Mysticism and Apocalyptic:
A Brief Exploration into the Relationship of Two Central Impulses in Christian Theology.
Rev. Paul F. Rack
Mysticism and apocalyptic are two categories that I suspect are closely related, yet in our present usage are often viewed
as mutually exclusive. In the context of modern theology they do often seem rather opposed to each other. At the same time,
I find it interesting that many theologians, especially of the Modern era, have found it prudent to reject both. This may
show that the two categories at least have in common something offensive to certain types of theology. This is understandable
since apocalyptic language in our time is most often popularly framed in the categories of religious extremists who apparently
relish the imminent violent destruction of the Earth. Mysticism, on the other hand, is frequently caricatured as a self-indulgent
and vaguely heterodox import from the far east, a pastime of the leisure classes. Both may be seen as harmful distractions
from careful attention to responsible faith and life in this immediate human existence.
Mysticism and apocalyptic have in common a concern with another reality. Mysticism holds that this reality is somehow embedded
or encoded in the ordinary world, and hence may be experienced more or less directly now. Apocalyptic talks more about how
this reality is beyond this ordinary world and is breaking — or will soon break — in. Mysticism tends to be more
individual and personal, while apocalyptic has more to do with the communal and cosmic, and uses temporal language.
If apocalyptic and mysticism are different aspects of the same way of thinking, then it might be that reestablishing contact
with its mystical side might help in the recovery of a true apocalyptic sense — as opposed to the mistaken, twisted,
violent, self-serving, and hateful apocalypticism of fundamentalism. And vice-versa. Mysticism might be rescued from the pagan,
therapeutic, escapist, and even cosmetic uses to which it is now often put, by restoring its original relationship with apocalyptic
And, in the 21st century, apocalyptic and mysticism are moving closer. Where apocalyptic imagery and ideas were
once all but banished from the life of the Christendom church, today they have been making a comeback. For instance, an admittedly
unscientific study of hymns appearing in successive Presbyterian hymnals shows a gradual and dramatic increase over time of
hymns having to do with the themes of Advent, the most apocalyptic season of the liturgical year. Writers from Schweitzer
to Beker have pointed out the indelibly apocalyptic character of much of the New Testament. At the same time, Christians are
becoming reawakened to the mystical side of their own faith. In some parts of the church, such as my own Reformed tradition,
this mystical side was all but forgotten.
Clearly it is time to take a closer look at these two important theological categories. Are they really diametrically opposed
so that to choose one is to reject the other? Or is there room here for a reconnection and reintegration of two indispensable
ideas, which could together provide a new source of energy for the church? This very brief and superficial examination is
intended at least to raise these questions and point to some helpful directions for further study.
A. A Different Mode of Knowing.
Apocalyptic, of course, simply comes from the word meaning "revelation" in Greek. Indeed, the whole literary genre seems
to have received its name from the final book of the New Testament. It is often considered a subset of eschatology, which
had to do with general views of Christian doctrine concerning death, the afterlife, judgment, and resurrection1.
Apocalyptic more often focuses on the imminent expectation of the End. The distinction between eschatology and apocalyptic
is often confusing and inconsistent from writer to writer. Some will talk about eschatology to avoid apocalyptic language,
and even distance themselves from what they take to be apocalypticism. However in recent years the two terms seem to have
been largely conflated. Though there are subtle differences in usage, in this paper I will be using apocalyptic and eschatology
more or less interchangeably.
According to Ithamar Gruenwald, apocalyticism emerges as an independent and defined phenomenon in the Jewish tradition
as both a reaction against Hellenization, and at the same time an incorporation of some Hellenistic ideas. The kind of knowledge
spread by the Greeks throughout the ancient near east was both pagan and "secular" in the sense that it did not depend upon
divine revelation or the scriptures. Apocalypticism matured in response to this powerful complex of ideas by offering an alternative
form of knowledge based on a different kind of vision. Beyond the limits of scripture, apocalypticism experimented with what
we might call ecstatic experiences, such as "heavenly ascent." The knowledge gained in this way was not technical or utilitarian,
rather it was a knowledge that led to one’s salvation2, presumably by connecting one to the larger, unseen
foundations, scope, and goal of reality. In other words, while the historical situation may seem disastrous when viewed from
the perspective of normal existence, when a more comprehensive view is attained, one that allows for a more widely inclusive
vision beyond the limitations of space and time, it becomes apparent that there are patterns and trajectories of meaning and
redemption which will be fulfilled.
Gruenwald indicates that knowledge of redemption is not something we get from normal experience and reason; it must be
attained in extraordinary ways by means of extraordinary experiences3. In short, "Jewish Apocalypticism developed
a concept of knowledge that for all practical purposes transcended its biblical antecedent. In its new eschatological setting
the biblical idea of knowledge was made to burst through its rather narrow limits and acquire soteriological functions...."
This clearly indicates from the outset the obvious but often strangely overlooked fact that, from the beginning, apocalyticism
has been linked to, if not positively identified with, spiritual experiences we would identify as forms of mysticism. Apocalyptic
data is acquired by means of some kind of intensified mode of interior religious/spiritual experience, altered states of consciousness
we would recognize as ecstasy, meditation, or contemplation. This connection will remain the case from the earliest expressions
of apocalypticism, to the Jewish Merkavah mystics, to books like 1 Enoch, to Jesus and the apostle Paul, to
the book of Revelation. It is all but impossible to imagine apocalypticism without the visionary experiences upon which
it was originally based.
B. The Evolution of Apocalyptic in Jewish Tradition.
1. The Prophets.
The deepest roots of apocalypticism predate the encounter with Hellenism, and stretch back to the crisis of the Babylonian
conquests and subsequent sending of the people into exile. We see the tradition preparing the way for apocalypticism, for
instance, in the buried traditions of worship in the original Temple, in writings of some of the classical prophets, and in
the book of Job from the Wisdom stream of Jewish thought.
Even prior to the crises of the collision with Hellenism, the prophets were delivering oracles concerning current events
based on direct, often ecstatic, experiences of God’s words. In the earlier prophets, like Elijah and Elisha, these
experiences appear to be very similar to what we know as shamanic experiences in traditional societies. What apocalypticism
will do is build on and transforms prophecy by extending its time-limits into the future and incorporating a redemption at
the End of days. Redemption becomes less a matter of historical changes, and has more to do with the dawning of a completely
new era5 that overwhelms and replaces this present one.
Paul Hanson notices an oscillation between "prophetic eschatology," which emerged in periods which were more optimistic
about human efforts, and "apocalyptic eschatology," which came out of periods of more intense and hopeless suffering6.
A similar development is noticed by Thomas J. J. Altizer. He sees prophecy moving from the historical towards the eschatological,
while keeping the focus on the moral and ethical life. In other words, the prophets remained primarily concerned with how
people were to live now in light of a coming and imminent End7. The prophets were more concerned that people
grasp the moral and religious consequences of the fact that the End was imminent. "It was this expectation which made life
bearable in the terrifying days of the destruction of the nation and during the exile, for it was the imminence of the end
which gave power and urgency to the moral-religious obedience of the believer"8. Altizer notes that in this development
"the future replaces the present and the past as the primary arena of the deity"9. This eventually caused a change
in the basic framework of Jewish faith. "The whole substance of the traditional religion must be so transformed as to lose
its ancient form and meaning"10.
This is largely what happens in Margaret Barker’s analysis. Her view is that a cataclysmic shift in Jewish religion
occurs at the time of Josiah’s reform, which she sees as a kind of coup in which the older, traditional forms of the
religion are repressed and replaced with new forms similar to what Altizer describes as the "ethicoeschatological absolutism"
of the prophets. For Barker, the remaining adherents to the old religion of the first Temple have to go underground. Its ideas
are maintained in the diaspora and in eccentric communities like Qumran, but may also be discerned in the scriptures. It appears
to be these marginalized outsiders who finally develop apocalyptic literature as an intentional and very pointed critique
aimed at the in-group who held power at the Temple. Her point is that apocalyptic thought is really "the repository of Israel’s
oldest traditions"11. Those traditions would later emerge in a new form in Christianity.
Barker’s detailed reconstruction of the liturgical life of the first Temple includes a great deal of attention given
to creation, especially "Day One." The ceremonial complex was thus focused on the past, in this case the creation. Influenced
by the prophets, the ascendant party, led by Hilkiah during the Josianic reform, may have radically shifted the focus of the
religion from this orientation towards creation to one that was more attentive towards the future, the coming End.
According to Altizer, "The Eschaton is a transformation of the primeval event of the past into a primeval event of the
future"12. "The repetition of the creation in the New Year festival becomes the final event of world judgment"13.
The prophetic message is based on the enthronement ritual in which the drama of Yahweh’s triumph over chaos in creation
was reenacted annually. In other words, both creation and eschaton are events in primordial time. The prophets, for Altizer,
shift the attention to the latter as a dramatic re-creation which is coming. It should not pass without noting that Altizer,
like Barker, sees some of the roots of apocalyptic reaching into the liturgical life of the Temple.
Altizer hears Rudolf Otto saying that "the hidden mainspring of eschatology is ‘the idea that righteousness is not
possible in an earthly form of existence but only in the wholly other form of an existence that God will give, not possible
in this age but only in a new age’"14. This insight leads us into another significant biblical root of apocalyptic
thinking, the book of Job.
It is in the book of Job that we also see the seeds of apocalypticism in the breaking down in Job’s experience of
the traditional and simplistic idea of God’s justice. In chapters 14, 16, and especially the famous passage in 19:23-27,
Job begins to hope beyond all rationality and evidence in a "redeemer" or judge who will somehow vindicate him. He seems to
think of this figure as somehow above even the traditional views of God. This is kind of a turning point in his experience
of suffering, after which he gains confidence in standing up to his accusers. It is almost like an interior insight that Job
receives directly, apart from and in contradiction to the outward data and his experience. His suffering had driven him to
some ecstatic place where he could see more clearly than his friends, who are able to do little more than spit back at him
lame anecdotes from their experience or simplistic doctrine they learned in Sunday School, as it were.
At the same time, the book of Job continues to ask whether human beings are able to grasp real Wisdom at all. In 28:28
we see Job appearing to agree that the best we humans can do is to settle for keeping the religious ceremonial and moral law.
On the other hand, the appearance of God in chapters 38-41 may be understood as a theophany, a precursor to the kinds of
experiences which would come to characterize apocalyptic literature. Job is given a glimpse, or at least verbally informed,
of the basic nature of things, beginning from creation. When God asks "Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have
you seen the gates of deep darkness?" (38:17) it may sound like a rhetorical question. But God, Job, and the reader know that
Job can confidently answer, "Yes!" 15. For in his suffering he did descend to the extremities of human pain and
despair, and it is on the basis of that experience that Job’s awareness is opened up to hope in a redeemer, and then
to be given the magnificent theophany — "now my eyes see you" (42:5b) — at the end of the book. The message and
insight of Job is thus in line with passages like Isaiah 52:13-53:12, pointing as well to the passion of Jesus. Spiritual
insight is a by-product of suffering.
More importantly, what all these analysts share in common is the understanding that the spark of insight which eventually
produced apocalypticism was suffering. It is the encounter with massive and painful, even catastrophic and unspeakable events
and experiences, in which the integrity and continuity of the individual, community, nation, faith, and even the cosmos is
placed in doubt, when all sense of justice evaporates in a firestorm of horror, which drives the development from a secure
and conventional religious life to prophecy and finally to apocalyptic.
C. The New Testament.
As Douglas Harink says in his recent book on Pauline scholarship: "Most simply stated, ‘apocalypse’ is shorthand
for Jesus Christ. In the New Testament, in particular for Paul, all apocalyptic reflection and hope comes to this, that God
has acted critically, decisively, and finally for Israel, all the peoples of the earth, and the entire cosmos, in the life,
death, resurrection, and coming again of Jesus, in such a way that God’s purpose for Israel, all humanity, and all creation
is critically, decisively, and finally disclosed and effected in the history of Jesus Christ"16. And: "God, in
the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, has inaugurated among the nations nothing less
than a new cosmos, the new creation...."17. It is this insight, that "apocalypse" refers to Jesus Christ, which
will ground this brief study.
One of the most important figures in the recovery of a sense of the importance of apocalypticism in the early part of the
20th century was Albert Schweitzer. Schweitzer wrote two books on the subject, The Quest of the Historical Jesus
and The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle. In the former he puts to rest (for a while) the idea that Jesus was a nice,
middle-class, ethical teacher. While Schweitzer’s own hypothesis was also kind of eccentric, and rendered Jesus’
teaching nearly irrelevant, he did manage to point out that Jesus’ message and career were thoroughly apocalyptic (he
would say "eschatological") in character.
Altizer also sees this central apocalypticism in Jesus’ ministry, holding that Jesus preached a provisional ethic
based on the assumption of an imminently in-breaking Kingdom of God. But this radical apocalypticism was not sustained. Instead,
in his view, the church viewed Jesus’ apocalypticism as a scandal which the church attempted to address and correct
at least as early as the Fourth Gospel. In what h e sees as a clear reaction against the apocalypticism of the synoptic Jesus,
the Fourth Gospel presents a realized eschatology. "The Kingdom in John has lost its future and apocalyptic elements
and has become a present and spiritual reality"18. He sees this trend, to water-down apocalypticism by understanding
it psychologically or existentially, and replacing it with some kind of "eternal now," as continuing through Christian history.
I suspect he would identify this flight from apocalypticism with forms of mysticism.
The impetus for this movement away from apocalypticism seems to be based on both the delay of the parousia and the increasing
institutionalization of the Church. The effect is that "the ethical demand become compromised with the ‘world’"19.
"Now the structures of this world — which can only mean of man’s (sic.) world, of history — are given
the absolute sanction of God’s authority. Consequently, it is no longer possible to advocate the reversal of values
and structures of the world — despite the fact that this is the heart of Jesus’ message"20.
One of Altizer’s conclusions is that "Eschatological repentance must not be confused with mystical rebirth"21.
However, Schweitzer, when he attempts to do for Paul what he did with Jesus, chooses to frame his argument precisely in terms
of Paul’s "mysticism." This mysticism is concerned with union not with the Godhead but with Christ. Schweitzer seems
aware that in talking about Paul’s mysticism he is dealing with apocalyptic categories. "We are always in the presence
of mysticism when we find a human being looking upon the division between earthly and super-earthly, temporal and eternal,
as transcended, and feeling himself, while still externally amid the earthly and temporal, to belong to the super-earthly
and eternal"22 .
"And why should there not be possibilities of mysticism in eschatology?"23 Schweitzer asks, pointing out that,
like mysticism, eschatology also attempts to resolve the radical differentiation implicit in the language of transcendence.
In other words, both seek to bring together two worlds, the natural and the supernatural. "[Eschatology] lets the natural
world dissolve into the supernatural, and sees this event as having its beginning in the dying and rising again of Jesus."24
Schweitzer asks us to imagine that "for a speculative mind, moving amid ardent eschatological hopes and fears in the moment
when the expected transformation was being prepared, the two worlds might appear to coincide."25 He goes on to
suggest that this "would provide the necessary conditions for the experiencing of the future in the present and the eternal
in the temporal, which is the characteristic procedure of mysticism."26 The understanding of mysticism which appears
in Paul is "precisely that the interpenetration of present and future did not in it come about by an act of thought, but was
a simple reality, which thought only needed to apprehend. Now, in point of fact, the peculiar traits which distinguish
Pauline mysticism from that of the Hellenistic mystery religions, and indeed that of every other form of mysticism stands
in close relationship with the cosmic Events which were to mark the times of the End"27.
Schweitzer’s view of Paul’s "eschatological mysticism" is that Paul was granted a look into eternity, or the
End. His preaching was then informed by the knowledge he gained of this ultimate truth. The question arises as to whether
apocalyptic constitutes an "unveiling" of something already present but invisible, which would make it more readily adaptable
to mysticism, or whether it is "God’s invasion into a world order enslaved by powers opposed to God’s purpose"28.
My sense is that even these two formulations are not mutually exclusive; they simply point out the differing perspectives
between apocalyptic and mystical thought. There is a sense in which the End is already present; there is also a sense in which
it is coming. These two senses depend on each other. For Schweitzer the milieu of Paul’s thought was both eschatological
(ie. apocalyptic) and mystical. The two are not diametrically opposed.
We too easily forget how much of the apocalyptic material in the Bible originally emerged as the content of what we would
identify as mystical vision. Certainly it is true for the apostle Paul that his apocalyptic sense is based on his own mystical
encounter with the Lord on the Damascus Road. God revealed to him directly — "apocalypsed," is Martyn’s coined
term — what has been/will be accomplished in Jesus Christ. Because the future has already been accomplished in Christ
it is something upon which we may rely, something in which we may place our trust and faith. The barrier between past and
future has been at least temporarily erased.
Chris Beker wrote: "Resurrection language is eschatological language that is intelligible only within an apocalyptic world
of thought where it is at home. This language is about the world to come and thus constitutes an essential component of apocalyptic’s
expectation of the transformation and restoration of the whole cosmos"29.
But resurrection language is also inherently mystical language. Margaret Barker finds a line in the Gospel of
Philip which underscores this connection. "Those who say that the Lord died first and then rose up are in error for he
rose up first and then died" (Philip 56). Quoting J. H. Charlesworth, she points out that "the very existence of the gospels
proves that the pre-crucifixion life of Jesus was important for the early church... What we have in fact is a proclamation
of the risen Lord but an emphasis on his pre-Easter life. Little is said of the post-Easter Lord. The obvious conclusion to
draw would be that the ‘earthly life’ was the risen state"30. Her contention is that "the original
raising of Jesus was at the start of his ministry" (p. 8), that is, at the mystical experience that he had at his baptism.
Perhaps we could even read the gospel of John as having to do with Jesus’ "being lifted up," not just in his crucifixion,
rising from death, and ascension, but in his whole career.
Thus, if these hypotheses are accurate, both the apocalypticism of Jesus and that of Paul were rooted in particular ecstatic
experiences. Somehow they were able to experience or at least envision the future within the present, the next world within
this one, the transcendent in the temporal. Jesus emerges from his baptism experience to proclaim the knowledge and insight
he received therein: "The time is fulfilled; the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel!" (Mark 1:15).
D. The Early Church.
As Ernst Käsemann famously said, "Apocalypticism... was the mother of all Christian
theology"31. The earliest christology was expressed "in the fervid vision of the Son of man breaking the power
of the demons and ushering in the new aeon with divine judgment and mercy.... Each major tenet of primitive Christian belief
must be understood in this apocalyptic context...."32. The subsequent "eclipse" of this expectation was not, in
the view of Jaroslav Pelikan, a product of bitter disappointment over the "delay," nor a watering down of apocalypticism by
a more organized and comfortable church, as Altizer would have it. Rather Pelikan points to "a shift within the polarity of
already/not yet"33. In other words, the coming — the advent, revelation, or apocalypse — of Jesus Christ
changed everything. Salvation could no longer be relegated to the future; it was in some sense a present reality. Apocalyptic
writings such as Revelation and Hermas remained popular in a church that was able to include and balance them with
the obvious confession that Christ had already come. The creeds and liturgies of the church retained their apocalyptic language34.
In short, the church found itself led to maintain the already/not yet dialectic. In one sense, Christianity emerged as a "faith
whose content was a history that had already happened"35; yet at the same time the church came to affirm in the
second coming the final completion of salvation36.
Using imagery from the book of Hebrews and referring to the liturgy of the Day of Atonement, Barker shows how two priestly
appearances were part of the expectation from the beginning. The High Priest appears at the altar and performs the sacrifice,
then he ritually enters into the Holy of Holies with the blood, disappearing behind the curtain for a time, after which he
reemerges with the blood to sanctify the sanctuary. The time of the church is the time of waiting for Christ, the Great High
Priest, to reemerge from heaven to complete the salvation begun when his blood was shed and he entered into heaven. Her point
is that the already-not yet tension was not something the church had to invent to account for the delay, but that some delay
was part of the expectation from the beginning.
In short, the church’s understanding and embrace of apocalypticism is defined by a continuum with the "already" at
one pole and the "not yet" at the other. This continuum emerges due to certain apparent and necessary ambiguities in early
Christology which are embedded in the New Testament itself. The "already" view has it that salvation is basically an event
of the past; it is completed and accomplished in Christ. Believers gain access to the salvation brought about by this event
through their trust in him and memory of what he did, which is experienced in terms of sacraments, worship, morality, and
mission. In this view apocalypticism, if it doesn’t completely disappear, is heavily qualified. The "not yet" perspective
listens more carefully to what Jesus actually said and looks ahead to a time when the redemption he inaugurated is completed.
This will occur at the End. Yet the church, no matter how comfortable or how terrorized, has never wanted to jettison either
side of the equation. The dual confession that Christ has come and that Christ will come again has always to be maintained.
Indeed, one might make the case that it is this very collapsing of temporal categories — past and future — into
the present which constitutes the salvation Jesus brings. "The time is fulfilled."
Mysticism is another ill-defined term. It can mean a peak experience of ecstasy in which one’s self is annihilated
by, or identified with, God. Or it can refer more simply to almost any vaguely spiritual feeling. Dorothee Soelle finds a
medieval definition which holds mysticism to be the knowledge of God which is acquired in and through personal experience37.
I am going to be working with the more standard Christian usage: mysticism refers to an experience of theosis or union
with God in Christ.
Kallistos Ware has said that "all true Orthodox theology is mystical"38. In the eastern Christian tradition
the mystical experience which grounds theology is referred to as theosis or deification39. This "becoming
God" is the whole point of Christian theology, based as it is on God’s becoming human in Christ. Theosis is salvation.
It is as well an experience, not simply a mental construct or opinion.
In no case, of course, does any orthodox Christian theologian hold that human beings may become God in the sense of sharing
in God’s essence. Humans become united with and in God, but not identical with God. Believers become "partakers of the
divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4), but are not ever identified with or swallowed up in the divine essence. "Creator and creature
do not become fused into a single being.... Man (sic.), when deified, remains distinct (though not separate) from God"40.
I say all this to reject the view that identifies mysticism with a kind of dissolving of the self in God. Mysticism is often
rejected out of hand because it is assumed to have this character. In Christianity it does not.
Ware and Lossky both understand that this deification should not be understood as an exclusively individualistic and private
experience. It relates to and reflects the more communal and cosmic framework which is the theater of apocalypticism. "Not
only man’s body but the whole of the material creation will eventually be transfigured.... Redeemed man is not to be
snatched away from the rest of creation, but creation is to be saved and glorified along with him...." That’s the way
Ware states it, quoting Revelation 21:1, and Romans 8:19-22, two passages normally associated with apocalypticism. "This idea
of cosmic redemption is based... upon a right understanding of the Incarnation: Christ took flesh — something from the
material order — and so has made possible the redemption and metamorphosis of all creation – not merely the immaterial,
but the physical"41. Perhaps we can say that the new creation is something that pertains to the whole cosmos and
therefore to each individual; apocalyptic is the way we talk about the former, but when we want to talk about the latter we
use the language of mysticism. In apocalyptic we are possessed by a new world-reality which is out there and coming as future.
In mysticism we are formed and shaped by this reality today as individuals and communities.
The methodology, if we can call it that, of theosis is apophaticism, the idea that God cannot be primarily described
positively but only by what God is not. There is something that feels apocalyptic about apophaticism. If we reject
all images, concepts, ideas, and even words with regard to God, as apophaticism requires, it can be quite iconoclastic. Such
a procedure ought to lead us away from identifying anything in society or culture with God, or as having particular
divinity. This is not far from an apocalypticism that also refuses to latch onto the things of this world, which is passing
Lossky talks about how even "the ‘supreme theophany,’ the perfect manifestation of God in the world by the
incarnation of the Word," still retains this apophatic character, as if in the Incarnation God is revealing what God is not...
but even this is still better than having no revelation at all. Lossky goes on to quote Pseudo-Dionysius to the effect that
God was revealed in Christ’s humanity without ceasing to be at the same time hidden therein42.
B. Mystical Union.
In the west, theosis did not become per se the central category, virtually identified with salvation, as
it was understood in the east. Unlike in the east, one can be an active and educated Christian in the west, and have only
heard rarely of the idea of theosis, or, as it is more frequently expressed, mystical union. Yet it is a doctrine which,
however it may have gone into eclipse from time to time (usually to the degree that the church is secularized), remains an
important part of our heritage and understanding. John Nevin’s classic 1846 work, Mystical Presence, is one of
those moments with the church awoke to reclaim the centrality of a kind of theosis in its life.
The most important doctrinal truth that needs to be affirmed in our understanding of theosis or mystical union is
that of the hypostatic union of two natures in the one person of Jesus Christ, affirmed and codified at the ecumenical council
at Chalcedon in 451. Because of Jesus Christ, who unites true God and true humanity in himself, we who share in his humanity
may also share, through him by the power of the Holy Spirit, in his divinity. "If we have been united with him in a death
like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his," says Paul (Romans 6:5). Of course, we don’t
share in his hypostatic union as "fully God and fully human;" but by faith, love, and hope, we share in his life and through
him in God’s life.
The doctrine of mystical union reminds me of Schweitzer’s work on Paul because of its centeredness on Christ. Schweitzer
distinguises "Christ mysticism" from "God mysticism," which he says was not Paul’s meaning. This Christocentric focus,
while present in the language of the eastern church, is perhaps even more pronounced in the west. The west also does not tend
to talk about any distinction between God’s essence and God’s "energies." Rather than becoming one with God’s
energies, the west has tended to talk more in terms of becoming one with Christ.
In his book on Bernard of Clairvaux’s influence on John Calvin, Dennis Tamburello shows how Bernard’s mysticism
was present in Calvin’s thought. But where Bernard spoke of contemplation, "Calvin’s mysticism was a fact of Christian
existence, the fruits of which were expressed primarily in the active love of God and neighbor"43. And where Bernard
spoke of love, Calvin emphasized faith. (Jürgen Moltmann will emphasize hope as the guiding
principle for the post-Modern church, as love was for the pre-Modern, and faith for the Modern, thus completing the Pauline
triad (1 Corinthians 13:13)44.)
My point is that this mystical Christ language is inherently and unavoidably apocalyptic, because of who Christ was, what
he taught, and what he accomplished. Union with Christ is therefore in some sense a union with the End of the world. If, as
Harink observes about Paul: "Apocalypse is shorthand for Jesus Christ," union with Christ can only mean a participation in
the apocalypse, the ultimate and final revelation, the coming End of all things.
This mystical participation in the apocalypse is something Christians begin to effect by means of the Sacraments. In particular
has this always been the case concerning the Lord’s Supper, where the focus is on both of Christ’s comings.
The Eucharist is at once a remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice, and an anticipation, even a participation in advance, in
his coming again at the End. Geoffrey Wainright, in Eucharist and Eschatology, points this out. And the church’s
usage has evolved in the past few decades to express a greater appreciation of this fact. The widely used memorial acclamation
of Vatican II says, "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again." The Sacrament is referred to as a "memorial"
— which would seem to refer to a past event — "of our redemption" — which is an even the completion of which
is still to come. But even near the beginning of Christian liturgical history, in the Didache, we hear the Eucharist
concluded by the urgent cry of "Maranatha! Our Lord, come!"
It may be the case that mysticism is also a kind of shorthand for Jesus Christ, viewed from a different perspective. For
mysticism is a way of talking about how the believer experiences union with and in Christ, who is the revelation, the apocalypse,
and the End of the world.
The power in Karl Barth’s The Epistle to the Romans is derived from his radical sense of God’s reality
over-against the-world-as-we-know-it. He asserts, on the basis of the Word of God, Jesus Christ in Scripture, that what really
matters is the reality of God, and that this reality ultimately questions the importance and even existence of all the things
we think are real and significant. In other words, there is this other reality, it is described in the Bible, and it is infinitely
more real, substantial, lasting, and basic than what we take for reality. The key to life is learning to live according to
God’s truth, revealed in the Word of God, Jesus Christ, and in Scripture. Living this way is nearly always to live in
some kind of fundamental dissonance with the world. When he uttered his famous "Nein!" to Emil Brunner, was it not
something even more deeply felt than a rejection of a set of theological propositions? Was it not a "No!" to the world as
it exists now, in favor of a world that Christ has at once revealed, established, and declared to be "at hand?"
Barth thus insisted that there is more to reality than the world as defined and limited by normal human experience and
reason. He originally held to Kierkegaard’s "infinite qualitative distinction" between time and eternity. Mysticism,
which depends on God’s real and experienced presence within the world, was thus ruled out. But if Barth can say something
like, "God is known by God and only by God"45, then is he not at least implying some kind of participation in/with
God which is comparable to mysticism? For we do have knowledge of God in God’s Word. Even Calvin placed at the
head of his catechism that knowing God is our "chief end" as human beings. "In Jesus Christ God has created all things. He
has created all of us. We exist not apart from Him but in Him... and the whole cosmos exists not apart from Him but in
Him, borne by Him, the Almighty Word. To know Him is to know all"46. This is language that tacks very close
Furthermore, Barth does allow that "the fellowship of Christians with Christ, which is the goal of vocation, is a perfect
fellowship inasmuch as what takes place in it is no less than their union with Christ"47, which is neither identification
nor the dissolution of one into the other. It is downwards, from Christ to the Christian, and not reciprocal48.
Union with Christ, which is repeatedly described in the New Testament in terms of "Christ in me/us," and "I/we in Christ,"
is for Barth, as for Calvin, Bernard, and with Christian tradition generally, the goal of Christian life. While Barth describes
this in mostly ethical terms, and hesitates to use the language of mysticism (which he seems to think can only mean the identification
with, or dissolving of the soul into, God), it is nevertheless real and actual, not imaginary or simply a matter of wishful
Stanley Hauerwas points out in his book, With the Grain of the Universe, that Barth later qualified his earlier
stance and actually did locate the point of contact between God and creation/humanity... and it was in the person of
Christ. "The infinite qualitative difference between God and us indeed obtains, but it is not a barrier between God and us;
on the contrary, as this difference is enacted in the death and resurrection of Christ, in constitutes God’s identification
with us"49. Hauerwas finds Barth stating that knowledge of God is indeed possible, even by means of God’s
creation and human reason50.
Barth’s insight here, as in so many other places, is primarily Christological. It becomes apparent that the possibility
of theosis is grounded in the hypostatic union of God and human being in Jesus Christ. This is the same realization
made by Barth (and brought out by Hauerwas) as the point of contact between God and human being51. Hauerwas uses
it as the basis for Barth’s understanding of "natural theology." In any case we are here getting closer to a point of
contact between apocalyptic and mysticism, in what might have been thought to be a very unlikely place.
If Barth, even in Hauerwas’ reading, does not actually intend to participate in a process whereby mysticism and apocalyptic
are reconciled, he at least prepares the ground by at the same time affirming God’s otherness and freedom, God’s
very real incarnation in Jesus Christ as true God and true human, and the possibility and indeed necessity of believers finding
life in union with Christ and thus with God. Furthermore, since this union is all God’s doing, the only way for it to
be appropriated by the faithful is through some form of apophaticism that focuses on Christ alone.
III. Provisional Conclusion.
There are other places in which we see that the gaps between mystical and apocalyptic thinking in Christianity are also
diminishing. In her book, The Silent Cry, Dorothee Soelle notes the close relationship between the two. She gives an
exhaustive catalogue of examples of oppressed and victimized peoples turning to mysticism. Sometimes these mystical impulses
are deeply apocalyptic as well, as we see in her brief examination of the mystical vision of the Native American seer, Black
Elk52. In this she is relating again to the roots of apocalyptic in both mystical experience and suffering. Far
from a playground or pitstop of the affluent bored, mysticism is rooted in a deep sense of both the suffering and injustice
in this world, and the truth of God’s coming to set things right. Which is practically to say that it is inherently
connected to an apocalyptic outlook.
"Mysticism," writes Soelle, "wants nothing else but to love life, even where analysis has run its course and all that is
left is to count the victims"53. "What really happens in mystical union is not a new vision of God but a different
relationship to the world — one that has borrowed the eyes of God"54. "Mysticism as the future form of religion
also relates to this unity of life. As its language, prayer brings the unity that is given with creation into awareness. Into
the place of the cancer-like expansion of a few living beings and life-forms there enters the well-being of all. Give and
take replaces the winner mentality. Is it possible for love to overcome the illusions of autonomy, self-sufficiency, and the
praxis of exclusion? It is amply evident that we will have no chance at all without this mystical dream. To live in it already,
now, is the hope of self-aware minorities"55.
For Soelle, then, a true mysticism is one that finds a home among the poor, suffering, and dispossessed. Mysticism has
always been the refuge of the ones excluded from power56. While it can be distorted into forms that only celebrate
and justify injustice and violence (like the infamous mysticism of the Nazis57), authentic mysticism relates to
those who have nothing to lose in this world, and breathlessly await the next. In other words, those whose lives reflect the
life and teachings of Jesus.
To conclude, we live in what might be called an apocalyptic age, in the sense that we are conscious of great changes and
potential for change, much of it destructive. Whether it be nuclear holocaust, the spread of new forms of infectious disease,
or massive climate changes, we stand in a position of liability. Then there are political and economic changes that loom,
including especially the challenges of globalized Capitalism and its devastating effect on the biosphere and poor people.
We dwell on the cusp of new eras, which means the painful passing of the old. The Modern Age, which defined things for the
past 500 or so years, is now agreed to be over; yet whatever is to come has yet to gel into something recognizable. The system
called Christendom, in which the church was identified with the States and culture of the West, is disintegrating; what form
the church will take in the future remains undetermined. Big things are ending and new things are struggling to be born.
It is in eras such as this — beginning with the time leading up to the Exile and continuing through the convulsions
of the 1st century — that the people of God originally turned to "apocalyptic mysticism," locating the source
of their hope in "the life of the world to come." Christians have believed that Jesus Christ brought them that life, which
may now be enjoyed in advance. It may be that in our time as well, frustration with the present order will lead to a renewed
appreciation for God’s coming to set things right. We may also seek to reorder our lives according to the world that
is coming, which is revealed and given in Jesus Christ.
It may also be an apocalyptic age in the sense that the church is recovering its awareness of the apocalyptic core of the
gospel, the original revelation ("apocalypse") of Jesus Christ. Once again I turn to Chris Beker: "The vision of the coming
reality of God’s glory compels us to a specific posture in the present, that is, to work patiently and courageously
in our world in a manner dictated by the way of Christ — the way from suffering to glory"58. The crises of
our time, and the demands of the gospel, conspire to turn this into a time of decision for us. We may in this time either
serve Christ or the powers of this world, but not both59. It becomes the task of Christians to be a living
witness to the vision of God’s coming triumph, so that "the passion for God’s kingdom goes hand in hand with our
compassion for our needy world"60.
Yet I also wonder if Beker’s vision would not be even more fully realized if at the same time a "mystical" side were
more consciously articulated. Soelle shows that this mystical side is most authentic when it also moves "from suffering to
glory." My sense is that Beker’s "not yet" is well balanced by careful attention to Soelle’s "already," even —
or especially — in the face of the horrors of injustice and violence in our time.
The future of the church in a post-Christendom era will be both apocalyptic and mystical. It will look ahead with hope
and joy to the "life of the world to come," fully anticipating the passing of the structures and values of this existence
and their replacement with the Kingdom of God, at the End. The church will also look within and above for signs of this Presence
already at work in a world that, after all, God has visited and redeemed in Jesus Christ.
Without an appreciation for the "already" in mysticism, apocalyptic often tends to degenerate into world-hating gratuitous
violence. At the same time, without the "not yet" component it receives from apocalyptic, mysticism frequently tends to descend
into either an undifferentiated pantheism or a self-indulgent escapism.
Perhaps it would be fruitful to build on the synthesis hinted at by Hans Urs von Balthasar I in his book, Prayer.
While "eschatologism" can ill afford to abhor mysticism,61 neither should the eschatological be subsumed into mysticism.62
Instead, von Balthasar talks about a contemplative life that is oriented by a quality of wakefulness, "an inner preparedness
for some imminent event,"63 of looking ahead for the Lord to come. A mysticism of the future, perhaps.
We need both apocalyptic and mysticism. And we are at a position, free from the social tasks assigned to the church in
the regime of Christendom, to appropriate both apocalyptic and mysticism in creative and liberating ways. Both witness to
the same Lord. The church derives unique and important energy from each.
1. Aune, D. E., "Eschatology," in Anchor Bible Dictionary, v. 2, Doubleday, New York: 1992, pp. 594-595
2. Gruenwald, Ithamar, From Apocalypticism to Gnosticism, Verlag Peter Lang, Frankfürt:
1988, pp. 3-7
3. Gruenwald, pp. 51-52
4. Gruenwald, pp. 82-83
5. Gruenwald, p. 50
6. Hanson, Paul, "Apocalypticism," in Anchor Bible Dictionary, v. 1, Doubleday, New York: 1992, p. 281
7. Altizer, Thomas J. J., Oriental Mysticism and Biblical Eschatology, Westminster Press, Philadelphia: 1961, pp.
8. Altizer, pp. 64-65
9. Altizer, pp. 65-66
10. Altizer, p. 66
11. Barker, Margaret, The Great High Priest, T & T Clark, Edinburgh: 2003, p. 201
12. Altizer, p. 70
14. Altizer, p. 68
15. Janzen, J. Gerald, Job, John Knox Press, Atlanta: 1985, p. 236
16. Harink, Douglas, Paul Among the Postliberals, Brazos Press, Grand Rapids: 2003, p. 68
17. Harink, p. 71
18. Altizer, p. 83
19. Altizer, p. 107
20. Altizer, p. 109
21. Altizer, p. 94
22. Schweitzer, Albert, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London:
1998, p. 1
23. Schweitzer, p. 37
27. Ibid., italics mine
28. Harink, p. 122n, summarizing Martyn
29. Beker, J. Christiaan, The Triumph of God, Fortress Press, Philadelphia:1990, p. 66
30. Barker, Margaret, The Risen Lord, Trinity Press, Valley Forge, PA: 1997, p. 7n
31. Quoted in Pelikan, Jaroslav, The Christian Tradition, I, University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 1971, p. 123
32. Pelikan, p. 123
33. Pelikan, p. 124
34. Pelikan, pp. 126-127
35. Pelikan, p. 130
36. Pelikan, p. 131
37. Soelle, Dorothee, The Silent Cry, Fortress Press, Minneapolis: 2001, p. 45
38. Quoted in Pelikan’s introduction to Schweitzer, p. xviii
39. Lossky, Vladimir, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood,
NY: 1976, p. 9
40. Ware, Timothy, The Orthodox Church, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, England: 1986, p. 237
41. Ware, pp. 239-240
42. Lossky, p. 39
43. Tamburello, Dennis E., Union with Christ, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville: 1994, p. 104
44. (Moltmann, p. xii)
45. Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics, II.1, T & T Clark, Edinburgh:, p. 204
46. Barth, Karl, Dogmatics in Outline, Harper and Row, New York: 1959, p. 26, my italics
47. Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics, IV.3.2, T & T Clark, Edinburgh: 1962, p. 540)
48. Barth, Karl, CD, IV.3.2, p. 544
49. Barth, Karl, CD, II.1, p. 170)
50. Hauerwas, Stanley, With the Grain of the Universe, Brazos Press, Grand Rapids: 2001, p. 167
51. Hauerwas, p. 160
52. Soelle, pp. 9-10
53. Soelle, p. 282
54. Soelle, p. 293
55. Soelle, p. 297
56. Soelle, p. 46
57. Soelle, pp. 52-54
58. Beker, PAG, p. 117
59. Beker, PAG, p. 118
60. Beker, PAG, p. 119
61. Von Balthasar, Hans Urs, Prayer, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1986, p. 148.
62. Von Balthasar, p. 145
Von Balthasar, p. 147