Archive for January 28th, 2010

Mystical Theology

January 28, 2010

A question was posted recently about “mystical theology.” I offer a few thoughts (written in my hotel room) that might be of some use.

My first exposure to Orthodox thought was reading Vladimir Lossky’s Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church when I was a college student. A friend gave me the book and urged me to read it. Lossky’s work read like one of the fathers from the pen of a modern contemporary. The word “mystical” in the title was new to me. It was a word that had many associations for me, none of them particularly Christian.

Mystery is an important word within Orthodoxy and fairly common. On one level, the Greek adverb mystikos, is a frequent direction in liturgical books meaning nothing more than “silently” or “quietly.” The priest is directed in the liturgy that certain prayers are to be read mystikos.

In another usage, the Church commonly uses the word mystery where the Latin would say sacrament. Thus it is normal to speak of the “mysteries” of the Church meaning nothing more than the sacraments of the Eucharist, Baptism, etc.

However, Lossky’s use of the word in the phrase, “mystical theology,” gets at a deeper meaning and a more essential part of Orthodox life and thought. “Mystical” theology is a reference to theology not as a set of ideas, but theology as a description (or verbal expression) of a life lived in communion with the living God. But the very fact that the word “mystical” is used to describe this life of communion says much about the character and reality of this life.

It is not unrelated to the article I posted a week or so ago on allegory – a reflection not simply on a literary device – but a literary device that is itself a reflection of the “allegorical” nature of reality. The modern, secular account of reality tends towards a form of literalism: what you see is what you get. In such an account, history, and some general notion of an immutable law of cause and effect, dominate the popular sense of reality. It is this same “literal” sense of reality that underlies both modern liberal theological thought (dominated by various forms of the historical-critical method) and various modern fundamentalist forms of Christian thought. The “allegorical” view that dominates the writings of the Church fathers has a completely different intuition about reality.

What we see is not what we get – what we see is not all there is. The mystical quality of theology is rooted in the belief that the ground of reality is to be found in communion – a reality and experience that is not an inherent part of a “literal” account of reality. If it is possible to have communion with another human being – to have communion with God – and for that communion to be something more than mere psychological interaction – what must be the nature of reality? How do we describe a reality in which such a communion is possible?

Orthodox thought and life begin and continue in the reality of communion. The Christian is “baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ,” according to Holy Scripture. The union of a believer with these historical/cosmic events in Christ’s life is no mere identification or show of loyalty, nor can the mere intellectual assent to the reality of these events that these events, be described as a “union.” Orthodoxy believes that we are truly and really united with the death and resurrection of Christ: His death and resurrection become our death and resurrection the very ground of our being and our hope.

With these things in mind, all Christianity should be “mystical,” and in many places this is indeed true, at least to some extent. The secularization of the Christian world-view has reduced the importance of communion (true participation) with both creation, other people, and God Himself. In its place has arisen a variety of forensic and relational schemes that only reinforce the loss of communion. A change in the meaning of sacrament (or the almost total loss of sacrament) has been a natural part of this shift.

The loss of “mystical theology” in the understanding of many Christians renders a fair amount of Scripture, particularly the New Testament, to be rather opaque. St. Paul writes (“cries out” would be more accurate) in Philippians:

…that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the communion of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death (3:10)…

Such a plea falls on deaf ears where the understanding of the mystical character of our union with God is lost or diminished. St. Paul’s constant refrain of “in Christ” is an unyielding call to the life of union with God.

Lossky’s intention in writing the Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church was to present to the West (and to much of the East) a recovery of this participatory understanding of our life in Christ. Every aspect of the Church’s dogma has had this communion with Christ in mind. Even the doctrine of the Trinity was carefully spoken so that we might better understand the saving union with God given to us in Christ Jesus. It is the very heart of our faith.