William Ralph Inge.

Christian Mysticism online

. (page 5 of 28)
Online LibraryWilliam Ralph IngeChristian Mysticism → online text (page 5 of 28)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

the experiment is given from above; and that the experience is not
merely subjective, but an universal law which has had its supreme
vindication in history, - these are two facts which we learn
afterwards. The converse process, which begins with a critical
examination of documents, cannot establish what we really want to
know, however strong the evidence may be. In this sense, and in this
only, are Tennyson's words true, that "nothing worthy proving can be
proven, nor yet disproven."

Faith, thus defined, is hardly distinguishable from that mixture of
admiration, hope, and love by which Wordsworth says that we live. Love
especially is intimately connected with faith. And as the Christian
life is to be considered as, above all things, a state of union with
Christ, and of His members with one another, love of the brethren is
inseparable from love of God. So intimate is this union, that hatred
towards any human being cannot exist in the same heart as love to God.
The mystical union is indeed rather a bond between Christ and the
Church, and between man and man as members of Christ, than between
Christ and individual souls. Our Lord's prayer is "that they all may
be one, even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also
may be one in us." The personal relation between the soul and Christ
is not to be denied; but it can only be enjoyed when the person has
"come to himself" as a member of a body. This involves an inward
transit from the false isolated self to the larger life of sympathy
and love which alone makes us persons. Those who are thus living
according to their true nature are rewarded with an intense
unshakeable conviction which makes them independent of external
evidences. Like the blind man who was healed, they can say, "One thing
I know, that whereas I was blind, now I see." The words "we know" are
repeated again and again in the first Epistle, with an emphasis which
leaves no room for doubt that the evangelist was willing to throw the
main weight of his belief on this inner assurance, and to attribute it
without hesitation to the promised presence of the Comforter. We must
observe, however, that this knowledge or illumination is
_progressive_. This is proved by the passages already quoted about the
work of the Holy Spirit. It is also implied by the words, "This is
life eternal, that they should know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus
Christ whom Thou hast sent." Eternal life is not [Greek: gnôsis],
knowledge as a possession, but the state of acquiring knowledge
([Greek: hina gignôskôsin]). It is significant, I think, that St. John,
who is so fond of the verb "to know," never uses the substantive
[Greek: gnôsis].

The state of progressive unification, in which we receive "grace upon
grace," as we learn more and more of the "fulness" of Christ, is
called by the evangelist, in the verse just quoted and elsewhere,
_eternal life_. This life is generally spoken of as a present
possession rather than a future hope. "He that believeth on the Son
_hath_ everlasting life"; "he _is passed_ from death unto life"; "we
_are_ in Him that is true, even Jesus Christ. This _is_ the true God,
and eternal life." The evangelist is constantly trying to transport us
into that timeless region in which one day is as a thousand years, and
a thousand years as one day.

St. John's Mysticism is thus patent to all; it is stamped upon his
very style, and pervades all his teaching. Commentators who are in
sympathy with this mode of thought have, as we might expect, made the
most of this element in the Fourth Gospel. Indeed, some of them, I
cannot but think, have interpreted it so completely in the terms of
their own idealism, that they have disregarded or explained away the
very important qualifications which distinguish the Johannine theology
from some later mystical systems. Fichte, for example, claims St. John
as a supporter of his system of subjective idealism (if that is a
correct description of it), and is driven to some curious bits of
exegesis in his attempt to justify this claim. And Reuss (to give one
example of his method) says that St. John cannot have used "the last
day" in the ordinary sense, "because mystical theology has nothing to
do with such a notion.[66]" He means, I suppose, that the mystic, who
likes to speak of heaven as a state, and of eternal life as a present
possession, has no business to talk about future judgment. I cannot
help thinking that this is a very grave mistake. There is no doubt
that those who believe space and time to be only forms of our thought,
must regard the traditional eschatology as symbolical. We are not
concerned to maintain that there will be, literally, a great assize,
holden at a date and place which could be announced if we knew it. If
that is all that Reuss means, perhaps he is right in saying that
"mystical theology has nothing to do with such a notion." But if he
means that such expressions as those referred to in St. John, about
eternal life as something here and now, imply that judgment is now,
_and therefore not in the future_, he is attributing to the
evangelist, and to the whole array of religious thinkers who have used
similar expressions, a view which is easy enough to understand, but
which is destitute of any value, for it entirely fails to satisfy the
religious consciousness. The feeling of the contrast between what
ought to be and what is, is one of the deepest springs of faith in the
unseen. It can only be ignored by shutting our eyes to half the facts
of life. It is easy to say with Browning, "God's in His heaven: all's
right with the world," or with Emerson, that justice is not deferred,
and that everyone gets exactly his deserts in this life; but it would
require a robust confidence or a hard heart to maintain these
propositions while standing among the ruins of an Armenian village, or
by the deathbed of innocence betrayed. There is no doubt a sense in
which it may be said that the ideal is the actual; but only when we
have risen in thought to a region above the antitheses of past,
present, and future, where "_is_" denotes, not the moment which passes
as we speak, but the everlasting Now in the mind of God. This is not a
region in which human thought can live; and the symbolical eschatology
of religion supplies us with forms in which it is possible to think.
The basis of the belief in future judgment is that deep conviction of
the rationality of the world-order, or, in religious language, of the
wisdom and justice of God, which we cannot and will not surrender. It
is authenticated by an instinctive assurance which is strongest in
the strongest minds, and which has nothing to do with any desire for
spurious "consolations";[67] it is a conviction, not merely a hope,
and we have every reason to believe that it is part of the Divine
element in our nature. This conviction, like other mystical
intuitions, is formless: the forms or symbols under which we represent
it are the best that we can get. They are, as Plato says, "a raft" on
which we may navigate strange seas of thought far out of our depth. We
may use them freely, as if they were literally true, only remembering
their symbolical character when they bring us into conflict with
natural science, or when they tempt us to regard the world of
experience as something undivine or unreal.

It is important to insist on this point, because the extreme
difficulty (or rather impossibility) of determining the true relations
of becoming and being, of time and eternity, is constantly tempting us
to adopt some facile solution which really destroys one of the two
terms. The danger which besets us if we follow the line of thought
natural to speculative Mysticism, is that we may think we have solved
the problem in one of two ways, neither of which is a solution at all.
Either we may sublimate our notion of spirit to such an extent that
our idealism becomes merely a sentimental way of looking at the
actual; or, by paring down the other term in the relation, we may fall
into that spurious idealism which reduces this world to a vain shadow
having no relation to reality. We shall come across a good deal of
"acosmistic" philosophy in our survey of Christian Platonism; and the
sentimental rationalist is with us in the nineteenth century; but
neither of the two has any right to appeal to St. John. Fond as he is
of the present tense, he will not allow us to blot from the page
either "unborn to-morrow or dead yesterday." We have seen that he
records the use by our Lord of the traditional language about future
judgment. What is even more important, he asserts in the strongest
possible manner, at the outset both of his Gospel and Epistle, the
necessity of remembering that the Christian revelation was conveyed by
certain historical events. "The Word was made flesh, and tabernacled
among us, and we have seen His glory." "That which was from the
beginning, that which we have heard, that which we have seen with our
eyes, that which we beheld, and our hands handled, concerning the Word
of Life ... that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you."
And again in striking words he lays it down as the test whereby we may
distinguish the spirit of truth from Antichrist or the spirit of
error, that the latter "confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in
the flesh." The later history of Mysticism shows that this warning was
very much needed. The tendency of the mystic is to regard the Gospel
history as only one striking manifestation of an universal law. He
believes that every Christian who is in the way of salvation
recapitulates "the whole process of Christ" (as William Law calls
it) - that he has his miraculous birth, inward death, and
resurrection; and so the Gospel history becomes for the Gnostic (as
Clement calls the Christian philosopher) little more than a
dramatisation of the normal psychological experience.[68] "Christ
crucified is teaching for babes," says Origen, with startling
audacity; and heretical mystics have often fancied that they can rise
above the Son to the Father. The Gospel and Epistle of St. John stand
like a rock against this fatal error, and in this feature some German
critics have rightly discerned their supreme value to mystical
theology.[69] "In all life," says Grau, "there is not an abstract
unity, but an unity in plurality, an outward and inward, a bodily and
spiritual; and life, like love, unites what science and philosophy
separate." This co-operation of the sensible and spiritual, of the
material and ideal, of the historical and eternal, is maintained
throughout by St. John. "His view is mystical," says Grau, "because
all life is mystical." It is true that the historical facts hold, for
St. John, a subordinate place as _evidences_. His main _proof_ is, as
I have said, experimental. But a spiritual revelation of God without
its physical counterpart, an Incarnation, is for him an impossibility,
and a Christianity which has cut itself adrift from the Galilean
ministry is in his eyes an imposture. In no other writer, I think, do
we find so firm a grasp of the "psychophysical" view of life which we
all feel to be the true one, if only we could put it in an
intelligible form.[70]

There is another feature in St. John's Gospel which shows his affinity
to Mysticism, though of a different kind from that which we have been
considering. I mean his fondness for using visible things and events
as symbols. This objective kind of Mysticism will form the subject of
my last two Lectures, and I will here only anticipate so far as to say
that the belief which underlies it is that "everything, in being what
it is, is symbolic of something more." The Fourth Gospel is steeped in
symbolism of this kind. The eight miracles which St. John selects are
obviously chosen for their symbolic value; indeed, he seems to regard
them mainly as acted parables. His favourite word for miracles is
[Greek: sêmeia], "signs" or "symbols." It is true that he also calls
them "works," but this is not to distinguish them as supernatural. All
Christ's actions are "works," as parts of His one "work." As evidences
of His Divinity, such "works" are inferior to His "words," being
symbolic and external. Only those who cannot believe on the evidence
of the words and their echo in the heart, may strengthen their weak
faith by the miracles. But "blessed are they who have not seen, and
yet have believed." And besides these "signs," we have, in place of
the Synoptic parables, a wealth of allegories, in which Christ is
symbolised as the Bread of Life, the Light of the World, the Door of
the Sheep, the good Shepherd, the Way, and the true Vine. Wind and
water are also made to play their part. Moreover, there is much
unobtrusive symbolism in descriptive phrases, as when he says that
Nicodemus came by night, that Judas went out into the night, and that
blood and water flowed from our Lord's side; and the washing of the
disciples' feet was a symbolic act which the disciples were to
understand hereafter. Thus all things in the world may remind us of
Him who made them, and who is their sustaining life.

In treating of St. John, it was necessary to protest against the
tendency of some commentators to interpret him simply as a speculative
mystic of the Alexandrian type. But when we turn to St. Paul, we find
reason to think that this side of his theology has been very much
underestimated, and that the distinctive features of Mysticism are
even more marked in him than in St. John. This is not surprising, for
our blessed Lord's discourses, in which nearly all the doctrinal
teaching of St. John is contained, are for all Christians; they rise
above the oppositions which must always divide human thought and human
thinkers. In St. Paul, large-minded as he was, and inspired as we
believe him to be, we may be allowed to see an example of that
particular type which we are considering.

St. Paul states in the clearest manner that Christ _appeared_ to him,
and that this revelation was the foundation of his Christianity and
apostolic commission. "Neither did I receive the Gospel from man,[71]"
he says, "nor was I taught it, but it came to me through revelation of
Jesus Christ." It appears that he did not at first[72] think it
necessary to "confer with flesh and blood" - to collect evidence about
our Lord's ministry, His death and resurrection; he had "seen" and
felt Him, and that was enough. "It was the good pleasure of God to
reveal His Son in me,[73]" he says simply, using the favourite
mystical phraseology. The study of "evidences," in the usual sense of
the term in apologetics, he rejects with distrust and contempt.[74]
External revelation cannot make a man religious. It can put nothing
new into him. If there is nothing answering to it in his mind, it will
profit him nothing. Nor can philosophy make a man religious. "Man's
wisdom," "the wisdom of the world," is of no avail to find spiritual
truth. "God chose the foolish things of the world, to put to shame
them that are wise." "The word of the Cross is, to them that are
perishing, foolishness." By this language he, of course, does not mean
that Christianity is irrational, and therefore to be believed on
authority. That would be to lay its foundation upon external
evidences, and nothing could be further from the whole bent of his
teaching. What he does mean, and say very clearly, is that the carnal
mind is disqualified from understanding Divine truths; "it cannot know
them, because they are spiritually discerned." He who has not raised
himself above "the world," that is, the interests and ideals of human
society as it organises itself apart from God, and above "the flesh,"
that is, the things which seem desirable to the "average sensual man,"
does not possess in himself that element which can be assimilated by
Divine grace. The "mystery" of the wisdom of God is necessarily hidden
from him. St. Paul uses the word "mystery" in very much the same sense
which St. Chrysostom[75] gives to it in the following careful
definition: "A mystery is that which is everywhere proclaimed, but
which is not understood by those who have not right judgment. It is
revealed, not by cleverness, but by the Holy Ghost, as we are able to
receive it. And so we may call a mystery a secret ([Greek:
aporrêton]), for even to the faithful it is not committed in all its
fulness and clearness." In St. Paul the word is nearly always found in
connexion with words denoting revelation or publication[76]. The
preacher of the Gospel is a hierophant, but the Christian mysteries
are freely communicated to all who can receive them. For many ages
these truths were "hid in God,[77]" but now all men may be
"illuminated,[78]" if they will fulfil the necessary conditions of
initiation. These are to "cleanse ourselves from all defilement of
flesh and spirit,[79]" and to have love, without which all else will
be unavailing. But there are degrees of initiation. "We speak wisdom
among the perfect," he says (the [Greek: teleioi] are the fully
initiated); but the carnal must still be fed with milk. Growth in
knowledge, growth in grace, and growth in love, are so frequently
mentioned together, that we must understand the apostle to mean that
they are almost inseparable. But this knowledge, grace, and love is
itself the work of the indwelling God, who is thus in a sense the
organ as well as the object of the spiritual life. "The Spirit
searcheth all things," he says, "yea, the deep things of God." The man
who has the Spirit dwelling in him "has the mind of Christ." "He that
is spiritual judgeth all things," and is himself "judged of no man."
It is, we must admit frankly, a dangerous claim, and one which may
easily be subversive of all discipline. "Where the Spirit of the Lord
is, there is liberty"; but such liberty may become a cloak of
maliciousness. The fact is that St. Paul had himself trusted in "the
Law," and it had led him into grievous error. As usually happens in
such cases, his recoil from it was almost violent. He exalts the inner
light into an absolute criterion of right and wrong, that no corner of
the moral life may remain in bondage to Pharisaism. The crucifixion of
the Lord Jesus and the stoning of Stephen were a crushing condemnation
of legal and ceremonial righteousness; the law written in the heart of
man, or rather spoken there by the living voice of the Holy Spirit,
could never so mislead men as to make them think that they were doing
God service by condemning and killing the just. Such memories might
well lead St. Paul to use language capable of giving encouragement
even to fanatical Anabaptists. But it is significant that the boldest
claims on behalf of liberty all occur in the _earlier_ Epistles.

The subject of St. Paul's visions and revelations is one of great
difficulty. In the Acts we have full accounts of the appearance in the
sky which caused, or immediately preceded, his conversion. It is quite
clear that St. Paul himself regarded this as an appearance of the same
kind as the other Christophanies granted to apostles and "brethren,"
and of a different kind from such visions as might be seen by any
Christian. It was an unique favour, conferring upon him the apostolic
prerogatives of an eye-witness. Other passages in the Acts show that
during his missionary journeys St. Paul saw visions and heard voices,
and that he believed himself to be guided by the "Spirit of Jesus."
Lastly, in the Second Epistle to the Corinthians he records that "more
than fourteen years ago" he was in an ecstasy, in which he was "caught
up into the third heaven," and saw things unutterable. The form in
which this experience is narrated suggests a recollection of
Rabbinical pseudo-science; the substance of the vision St. Paul will
not reveal, nor will he claim its authority for any of his
teaching.[80] These recorded experiences are of great psychological
interest; but, as I said in my last Lecture, they do not seem to me
to belong to the essence of Mysticism.

Another mystical idea, which is never absent from the mind of St.
Paul, is that the individual Christian must live through, and
experience personally, the redemptive process of Christ. The life,
death, and resurrection of Christ were for him the revelation of a
law, the law of redemption through suffering. The victory over sin and
death was won _for_ us; but it must also be won _in_ us. The process
is an universal law, not a mere event in the past.[81] It has been
exemplified in history, which is a progressive unfurling or revelation
of a great mystery, the meaning of which is now at last made plain in
Christ.[82] And it must also appear in each human life. "We were
buried with Him," says St. Paul to the Romans,[83] "through baptism
into death," "that like as Christ was raised from the dead through the
glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life." And
again,[84] "If the Spirit of Him that raised up Jesus from the dead
dwell in you, He that raised up Christ Jesus from the dead shall
quicken also your mortal bodies through His Spirit that dwelleth in
you." And, "If ye were raised together with Christ, seek the things
that are above.[85]"

The law of redemption, which St. Paul considers to have been
triumphantly summed up by the death and resurrection of Christ,[86]
would hardly be proved to be an universal law if the Pauline Christ
were only the "heavenly man," as some critics have asserted. St.
Paul's teaching about the Person of Christ was really almost identical
with the Logos doctrine as we find it in St. John's prologue, and as
it was developed by the mystical philosophy of a later period. Not
only is His pre-existence "in the form of God" clearly taught,[87] but
He is the agent in the creation of the universe, the vital principle
upholding and pervading all that exists. "The Son," we read in the
Epistle to the Colossians,[88] "is the image of the invisible God, the
firstborn of all creation; for in Him were all things created, in the
heavens and upon the earth; all things have been created through Him,
and unto Him; and He is before all things, and in Him all things
consist" (that is, "hold together," as the margin of the Revised
Version explains it). "All things are summed up in Christ," he says to
the Ephesians.[89] "Christ is _all_ and in all," we read again in the
Colossians.[90] And in that bold and difficult passage of the 15th
chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians he speaks of the
"reign" of Christ as coextensive with the world's history. When time
shall end, and all evil shall be subdued to good, Christ "will deliver
up the kingdom to God, even the Father," "that God may be all in
all.[91]" Very important, too, is the verse in which he says that the
Israelites in the wilderness "drank of that spiritual rock which
followed them, and that rock was Christ.[92]" It reminds us of
Clement's language about the Son as the Light which broods over all

The passage from the Colossians, which I quoted just now, contains
another mystical idea besides that of Christ as the universal source
and centre of life. He is, we are told, "the Image of the invisible
God," and all created beings are, in their several capacities, images
of Him. Man is essentially "the image and glory of God";[93] the
"perfect man" is he who has come "to the measure of the stature of the
fulness of Christ.[94]" This is our _nature_, in the Aristotelian
sense of completed normal development; but to reach it we have to slay
the false self, the old man, which is informed by an actively
maleficent agency, "flesh" which is hostile to "spirit." This latter
conception does not at present concern us; what we have to notice is
the description of the upward path as an inner transit from the false
isolation of the natural man into a state in which it is possible to
say, "I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.[95]" In the Epistle
to the Galatians he uses the favourite mystical phrase, "until Christ
be formed in you";[96] and in the Second Epistle to the
Corinthians[97] he employs a most beautiful expression in describing
the process, reverting to the figure of the "mirror," dear to
Mysticism, which he had already used in the First Epistle: "We all
with unveiled face reflecting as a mirror the glory of the Lord, are
transformed into the same image from glory to glory." Other passages,
which refer primarily to the future state, are valuable as showing
that St. Paul lends no countenance to that abstract idea of eternal
life as freedom from all earthly conditions, which has misled so many
mystics. Our hope, when the earthly house of our tabernacle is
dissolved, is not that we may be unclothed, but that we may be

Online LibraryWilliam Ralph IngeChristian Mysticism → online text (page 5 of 28)