational forces that are at work through the whole universe. When he speaks about the spreading of the seed of the Logos (logos spermatikos) through the creation he uses the metaphor of a fire that goes forth from God. He uses this metaphor to avoid suggesting any kind of division in the being of God. The Logos is not separate from God.
Justin’s view of Christ issues in a doxology. The presence of the Logos in the whole of creation must necessarily lead to a glorifying adoration of Christ, a profound acknowledgement of the mystery of Christ’s overall presence. The mysticism in this is unmistakable.
Acknowledging that his idea of the logos spermatikos, active in the creation and in history, originated from Socrates and Plato, Justin viewed these two Greek philosophers as Christians although they could not know it themselves. He has often been criticised by church historians for speaking of Socrates and Plato as unwitting Christians, but this criticism tells us less about Justin than about the inability of his critics to imagine the context of the second century AD. They clearly have no sense of the struggle of the early apologists to communicate the gospel in terms that their contemporaries could understand and appreciate. It is also too easy to forget that someone like Justin was bold enough to establish a school right under the nose of the Roman emperor. He was condemned for his faith in AD 165 and decapitated. He is indeed Justin Martyr, honoured as a saint by the Catholic, Anglican and Eastern Orthodox Churches.
What I should like to call Justin’s logos-mysticism has not attracted much attention, largely, perhaps, because of its subtlety. But he can be seen as the forerunner of a type of mysticism that we still find today: I refer to deistic mysticism. However, the Christian content of Justin’s mysticism is completely absent from the deism of today. Justin’s unequivocal identification of the historic Christ with the Logos kept him back from any form of deism.
Although his thinking is far less subtle than Justin’s, Origen’s mysticism is better known today. In his ideas the Greek influence is evident in his reference to the neo-Platonic form introduced by Plotinus. Origen’s theology is the starting point for the development of the neo-Platonic mystical tradition that would finally issue in the mysticism of the great Augustine of Hippo.
From Irenaeus to Origen
Most theological historians see Origen as the most outstanding of the third century church fathers who sought a synthesis between the Christian faith and the Greek philosophy of Plotinus. The mystical speculations of Plotinus caused Origen to interpret belief in God in a very distinctive way. However, Origen’s theology, which eventually came under the church’s condemnation, must not be taken as implying that Greek mysticism was the only form of mystical thought in the Christian theology of the first three centuries. As we have pointed out, an authentic mysticism derived from the Christian gospel was at all times present in the theology practised in the early church.
Irenaeus (ca 125 AD – 202 AD), who became bishop of the French city of Lyon, was without doubt the most important bearer of mysticism deriving from the gospel. Through his Adversus Haeresis (Against the Heresies) of circa 180 AD he became known as one of the most important anti-gnostic fathers, strongly opposing the gnostic heresy with its deep Greek roots. But while he consciously avoided the gnostic type of mysticism, nothing prevented him from carrying forward the mystical spirit that we find for example in John’s gospel. It is not, however, his mysticism itself that impresses, but the way in which he clearly sets out the historical character of the Christian gospel as a profound mystery. For him the message of Jesus Christ was not a sort of mystical flight of imagination, but the message that God, in a very concrete way, revealed Himself as a God of love and mercy in the advent, death and resurrection of Christ. Through this theology he re-emphasises the New Testament basis that should be the point of departure for all forms of Christian mystical thinking.
Oikonomia is Irenaeus’ preferred term to emphasise that God’s plan of salvation was realised in history. In a literal sense this word means the management of a home. Paul uses it in Ephesians 1:10 to describe the execution of God’s plan of salvation. Irenaeus links his own thoughts to this profound Pauline idea with a view to expressing theologically Jesus Christ’s role in God’s plan of salvation. In this same verse (Eph 1:10) the apostle describes the final purpose of that plan: “a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth”. Paul here uses the word anakefalao–sasthai (to gather together in one, or, to bring together under one head). Irenaeus makes the same point: God’s final purpose is to unite everything in Christ. However, his account of the way this comes about is clearly mystical: the ascent to God of the redeemed. The final eschatological intention of oneness in Christ finds its fulfilment in the church, the body of Christ filled with the Holy Spirit. Members of the true church thus ascend to God.
This specific use of mystical language, linked to salvation history as recorded in the New Testament, was part of the faith and spiritual experience of the ancient church. Unfortunately, apart from Irenaeus, there is no clear evidence that it was reflected in the formal theology of those early years. Influential theologians were few and far between in the two centuries under discussion.
It would, however, be a mistake to ignore someone like Tertullian. He was influential in his own right, although he cannot be compared to Irenaeus who had a clearer concept of the historical character of the salvation message.
Quintus Tertullianus (ca 180-225) worked in the Roman province of Africa. From Carthage he published a great number of polemical writings against the heresies of his time. He was particularly opposed to the heresy of the Gnostic Valentinus and of Marcion who rejected the Old Testament. The latter described the Creator as a demiurge or lesser God who created the earth from evil matter.
Unlike most of the Christian thinkers of this period Tertullian did not greatly esteem Greek philosophers. Not only were his writings anti-gnostic, but unlike Justin Martyr he did not view the great Greek philosophers of antiquity as forerunners of Christ. He saw them rather as the patriarchal fathers of heretics. Tertullian’s resistance to Greek philosophy is usually taken as embodied in the well-known statement attributed to him, in which the Christian faith is considered to be irrational: “Credo, quia absurdum est.” (I believe, because it is absurd.)
We cannot conclude from this that Tertullian was a mystic. Mysticism does not necessarily involve the irrational and even less the absurd. On the other hand we discover in Tertullian a mystical form of spirituality in his relationship with Montanism, a movement which started between the end of the second and the beginning of the third century AD. For fourteen years, between 207 and 220, there was demonstrably contact between him and this movement, a movement rather like present day Pentecostalism with its charismatic character.
The origin of this movement goes back to the prophetic activities of a certain Montanus, a convert from paganism. He claimed that the Paraclete (the Holy Spirit) spoke directly through him. Two female colleagues, Priscilla and Maximilla, together with him laid claim to special inspiration by the Holy Spirit and the receiving of ecstatic visions.
The type of mysticism which went along with this kind of movement did not make an enduring impression on the church. Even Tertullian had to pay the price for his association with Montanism. In spite of his sharp rejection of gnosticism, he was never canonized by the official church, Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox.
By the end of the second century the struggle against gnosticism had more or less subsided. This does not mean, however, that the influence of Greek philosophy on Christian theological thinking had come to an end. Plotinus and the type of mystical thinking that characterised his philosophy would announce itself with considerable force once more in Origen.
Despite his Egyptian name, Origen’s mother tongue was Greek. Born in Alexandria circa 184 AD, Origen’s fame derived both from his extensive writings and from his ascetic lifestyle. He was the first theologian to leave behind a comprehensive theology in the full sense of the word. He was an exceptionally prolific writer whose legacy is in a wide range of theological disciplines: textual criticism, biblical exegesis, hermeneutics and, above all, a systematic theology in which theological thought and philosophical speculation played a significant role. Secondly his very distinctive ascetic lifestyle caught the attention of many. Although it is not historically verifiable, it is claimed that his radical ascetic ideals led him to castrate himself. Understandably, he received the nickname of Origénes Adamántios. The Greek adamántios can be translated as “steadfast”, “unbreakable” or “invincible”.
Origen’s father, who was a Christian, died a martyr’s death during the reign of the emperor, Septimus Severus, when his son was about 17. Origen’s own life was extremely dramatic. In Alexandria he had a very rich patron, Ambrose. Because of a civil uprising in the city, both Ambrose and Origen were forced to escape to Caesarea. Origen was called back to Alexandria in 216 AD, only to be banned again and sent back to Caesarea by a synod of bishops and elders under the leadership of Demetrius, bishop of Alexandria, who had serious reservations about his preaching and his ordination. In Caesarea where he was a very popular priest, he wrote extensively. He died in this city in 254 AD.
His first systematic work, Peri Argoun, written in 220 AD, was translated into Latin in 400 AD because of its continued theological significance. Under the title, De Principiis (Concerning the Principles), it contains the main features of Origen’s theological and philosophical thinking as well as his mystical speculations. This book is also our main source for Origen. Next to De Principiis we also have writings about prayer and numerous commentaries on Bible books, among others a commentary on Solomon’s Song of Songs, perhaps the most important introduction to the mystical character of Origen’s theology.
To understand Origen’s De Principiis it is necessary to know more about the philosophical climate of the Alexandria of his days. Alexandria was without doubt the centre of Greek philosophical and Christian theological thinking during the first half of the third century. It is no exaggeration to describe Alexandria as the crucible of a new way of thinking in which Jewish-Christian and Greek ideas intermingled, a process which had started with the Hellenistic Jew, Philo of Alexandria in the first century.
We have already referred to Ammonius Saccas, the Greek philosopher who revived Plato’s thoughts in the form of neo-Platonism. As a teacher Saccas was not only a great influence on the life of Plotinus, but also on Origen who sat at his feet as a pupil. In both instances a type of logos-mysticism was the result. Plotinus’ mysticism was in line with the Greek thinking of his day, while in Origen there was a clear fusion of Greek-Platonic thinking and the Christian message.
At Alexandria there was also a logos-mysticism which reminds us of Justin Martyr. In this connection we must make mention of Clement. Titus Flavius Clemens, or Clement of Alexandria to distinguish him from others with the same name, lived in that city at the same time as Saccas and Plotinus at the beginning of the third century. He died c.215, five years before Origen’s Peri Argoun saw the light of day. There are speculations by some scholars, most probably incorrect, that he was Origen’s predecessor as head of the Alexandrian School of Catechesis. Whatever the case may be, his opinions would have been well known in this city with its mix of intellectual Greeks and Christian thinkers. It is highly unlikely that he would not have shared with Origen some of his thoughts on logos-theology.
Like Justin Martyr, Clement had a great admiration for Greek philosophy. By quoting from Plato, Aristotle and philosophers in the Stoic tradition he defended the idea that even the pagans had portions of the truth. He was of the opinion that they could be used as a propaedeutic or preliminary study for Christian theology. In this the logos of Greek philosophy again played a part.
Following the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) Clement describes God as ho oun, the only true “Being” (cf Ex 3:14). Beneath Him is the Logos as the side of God turned towards the earth. The Logos is the educator of humanity. He becomes part of individual people through the Holy Spirit that lives in them. This Spirit is the power of God that descends on human beings and gives them enlightened knowledge. As the Logos, He penetrates not only the human mind but the whole of the human being. The believer who has received this knowledge is grafted by love into the Logos-Spirit. Thus the human being becomes the flute through which the breath of the Spirit blows. It is not surprising then that Clement emphasises the spiritual-mystical character of John’s gospel: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound … So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
Origen’s thinking has to be understood in this lively intellectual context. Our topic does not require a full description of his theology. I shall concentrate on those aspects in which the mysticism in his thinking comes most clearly to the fore. This means that we shall be looking at his idea of God and at his view of the Logos, both of which are closely linked. We shall also be exploring the roots of Origen’s mystical tendency in the intellectualism of Greek philosophy. His special view of the human soul, perhaps more than some other aspects of his theological thinking, has its origin in Greek mysticism. Finally, we shall examine an example of his allegorical method of Bible exegesis, focusing on the mysticism in his idea of the church as the bride of Christ in his exposition of Solomon’s Song of Songs.
As the undivided One, Origen’s Godhead is the monás, the origin of everything. This undivided One stands on the other side of reason, thinking and being (epékeina vou kai ousías) and transcends them. As the ground of all being nothing more can be said or even thought about the One. As the divine primordial ground of an all-overflowing perfection God cannot but let his goodness pour forth from Him. God therefore lets the Logos radiate from Him like the light of his countenance.
The Logos-Son of John’s gospel is Origen’s point of departure. The Logos is an emanation from God but also a creature of God. As the Logos lives in the immediate vicinity of God, God created the world through Him. The Logos accordingly permeates the creation and can be the mediator between God and the multitude of created worlds.
Origen sees the world of angels as one of the countless spheres of heavenly powers which streamed forth from God, but still exist in close association with God. In his De Principiis he speaks of the generatio filii (the generation of sons), first in the angels and then in human souls which are all part of what can be called “the pre-world creation”.
In this world of angels and souls there was a primordial fall into sin because of pride. This is also Origen’s explanation of the origin of Satan as a fallen angel. But in his grace God created heaven and earth as a dwelling place for his sons of light so that they would not fall again and, eventually, would be able to ascend to the One.
At creation the souls were joined to material bodies. For these souls to be freed from their bodies to be reunited to God, the Logos descended from the divine sphere to the transient world. Through his word and his example He leads the souls to their final redemption and their return to God.
The Spirit proceeds from the Logos and through the Spirit the Logos permeates the whole of creation.
Origen gave his own cast to the activity of the Platonic Logos as the world soul in which God demonstrates his omnipotence. Through the Logos-Spirit all things are finally brought back to their Origin. All things material are burnt and destroyed. Everything spiritual returns to God. The last to return is the Logos when He gives his dominion over to his Father so that “God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). Origen sees this as the completion of the apokatástasis, the restoration of everything.
The mysticism of the Platonic and neo-Platonic division of reality in two spheres, the lower material and the higher spiritual reality that co-exist, and the pre-existence of souls in the spiritual sphere and their return to the One, are all plainly present in Origen’s thoughts.
Without going into Origen’s Christology at any depth, it is striking how this division of reality into two spheres plays a role in the road of redemption back to God. The way of the Logos down towards the human world is also the way of the soul to ascend back to God. On this road the human soul first meets Jesus the human being. In this ordinary human encounter a higher spiritual encounter takes place when the soul discovers in Jesus the Logos, the Son of God. When human believers meet the Word, the Logos of God, in the incarnated Word they move to a higher level of knowledge. This opens the way for them to become part of God. Like Ignatius whom we discussed earlier, Origen does not use the term “deification” (theopoíeisis). However, the verb theopoieisthai (to be made part of God) does appear in his writings.
Origen’s division of reality in two spheres is very clear in the way he uses the Bible. His hermeneutics are particularly telling. He looks for the spiritual meaning of a specific Biblical text behind the literal words of the text. If the text is not manifestly spiritual enough in his opinion he uses an allegorical method to reveal the spiritual message. In the nature of things, the Old Testament lends itself particularly to this approach. By using the allegorical method he tries to penetrate to a deeper spiritual level of the text.
The most outstanding example of Origen’s allegorical method is his commentary on Solomon’s Song of Songs. The mysticism of the church as the bride of Christ which we have already met in the Ode of Solomon, reaches its peak in Origen. So persuasive was his use of the bride-mysticism theme and (to a lesser extent) the allegorical mode that both persist in Christian exegesis, even today.
In the fourth century Gregory of Nyssa (ca 330-390) wrote in the same allegorical vein. He is one of the three Cappadocians considered to be orthodox pillars of the church. Gregory not only gave us an allegorical explanation of the creation story, but also wrote an allegorical commentary on the Song of Songs. The dominance of the allegorical mode is clear when we contrast Gregory with Theodorus (ca 350-428), bishop of Mopsuestia. Theodorus wrote a commentary on the Song of Songs in which he rejected the allegorical approach and pursued a more literal exegesis. He received no support. In fact, more than a century after his death, at the Council of Constantinople in 550, his kind of literal exegesis was condemned as not suitable for Christian ears.
In Christian theology with a strong and dominant mystical character the bride-mysticism of the Song of Songs would persist as an exegetic trope. One of the most famous examples is Bernard of Clairvaux’s twelfth century sermon, De diligendo. It presents a mystical characterisation of the church as the bride of Christ in almost erotic terms. While the mysticism of the bride of Christ remained dominant, the allegorical interpretation of the rest of the Old Testament gradually lost its appeal, except in some forms of preaching.
The mystical allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs by Origen clearly derives from Greek practice. Allegory never was a Jewish or Christian invention. The allegorical type of thinking and writing had its origin deep in Greek history. The early Greek intelligentsia were affronted by the religious poetry of their time. The gross and scandalous behaviour of the Homeric gods offended them to such a degree that they sought refuge in allegorical exposition of these poems. In this way they succeeded in changing the lascivious gods and goddesses into carriers of mystical and spiritual ideals.
Origen fully subscribed to Plato’s distinction between an earthly physical sexual love and a heavenly spiritual love. His alleged self-castration on the basis of a literal and not an allegorical interpretation of Matthew 5:29 is, if true, a clear indication that a literal understanding of the Song of Songs would have affronted his ascetic orientation. It was after all a period in which total sexual abstinence, the spiritualisation of the human sexual urge and high praise for virginity characterised thinking about what was necessary for the human soul’s optimal communion with God. These ideals applied particularly to the spiritual leaders of congregations.
In 533, almost 300 years after Origen’s death, the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople declared Origen a heretic, and with him some of his prominent followers, like Evagrius Pontus, a mystic in his own right. The reason for the anathema pronounced on Origen was not his allegorical method or his mysticism or the influence of Plotinus on him. Unacceptable to the church were his doctrine of the pre-existence of souls and the idea of anastasis, the all-encompassing reconciliation and restitution of all things.
The influence of Plotinus and neo-Platonism was far from played out, however. Augustine, who is considered by both Protestants and Catholics to be the greatest church father of all times, came strongly under that influence. His theology was for many centuries the measure of all orthodox theological thinking in the West. That the mysticism which was integral to his theology would have a lasting effect on the spirituality of many after him, speaks for itself.
3. Christ-mysticism: from Augustine to Bernard of Clairvaux
The development of mystical thinking in the theology of the first centuries after Christ followed a clear pattern, despite the vicissitudes of life during this period. Authentic Christian mysticism was always present. At the same time, the influence of Greek mysticism was regularly felt. It could not have been otherwise. In the Western world the gospel of Jesus Christ had to be proclaimed in a milieu shaped by Greek thought. To present the Christian faith in such a way that it took root in that spiritual climate was no simple matter. In making this “foreign” gospel understandable it was necessary to make use of some substantial elements of Greek thought. This was especially the case when Christian thinkers tried to present their faith in a way that challenged the prevailing philosophy. In short, Christian thinkers were forced to do theology in an idiom that could draw and sustain attention. This was the challenge that faced the apostle Paul in Athens when he tried to explain the gospel in a language his hearers could understand. How could he make known the “unknown God” to the citizens of Athens while his own knowledge of God had come to him in Jewish terms, far removed from the world of Greek and Athenian experience?
Christian thinkers sought to share something that by its very nature was a mystery, the mystery of an unknown God of compassion and grace. It was inevitable that the idiom of Greek mysticism would play a role in this presentation.
Augustine was born and grew up in the Roman Empire. Like his predecessors, however, he was inevitably exposed to the dominant Greek culture. Even Rome, despite its military dominance, was saturated by Greek intellectual influences. The neo-Platonism of Plotinus was the measure by which anyone who claimed to have something philosophical to say was measured.
Given the theme of this book, our discussion of Augustine will not attempt to cover his theology as a whole. We shall restrict ourselves to exploring the mystical element in the thinking of the bishop of Hippo.
In more ways than one, the neo-Platonic philosophy of Plotinus was decisive in the development of Augustine’s thinking. For a long time Augustine was a victim of Manichaeism, a movement that spread from Persia to Italy.
Manichaeism was a typical syncretistic religion. Its founder was Mani, born 216, a Persian of royal descent who put together a mix of the teachings of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity. Accordingly, there was room for Jesus, if only as a phantom figure whose death and resurrection were feigned events, but whose teachings were important. From Buddhism he idealised a life of suffering and from Zoroaster he took over the concept of the absolute dualism of light and darkness over which God and the king of darkness and evil (Satan in other words) ruled right from the beginning.
Augustine made contact with Manichaeism through the Latin translation of Mani’s writing by Victorinus. For a long time these teachings held the upper hand in Augustine’s life. The idea prevalent in Manichaeism that God is a hidden nature within nature and that He is a figure of indescribably fine matter that lives in the endless space of the bodies that are part of this space, became an obsession with Augustine.
Then Plotinus’ neo-Platonism began to play a marked role in Augustine’s life. It made him see God as infinite Spirit, existing completely independent of nature – God as the one from whom all flows and to whom all returns. At this decisive point the influence of neo-Platonic mysticism made itself felt. The result was an intense spiritual struggle within Augustine, in which he had many mystical experiences, as often happens to people who are called to great things. Here, Oepke Noordmans tells us, we are dealing with the profound mystery of experiences that cannot be psychologically explained. Eventually, just as in the case of Martin Luther, it would be the letters of the apostle Paul that led Augustine to the light and to Christ.
The influence of the mysticism of Plotinus on Augustine’s theology is more subtle than we might, at first glance, have suspected. A more substantial treatment of his theology as a whole would be necessary to do it justice. However, we have the advantage that Augustine almost always shows his mystical side, and that there is one place where it is so obvious that it cannot be overlooked. In his Confessions we come to know Augustine through very intimate personal disclosures. More than in his other writings, he bares his soul and gives us insights into his spiritual life and the nature of the spirituality from which he lives. In his other writings, especially those of a dogmatic and political nature, this spirituality moves to the background, although it never disappears. We see it in his treatment of the central Christian doctrines: especially in his treatment of the grace of God where we sense him moving on the edge of mysticism.
Mysticism has to be present in teachings on God’s mercy and compassion. When we think and speak about the grace of God we find ourselves on the edge of the unspeakable, plumbing the depths of the divine mystery, trying to understand God Himself. At this point theology cannot but move into the realm of the mystical. But this is not the mysticism of Plotinus. We are here confronted with the limitless ocean of authentic Christian mystical thinking, and the beginnings of a Christ-mysticism. We are exploring the unfathomable mystery of God’s grace which compelled Paul to cry out in Romans 11:33-36:
Oh, the depth of the riches
of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgements,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counsellor?”
“Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever!
As we seek to understand the role that mysticism played in the thinking of Augustine, his Confessions seems the obvious place to begin. It affords us a glimpse of the background of spirituality against which his view of God’s grace emerges. At the same time we know that his doctrine of grace must always be understood as inseparable from his doctrine of predestination. In what follows, we shall begin by examining the Confessions for characteristics which have an undoubtedly mystical character, after which we shall turn to Augustine’s doctrine of grace.
What does Augustine’s mysticism consist of?
More than one researcher has pointed out that one could summarise Augustine’s theology in his own words: “I wish to know God and the soul. Nothing more? Definitely not.”
Although he strongly emphasises the importance of the “soul” (or its synonymn “heart”) and sees it in a close relationship with God, that relationship is not necessarily an expression of a mystical union or connection. But when he describes this relationship as an intense longing of the soul or heart for God, and this longing for God is described in terms of a love-relationship, we move into the sphere of mystical experience.
There is no doubt that Augustine’s experience of this love springs from a profound faith. When this love is described as a longing or yearning for God the words resonate with a deep mystery. It is mystical language, and mystical language cannot be translated in terms that are precisely defined and easy to understand. The mystery of the relationship with God, the boundless wonder of God being God in his turning towards a human being, and the human response to this nearness of God – these experiences go beyond words. Words yield to silence.
Whoever reads Augustine’s Confessions and does not sense this experience does him an injustice. What is more, that reader does him or herself an injustice.
“Inquietum est cor nostrum, donec requiescat in te – restless is our heart until it finds rest in you.” With these words Augustine introduces the theme of the Confessions, a theme that reverberates in the stories of his life, his mistakes, his transgressions as a youth, his digressions, his willingness to be led astray by fallacies, the spiritual struggles of his believing mother, and even her dreams and reaching out to God on his behalf.
Augustine does not hesitate to describe the soul’s going astray and deviation from God with crude directness. The soul fornicates if it strays from God – ita fornicatur anima, cum avertitur abs te (2.6.14) – and finds the good and the pure only when it returns to God.
He describes the restlessness of the soul metaphorically as something that has been beaten and which he now carries bleeding, to find a place where it can safely be put down. But he cannot find such a place: not in nature’s beauty, not in games and songs, not in the pleasures of city life, not in books or poems. Then follow these unforgettable words when he realises that there is no resting place for his heart, because he cannot escape from himself: … quo enim cor meum fugeret a corde meo? Quo a me ipso fugerem? quo non me squarer – “Where can my heart flee from my heart? Where can I flee from myself? Where can I go without following myself?” (4.7.13).
In his innermost self there is a hunger for God, a hunger caused by God Himself. In his childhood he absorbed the name of his Saviour with his mother’s milk (3.4.8). It stayed with him, but did not bring him to conviction.
But God did not leave him alone. In his search for the truth, he stumbled upon Manichaeism, only to discover in the end that their truth was a sham, all their beautiful words were hollow, and the noises they made were clanging cymbals (tenus sono et strepitu linguae). All this while he was searching “only for You”. His hunger and thirst for God could not be satisfied.
The well-known mystical themes of height and depth, light and darkness frequently appear. They are sometimes used as synonyms for his spiritual condition in his search for God. Depth and darkness are images of damnation. To escape from the deep abyss of spiritual blindness and to find God are not for everyone (8.4.9). That is why Augustine’s account of his awe at the ways in which God, working through his mother, brought him from the darkness to the light is one of the most remarkable and gripping parts of the Confessions. The metaphors of height and depth are used in an unforgettable way to describe Monnica’s intercession with God for her son. What makes this passage even more striking as an example of the mystical character of his thinking is that he has no hesitation about telling the story of Monnica’s vision of him in a dream. This calls for more detailed attention.
Quoting from Psalm 144:7 Augustine praises God who from on high put out his hand to rescue his soul from the deep darkness. This was in response to his mother’s entreaties: she wept for her son before God, more than most mothers weep over the death of a child. “And you, o Lord,” he continues, “heard (her prayer) and did not despise the tears that flowed forth from her eyes and wetted the earth wherever she prayed. Indeed, You heard her.” In what way did God hear her? It is important that we look at this question that Augustine himself asked, because his actual conversion from the blasphemous heresy of Manichaeism took place years after this incident.
God answered Monnica’s prayer through a dream. She dreamt that she stood on a wooden rule full of grief and exhausted with sorrow. Suddenly a young man clothed in a shining garment (an angel?) came towards her, laughing. He asked her why she was crying and full of sorrow. She answered that she was crying because of Augustine and his damnation. The young man answered that she should not worry and that Augustine was where she was. When she looked up she saw Augustine next to her on the wooden rule.
“Where could this dream come from,” asks Augustine, “but from you who turned your ears to her heart, o good and almighty One, you who cares for each one of us as if he or she were the only one, yet cares for all of us as you care for the individual?” For Augustine, the mystic, it was not strange that God answered and comforted his mother in this way.
However, we should also note that in this remarkable passage which affords such penetrating insight into Augustine’s spiritual experiences, his emphasis falls, not on his mother’s vision, but on her prayers.
For Augustine true prayer is a longing for God, a longing that penetrates to God Himself: Ad hoc ibi dulce est, quod speramus exaudire te? Recte istud precibus, quia desiderium perveniendi habent: “Does the sweetness lie in the hope of being heard by you? By prayers the longing to get through to you is realized” (4.5.10).
He describes his painful struggles in prayer when the question of the origin of evil (perhaps in himself?) led him to doubt, while the truths of the Catholic faith about Christ as attested by Scripture remain intact in him. With a heart charged with anguish because of evil, he comes sighing to God. Without Augustine knowing it, God knows. He knows what Augustine is suffering. The people around him are unaware of this suffering. The unrest of his soul is not apparent to them. Only God knows. But he, Augustine, does not know that God knows. In the loneliness of prayer Augustine struggles with God without knowing that his prayers are getting through to God himself. Later he will know. He realises that God has mercy on dust and ashes and is ready to reshape him, correcting his deformity.
In his mystical thinking Augustine is conscious of God admonishing him to turn to himself and his innermost soul. He does so under the guidance of God, because God has become his helper – Et inde admonitus redire ad memet ipsum intravi in intima mea duce te et potui, quoniam factus auditor meus (7.10.16): “I was admonished to return into myself. Led by you I entered into my innermost self, and was able to do so because you had become my helper.” Indeed, to Augustine it all comes down to God and the soul.
The story of Augustine’s final conversion as he tells it in his Confessions (8.12.28-29) is well known. Sometimes one gets the impression that it is all that members of Christian churches and even theologians know about him. Yet it is important to look closely at the passage of Scripture Augustine went to read after a deep spiritual struggle in the garden in the city of Milan, when he heard the voice of a young child (he was not sure whether it was a girl or boy) crying out: “Take and read, take and read!” (tolle lege, tolle lege).
The Vulgate version of Romans 13:13-14, which is the first passage Augustine comes to when he picks up the Scriptures, reads: “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality (non in cubilibus) and sensuality (impudicitiis), not in quarrelling and jealousy, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ (induite dominum Jesum Christum) and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” The key point is: “put on the Lord Jesus Christ”. “I did not read anything further,” Augustine tells us, “because when I read it, the true light of inward peace filled my heart and the darkness of doubt fled.”
Augustine was baptised in Milan together with his ten year old son, Adeodatus, his son according to the flesh, born of his sin – ex me natum carnaliter de peccato meo (9.6.14). From now on the love of God in Jesus Christ with whom he had clothed himself, became the centre point of his theology. He, the Christ, is the One whose fullness the soul receives – He who in his own time died for the ungodly. After all, says Augustine, it is written that God did not spare his own Son, but delivered Him for us all (7.9.15). That is why we can live in unity with Christ. That is why giving yourself over completely to Christ’s love, is more important than anything else – melus tuae caritate me dedere (8.6.13). With that, a Christ-oriented mysticism which would cover centuries to come, was born.
The particular accent and character of the mysticism in Augustine’s teachings on grace necessarily reflect his life and faith experience. Almost every page of his Confessions makes one recognise Augustine’s deep sense of awe at God’s grace, shown to him unearned and without any base in his own achievements. The awareness that God pulled him out of the fire like a piece of firewood is the sub-text of the life story which he lays openly before God and his fellow people.
Augustine’s intense struggle with the power of sin on every page of his Confessions makes one realise the inevitability of a serious theological conflict between him and Pelagius. A strict ascetic, Pelagius came to Rome in the fifth century, most probably from Ireland. His life history is very different from Augustine’s. He had not come through a deep and fearful struggle with sin, at least to nothing like the same degree of intensity as Augustine. Against Augustine’s conviction that the human struggle with sin arises from the fall which made sin part of human nature, Pelagius proclaimed that each person is born without sin or virtue and with a free will to choose between good or evil. God does indeed give support in making the right choices, but his grace is not an absolute necessity. God knows in advance what choices people will make and this foreknowledge is his basis for electing some to eternal life and some to everlasting damnation.
This was totally unacceptable to Augustine. There is a deep mystery in human salvation from sin and evil and this mystery is hidden in God. No one can explain it. The grace of God lies completely beyond the range of human conception. That sinners can have some awareness that God accepts them through grace is only possible if God Himself brings this awareness about. The source of this conviction can only be God Himself. It is the work of the Holy Spirit. Precisely for that reason it does not cease to be a mystery.
Augustine’s teaching of grace and the consciousness that God chooses a sinner to life everlasting is a mystical belief that is an inalienable part of the Augustinian heritage. All who follow in Augustine’s footsteps reveal it. Augustine’s doctrine of grace is very closely linked to his doctrine of predestination or election. In pursuing this theme, I must emphasise again that I am not attempting to cover the whole of Augustine’s theology or to do anything approaching that. The doctrine of predestination is the most controversial part of Augustine’s theology, especially when the notion of a double predestination, a predestination to life and to death, is mooted. Augustine himself never used the expression “double predestination”. Of course a case can be made that the idea was implicit in his thinking. We shall not, however, go deeper into this problem. Our purpose is different. We wish to show that Augustine’s doctrine of grace, including his notion that God’s grace is elective, has a strong mystical foundation.
The primary agent in Augustine’s search for God, is not Augustine, but God Himself. Because God seeks Augustine, Augustine seeks God. That is why we should not look for God outside of ourselves, but rather in ourselves. From all eternity God has been closer and more intimately united to us than we can ever conceive and is therefore closer to us than we are to ourselves. The self is not God and does not contain God, but drawn by God the self reaches beyond itself to God. That is the deep mystery of God’s predestination.
It is clear then that Augustine’s view of God’s grace and his notion of divine election does not depend on an abstract view of God’s sovereignty and omnipotence, but is indissolubly linked to his idea of the working of the Holy Spirit. Grace is above all the indwelling of Christ in human beings through the Holy Spirit. Everything he writes about faith and the good, particularly about the love with which Christ embraces us, points to the powerful grace of God that is working in us.
The way in which Augustine writes about the indwelling of God through the Holy Spirit, does not prevent him, in a genuine mystical style which recalls Plotinus, from using the metaphor of “the ascent of the soul to God”. God is not only the God within the soul, but also the eternal light of truth above us. The two metaphors of the indwelling of God in us and our ascent to God, intersect when God and the soul meet each other. Therefore my most inward self is also the point above me, the point that transcends me.
In the last analysis, Augustine breaks radically from the mysticism of Plotinus and reaches far above him. At the same time, he exposes the altogether unmystical heresy of his great opponent, Pelagius, especially the Pelagean idea that humans can save themselves by the choices they willingly make without the assistance of God’s grace.
Augustine transformed the concept of longing for God. The restless human seeking for God ceases to be the starting point. The longing begins with the totally incomprehensible love of God shown in his descent to humanity: the movement of the Holy Spirit of God in the soul of a human being. Driven by its desire to be with God, the soul recognises God, not as the One who lets Himself be found by a human, but as the One who seeks humans and reveals Himself in their souls. This revelation of God by means of his Spirit is indissolubly linked with Christ, the incarnated Word, and his unfathomable self-sacrificing love. The incomprehensible mystery of the love of God and his descent in Christ calls for a reciprocal love from our side. Love is the fulfilled result of God’s revelation of Himself in the soul. In Augustine’s mystical thought the life of the believer circles around the love of Christ, not in self love (amor sui) but in the love of God (amor Dei). His mysticism has Christ as its centre. It is filled with the concept of love and from the beginning to the end determined by that love.
This book does not attempt to cover the full influence of Augustine’s Christ-oriented mysticism of grace on the history of theology in the West. However, it would be negligent not to refer to the Cistercian monk, Bernard of Clairvaux. Five centuries after the death of Augustine in 430 AD, Bernard’s Christ-mysticism re-awakened the mysticism of both Augustine and of Origen. He evoked a mysticism of the church as the bride of Christ, unsurpassed in its poetic power and mystical charm.
Bernard of Clairvaux
In his Christ-mysticism, Augustine indissolubly joined the love of God and our love of Him to his doctrine of grace. Augustine’s message of God’s mercy and love which evokes human love in response would be carried forward in the centuries to come as an irreplaceable element of the gospel, able to resist all attacks on it.
Of these attacks against the gospel of grace the fiercest would come from the Semi-Pelagians. Semi-Pelagianism was an explicit attempt to recover a share for human agency and capacity in the doctrine of salvation. Semi-Pelagians took a kind of middle road. God’s work of grace, they said, is not one-sided: there is a kind of co-operation between God and human beings in so far as it is left to humans to accept or deny God’s intervention in their lives. With this goes the idea that humans are not completely powerless against their own sinful nature: their will to do good has only been weakened and therefore needs the grace of God to strengthen it. This subtle undermining of Augustine’s radical doctrine of grace was emphatically rejected at the Synod of Orange in 529 AD. However, the Synod’s decision could not prevent Semi-Pelagianism from continuing to exist in various forms in the church, where it undermined the worshiping amazement at God’s grace so indissolubly linked to Christ-mysticism. It has rightly been pointed out that no one can honestly kneel before God as a Semi-Pelagian. The mystery and the mysticism of prayer are lost in this middle road. Authentic Christ-oriented mysticism eludes anyone who does not live in submission to God whose mercy depends not in the least on human efforts or co-operation.
It is important that Bernard of Clairvaux should be mentioned in this regard. Bernard forms the bridge between Augustine and the Reformation of Calvin and Luther. The two Reformers rediscovered Augustine’s doctrine of grace, each in his own way, making it one of the pillars of the Reformation. Without Bernard as bridge, the Catholic Blaise Pascal would have remained a closed book to us.
The mysticism of Bernard of Clairvaux was no stumbling-block for the Reformers. Luther called Bernard the “Augustine of the Middle Ages”, and in reference to one of Bernard’s last books Calvin says that he speaks as if he is the truth itself. The Reformers made these remarks despite the reservations they must have had concerning some aspects of Bernard’s theology. We think inter alia of Bernard’s ideal of monasticism, but also of his unconcealed and convinced adoration of Mary. When Bernard speaks about the mystical life with God in Christ, Mary is often mentioned. It is no wonder that this doctor mellifluus (teacher of honeyed words) received a nickname, namely Chitarista Mariae (Mary’s Cither-player).
The Reformers could not but show their appreciation for Bernard. In Augustine’s Christ-mysticism the mercy and love of God are the main themes. Although Bernard himself did not deal extensively with the doctrine of grace, the love of God and the relationship of love between Him and human beings were so overwhelming in his thinking that it was not necessary to develop his own doctrine of grace. It was deeply imbedded in him by the Christ-mysticism carried over from Augustine across many centuries.
Bernard of Fontaines, born in 1091 at Dijon in Burgundy, moved together with his brothers into the monastery of Citeaux, only to become after a short while the abbot of a derived monastery which he called Clairvaux. Very soon this Cistercian monastery would become the leading monastery in the West and the abbot the most influential churchman of his time.
Bernard and his Cistercian monks were all well trained in the monastic tradition of meditative theology, a praying response to God’s revealed Word which contains the “economy” of God’s redemption. The allegorical reading of the Holy Scriptures which went back to Origen, was central to this tradition. Their theological thinking was shaped by symbols and analogies, not by definitions of a theological or dogmatic nature. They believed that definitions limit. Meditation and symbols by contrast lead to mysteries which have no boundaries.
In Bernard’s homilies on Solomon’s Song of Songs, Cistercian theology finds its most noble expression. In these homilies he makes extensive use of allegories and symbols, but through it all prayer and love are the main pillars of his theology. Prayer is the vehicle, but love is the content. Bernard is convinced that in our search for God, prayer is a better conductor than meditation. Respect for God and the divine mysteries is respect for prayer. It is the source of all understanding and total love.
For Bernard the grace of intimate prayer and the experience of the realities of faith are identical, because in prayer we taste and take a delight in unity with God and consequently in God Himself. Many years later the theological slogan of Anselm of Canterbury would be, “I believe in order to understand” (credo ut intelligam). For Bernard it would have been: “I believe in order to experience”(credo ut experiar).
The prayerful contemplation of the content of faith which for Bernard leads to the contemplation of God Himself, finds its fulfilment in the mystery of God’s humanity in Jesus. The strongest attribute of Bernard’s homily on the Song of Songs is the spiritual energy with which he leads his hearers and readers to plunge into the mystery of God, especially into the mystery of Jesus’ suffering. “What,” he asks in one of his sermons, “is more effective for the sin of the human conscience and the enlightenment of the mind’s vision of faith than meticulous meditation on the wounds of Christ?” He compares contemplation of the suffering of Christ with a small bundle of myrrh on our chest that leads us to the acknowledgement of his divinity and hence to unity with Him. Ultimately, it is God that draws us to Him in the man, Jesus, the demonstration of his divine love. In Jesus God changed his name which refers to majesty and power to a name that means goodness and mercy.
Because He Himself is the Wisdom of God, He is the One through whom the wisdom of God comes to humans, a wisdom that is nothing other than the love of God for humankind. When this love is revealed to us in our contemplation of Jesus, we respond in love and become one with Him.
Bernard of Clairvaux was a major vehicle through which the Christ-oriented mysticism of Augustine was carried into the Medieval and modern worlds. Bearing in mind the main theme of this book, the relationship between mystical faith and science, the question we are now obliged to answer is: Where in the early modern scientific period do we find an example of a scientist of repute who also showed clear evidence in his life and work that Augustinian mysticism was not confined within the walls of churches or monasteries but made itself felt in the intellectual world outside, more precisely in the field of scientific development.
The most outstanding example of a scientist who clearly and unequivocally took his stand in the Augustinian tradition was Blaise Pascal. Centuries after the death of the great bishop of Hippo, the enduring influence of his theology, including its mystical side, finds expression in this young mathematician. Pascal lived in the time of the Enlightenment, the 17th and 18th centuries, a period in which there was an explosion of intellectual and scientific activities. There is no better example of how science and a mystical faith meet than in Blaise Pascal.
The Enlightenment not only produced a Pascal in the tradition of Augustinian mysticism: it also produced mathematicians and scientists just as famous as Pascal who were not in that tradition. One outstanding example is René Descartes.
Despite his lack of enthusiasm for Augustine, we should not conclude that Descartes, a famous mathematician and scientist in his own right, was free from any kind of mysticism in his thinking. His thinking was wittingly or unwittingly also accompanied by a type of mysticism almost as old as the mysticism of Augustine. This mysticism originated with Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, more than a century after Augustine. That both these types of mysticism were originally of Greek extraction almost speaks for itself, considering the overwhelming influence of Greek thought in the West.
For the sake of clarity, I prefer to deal first with the Augustinian tradition and Blaise Pascal. After I have discussed Pascal, I will turn the clock back a few centuries to explore the type of mysticism that led to typical Cartesian thinking.
Order by telephone – 021 864 8210/11
or email email@example.com
– Foreword by Stanley Ridge
1. God’s mystery, mystical faith and science
2. Greek mysticism and early Christianity
3. Christ-mysticism: from Augustine to Bernard of Clairvaux
4. Christ-oriented mysticism and the Enlightenment
5. The mysticism of Deism
6. Science and mystical faith in the age of relativity and astrophysics
7. Christ-mysticism and the hidden God