Why is Ann Voskamp’s “mysticism” a problem?

Since I started questioning my religious upbringing, I’ve been increasingly aware of how incredibly narrow and anomalous fundamentalist and reformed evangelical understandings of Christianity are from a historical perspective. The kerfuffle over Ann Voskamp’s book is a perfect example of this; some reformed evangelicals claim it promotes a dangerous, heretical, and irreverent view of God and how God relates with human beings. But the things they claim are blasphemous are actually long established ideas and motifs in numerous Christian traditions, traceable in one form or another as far back as the earliest Church, and well within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy by any reasonable, historically informed standard.

For example, Everyday Mommy, the blogger who sparked the initial controversy over Voskamp’s book, has repeatedly criticized it for “embracing and promoting mysticism and contemplative spirituality” and drawing from traditions she finds heretical:

This extremely dangerous notion has it’s [sic] roots in the heretical, mystical teachings of a 16th century Carmelite nun who wrote of her ‘ecstasy’ with Christ achieved through trances and out-of-body experiences. Mrs. Voskamp is a devotee’ [sic] of this mystic. This metaphorical imagery is not Scriptural and is unsound at best and false teaching at worst. (comment)

Set aside for a moment that this is really bad history; this is an argument that doesn’t make sense even from a reformed evangelical perspective. The Bible is full of examples of people who had trances, visions, and other mystical encounters. Paul claimed to have been “caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know” (2 Corinthians 12, ESV). The entire book of Revelation is one big, trippy, out of this world hallucination. Biblical figures like Abraham, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Cornelius – just for starters – experienced visions. By EM’s definitions none of these experiences count as “mystical.” Nor is it “mysticism” when Christians claim to hear directly from God, to have God “living in their hearts,” or to speak spiritual languages that only God and other Christians (if anyone) can understand. No, we’re supposed to accept these pretty strange accounts as “normal” biblical Christianity, while rejecting Teresa of Ávila’s visions and raptures as obviously beyond the pale of orthodox Christian experience.

“Mysticism” has little meaning here beyond “spiritual experiences we’re uncomfortable with.” It’s a privileging of the reformed version of authentic spirituality over any and all alternatives, and a reading of the Bible and reformed Christianity’s own spirituality that’s blinkered by a priori assumptions. They either can’t or won’t acknowledge that Christianity – a faith which, after all, for most calls for belief that a virgin could conceive a child by the Holy Spirit and that a being can be both fully man and fully God – has always had a deep mystical streak at its heart. Nor are they aware of or willing to admit that there are mystics in virtually every Christian tradition and at all points in church history, not just in Catholicism or other traditions she deems heretical, and her tradition is no exception.

3 Comments

  1. hi Grace,
    thanks for the welcome a ways back. i find this narrow branch of “christianity” that seems to be the most vocal representation of that religion, is almost entirely fear based, when it seems it should be rather fearlessly love based.

    fear makes you almost deaf to reason. that is how you can hold so many conflicting ideas in your head comfortably, like mysticism is bad, while claiming to believe completely in all the mystical occurrences, in your accepted religious text.

    innocent believer, start being sensitive to how often you are warned and warn others that something is dangerous, or potentially dangerous. that you need to be careful, aware, etc…this “faith”, in practice, operates as though evil is infinitely more powerful than good. and fear is more powerful than love, which is the conclusion machiavelli came to.

  2. Thank you for bring up important points in your article. At one time the Bible reading Christians considered left-handedness to be deviant so it had to be punished or changed. Unwise interpretations of the Bible are misleading Christians to persecute, dominate and exclude people from their faith. Jesus accepted all and excluded none. These attempts do not change them but only cause more serious problems. It seems instead of using the Bible as a guide to grow deeper into the spirit and become a better Christian, conservative Christians use their interpretations of the Bible to judge and exclude others. I feel we can only judge our actions because we can’t put ourselves behind the eyes of another. The Bible is a guide for us and it becomes a weapon of violence when it is thrown at others.

    • what a fabulous line “The Bible is a guide for us and it becomes a weapon of violence when it is thrown at others”

      thank you