The Rise of the Mystics

Pew Research Center has reported that from 2007 – 2014 the “unaffiliateds” (those who claim no religious affiliation), otherwise known as the “nones,” rose from 16% to 23%. This trend has been dubbed, “The Rise of the Nones.”  However, interestingly enough from 1962 to 2009 the number of people who said they’d had a mystical or spiritual experience that had a significant impact on their lives rose from 22% to 48%. At the conference I was at a few weeks ago, Diana Butler Bass suggested we’re focusing on the wrong trend… it isn’t the rise of the “nones,” but the rise of the mystics.

(For the full audio, click here.)

John Shelby Spong, when talking about the future of the church, said that we must end dualistic thinking, end the dichotomy of the Divine and human. It sounds almost heretical, but it is exactly what Jesus was preaching when over and over again when he said that he and God were one, and this ONENESS was the Way. The name of the game is opening oneself to discovering the Divine within and working toward living in that space of unity. That is mysticism.

Biblical mystical experiences abound. Pentecost, this last Sunday, is a great example of a direct mysticspersonal encounter with the Divine. And then there was the burning bush, all the angel appearances, Joseph’s (either one) dreams, the prophets who heard from God, Samuel responding to God’s call by saying “Here I am, Lord,” the resurrection stories… we could go on and on.

Wayne Teasdale, Catholic monk and Hindu sannyasi, in his book The Mystic Heart, has said, “[The] mystical tradition, which underpins all genuine faith, is the living source of religion itself. It is the attempt to possess the inner reality of the spiritual life, with its mystical, or direct, access to the divine… Everything stems from mysticism, or primary religious experience, whether it be revelation or a personal mystical state of consciousness… We need religion, yet we need direct contact with the divine, or ultimate mystery, even more. Religions are valuable carriers of the tradition within a community, but they must not be allowed to choke out the breath of the spirit, which breathes where it will.”


Yet, I think this is precisely what churches are doing – choking out the breath of the spirit – perhaps sometimes unwittingly, but doing nonetheless. Frankly, I think there are three reasons for this:

One, I’m not sure all pastors really believe in it. I think they’ve been convinced that what God wants is for people to simply follow the rules, worship, and be obedient. That’s what they call “making disciples of Christ.” But the disciples Jesus tried to create were mystics, like himself. He tried valiantly to get them past the constraints of Jewish laws, and occasionally succeeded. But this scared the Jewish authorities then, and it scares the church authorities now.

Two, churches are afraid of what they can’t control. You can’t control the spirit and you can’t control people’s experiences. So, it is better if they just don’t believe they were meant to have any. Let them believe all the amazing one-on-one encounters with the Divine ended when the Bible was finished being written. Diana Butler Bass told us a story about a pastor who went on a retreat and had a mystical experience during contemplative prayer that changed her life. After she shared this experience with her congregation, she was fired.

Three, they feel that if everyone can experience God on their own, then what do you need the church for?

Rabbi Rami Shapiro said, “Faith is the human capacity to awaken to the Divine Reality. Faith is a liberating phenomenon.” Here is mysticism again that brings us to faith. But not a faith of specific beliefs and behaviors, faith that liberates.

The experience of Pentecost as they awakened to the Divine Presence was a liberating one! The disciples stop hiding behind locked doors, or feeling the need to follow Jewish law, they go forth into the world and share the message they’ve been given – come hell or high water. It all finally clicks in their heads for good and they are no longer afraid of even death. They have experienced the reality of God with them, they are high on the spirit, and know that the loss of their physical body will not be the end.

Wayne Teasdale insists that “We are all mystics!” Let us rise, experience that oneness, and let it change the world, because that is exactly what it is doing.