[This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance blog]
A week later, what has transpired with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States is still stunning. It’s hard to imagine that the country could be more divided than it is right now. The division runs deep, and it is not just political. It is also spiritual.
Trump will come into office having employed new heights of exclusionary rhetoric in his campaign by comparison to any other president in recent history. Many people are justifiably very concerned and afraid of what will happen. To the extent that President-elect Trump poses a threat to marginalized or disadvantaged, minority communities in this country—and I believe he does—the church’s response must be to enter into solidarity with these people groups, and to stand with them in an effort to affirm their dignity and belonging.
At the same time, a Clinton presidency would have presented its own problems and social challenges, to be sure, even if of a different sort. And while it might have been less shocking or brought about fewer changes, if had Clinton been elected, a large percentage of the electorate would still be very bitter, discouraged and alienated by this. The resentment and national woundedness would be felt either way.
So regardless of how we all voted, or didn’t, this moment presents Christians with the need to take reconciling action. But in order to take the right kind of action, there must first be the right kind of thinking — something that is in short supply in this country. And when I say “thinking,” maybe the better word is “consciousness.” For there to be healing in our churches, let alone in the culture more broadly, Christians must lead the way toward a more non-dual consciousness.
Mysticism, Richard Rohr, and Non-dual Consciousness
When I first learned what contemplative prayer was and started trying to practice it for myself, it transformed my experience and understanding of faith. This was also around the same time that many American evangelicals were continuing to make the so-called “liturgical turn” as a result of a newfound appreciation for the sacraments and various traditional forms of worship. But while “Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail” has since become a fairly widespread phenomenon, what about missional evangelicals embracing mysticism?
There’s certainly been some increased engagement with mystical Christianity by evangelicals.[i] From what I can tell, though, other than maybe the occasional silent retreat or practice of Lectio Divina, there also remains a suspicion, confusion or ignorance about Christian mysticism in many churches. It seems to be viewed as a “slippery slope” theology. The degree to which people like Rob Bell, for example, have gone “mystical,” could probably be seen as evidence of this.
One of the most popular and influential contemplative spiritual teachers these days, who bridges the mainstream and mystical worlds as much as anyone, is Richard Rohr.[ii]
Though he completely identifies as a Christian and is an ordained friar in the Catholic Church, he specifically follows the “Perennial Tradition,” or what he calls an “alternative orthodoxy.” Rohr is also an innovative public theologian of sorts. He regular pulls from psychology, science, integral theory, enneagram spirituality and Eastern religious traditions. This obviously makes some folks uneasy with what he is doing.
But there are a number of important themes from Rohr’s work and teachings, which, though not necessarily representative of Christian mysticism in general, are instructive for the purposes of what I’m suggesting. The influence of Eastern thought and mysticism on Christian theology is an enormous subject, especially when it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity or soteriology (theosis, divinization, etc.).[iii] But from simply a practical and spiritual growth and maturity standpoint, one theme that perhaps stands out most is the concept I mentioned above of non-dual thinking. And a great metaphor that Rohr uses to characterize the non-dual mind is what he calls “the second half of life” (from Falling Upward, pp. 118-119):
“In the second half of life, one has less and less need or interest in eliminating the negative or fearful, making rash judgments, holding on to old hurts, or feeling any need to punish other people. Your superiority complexes have gradually departed in all directions. You do not fight these things anymore; they have just shown themselves too many times to be useless, ego-based, counterproductive, and often entirely wrong. You learn to positively ignore and withdraw your energy from evil or stupid things rather than fight them directly.”
In “the first half of life”, by contrast, we’re primarily stuck in dualistic thinking:
“We become a well-disguised mirror image of anything that we fight too long or too directly. That which we oppose determines the energy and frames the questions after a while. We lose all our inner freedom. [M]ost frontal attacks on evil just produce another kind of evil in yourself, along with a very inflated self-image. They also incite a lot of pushback from those you have attacked. Holier-than-thou people usually end up holier than nobody.”
In the second half of life, Rohr says, “you fight things only when you are directly called and equipped to do so. You do not define yourself by opposition or eccentricity as the young often choose to do. You try to influence events, work for change, quietly persuade, change your own attitude, pray, or forgive instead of attacking things head on.”
Non-dual consciousness, therefore, is much more likely to:
- be willing to suffer
- include the outsider
- not have to be right/prove anything
- see Christ in everyone and everything
- take a non-violent approach to conflict-resolution, and
- appreciate the mysterious nature, rather than certitude, of doctrinal truth claims.
To cultivate a non-dual consciousness is to find true, inner freedom no matter the external circumstances of our lives. It is to let go, and to radically love.
Needless to say, one can find most of the inspiration for this way of being Christian by simply reading the Sermon on the Mount! And contrary to some misconceptions, the non-dual way of mystical Christianity does not abandon the call to action. Instead, it finds the source of all action in the practice of contemplation.
So if the church desires to become more missional, it first has to learn how to be mystical — especially in a society that is polarized by ideological political differences and antagonisms.
Potential Problems with Mysticism and an Assessment
Now, as with any one stream of the Tradition, I do think there are some potential pitfalls in mysticism:
- It can tend toward individualism. It appreciates systemic sin but only as a product of individual sin, and not the other way around. Social transformation, at best, is not emphasized very much. At worst, it is considered a “lower,” tribal, or more binary way of exercising faith.
- The Bible and some of its theological assertions can tend to become a mere vehicle for realizing one’s true selfhood rather than continuing to be the guiding metanarrative of the Church and its faith.[iv]
- The nature and role of the Church itself can appear strangely absent from mystical spirituality and theology.
- Mystics like to talk about the cosmic Christ, but so much so that the particularity of Jesus can become dispensable and/or equally retrievable in the other major religions. Mysticism tends to both downplay and oversimplify the differences between the faith traditions in the world, asserting that there is a very discernible, common spirituality among them.
- Though acts of mercy and justice are still celebrated in non-dual thought, because of the focus on universality, there is nonetheless a slant toward abstraction or decontextualization in the way such acts are considered.
- Mysticism is sometimes theologically in line with the via negativa, which stresses an apophatic more than cataphatic form of knowing. The result can be that God’s transcendence takes us to a “Cloud of Unknowing,” almost to the point of mystifying agnosticism, pantheism or monism.
For my part, mystical spirituality has been very helpful. I often read Rohr’s daily meditations, though I try to do this in conjunction with praying the daily office and some form of meditation. Mysticism and contemplative prayer do not replace liturgy or the missional Christian life. They compliment and enhance it.
Overall, the development of a mystical, non-dual consciousness, properly guarded and set within the context of God’s Story and mission through Christ and the Spirit, would only mature the Church and strengthen its evangelical witness.
At this time, what could be more needful?
[i] Within evangelicalism, one could still look to authors like Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson, Richard Foster, or Henri Nouwen (even though he was Catholic) — among others — to see the increased influence and embrace of a spirituality that at least draws on the mystical tradition. Many of the classical spiritual disciplines and the place of sanctification in evangelicalism has in fact had a kind of revival.
[ii] Some of the most influential writings of his for me have been Everything Belongs, From Wild Man to Wise Man, Breathing Underwater, Falling Upward, and Immortal Diamond (he also just published a new book on the Trinity that I’m excited to read, and Rohr has said it might be his most important work yet).
[iii] There’s a whole host of names that Christians might historically associate with mysticism, broadly construed: from the Eastern Church Fathers (Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa), to Medieval/early modern (Hildegard of Bingen, Bernard of Clairvaux, Julian of Norwich, Dons Scotus, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Francis of Assisi) modern (Evelyn Underhill, Thomas Merton) and contemporary teachers (Thomas Keating, Cynthia Bourgeault).
[iv] New Testament scholar Daniel Kirk wrote an interesting criticism of Rohr a little while back, and “Christian spirituality” in general, to the degree that it is a subject treated separately from, or some cases, almost in direct conflict with theological categories and language of the Bible (In response to Kirk’s thoughtful questions about Rohr, however, I also would point to this article over at Mere Orthodoxy responding to some of Kirk’s hermeneutics).
Also published on Medium.