For many people, faith and religion are primarily about the intellectual acceptance of creeds and tenets, about following an ideology, or about recognizing the truth. In fact, these are only the first steps of what I would define as true religion. You may have to accept certain truths to begin to encounter God, but ultimately it is only by experiencing God that we can truly forge a relationship with our Creator, which as I’ve argued repeatedly ought to be the goal of faith. In short, faith requires embracing an experience-based mysticism.
I must be careful about using the term “mysticism,” which has earned a bad connotation in some Christian circles. The word “mystic” originally meant an initiate who had a spiritual experience to advance in a religion. Although many pagan religions used the term for their members, the early church also used it to describe ascetics or others who sought spiritual experiences in Christ. Until the third century, spiritual experiences were a regular part of all Christian services. Even after this point, mysticism continued among many groups, such as monastics. Today, too many people associate mystics with kooks or supernaturalists who seek out spiritual experiences regardless of the source, for example through spiritism, ghost hunting, or religious experimentation. While one must always be careful not to open up to harmful spiritual experiences, many throw the baby out with the bathwater by suggesting that all spiritual experiences are illegitimate. Most of this is due to the more scientific attitude that pervades modern culture, which tends to doubt supernatural encounters.
This attitude really did not begin to change until the 1920s and 1930s with the work of Evelyn Underhill, among others. She was a contemporary of C.S. Lewis and friend of Charles Williams who popularized Christian mysticism through dozens of books, public lectures, radio addresses, and private prayer and worship groups. During the same time in the U.S., Evangelicalism, which tends to focus on spiritual experience, began to grow, holding enormous influence on the rest of the church, including those who doubted their experiences. Since the Jesus Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, having spiritual experiences has become an ordinary part of the Christian movement. People talk about having God-encounters, and even mainstream preachers such as Rick Warren speak of “Experiencing God.” The very concept of being “born again” implies undergoing a spiritual change that comes from experiencing and submitting to God. In this sense, while many religions have mystical branches, Christianity is perhaps the only faith that requires mysticism because it demands having spiritual experiences to even begin to believe and know God.
This doesn’t mean having a spiritual experience is the same as having a relationship with the Father. Many people of all faiths have spiritual experiences without ever encountering God or placing their faith in Him. It may be necessary to believe in certain creeds, but a spiritual encounter with God ought to accompany intellectual conversion. Neither does having spiritual experiences negate the need for growing in righteousness, which is the natural result of encountering God. Those who think they don’t need to change after they have a spiritual experience may need to look again at whether they actually encountered God. They may need to ask themselves whether they have gone deep enough. At the same time, as Underhill often observed, neither does a mystical, experience-based approach to God imply a mountaintop experience or isolating ourselves. We often encounter God most when we are working or when we worship in a group, for God moves as often in everyday activities as He does when we are in a prayer closet. Nevertheless, we must all recognize that there must be a God-encounter based on experience to begin to have a relationship with Him.
Many often differentiate between “believing in” and “believing on,” and that they are not the same. Simply “believing in” God does not mean you have a faith-based relationship with Him, nor does accepting church doctrine or creeds necessarily result in belief. As some note, even the devil believes in God and trembles. “Believing on” means trusting in, and you can’t trust someone you’ve never met, do not know, and never experience. Without experiencing God, you cannot trust Him or have a relationship with Him. Faith requires experiencing God.
© 2021 J.D. Manders