One thing you’re bound to notice as you read my posts is that I’m very hard on mystics.

I’m also very hard on scholars and academicians who write about mystics.

Let me put it this way: in one of my recent theology classes, a senior professor recommended that we read Evelyn Underhill’s book Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness if we wanted to understand more about the nature of Christian mysticism. The problem I have with this book is twofold: (1) Evelyn Underhill was not a practising mystic herself, and was writing from an academic perspective, and (2) Evelyn Underhill first published her book in 1911. That’s one hundred years ago, folks. I can’t imagine in all honesty that I would be urged to study a 100 year old textbook in any other field. (Can you imagine what that would be like in a field like chemistry?) Yet this book is still in print, and is still available on the bookshelves of regular bookstores. (I bought a spanking new softcover copy at an Anglican bookstore in 2009). This kind of stubborn denial in the world of theology makes me want to metaphorically pull my hair out by its little grey roots.

For the sake of scholarly balance, a much more recent book that is well researched is The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, edited by Bernard McGinn (New York: Modern Library-Random House, 2006).

McGinn’s book is a collection of short pieces written by well-known and lesser-known Christian mystics over the past two millennia. He provides a short introduction to each mystic, but he allows the reader to hear the mystics speak in their own words. His approach is in sharp contrast to Underhill’s approach. Underhill, in my view, does not show an understanding of her own limits, and seems to believe she is within her rights to make factual claims about the characteristics and interior experiences of Christian mystics.

Thank you kindly, Ms. Underhill, but some of the mystical experiences you describe in your book sound to me an awful lot like various forms of serious mental illness, and I wouldn’t be recommending those pursuits to anybody who cares about their mental, spiritual, physical, and emotional health.

Of course, I understand that Underhill was writing her book at a time when research in the fields of psychiatry and psychology was still young, and advanced investigations in neurophysiology and neuroplasticity hadn’t yet been contemplated. I get that. What I don’t get is the church’s refusal to revise its theological understanding of mysticism in light of new neuro-psychiatric research. What I don’t get is the desire to shield the church from the realities of science, especially in the tricky areas of prophecy and mysticism. The Christian church was founded on prophecy (revelation) and mysticism. There would be no church without the claims made by early prophets and mystics. You’d think the church would desperately want to know how to use modern scientific advances to help them better understand what makes prophets and mystics tick.

Mystics who take themselves too seriously will be reminded by God to be more humble and more aware of their personal limitations. Mystics are no more important to God than any other human beings.

But, of course, if the church took the bold step of researching its closetful of prophets and mystics, some of its traditional heroes might not look so good anymore. And then the church would have to start rethinking some of its doctrinal positions.

You know, stuff like . . . oh, Original Sin. Adam and Eve and the Fall. The Devil. Judgment Day. All that kind of paranoid, obsessive-compulsive, DSM-IV-TR Axis I and II stuff. The kind of thinking that responds really well to a properly managed treatment course with olanzapine.*

Yeah, well, call me a cynic, but when you’ve had five years of experience working in a lay capacity in the field of psychiatry, it’s pretty hard not to think in psychiatric terms when you read some of the things that Christian mystics have written over the centuries.

As a practising mystic, I would never say that mystical experiences don’t exist or can’t exist. I would never say that all reported mystical experiences are the result of mental illness. I would never say that all reported mystical experiences are pure fabrication, either. But some reported experiences are caused by mental illness, and some reported experiences are pure fabrication.

The trick is to be able to sort out the genuine mystics from both the tragically mentally ill and the enthusiastic fakers. We need science on our side to do this.

That’s why I would like to see an introductory course on neuroscience as a requirement in the theological curriculum.

* olanzapine is the generic name for an atypical antipsychotic medication that is particularly useful in the treatment of schizophrenia and psychotic depression.

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