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Mystical and Evangelical Spirituality

by Bill Hull

While there are many different ways of looking at the means of transformation, the forms of spirituality can be roughly divided into two camps: the mystical and the evangelical.[1] Generally speaking, mystical spirituality is rooted in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy and sometimes incorporates Eastern mysticism and Neo-Platonism.[2] The works of Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr give a contemporary taste of this way of thinking. Evangelical spirituality, broadly speaking, developed from roots in the Protestant Reformation and can be read in the works of Rick Warren, John Ortberg, and others who emphasize reading Scripture, prayer, and other practices over mystical experience.


We can compare and contrast the different ways these two forms of spirituality approach the process of sanctification by looking at various ways of understanding God and our relationship to him. We begin with the idea that God is separate and distinct from us, his creation. What is the goal of seeking God? And how do we know if we have reached it? Does a Christian mystic who chants or meditates have a different goal than a Methodist reading the Bible at lunch? The answer is yes. These two individuals mean different things when they speak of experiencing God. In mystical spirituality, the seeker and God are understood to merge into one. But evangelical spirituality maintains a proper distance between God as a holy other and the seeker as God’s subject. Whereas mysticism emphasizes God’s immanence (presence in creation), evangelicalism emphasizes God’s transcendence (separateness from creation).

What the Difference Explains

This difference of understanding explains why some in the monastic movement slip into the thinking and practices of Eastern mysticism. For example by the time of his death, Catholic Trappist monk Thomas Merton was considered the leading Western expert on Buddhist thought. Often, those searching for an experience of God end up leaving behind a transcendent view of God. Catherine of Genoa, a noted mystic, went as far as to say, “My being is God, not simple participation but by a true transformation of my being.”[3]

We can see practical differences in the methods of prayer. The mystical tradition points to Jesus as an example of meditative and contemplative prayer. Their goal is to be at one with God, not to move him or change his mind but to merge their identity into his and to come into alignment with his person. Christian mystics tend to avoid petitionary prayers in favor of simple prayers that express abandonment to the will of God. The evangelical tradition of prayer is well-described by Karl Barth, “Prayer is wrestling with God, not meditating upon God. It is an attempt to change God’s will, not simply a passive resignation to God’s will.”[4] Evangelicals seek to engage with God as an object to which their prayer is addressed.

However, both the mystical and the evangelical streams of spirituality capture elements of the biblical witness. For example, consider the anguish of Jesus’ Gethsemane petition. Jesus alternates between requests, yet his prayer is also mixed with resignation. It is an immense struggle, back and forth, between submission and petition. This prayer helps us understand why both schools of thought exist.

Where Evangelical Spirituality Fits

Yet in the end, I believe evangelical spirituality better captures the priorities of the biblical witness. In Jesus’ prayer in John 17, we clearly see him speaking to God about his work and making many requests on behalf of his disciples. While the prayers of Jesus contain elements of meditation and resignation to the will of God, they consistently emphasize the importance of making requests and expressing our own desires to the Lord. In fact if we take a close look at Jesus’ prayer life, we find that the majority of his prayers were petitionary and intercessory. In both Mark and Luke, he prays about strategy and selecting the twelve disciples. Jesus prayed about his work, asked for the things he needed, and made sure his Father knew what he was doing.

I appreciate what Nathan Soderbloom says in this regard: “So much we may know with absolute certainty from all the Gospel tells of Jesus, that his prayer never was merely a state of soul attained by some sure method, or oratio mentalis, a Prayer of Quiet, a mediation, but an intercourse and conversation with the heavenly Father, an outlet for anguish and uncertainty and for questions that needed answer; the bursting forth of a tone of jubilation, a trembling yet confident intimacy longing for undisturbed intercourse with the Father in Heaven, although the feeling of nearness and fellowship with him was wont never to cease during the duties and occupation of the day.”[5] In other words, Jesus was not a mystic. He was clear headed and direct in his communication in prayer and with others.

At the same time, we cannot completely discount the mystical element in our faith. Some things Jesus taught using metaphors aren’t easy to grasp. They have a bit of mystery to them. For example, Jesus uses the image of a vine and branches to explain his continuing relationship to his disciples (John 15:1–16). He told us to eat of his flesh and drink of his blood in Holy Communion (Luke 22:19–20; John 6:53–58). Identity doctrine in Scripture speaks of being crucified, buried, and raised with Christ and that we who follow Christ no longer live, but Christ now lives within us (Rom. 6:6–10; Gal. 2:20). There is great mystery in these things. But when we approach God, we must maintain the subject-object difference and remember that God is other than us. Radical mysticism seeks to dissolve this relationship. But God remains the holy other—different and separate from his creation.


[1] I must credit Donald Bloesch for identifying these two kinds of spirituality. Much of my thinking was influenced by chapter 7, “Two Kinds of Spirituality,” in Crisis of Piety (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968).

[2] Neo-Platonism links Plato’s thought to religion or spiritual life. This philosophical school started not long after Plato’s death and was dominant in the Greco-Roman world. More on Neo-Platonism can be found at http://www.iep.utm.edu/neoplato/.

[3] Quoted in Evelyn Underhill, The Mystics of the Church (New York: Schocken, 1964), 165, cited in Bloesch, Crisis, 100.

[4] Quoted in Bloesch, Crisis, 109.

[5] Nathan Soderblom, The Living God (Boston: Beacon, 1962), 59.


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This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

Image credit: Shutterstock.

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