God, Christianity And Global Mysticism

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Daniel Nyambi

I read with relish Prof. Tunji Olaopa’s piece titled ”Finding God: Christianity and the Global Mystical Societies (THISDAY Newspaper, 26th September 2020). The piece raised a number of issues that need clarification as a prerequisite for holding any meaningful discourse on Christian mysticism. In this piece I intend to address at least two of them
The first issue with the piece is the lack of terminological definitions.

What precisely is mysticism and what qualifies a person, society or institution to be regarded as mystic or mystical? A working definition of mysticism is clearly needed. The 15th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica defines mysticism as a quest for a hidden truth or wisdom stemming in part from the feeling alienation that many persons experience in the modern world. Put down as a religion of the elite, mysticism (or the mystical faculty of perceiving transcendental reality) is said by many to belong to all men, though few us it. The goal of mysticism is the union (of the human) with the divine or sacred. The above mentioned definition will serve as our working definition in this piece.

The mystical quest presupposes the existence of some purposefully hidden truth (esoteric knowledge) whose attainment would assuage man’s alienation and ultimately unite him to God in a union of identity. Implicit in the mystical quest is the conviction that every man has an innate capacity for direct intuitive knowledge of and union with the divine in the present life once he overcomes the obstacles to this union by means of the various prescribed mystical practices (or techniques). The foregoing sets the stage for classical gnostic tendency among mystical practitioners of making the distinction between the enlightened and happy few (the elite) and unenlightened masses (who languish for lack of enlightenment). It is typical of the mystical current to equate knowledge with salvation.

It is instructive to note that the mystical impulse predates the advent of Christianity and is a tendency that is so universal and persistent throughout history and among virtually all cultures precisely because it responds to a basic and undeniable human experience of the limitations of earthly happiness. Man’s longing for the infinite (Truth, Beauty and Goodness) is aptly captured by St. Augustine’s famous epigram: You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. This conclusion was the fruit of his long, tortuous and futile search for happiness and fulfillment through knowledge and enjoyment of created goods which he outlines in his classic book the Confessions.

The mystical tendency throws up the following questions: Does man possess a natural capacity for an intuitive and direct vision of God in this present life? Is man capable of direct contemplation and possession of God in this present life? Addressing the issue of man’s communion with God, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) teaches the following: “All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity.” All are called to holiness: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. [ CCC No. 2013].

A second issue with Tunji Olaopa’s piece is his understanding, and, the criteria he used to classify such disparate institutions such as the Reformed Ogboni Fraternity (ROF), Rosicrucian Order, the Illuminati, the Freemasons, the Knight Templars and Opus Dei. First, it must be stated that the Reformed Ogboni Fraternity (ROF), Rosicrucian Order, the Illuminati, the Freemasons, the Knight Templars and the Catholic Personal Prelature Opus Dei have nothing in common, and, share nothing in common at all. In fact I was appalled that Prof Olaopa mixed up the aforesaid institutions as if have anything in common or share anything in common. Of the aforesaid six, only the Rosicrucian Order AMORC identifies itself as mystical society. It claims to be community of mystics who study and practice the metaphysical laws governing the universe. According to a Rosicrucian historian, Michel Maier (1568–1622) the origins of the Rosicrucian are Egyptian, Brahmanic, derived from the mysteries of Eleusis and Samothrace, the Magi of Persia, the Pythagoreans, and the Arabs. It is noteworthy, that there is no mention of any Christian inspiration or influence at its origin.

The Reformed Ogboni, on the other hand, identifies itself as a fraternal organization in the pattern of the Freemasons but targeted at indigenes (Nigerians). It does not claim to pursue any special (esoteric/mystical) knowledge but rather seeks to foster mutual assistance among its members. It was started by an Anglican clergyman initially for Christians only but membership was later extended to non-Christians. The same may be said of Freemasonry. The private character of its initiation rites and the anti-clericalism historically associated with some of its members has been subjects of controversies, speculations and censure by Church authorities. The same anti-clericalism has characterized the Illuminati, a secret society that was founded in Bavaria and whose influence it is believed endures up till today. None of the foregoing organizations meet the criteria for being labelled mystical based on our working definition of mysticism. The purported secrecy that surrounds their membership or initiation rites if at all may earn them the label of secret but definitely not mystical societies.

The now defunct Order of the Knights Templar and the Opus Dei are the only institutions of the Catholic Church which – thanks to Dan Brown’s fictional narratives – are purported to be mystical in the write up. Having been officially proscribed by the Catholic Church and already defunct, the Order of the Knights Templar does not need any commentary. With respect to the Prelature of Opus Dei however, its mischaracterization as a mystical society within the Catholic Church is wrong. This mischaracterization stems from Dan Brown’s hyperactive imagination than hard facts. In the first place, based on its multi-secular experience the Catholic Church would never tolerate the existence of a mystical society within itself since it would contradict its universal mission of bringing the Gospel to every creature and not just a privileged elite.

Secondly, as an institution of the Catholic Church Opus Dei and its members adhere to the Magisterium (teaching authority) of Church and do not profess any peculiar or esoteric doctrines not explicitly taught by the Magisterium of the Church. Opus Dei seeks to foster the awareness of the universal call to sanctity among people from all walks of life and through its formative activities seeks to teach ordinary laymen and women how to grow in sanctity (love for God) in the midst of their daily work, family duties and social activities. The discernment of a divine vocation is a prerequisite for becoming a faithful of the Prelature of Opus Dei. However the discernment and following of that call (vocation) does not make the person a spiritual elite or superior Christian because the grace of the vocation is gratuitous and totally independent the recipients prior merits. St. Josemaria received divine inspiration to found Opus Dei on the 2nd of October 1928.

In sum, it may be said that while traditional Christian teaching tend to treat extraordinary mystical experience with caution, many Christians due to a combination of ignorance of traditional doctrine and a craving for the extraordinary continue to seek esoteric (hidden) knowledge as key to understanding the challenges and enigmas they face in life. The proliferation of secret societies is a universally validated human phenomena that is not peculiar to Christianity. Rather it is often a reaction to a cultural situation (often of enforced censorship) that leaves the dissenter of an official narrative with no other options than to go underground (form secret societies) in order to maintain and promote their viewpoint or stance.
 Daniel Nyambi is an Electrical Engineer working in Lagos