Growing up in the Evangelical tradition, there was often talk about our relationship with Christ. The idea was the conversion experience of being born again or being saved began that relationship. There’s a phrase often offered up to describe this conversion, this born again, being saved experience. That phrase is, "accepting Christ into your heart."
That phrase – accepting Christ into your heart – is a really interesting one. It wasn’t so novel or interesting when I was a kid or a young person still within that tradition. And there was a time after I departed the Evangelical approach to the Christian when that phrase or talk about being born again and saved sort of bothered me. It was language from a past I had left behind and wanted to forget. That language for awhile left a bad taste in my mouth. Sometimes, it still does.
But after years of space between departing what I felt was bad for me and embracing a new understanding of the faith, I’ve come to see especially that phrase and some parts of the Evangelical tradition in a new light.
Christ living in our hearts – do you know what that phrase indicates, what approach to faith it points to? Christian mysticism. That’s right, Christian mysticism.
Now, the term Christian mysticism may evoke some images and ideas in you that we ought to be honest about. Maybe the idea and image arises within you of people having ecstatic visions and trance-like experiences of God. Maybe concerns arise in you about a hippy, trippy, new-agey overtaking of our tried and true, prim and proper church life. Maybe you think, too touchy-feely, loosie-goosy for my taste.
But I’d say that these thoughts and concerns are based on false presumption of what Christian mysticism is. That the term Christian mysticism is prone to such false presumptions is why I don’t like the term, to be honest. We need a new term, something I’ll discuss later.
Christian mysticism is not anything hazy or crazy, hippy or trippy, loosie or goosy. It is simply points to the need of starting from inside and moving from insight out. Start inside our hearts where Christ lives. Start with insight into Christ based in the heart. That is what we’re talking about.
In his book, “The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, “ Carl McColman says this:
“Christian mysticism argues that any respect you pay to external authority – God, Christ, the Church – can emerge only from a profound inner experience or conviction that God is real and present, and that it is both possible and plausible for the average person to have a truly experiential relationship with God” (p. 9)
We can easily fit the Evangelical idea of being born again by accepting Christ into your heart into the definition I just gave you. We can’t have a relationship with God, come to know God, even worship God fully until we have the profound experience of accepting Christ into our heart. And its possible and plausible for anyone to experience Christ being born in us and have a relationship with God.
So, in a deep sense, Evangelical Christianity taps into Christian mysticism. It would ardently deny this, but it seems pretty clear that its true.
But what does this have to do with us. Let me be clear, I’m not saying we should all become Evangelicals. But I will say that there is a reason the Evangelical tradition seems to outpace Mainline Christianity when it comes to growth, church attendance, and spiritual engagement. That the Evangelical tradition practices and preaches a form of Christian mysticism is one, profound reason why it’s been so successful. And there’s something to learn from there.
Thankfully, there is a burgeoning Christian mysticism movement within Mainline, non-Evangelical circles. Right here in New England, we are seeing this movement, focused on contemplative practices and Christian mysticism, happening. Agape Spiritual Community, a UCC congregation in Waltham, Mass, is devoted to building the beloved community using contemplative practices grounded in a Christian mysticist approach to the faith. Its pastor, Matthew Carriker, just this past year, offered a series ofconferences to the Southern New England conference discussing Contemplative Christian practices.
Renowned theologian Karl Rahner once said, "the Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.” I really think this is true.
I close by turning to that purveyor of knowledge Wikipedia. Quoting Bernard McGinn, a scholar of Christian mysticism, Wikepedia says, “Christian mysticism is [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 [experience of the] presence of God.”
A direct and transformative [experience of the] presence of God. Isn’t that what we all want?
As for a new term to replace the oft-misunderstood and stereotyped term, Christian mysticism, how about this: the Way of Christian Insight? In-sight is the practice of looking inward seeing the truth of Christ alive in us. Isn’t the Christian life about insight, looking inward to find Christ and his Way, and seeing the world through Christ and his way, seeing from the inside out?
Christian Insight. The Inner Seeing of Christ.
Is Christ somewhere out there? Can we find Christ in the sky or some place out of our reach? Perhaps. But if Christ is in our heart, why not look there. We look inside to see Christ waiting there in our hearts, waiting to be connected to and lived-out in the world.
This is what I seek to do as a Christ-follower. To look inside, find Christ there, and from there allow Christ to be embodied in and through my life. I hope you feel similarly and thus join me in the adventure, the venture of walking the way of Christian insight. It begins, to end as we began, by being born again, receiving Christ into your heart, allowing Christ to live within you. And, yes, I am talking about conversion. But we’ll talk about that week.