Commentary: Theology:


Spirituality and Mysticism under the Horizon of the Christian Faith


By Dr. Arnd Hollweg

Berlin, Germany


Lack of awareness

What is happening within me at this moment?  In his meditations, Marcus Aurelius says: “Do not only seek to know every person's heart  but also to open your own heart to every other person.”[1] He advises that we should accustom ourselves  “only to those thoughts that we can openly and unthinkingly disclose when asked suddenly ‘what are you thinking just now?' (Ibid. 76). We would say that we ought not to repress this.  This is constantly happening in our lives, which are defined by external factors in today’s secular scientific society, in which everything we feel, think, do or experience is programmed by general scientific definitions.  We are barely aware of the thought systems and the realms of imagination, which determine our relations to ourself, to our fellow human beings, to the reality in which we live as human beings, and unfortunately also to God. For that reason meditations, in which we ask and ponder what is happening in our personal life, are so important today.


Significance of meditation

At a memorial service we commemorated a woman who had left behind a diary. Once, when faced with a particularly difficult decision in her life she had written: ‘God hears me and sees me.’  She knew that she was in God’s presence, even in the hour of her death. I talked about this with members of her family and with members of the congregation. What is happening in us? Among the questions raised were: “How can I continue to live when those nearest to me are dead? Why do some die of a serious illness although they have led a healthy life whilst others are spared despite leading a very unhealthy life? Can we really say that in God there is only love, only goodness and light?  How can I believe in Him if He allows so much suffering and evil in the world to strike people indiscriminately?" All of a sudden we were dealing with very concrete conflicts in these people's lives: one woman said that she would have preferred to die in place of the deceased. She had had treatment for an anxiety neurosis. She had loved somebody whose God had been a barrier between them.  Another spoke about a near-death experience during a traffic accident, which had required treatment of the trauma that had surfaced again during the funeral. Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic philosopher on the imperial throne, reminds us “Death has placed Alexander the Great and his muleteer on the same level”. (Ibid. 101). What happens in us when we are faced with death, which is always around us?  At that point our hands are empty,  but can we be confident that even then we are still in God’s hand? It is good if we can discuss this in a congregation with people whom we trust. Even in a meditation we cannot deal with this by ourselves. We need somebody else to whom we can open our hearts.  We need impulses for thought in order to meditate. We need this kind of mutual exchange if we are not to get tied up and lost in ourselves.


Internal and external relations in spiritual thinking

We have to distinguish between therapeutic and spiritual questions. Therapy deals with spiritual and bodily dysfunctions that handicap our own life, and our life with others. Spiritual thinking is concerned with questions like: “What do I live by? Where do I live? How do I live? Why do I live?” They are about the basis of our life as human beings in the world. Who am I?  Is my human life derived from the world in which I am dealing with science and technology every day, which I try to make accessible, to reify, to objectify? I may be in a place in the world, where my human destiny happens in life and death, but in my consciousness I am also face to face with it. I am not identical with it, nor am I part of it. But nevertheless I do not stand outside the world, as scientists seem to postulate frequently. I cannot look at it from the outside because the network of universe, nature, history and society runs through my whole life. I do not disappear in them however; I am more than them, and different from them. But I cannot separate myself from the reality in which I live, and in which I am given to myself. In and through my birth I have already entered into a reality of inter-personal relations, which I share in my life: parents, brothers and sisters, neighbours, people and communities of all sorts.  I am not only born as a ‘self’ but also as a ‘neighbour’. I can know myself only in relation to others. I am not an isolated self, not even in my spiritual life. I also find myself in a world with plants and animals that have an organism like mine.


Life in the reality of experience

From my birth onwards I live in the contexts of a non-human world, of nature, of a universe that is related to the life in it in a meaningful way. I have to breathe, to warm myself in the sun, to see by day and to sleep by night, find food and much more.  All these things condition my life. Without it I am not given to myself.  Human beings  cannot be separated from the world. The reality of experience and of the relations, which I find and know, and to which I react in all I do and undertake in my life has not been made by any human being. Scientific abstractions or models cannot abolish it. It is rather that in these abstractions we are accountable to reality. Our cognition cannot reach out to another world, prior to experience, as the so-called Kantian a-priori theory maintains, or as it happens in the derivations of philosophical metaphysics.  If we try to do this we hit a void; we confuse the various rational imaginary worlds with reality, epistemology with ontology and ultimately blind ourselves to the immediate reality of experience and relations in which we, as human beings, live and act knowingly a priori to and within all science. This is where meditation happens, not in irrational super-worlds.


The problem of the split between spirit and matter.

 We find ourselves in just such a split when we ontologise and objectivise our ideas and images.  When we do so, we only admit as reality whatever can be rationally explained and derived from scientific or metaphysical theories. Such a split between intelligence and matter bypasses both the spiritual the and corporal character of human knowledge.  The human being does not exist beyond the world, nor is the world isolated from the human being.  Even empirical scientific observations are unthinkable without the human being who is the one who thinks, even if he then constructs a concept of man, or a philosophical or theological system from isolated phenomena and experiences, which he takes to be reality as such. We cannot root our humanity in the world of scientific ideas and theories by identifying ourselves with any random phenomena in the worldly reality.  If we do so we eradicate our human identity in the world because we identify our personal spirit with out functional intelligence, our human body with the general concept of “body”. If for instance we explain this body only in terms of its geometric and mathematical extension and measurable size, there is no phenomenological difference between an object, a machine or robot, an animal organism or a human body.  In their derivation from theoretical ideas they have similar characteristics although completely different realities occur in them.  This can lead to macabre, pseudo-scientific discussions, as if the human being were nothing but a machine, a robot, an animal or a random object.  This completely blocks our access to the understanding not only of anthropological reality but also of the transcendental links that exist in all human life.


Holistic existence

By anthropological reality I understand not only the reality that theoretical intelligence communicates to us, but one that we know through our holistic and personal involvement in life, with body and spirit, as persons in the world in which they are both contained and still remain face to face with it, in a relation of other-ness. Through this we share in the reality of inter-personal relations, and their socio-historic and biophysical context on earth. As I have explained earlier, we always have to exercise empirical criticism of our instrumental intelligence and its projects onto the reality in which we live.  We cannot escape from our industrial or virtual scientific society with which our professional and economic existence is intertwined.  We have constantly to react to it but can only do so when we do not become a function in it ourselves, and let our humanity dissolve into functionality. This would mean that we loose ourselves.  The worlds of life and work, of inter-personal and socio-economic reality and instrumental processes must remain in contact, in all their otherness.  Otherwise the reality found by human beings will diverge increasingly from the one he makes for himself.  The greatest danger is that we split more and more within ourselves and loose contact with the basis of our life as human being in the world.  We then can no longer steer, or be responsible for, the interaction between interior and exterior factors, and would, even more so than before, project the biologic and organic as well as the physical and technological processes and their theoretical world of ideas and concept onto the history of humankind, in which our life takes place in time, in the community and in the  sequence of generations.




Challenge of a spiritual world-view

According to Biblical faith the eternal God steps from his divine world beyond the universe precisely into this socio-historic world of human life on earth.  What happens in the relation of God to human beings transcends the universe as well as human beings in their place in the universe.  God the creator of the world becomes the God of the people in it, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Moses and of the people of Israel, the God who wants to convey himself to all people on earth in Jesus Christ, also to us today when, in our situation, we open our hearts and our personal beings to the workings of  His spirit.  The universe is God’s work but it tends to be rather an obstacle to our relation with the God who is beyond it.  As the miraculous creation of the one God it cannot be known without the help of God’s spirit who makes himself known in the life of humankind through the history of Israel and through the church of Jesus, then and now.  Here, physical and metaphysical intelligence reaches its limits. Biblical history deals with a dialogue between people and communities of very different cultures, scientific and philosophical convictions and religious traditions right across time, with their different experiences of God and relations with God, their attitude of either rejection or acceptance, their search for Him and flight from Him, their quarrels and reconciliation with Him. In their respective historical times they meet the presence of God in the working of His spirit in their lives, and in their life together on earth.


Spirituality and the Christ- event

Each generation is challenged to participate in this open dialogue with their experiences and understandings. In this act of God’s Spirit, what belongs together comes together: the eternal God beyond the universe and the earthly, transient human being in his place. Therein humans make the experience that the ground of their life lies in the eternal God Himself.  Thus we find our identity in our belonging to Him to whom all life in the world and we ourselves are related. In Jesus Christ He communicates Himself to us directly and personally through the working of His Spirit.  Paul puts it this way: “God’s Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom.8: 16). Therefore we should distinguish between a general human spirituality and the pneumatic Christ-event. God –I/self-Thou-We – is linked together in it by God. Each person has his own body, separate from others. In this body lives our human spirit through whom we communicate with our fellow human beings.  But in the Christ-event we are also linked together in the personal grounds of our being. In it we are neither individuals who can be separated from one another nor components of a collective. Our spirit is no longer locked into ourselves by alien powers but, in our life, is in direct contact with the divine Spirit who acts in us and speaks to us.  Our bodily nature is also included. Paul can say that our body is a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19). This means our body in the anthropological and theological sense, not in terms of biology or physics.


Christian mysticism and Christ-mysticism

Through the working of His Spirit in Jesus Christ, God is active in our bodily life.  We experience Him in His presence in us, through the Christ of the Spirit, the pneumatic Christ.  One can also understand this as the Christ-mysticism, something entirely different from neo-platonic, Gnostic or esoteric mysticism.  The light of faith, in which we get to know ourselves in our self on earth, comes from the acting of God's Spirit through Christ.  We do not have it in us naturally.  In this context, Paul speaks of "Christ in us", and of us as those who are "in Christ".  Through him all that is human is drawn into the events of the Kingdom of God, is accepted by God in love and truth, and reconciled with Him.  Christ is the mediator between the community and God, not just a prophet or rabbi.  He is true man, but without sin.  Therefore he can share in the holy God.  But he is not himself God. Such an interpretation does not come from the Biblical witness but is the product of a philosophical quarrel projected onto that witness.  The working of God's Spirit in our hearts cannot be replaced by church dogma.  Even a sacrament, instituted for salvation, does not have God's presence in Christ at its disposal.  Even in his presence in Christ, God remains the holy God, the unavailable, the unapproachable, the irreplaceable who is beyond any human grasp. Even mystical experience as a special form of spirituality cannot replace God's pneumatic presence in Christ.  As God's charismatic gift such an experience is related to His pneumatic presence but cannot be identified with faith in Christ.  It is part of the anthropological reality. It is an illusion to think that we could free ourselves from out own self and thus find our true identity by immersing ourselves in the ground of our life.  The human self cannot become identical with God. We cannot free ourselves from our obsession with the transient concerns and constructs of our thinking or our projections. To do this we have to open ourselves to God's Spirit and word in Christ.

 It therefore is true for all Christian meditation that we must not attempt to meddle with our relation with the eternal God, or with His presence in us and in others. We cannot alter or use our human relations with God because He alone can establish such a relation with us.  Nothing can take its place. At the same time this shows that we ourselves are irreplaceable, unique and free in our relation to Him.


The fruits of the Spirit

God does not act violently but, in the metaphoric language of the Bible, offers us "son-ship", a direct relation that is untouchable and unalterable.  Nothing must come between us from our side because he Himself wants to step "between", even in our relations with ourselves and with each other.  We do not need to accomplish any difficult doctrinal nor metaphysical tasks or find some psychological methods of influencing the soul,  seeking to dominate it  or the souls of others.  What happens in Christian faith is that God through his Holy Spirit in Christ Himself wants to dominate our soul and repels every human intervention. In this we are entirely passive, even in experience and knowledge. But we have to accept what He gives us for our life in Him in the same way He gives it, and work with what we receive from Him.  This is also true for our knowledge and understanding, within the working of his Spirit.  According to Biblical understanding, the fruits of the Spirit are not insights into higher worlds through enlightenment but experiences of love, joy, mercy, truth, justice and peace which are to be evident in our own life, and our life with others. These are not virtues or values but the gracious gifts of God who, through His Spirit in Christ, wants to dwell, act and  rule in our heart.  When we are linked with Him we experience freedom from the world and its powers, and thereby also from ourselves. Our trust in God enables us to open ourselves and to accept ourselves and our fellow human beings in the world in which we live.




The openness of history

In my opinion, spirituality according to the spirit of the Gospel has to lead into life on earth, to the place in our historic present where we discover God's presence, mostly in a place and in a way we would not have imagined before. Therefore we can and should meditate with people of other faiths and learn from them because the God witnessed in the Bible is at work in His own way also outside the Christian church. In personal meditation together we should remain open for everything, also for surprises. Above all we should never consider any secular philosophical or theological and metaphysical ideas and thought forms to be of absolute value.  We should remember that history remains open-ended until the last day, when we shall know how we are known. (1 Cor. 13:12).  


[1] From “Wie soll man leben? Anton Tschechow liest Marc Aurel.” Pb. By Peter Urban, Zurich 1997, p.109.

[ back to "Publications & Special Reports" ]
[ BWW Society Home Page ]