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Mysticism in America

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Mysticism in America
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Glossary

"The main fight, make no mistake," said theologian Nels Ferre in 1961, "is between the Christian faith in its inner, classical meaning and the new Orientalized versions whether they come via Neo-platonism or in modern forms ... The supernatural, personalistic, classical Christian faith is now being undermined by an ultimately non-dualistic, impersonal or transpersonal faith. The winds are blowing gale-strong out of the Orient."

Prof. Ferre's meteorological metaphor may have seemed an overstatement in 1961, but today we see its accuracy. Indeed, one of the startling things that has happened in recent history is the penetration of Western society by mysticism and occult philosophy, and the various forms of Eastern meditation which are frequently associated with them. In ten years, the counter-cultural daydream of a society unified around the experience of the "divine within" has begun to take on an uncomfortably concrete reality. It is no longer possible to dismiss interest in the philosophy of eastern religions as a kind of fringe fanaticism which is beneath the concern of the Christian community.

Part of our underestimation of this trend stems from the fact that the American adherents of eastern cults are often so visible and distinctive that we tend to judge their significance in terms of their limited numbers; we fail to see that their existence is merely symptomatic of a much larger cultural shift. Thus we minimize the impact that this imported world-view has had upon our contemporaries' thinking. These mystical doctrines have influenced areas far removed from the sometimes bizarre world of the counter culture. In fact, an underlying theme runs through contemporary developments in science, business and finance, politics, economics, the arts, psychology and religion: the same basic ideas about man, meaning and God which are traditionally associated with the ancient oriental religions are showing up as root premises of most of the important trends in today's western society.

These ideas are rooted in a common set of presuppositions (i.e., faith premises) about the nature of ultimate reality and ultimate values. In the past these presuppositions have been systematically expounded in such "esoteric" disciplines as yoga, magic, alchemy, astrology, kabbalah, Taoism, tantra and Zen. Today, because of the widespread cross-fertilization of these and other schools of thought, meaningful labels are more difficult to apply. Whether we refer to these presuppositions as mysticism, Vedanta, occult philosophy, pantheism or monism is more a matter of emphasis than of semantic precision.

Nevertheless, the proud delusion of modern philosophizing, whether scientific or spiritual, may be described as a kind of "cosmic humanism." It is fundamentally identical with the so-called "hidden wisdom" of classical occultism and is characteristically linked with such religious practices of the east as yoga and meditation. This underlying theme is being promoted in way that subtly conditions people at every level of culture to accept a definition of reality which ultimately denies the personal God of the Bible, asserts the autonomy, power and inherent divinity of man, and condemns as obsolete any absolute statement of moral values.

C.S. Lewis also understood this issue as a conflict of fundamentally incompatible faiths. At the same time, he grasped the significance of this clash by seeing it in the perspective of history:

"Pantheism is congenial to our minds not because it is the final stage in a slow process of enlightenment, but because it is almost as old as we are. It may even be the most primitive of all religions ... It is immemorial in India. The Greeks rose above it only at their peak ... their successors relapsed into the great Pantheistic system of the Stoics. Modern Europe escaped it only while she remained predominantly Christian; with Giordano Bruno and Spinoza it returned. With Hegel it became almost the agreed philosophy of highly educated people ... So, far from being the final religious refinement, Pantheism is in fact the permanent natural bent of the human mind; the permanent ordinary level below which man sometimes sinks, but above which his own unaided efforts can never raise him for very long. It is the attitude into which the human mind automatically falls when left to itself. No wonder we find it congenial. If �religion� means simply what man says about God, and not what God does about man, then Pantheism almost is religion. And religion in that sense has, in the long run, only one really formidable opponent - namely Christianity."

In the meantime, the spiritual anemia of the west has left this generation ravenous for reality, and therefore vulnerable to any spiritual counterfeit offered in the name of Truth. As born-again disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, we will soon come face-to-face with seemingly irrefutable evidence of our own irrelevance. Obviously this development opens up new vistas of Christian apologetics that have barely been touched heretofore. Christians need to be diligent in seeking an informed understanding of what is going on, of where it comes from, what its direction is and what it means within the context of the spiritual warfare to which we are called.

The traditional systems of occult philosophy and their newer variants are all patterned after the archetypal lie of Genesis 3. They are not primarily intellectual constructions, but flow in the first instance from a common experience - the experience of �cosmic totality.� This powerful but partial (and therefore ultimately false) experience, like the serpent�s primordial deception, is single in its nature. The mystical systems that seek to interpret this experience can nevertheless be analyzed for purposes of intellectual convenience into a number of mutually related categories of thought. The four most important of these may be stated as follows: