Two Streams of Christian Spirituality

Frank Senn, editor of Protestant Spiritual Traditions, suggests that there are two facets of all spiritualities, an ascetic aspect and a mystical aspect.  The terms, perhaps, might be unfamiliar or offputting, but let me flesh them out a bit.

The ascetic aspect of a spirituality is essentially the collection of practices that one engages in (or does not engage in).  What do you do in order to express your soul or religion?  What do you avoid doing?  Etc.
The mystical aspect of a  spirituality is not born of a desire or experience of feeling oneness with the universe, but rather is the manner in which you expect God to interact with you.  How does He speak with you?  Where do miracles fit in?  What does or could it mean when He seems silent or distant?  Etc.

You could easily argue that any ancient or contemporary Christian church has some kind of spirituality, and it probably leans more towards one or the other of these streams than the other.  Mendicant monastic orders are more ascetic in their drive to serve others, while mystical orders such as the Carmelites are more… well… mystical as they seek to commune with God.  Baptists and Evangelical Free churches tend to lean towards the ascetic while Pentecostal churches express the mystical.

It occurred to me as I pondered this that the contemporary spiritual formation movement seems to express both streams, though depending on who you talk to, one tends to get stressed over the other.  Some such as Richard Foster seem to stress the spiritual disciplines and the need to engage with God, which lands them nicely in the ascetic stream.  Others such as the various spiritual direction training sites tend to end up in the mystical, seeking to perceive how God is working in the life and heart of the believer.

A fully fleshed out spirituality or style of expressing one’s faith should most likely bring these two streams together so that both are fully manifested and flourishing in the believer.  After all, our relationship with Christ, as is any relationship, is a cooperative endeavor wherein we must engage with Him and He engages with us.  We must draw from both streams and hold them in tension.  Too much emphasis on the ascetic side with no mystical leads to Phariseeism.  Too much emphasis on the mystical with no ascetic leads to Quietism or exaggerated emotionalism.  But with maturity, even in a tradition that leans, as all do, one way or another, the streams will come together into a single whole.  It is because of one’s mystical connection with God that the mature person is capable of doing the things that He commands.  It is because one engages with disciplines or avoids the distracting and detracting that the mature person is able to connect with God.  While we will probably always, in our broken state, stress one over the other, even if unconsciously and unintentionally, but they both are part of the path to the Father.


One response

  1. mike

    …excellent meditation…it has been very difficult indeed for me personally to walk the straight and narrow path between both my pentecostal ‘phase’ i became very rigid and dogmatic all the while lapsing into emotionalism wherein God became mistakenly identified with a particular emotional ‘feeling’ which could easily be summoned by the right music or even softly spoken words,I think at the time i needed that as i was (and still am to some degree) emotionally ‘ill’ so to speak.. nowdays..after much growing through trial and error..i lean into Orthodoxy which..for me anyway..encourages a healthy measure of both mysticism and asceticism..something i find disappointing in mainstream protestantism and only superficially in the Emergents..imho

    February 26, 2011 at 6:07 am

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