Those of us who recognize or believe in a spiritual aspect to human existence struggle with how to determine the nature of our spirituality. How can we gain insight into spiritual truth and thereby validate our beliefs and values? I perceive two possible avenues of enlightenment, and they don’t need to be mutually exclusive. One is empirical evidence, that which can be seen through our physical senses and evaluated rationally, and the other is intuitive insight, the avenue of mysticism - spontaneous inspiration or revelation.
Within our religious tradition, the empirical approach to spirituality has gained preeminence. The church has long proclaimed that a true knowledge of God must be gained through the study of the divine text. This approach to understanding incorporates the physical activities of sensory observation and rational evaluation. Of course, the church has always insisted on its role in guiding both the observations and the subsequent evaluation.
The empirical approach to religion has great appeal to men and women who have been born and raised in the so called Age of Reason, an era of scientific and technological advancement which began some 500 years ago. During this period of human history, the idea that truth exists only to the extent it can be measured and validated physically through the senses and human reason has prevailed.
This same sort of approach to determining truth is evident in the insistence that spiritual reality must be validated literally, using physical evidence and proper logic. Since the only physical evidence the church can provide is the sacred text, that book becomes the literal proof for all that it practices in the name of spiritual truth. The physical evidence, literally interpreted, becomes the required basis for the church’s doctrine. It is an approach to spiritual reality which has a natural appeal to the prevailing mindset of our age.
The alternative approach, which I noted earlier, has a long history of its own, though it is largely ignored in our culture, so steeped as it is western rationalism. Mysticism is the definition of insight gained unempirically. In many faith traditions, spiritual understanding comes through meditation, contemplation, and self denial. Since such practices don’t necessarily lead to a common understanding, the church cannot support mysticism as an acceptable route to spiritual truth. Subjective, individual derived truth is unacceptable to a church committed to only one way.
Despite the church’s opposition, mysticism has long been recognized as a legitimate and even essential aspect of inquiry. By their very nature, sudden bursts of inspiration, which underlie much of art and science, are mystical. They involve insights which have no obvious physical or discernible cause; instead they simply pop into mind out of the blue. No less a figure than Albert Einstein stated that “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift”. The church likewise honors the literalness of what can be seen, touched, and heard while denying the validity of all that it cannot vet and thereby control.
Mysticism is the very essence of spiritual freedom and growth. The physical and literal reality seems to reflect some aspects of the spiritual, but it cannot be the only source of knowledge about man’s vital spiritual dimension. If God is the source of all, then He cannot be restricted in his dealings with mankind by tradition, doctrine, or anyone’s demand for literal evidence interpreted by their concept of proper logic. God is not known by the scientific method, and neither is he limited by the church’s longstanding infatuation with western rationalism.