There’s a quote going around in Christian circles which has me worried. It’s a quote attributed to Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner and it reads: “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all”.
When I first heard this quote it was in a public speaking context, and I was ignorant of the source of the quote. As one who has always been drawn to the mystic path, and came to realize that consciously relatively recently, my initial reaction was, “Damn right.” But this was tinged with amusement and a fair bit of naivety.
As I began to see the quote referenced, and even agreed with, in more and more places–books, blogs, talks, social media posts, etc.,–alarm began to stir and the import began to penetrate. After reading Ilia Deo’s The Unbearable Wholeness of Being and James Martin’s, SJ, Building A Bridge, I realized that enough was enough and I had to make this post.
I think that this sentiment has grown more and more popular in recent years as there has been a global shift to right of centre political beliefs, which spread messages of hate and fear, and as the climate change crisis gets worse and worse. The polarization of the world, the growing division between rich and poor, right and left wing, causes despair to rise and we get the sense logic and rationality will not reach our opponents–we must instead rely on a mystical solution. This is a tempting thought, and there is some truth in it–but it is not a complete truth, and incomplete truths can be dangerous–as this one certainly is.
The truth in it is that there are certain cognitive barriers that prevent the back-and-forth citing of sources from being an effective strategy–if we disagree on what makes a credible source, that path is only going to lead to further division. The problem lies in that sometimes the barrier comes from relying too much on our feelings, on our intuitive knowledge of right and wrong, and to get around that sometimes you need an element of rational, logical intellect brought to the table.
The main reason I react with concern, and even alarm, to the concept that the Christian of the future must be mystic is that Paul writes quite extensively on the Body of Christ, and makes clear that there many different roles, many different paths, and they all bring glory to the Body, unified by the Spirit and by love. Indeed, it was these same passages, the awareness that Christianity acknowledged diversity, acknowledged individual purpose, and declared it good and necessary that did much to bring me to faith.
To privilege mystics above another part of the Body is a dangerous mistake. I have known several Christians who are more intellectual, rational and logical, than mystical, and to whom mysticism holds little draw. I count many of these Christians among my closest friends. I also have friends who are drawn more to the mystical as I am. And I have friends who straddle the middle, or take a different path altogether. Through all this I have learned, and am quite convinced, that the mystics need the intellectuals just as much as the intellectuals need the mystics.
Consider this: Sometimes we will find we don’t like a person or group–we get a bad feeling about them, or we simply dislike them–but intellect may tell us we don’t have a logical, rational reason for disliking them. In such cases, we can practice the act of loving and hope the feelings will follow. Or the reverse, our intellect may tell us a person or group believes something deeply wrong, or is unlikely to change for the better. In such cases, it’s our feelings that can remind us that we are called to love, and that love can change people over time and against all odds.
The point is that the Body of Christ is diverse precisely because the world we live in is complex, with complex problems and challenges. We need diverse approaches, both within ourselves as individuals, and within the larger Body of Christ, to even begin to solve the issues we are facing in the 21st century. We need to utilize mystical and intellectual approaches, guided, strengthened, and empowered by the Spirit, and always in love–which necessarily means we need Christians who are mystics, Christians who are intellectuals, and Christians who utilize both approaches or a different approach altogether.
Let’s not create more problems by privileging one part of the Body of Christ above another. Amen.