The Dangers of Christian Mysticism

by Mike Duran · 16 comments

Photo source: http://www.vedic.com

This summer, at a writer’s conference I attended, popular Christian author Ted Dekker described himself as a “Christian mystic.” During that weekend, both in public sessions and private conversation, Dekker reinforced his claim. For example, his next fictional work is entitled The 49th Mystic. He favorably referenced William Paul Young and Richard Rohr, both whom could fall under the label of “Christian mystic.” In keynote sessions, Dekker referred to the Holy Spirit as our “Mother” and described the physical world as illusory. Again, mystical concepts and language. And in his new course, entitled The Forgotten Way, he appeals to esoteric concepts like “re-discovering” lost knowledge and seeking a new experience of God’s overflowing love.

This promo for The Forgotten Way describes the course thus:

The Forgotten Way Meditations is a journey of re-discovering the radical love, peace, and identity found in Yeshua so you can see and be differently.

Forgotten, because Yeshua’s simple path of awakening to love, peace and power in this life is rarely remembered (or understood) by millions of Christians weighed down with life’s cares and concerns. Way because it is a pathway we walk, not a checklist of rules to follow.

Enter the Way of Yeshua so easily forgotten. Take the journey from hate to love; from fear to faith. The journey from insecurity to complete rest. Here you will find peace in the storms; you will walk on the troubled seas of your life. Love, joy and peace will flow from you as living waters.

Throughout the promo material Dekker makes incredible claims like, “The whole world longs for the Way of Yeshua” and “An awakening is sweeping the world.” Couple this with the employment of mystical concepts and language (like “awaken to truth,” join in the “divine dance,” experience “new power,” etc.) as well as testimonials from initiates that learning this “forgotten way” will revolutionize your life, I couldn’t help but be suspicious.

Which I’m convinced is the appropriate posture to take.

Ted Dekker is not alone in his embrace of Christian mysticism. Evangelical Resources on Mysticism (along with its fairly helpful compilation of sources on the subject from an Evangelical perspective), notes that,

Mysticism exists in a myriad of forms. Within Christianity, it is seen in Roman Catholic teachings, the 20th century Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions, and in the Quakers. In the great three monotheistic religions, it is seen in the practices of the Gnostic Christians, the Sufi Muslims, and the Kabalistic Jews. Outside of monotheism, mysticism expresses itself in the Western New Age movement, as well as the Eastern Buddhism and Hinduism, Yoga, and Native American spirituality. (bold mine)

Because of this, defining mysticism can be somewhat difficult as there are many branches, forms, and syntheses. Catholic theologian Bernard McGinn defines Christian mysticism simply as,

“[T]hat part, or element, of Christian belief and practice that concerns the preparation for, the consciousness of, and the effect of […] a direct and transformative presence of God.”(McGinn, Bernard (2006), The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, New York: Modern Library)

This idea of seeking and acquiring an experience of the “direct and transformative presence of God” is foundational for the Christian mystic. It assumes both

  1. a greater knowledge and experience of God/spiritual things is available, and
  2. intentional practices and pursuit of said knowledge and experience is critical for transcendence or living “fully”

Of course, lots of things intersect here. For example, what one believes (or does not believe) about God and Man comes into play. What one believes about the authority of Scripture and the parameters of “enlightenment” are important. Also, the person and work of Christ (His pre-eminence, atonement, and mediatorial work) are extremely important. And this is where one of the great dangers of Christian mysticism comes into play.

Without some boundaries, mysticism can veer into potentially dangerous, unorthodox, even occult areas.

This idea of “boundaries” is what prompted Evangelical blogger, Tim Challies, to write The Boundaries of Evangelicalism, and caution his readers about the “prevalence of mysticism” in the contemporary church.

As I survey the contemporary church, one of my gravest concerns is the power and prevalence of mysticism. It appears in pulpits, books, and conversation. It is at the heart of Sarah Young’s bestselling Jesus Calling, it is in all the much-loved books by John Eldredge, it fills the pages of so many books on spiritual disciplines or spiritual formation, it is almost everywhere you look. Language that was once considered the distinguishing language of mysticism is now commonly used by Evangelicals.

Mysticism was once regarded as an alternative to Evangelical Christianity. You were Evangelical or you were a mystic, you heeded the doctrine of the Reformation and understood it to faithfully describe the doctrine laid out in Scripture or you heeded the doctrine of mysticism. Today, though, mysticism has wormed its way inside Evangelicalism so that the two have become integrated and almost inseparable. In an age of syncretism we fail to spot the contradiction and opposition.

According to Challies, the two main biblical “boundaries” that mysticism potentially challenge are:

  • the doctrine of Scripture alone (sola scriptura)
  • the doctrine of faith alone (sola fide)

For example, in a recent Facebook post, I spoke critically of Christians who attempted to incorporate Eastern ideas and practices into a Christian worldview. I bemoaned, “That moment when you follow a ‘Christian’ writer’s FB comment to their personal page and discover they espouse aligning chakras, the power of the ‘divine feminine,’ and astrology. Ugh.” I was somewhat surprised to receive so much pushback from other professing believers. Like the following commenter who concluded, “Don’t knock something until you have opened your mind to it. Know the God of the bible… then go beyond.”

This idea of “going beyond” the Bible is intrinsic to much mystic thought. However, it potentially violates both the doctrine of “Scripture alone” and “faith alone,” opting instead for an experience of God that transcends the typical restraints of Scripture. In such a scenario, the mystic concludes there are no boundaries (or very few) to one’s experience of God. The experience alone is its justification and authority. Thus, you must “Know the God of the bible… then go beyond.”

Similarly, in The Forgotten Way Meditations, Ted Dekker describes the “revelations” which led him to the re-discovery of superior knowledge.

“Then I heard another thought , like a voice but not a voice at the same time. ‘Let go of all you think about Me, so that you can KNOW Me.’ Translation; Let go of your intellectual knowing, so that you can experience my love (to know in a biblical sense.)” (From The Forgotten Way Meditations, p. 22)

This idea of “letting go,” of surrendering “intellectual” knowledge for something deeper, more experiential is foundational to much Christian mystical thought. Often attached to this is the inference that biblical orthodoxy and/or traditional theological strictures are inadequate and must be transcended. Knowing the God of the Bible, according to the Christian mystic, often means going beyond the narrow confines of doctrine and its legalistic imposition.

But what if what we know about God is correct? What if the traditional theological parameters are INTENDED to keep us from going “beyond”? On what grounds can we distinguish the voice of God from the voice in our head, or the voice of the devil for that matter? If experience is the arbiter of truth, how in the world can we determine what is false?! And herein lies the potential problem with Christian mysticism — it swaps doctrine for experience, it subordinates what we know for how we feel.

Now, for the sake of clarity, let me shift gears here. What I am NOT suggesting is that mystical experiences should be shunned and that there are always clean, tight boundaries between doctrine, practice, and experience. I DON’T believe Christian mysticism (depending upon how one defines it, of course) is always inherently evil. I have benefited from some who could be labeled as Christian mystics and have had experiences that have challenged certain theological beliefs of my own.

With much hesitancy, I agree with Donald Miller when he said, “You cannot be a Christian without being a mystic.” Yes, there’s a lot to unpack and qualify there. However, the fact that strange, often unexplainable, weird things fill Scripture and Christian history is beyond dispute.

In my article, Another Perspective on Ghosts, I argue that “paranormal phenomenon does not always fit tightly into our theological framework.” I think the same could be said of mystical experiences.

It is simply too easy to resign all paranormal phenomenon into the category of the demonic. Samuel’s “appearance” [I Sam. 28] was not viewed as demonic, nor was the Transfiguration of Moses and Elijah [Matt. 17]. Furthermore, we have no need to “test the spirits and see whether they are from God” (I Jn. 4:1) if all spirits (or spiritual phenomenon) are categorically evil. So while the Bible cautions us about deceiving spirits, it does not go so far as to say that all “encounters” are necessarily of the “deceptive” order.

I understand that this might trouble some folks. The larger issue, as I see it, is coming to grips with the world we live in. Scripture paints a universe of vast mystery, teeming with intellects (visible and invisible) both good and evil, and phenomenon beyond our wildest imaginings. This is why the Bible contains wondrous stories — stories we often take for granted — about miracles, visions, reviving corpses, warrior angels, talking mules, fiery chariots, demonized swine, tongues and prophecies. We simply live in a supernatural world. The downside—paranormal phenomenon does not always fit tightly into our theological framework. Deal with it.

I think the same can apply to mystical experiences. We live in a weird, wonderful world and shouldn’t expect that all mystical experiences fit tightly into our theological framework. However, the Bible still provides a framework and cautions us about over-stepping its bounds.

In a private, group conversation with Ted Dekker at the aforementioned conference, he suggested that the apostle Paul was one of the great Christian mystics. I had to concede there was truth to that! Paul had many strange experiences of God. He was struck from his horse by God’s light on the Road to Damascus (Acts 9). He used “mystical” language, praying that God would open the eyes of our hearts (Eph. 1:18) and reveling in the fact that believers are seated with Christ in heavenly places (Eph. 2:6). In fact, the apostle Paul was even caught up to the third heaven, unsure whether he was “in the body or out,” and witnessed things that words could not describe (II Cor. 12). We cannot study the apostle Paul’s life without conceding the miraculous, mysterious, and, yes, even the mystical. However, that same apostle warned about “giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils” (I Tim. 4:1) and cursed anyone who would preach a false gospel (Gal. 1:8). In this way, he struck a balance, writing:

“Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good.” (I Thessalonians 5:19-21 NIV)

I think those words are a fitting framework for how we should approach the issue of Christian mysticism. We are to “test everything” — that means we shouldn’t blindly assume that every voice is the voice of God, or that every experience, no matter how profound, is legit. But in all our testing, we must not “put out the Spirit’s fire.” KJV translates that, “quench not the Holy Spirit.” Test, but don’t quench. Be critical, but not unbelieving.

The wrong thing to do is to embrace ALL mystical claims and experiences. Equally wrong is to reject ALL mystical claims and experiences. Test, but don’t quench. Cling to what is right and true. Maintaining this balance is one of the great challenges and dangers of Christian mysticism. How can we be open to new spiritual experiences and a deeper relationship with God without being driven by our emotions or ensnared by false doctrine? Must we go “beyond” the Bible in order to really know God? Then what good is the Bible if only to lead us to rewrite its boundaries? Is it possible to adhere to sound doctrine yet pursue more esoteric practices or experiences? If so, how do you know when such a doctrinal boundary has been reached?

Chesterton wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” In realty, it is probably more true to say that the Way has been “found difficult; and left untried” than that it has been “forgotten.”

Which is why I’ve concluded that the best posture toward Christian mysticism and its claims is not indiscriminate embrace, but sober discernment.

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Travis Perry November 27, 2017 at 10:07 AM

I agree with you balance on this article, Mike. I seek the personal experience of God in my life myself and in that sense am a mystic. But I also believe our guide to truth lies in Scripture and study of Scripture alone.

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Jay DiNitto November 27, 2017 at 10:42 AM

Most of what is described here is Far Eatern mysticism: India farther east. Near eastern mysticism (if it could be called mysticism) is something different. The ancient Hebrew, pre- and maybe during, exile would fall under this. I would contend that this is the form of religion Jesus advocated, especially in light of the overt Hellenism of the Sadduces and covert Hellenism of the Pharisees.

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Brian Pierson November 27, 2017 at 10:42 AM

I sensed a bit something…off about TD when he first promoted The Forgotten Way. His latest shtick reeks a bit of a Christianized Tony Robbins. As a fan of his work since the beginning, I find his recent forays into this degree of mysticism disconcerting.

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Mike Duran November 28, 2017 at 7:59 AM

Another troubling aspect of tbis is Dekker’s celebrity and platform. Many seem to accept his words uncritically because, well, he’s Ted Dekker.

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Daniel MacLean November 28, 2017 at 8:41 AM

Honestly, Dekkers writing and understanding of Christianity has not only impacted me as a filmmaker, but as a believer in Jesus Christ. His emotional arcs and the lows his characters experienced, I could relate to, as well as when the characters discover there is more to life then the pain the feel and the world they see…I love that he rarely shies away from darkness and thus the redemption of his characters often feels authentic, even if I’m not always sure what just happened.

From a spiritual standpoint, I love that his books have invoked for myself to delve deeper into my own relationship with God instead of just seeking entertainment as an artificial answer to my problems. Particularly in the A.D. series, the Circle Trilogy, and the Outlaw series, I found God healing the brokeness that I had hidden inside my heart for years. I began to read the Bible more regularly again, praying regularly as well and seeing the world around me the way that I had always desired since I was a small child: a world that God created to be perfect and, despite the infection of sin, still reflected God’s love and creativity.

That being said, when Dekker began releasing The Forgotten Way, I became intrigued, but with caution. Throughout his writing, as much as it inspired me on a creative level, I didn’t know how else to share it with others. I also found that while his work opened me to following Christ in an authentic way, it also opened me to being vulnerable to old sin nature habits I have been wrestling with for years.

I’ll be honest, Mike…Dekker had become a hero figure to me that I had put on a pedestal. Reading this blog was like a punch to the gut as I have wondered if everything that I had learned was a lie. That being said, I want to thank you for sharing the truth about Dekker. I would rather know the truth about a hero and see their flaws openly instead of only seeing what I want to see. After reading this article, I actually took one of his books back to the library (I was struggling with reading it anyways). I believe Dekkers books were in my life at the right time and God used that to bring me closer to him. However, I believe I am also moving past that phase in my life and see that there are more solid options out there…Thanks again, Mike.

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Mike Duran November 28, 2017 at 7:29 PM

Daniel, I’d encourage you to continue your research. Ted Dekker, like all of us, is a mixed bag of strengths and weaknesses, light and shadow. I also like certain aspects of Dekker’s novels and story-telling. It was learning about his new endeavor, his relationship with William Paul Young (author of The Shack), recommendation of Richard Rohr (religious progressive mystic), and more esoteric teachings that really made me take a step back.

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Rachel November 27, 2017 at 11:29 AM

I feel like there are so many snares today for us, as Christians, to fall into. I too believe that there’s so much more out there than we can imagine about our God, so much we don’t understand or know, but He told us what we need to know. He asked for Faith. My “Filter rules” when listening to teachers or ideas: 1. The most obvious, What does scripture say about the idea? 2. Is this flesh-centric (something to make me “feel good/better”) or is it sharpening me?

I think that second part is the main trap. We’ve gotten so wrapped up in our ME culture, totally focusing on ourselves that anything that remotely challenges or chastises in scripture is seen as flexible, or “well, God is Love, so he didn’t really mean it”, rather than understanding some things will be instructive and a warning against corruption. This Christian Mystic stuff popping up is all related to that imo. It’s a way to escape the structure and live however we feel “lead”. The trouble is, we’re completely corrupt–“The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Who can know it?” Any sort of ultra-spiritualism will inevitably lead to becoming Humanism with a Christian face if not ultimately guided and centered by scripture.

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Rebecca LuElla Miller November 27, 2017 at 3:11 PM

Excellent points, Rachel. The reformers had it right when they proclaimed Sola Scriptura. The first test we need is what God already said. I kind of think that’s where Balaam got it wrong. He kept going back to see what else God had to say when he knew exactly what God had already said. Our problem is, we don’t like what he already said and/or we don’t believe it. We say we trust Him, but do we live as if we do?

And other spirits, Mike, I think refer to angels. Scripture says some believers actually entertained angels and weren’t aware of it. Angels are just as present and prevalent as demons. More so if only a third of the angels fell. So why shouldn’t angels be marching through the tree tops? Why shouldn’t those with us be more than those with them? Too often we picture us being attacked by demons but where are the angels? We only believe some of the Bible, I think.

Becky

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Kessie November 27, 2017 at 11:52 AM

Mysticism sounds so appealing in kung fu movies. But when you’re down in the trenches, homeschooling five kids and trying to live on a single income, mysticism falls apart. What I find in the Bible is grace. It’s Rebecca drawing water for the camels without being asked. It’s Jesus saying, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” It’s not esoteric. It doesn’t demand hours of meditation to break through your own consciousness. There is grace extended to the tired, the hungry, the housewife who forgot to mop floors because the toddler used the toothpaste as finger paint.

Mysticism sounds good, but it demands that you seek out these experiences or else you don’t measure up. And worse, there’s not really a standard to measure up to, since mysticism is all about building your own goal posts. I’ve lived my life not measuring up. But Jesus reaches down to me with grace. He meets me where I am. I don’t have to go on walkabout. That’s why I pretty much disregard mystic teaching.

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R.J. Anderson November 27, 2017 at 12:16 PM

Well said, Kessie! Ultimately, mysticism is kind of elitist, I think — it encourages us to disconnect ourselves from the practical, hands-on business of daily living and our basic (even mundane) responsibilities to the other people in our lives, and seek some kind of transcendent intellectual/emotional/spiritual high that can only be attained through hours or days of solitude and inward contemplation. Certainly quiet time spent focusing on God is important, indeed essential to our spiritual growth and relationship with Him. But chasing a mystical experience that imparts secret knowledge over and above what we find in the Word of God is a different matter.

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Celesta November 28, 2017 at 3:58 PM

I think God must be happy when someone devotes their life to serving him.

I don’t like Ted’s books. Just not to my tastes.

But I really enjoyed hearing him speak at the Realm Makers conference this past summer. I saw in him, a genuine, whole-hearted following after God. I heard it in his words and saw it in his face and in his behaviour at the conference. I think God must love it when someone’s heart is right. Even if they don’t understand the scripture the same way that I do.

Ted could have talked about how great he was and pumped up his books. But he was humble, confessing struggles in his life and spent his entire talk time talking about God and encouraging us in our relationship with Him.

Did I agree with everything Ted said?

No. But I saw his heart and appreciated where he was coming from.

And I think God did too.

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Mike Duran November 28, 2017 at 7:20 PM

Celesta, I don’t think sincerity is really the issue here. Many people are sincere about what they believe. But that doesn’t validate their beliefs. My sense is that Ted’s heart is in the right place with God. Yet that is not a Free Pass for doctrinal sloppiness.

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Celesta November 29, 2017 at 5:09 AM

Mike, your words have caused people on your blog and on Facebook to question Ted’s character and his relationship with God. My comment here is meant to address that.

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Mike Duran November 29, 2017 at 5:44 AM

Celesta, I don’t know Ted well enough to address his character. Which is why I’ve focused instead on his words and the overall trend of mysticism in the Church, which is the point of this post. If that causes people to be more discerning of their, or someone else’s beliefs, so be it.

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Celesta November 29, 2017 at 5:12 AM

During Ted’s sessions at Realm Makers I was AMAZED at how many verses he quoted, accurately and fluently. When he said that he and his wife study the Bible for hours each day, I believed him!

Some parts of the Bible aren’t easy to understand. If someone is understanding scripture and walking out the truths they see there a little differently than I am, it may not mean that they are wrong. Perhaps we are both converging on the same truth but coming from a different place and so our journeys look different. I feel this is the case with Ted Dekker.

I believe that anyone who has a genuine heart after God will find him and will, one day, know fully, when we see God face-to-face.

And I don’t think it’s wrong or dangerous to read Ted’s books or listen to his talks. Everyone’s journey with God is a beautiful thing, even if it doesn’t look the same as mine.

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Laura December 4, 2017 at 7:43 AM

I am so glad I found your blog. I’ve had these concerns about Dekker since Three came out, and I felt uncomfortable about The Circle series for similar reasons. Now he’s clearly advocating the beliefs that I suspected were there even though I couldn’t point to specific statements as proof. There’s an undertone in all his fiction that has always bothered me, and I’m glad I’m not the only one. You are so right about balance.

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