I have previously defined mysticism briefly as "the experience of mystical union or direct communion with God."1In other words, it is an experience in which an individual becomes one with God, or unites with God. Recently I found the following definition on the internet:
In modern times, "mysticism" has acquired a limited definition, with broad applications, as meaning the aim at the "union with the Absolute, the Infinite, or God". This limited definition has been applied to a wide range of religious traditions and practices, valuing "mystical experience" as a key element of mysticism.2
Becoming “one with God” would seem to be a claim that one has become “divinized,” or simply stated: one has become absorbed in God. Is that even possible? Through history, however, there have been those that believed it to be possible. One finds such statements in ancient texts as the Corpus Hermeticum (1,25-26), and Plotinus, for example, said that the goal of humanity “was not to be sinless but to be God” (Enneads, I.6,1-3). Porphyry, his student, claimed that Plotinus had achieved union with God four times during his time with Plotinus and even Porphyry claimed to have achieved it once.3 In philosophy it is known as henosis (becoming one with the one).4
In the modern Orthodox Christian Church, the stated goal of salvation is becoming one with God.5 For a brief discussion of the pervasiveness of union with God in the Christian devotional classics, see the brief discussion in Georgia Harkness, Mysticism. Its Meaning & Message.6
Against this all too brief background I note several statements by Jesus in the Gospel of John suggesting that the author portrayed Jesus as a mystic who was conscious of being one with God. The plain language of the statements themselves are clearly mystical, but critical New Testament scholarship has generally not taken them to be such.7 There are two levels of mystical statements; in the first Jesus speaks of himself and God and a second level in which he speaks of himself, God, and the disciple. The union of the Father and the “son” are reflected in statements made by others at the beginning and ending of the gospel. At the beginning the narrator describes the “Word” (generally it is assumed Jesus is the Word) as being both opposite God and as being God (The word is Theos, God, and not theios, divine): “The Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1). And a second statement by the narrator describing Jesus (from the critical Greek text) as: “the only God in the bosom of the Father” (John 1:18). And at the end of the gospel Philip’s confession about Jesus: “my Lord and my God” (John 20:28). These two statements form a basis for understanding the statements below as mystical.
In the first level of statements Jesus claimed union with the father: “I and the Father, we are one” (John 10:30; see also for similar statements: 14:10-11; 17:21-22). In the second level of statements Jesus brought the disciple into mystical union with himself and the Father: “On that day you shall know that I am in my Father, and you are in me and I am in you” (John 14:20; see also 15:4-7; 17;21, 23, 26).
Is the author of the Gospel of John a mystic? The English New Testament scholar C. H. Dodd had problems with the term mystic and wrote:
If the mystic is one whose religious life is expressed in ecstasy, or one who experiences an impersonal absorption in the divine, then one is right to deny this description to the author of the gospel (Dodd, p. 198).
Nevertheless, Dodd avers that John was not using stereotypical language then in vogue, but clearly using language evocative of mysticism. Dodd surveys the passages in John that suggest “union with God” and chides the German scholar, Walter Bauer, for shying away from the term “mystic” and instead describing the author of John as opting for a “conception of the Christian life” akin to a “kind of legalism.” Dodd himself affirms that the author of John opened up for believers a situation in which faith permitted them to dwell in God and God in them, but opines “whether this should be called ‘mysticism’ I do not know” (Dodd, p. 198). His problem with the term is the ecstasy associated with it.8
Clearly John uses the language of mysticism, but there is no evidence for ecstatic visions or other mystical retreats from the world to be found in John. Does this suggest John reflects a kind of intellectual “mysticism” (if such is even possible), as Dodd seemed to think?
Missouri State University
3Porphyry, “Life of Plotinus,” 23: in A. H. Armstrong, Plotinus, Porphyry on Plotinus; Enead I (Cambridge/London: Harvard, 1966; revised 1989), 69.
5Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (Penguin Books, 1964), 236-37. For the quotations, see C. Hedrick, “On Becoming God,” Wry Thoughts about Religion, Tuesday July 4, 2017: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/search?q=enneads
6Georgia Harkness, Mysticism. Its Meaning & Message (Nashville: Abingdon, 1973), 20-24.
7For example, see C. H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: University Press), 187-200; Raymond Brown does not even raise the subject of mysticism in connection with John’s language: The Gospel of John (2 vols.; AB 29; New York: Doubleday, 1966, 1970). Ernest Haenchen sees no hint of mysticism in these verses: A Commentary on the Gospel of John (2 vols.; Hermenia; Fortress, 1984), 2.50. He even translates Theos (God) in John 1:1 as if it were theios (divine).
8See Rev 1:9-20 as an example of an ecstatic vision; for definition see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecstasy