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Jason M. Baxter: An Introduction to Christian Mysticism

There are many ways to approach the topic of Christian mysticism. If you are new to the topic, you may be unsure about “mysticism” in general, or curious about how Christianity and mysticism fit together. You may wonder what do mystics believe, what do mystics do, how are they different from “non-mystical” Christians, and why isn’t mysticism a topic that more Christians talk about?

Because mysticism itself is such a broad topic, no one introductory book is going to give you a complete or holistic picture of the topic. For example, the book I wrote, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism is written very much from a devotional or practical point of view — it’s less focused on the philosophy of mysticism, and more concerned about how mysticism can be present in the ordinary person’s life, here in the twenty-first century. If you want a more academic or scholarly approach to the topic, you might want to read other books in addition to my own. One such book is Jason M. Baxter’s An Introduction to Christian Mysticism: Recovering the Wildness of Spiritual Life.

An Introduction to Christian Mysticism approaches the topic from an academic perspective. The author is a humanities professor at Wyoming Catholic College, and he explains in the book’s introduction that he wrote this book with his undergraduate students in mind, many of whom were unfamiliar with Christian mysticism and perhaps even a bit hostile to the concept. Baxter begins by suggesting that the mystics of Christian history — figures like John Ruusbroec, Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, and Gregory of Nyssa — offer a healthy corrective, perhaps even an antidote, to the domesticated, “nice” spirituality that has come to characterize so much of mainstream Christianity in our time. Like Aslan the Lion, the God of the mystics, as Baxter presents it (and I agree with him), is a God of “wildness.”

This book is really a primer of the philosophy of Christian mysticism. Clocking in at less than 200 pages, it’s short but meaty. It’s certainly a scholarly, academic treatment of the subject, so if you are allergic to textbooks you might find this book challenging. On the other hand, Baxter’s writing is clear and the fact that he so liberally quotes the mystics themselves keeps the book relatively accessible, even for the beginner.

The author begins in the present day, looking at twentieth-century figures like Karl Rahner, Thomas Merton and Louis Dupré to offer some basic insights as to what mysticism is, why it has been marginalized through much of Christian history, and why in our time it has become increasingly taken seriously, even by the theological and ecclesiological establishment. He then offers a quick survey of the Greek pagan antecedents to Christian mysticism, focussing particularly on Plato and Plotinus. Several contemplative giants of the church fathers are considered in turn, including Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa and Pseudo-Dionysius; he also acknowledges the monastic tradition from the desert mothers and fathers, Evagrius, Benedict up through Hugh of St. Victor. To celebrate the apex of mystical thought in the late middle ages, he focusses on Meister Eckhart, but also considers the contributions of Ruusbroec, Julian, and Nicholas of Cusa.

The fact that Baxter focuses almost exclusively on philosophical mystics (Plotinus, Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa) and passes over those who approach mysticism from the perspective of practice (The Cloud of Unknowing, John of the Cross, Teresa of Ávila) reveals both the strength and the weakness of this book. It’s an excellent survey of mystical thought — but may be frustrating for anyone who is eager to explore how the mystical tradition can be incorporated into the Christian life today. Although the author doesn’t seem to have any axes to grind, comments he makes about Meister Eckhart’s questionable orthodoxy, along with the fact that nearly all the voices surveyed belong to men (Julian being the only significant female voice) suggests that he is writing this from a clearly conservative theological perspective. For a more well-rounded appreciation of mystical thought, it might be helpful to read this book in tandem with a feminist critique of mysticism, such as Grace Jantzen’s Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism.

I wish the author had focussed as much as Jewish antecedents to mysticism as its Greek foundation (that’s a problem with my Big Book as well). I also wish he had included more Orthodox voices — After Pseudo-Dionysius (ca. 500 CE), all the mystics he profiles or quotes are from the west. And while the book presents itself as a survey of the “wildness” of Christian mysticism, I’m disappointed that he avoided some of the more daring voices of the twentieth century, such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin or Bernard Lonergan. Topics such as mystical states of consciousness, mystical non-duality, or contemporary thinking on theosis are completely missing in action.

The bottom line: it’s a good introductory book, especially if your primary interest is in the theology and philosophy of Christian mysticism. I wouldn’t recommend it as a single-volume introduction to the topic, but it would be a nice companion volume to some of the more practice-oriented introductory books (like my own Big Book or John Mabry’s Growing Into God).

An Introduction to Christian Mysticism is available in hardback or paperback. Click here to purchase it from Amazon. It’s also available as an e-book on the Logos or Verbum platforms. Click here to purchase the ebook.

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