June 30, 2010

Was Jesus a Mystic?

Read/Post Comments (1)

By mystic I mean one who has a religious experience stressing an immediate awareness of God—a direct and intimate consciousness of the Divine Presence produced by a union of one’s soul with God in ecstatic meditation and love. Recently Marcus Borg (Jesus a New Vision, 39-51) has described Jesus as standing in the Jewish mystical tradition of merkabah mysticism (44). Jesus had visions, spent time in private meditation and prayer, and was filled with the spirit. Borg notes that in the (synoptic) gospels Jesus clearly impressed others as a charismatic figure and man of the spirit, who exorcised demons and healed the sick. In short: for Borg Jesus was an ecstatic Jewish mystic.

     The gospel writers possibly viewed him that way—on the basis of how they presented him in the gospels. But virtually all of the evidence for Jesus’ mystical experiences comes from stories about him and from the attributions made about him by others—which information is supplied by the writers of the Synoptic Gospels! But what do the sayings most likely originating with Jesus suggest?

     His discourse, as preserved in the Synoptic Gospels, does not suggest that Jesus was a mystic. Clearly his words reveal a sense of personal, not divine, authority (for example, he does not appeal to God to support his ideas) but few, if any, sayings directly suggest a personal mystical experience. The kinds of things that interested him are not those concerns reflected in the writings of merkabah mystics (Schäfer, Hidden and Manifest God). In fact Jesus’ discourse is surprisingly secular and free of comments relating to personal piety, or language related to spiritual union with God, or God-talk in general—subjects with which we might imagine the mystic to be principally concerned. Of course it is easy to read such concerns as these into his sayings (many do), but, when read at a literal level, his speech is more related to this-worldly rather than other-worldly concerns.

     True enough, he exorcized demons (Matt 12:28 = Luke 11:20), perhaps had visions (Luke 10:18—but this could be a comment on his exorcisms), engaged in God talk (Matt 5:45), and prayed (Matt: 6:9-13), but these things in themselves are not the characteristic marks of the true mystic (see the writings of Plotinus, St Francis, Meister Eckhart, for example). One can pray, have visions, talk about God, and be a faith healer without being a mystic.

     By far the majority of Jesus’ sayings relate to life in this world. His secular stories and aphoristic quips concern average human beings in social contexts—and don’t draw religious morals. His stories create complications for readers that he leaves them to unravel for themselves (cf. Luke 11:24-26), and his aphoristic quips (Matt 10:16) frequently leave readers scratching their heads trying to orient themselves in some way on the strange landscape of the saying. Jesus employs humor (Matt 7:3-5), sarcasm (Matt 23:5-7), and particularly ambiguity (Matt 6:3) in his sayings. He seldom issues directives, and, when he does, the saying strikes one as unreasonable (Matt 5:39-42), if not ridiculous, if taken literally—would a mystic speak so imprecisely? He is not primarily concerned with people’s inner spiritual development, but rather with their relationship to other human beings (Luke 6:27).

     Jesus had a “mythy mind,” however. He saw Satan ruling in human affairs (Luke 11:17-22), and aimed to break Satan’s power by exorcising his demonic henchmen (Matt 12:27-29). God’s imperial rule was already at work (Luke 17:20-21), and Jesus prayed for its full realization in the world (Luke 11:2).

     If I had to cite precursors for Jesus, they would likely be found in aspects of the wisdom and prophetic traditions reflected in the Hebrew Bible. But this background does not fit exactly. As I read the residue of his discourse, Jesus was not concerned with reforming institutional religion as the prophets were, and his wisdom was rather secular; it did not appeal to religious tradition for its authority, as Hebrew wisdom traditions did.

     A stronger case for regarding Jesus as a mystic might be made from John’s Gospel, but critical scholars think even less of John’s historical reliability than they do of the Synoptic Gospels. In truth, Jesus was more akin to a laconic sage (Funk), or a social critic with a flair for vivid poetic expression. His closest parallels in the modern world might be to a Will Rogers or a (cleaned up) George Carlin, rather than a Billy Graham or a Benny Hinn.

Works Consulted

Borg, Marcus J. Jesus a New Vision. Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987.

Borg, Marcus J. “Jesus. A Sketch.” Pp. 129-36 in Profiles of Jesus. Edited by Roy W. Hoover. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2002.

Funk, Robert W. and Roy W. Hoover. The Five Gospels. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. San Francisco: Harper, 1993.

Hedrick, Charles W. “A Profile under Construction.” Pp. 65-72 in Profiles of Jesus. Edited by Roy W. Hoover, Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2002.

Schäfer, Peter. The Hidden and Manifest God. Some Major Themes in Early Jewish Mysticism. Translated by Aubrey Pomerance New York: State University of New York Press, 1992.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 2:34pm

Interesting, Charlie. I know so little, truly in this realm of mystic, etc., but it would seem to me, no, He was not a mystic, He is the Son of God. Is a Deity a mystic? Or should I have written Mystic? As a part of the Trinity, THE part that became flesh and dwelt among us, why would He need to be a mystic when all those other terms were applied to Him from way back: Wonderful Counselor, et al? Don't they pass (surpass) a mystic? Emily Dickinson could be called a mystic, but not Blessed Redeemer, Lamb of God, Beloved Son. I certainly agree with His humanity, wasn't that His assignment, Son of Man? Isn't that why He had a mother and didn't arrive on a sunbeam or a tree limb? And when He was wounded, He bled. Don't you love it that He had that touch with folks? (don't try to confuse me, you know I believe the Bible with a very simple childlike faith, and if He wants to tell me different one day, I'll take His word for it, but until then, nobody else's...realizing interpretation is a part of belief and that's on me ). I really LIKE this posting. I am smiling at you!
Love from long ago.
Posted by Grace Menhel on 6/30/2010 at 9:45pm