The Word is our proper revealed truth, and we should be skeptical when anyone—whether in the fourteenth century or today—seeks to describe for us their own personal truth about God. To “empty” one’s mind and worship God by a noncognitive experience is to fail to love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength. God calls us to worship him with our whole selves.
The fourteenth century saw the blossoming of mysticism, a movement that has influenced the church to this day. Mysticism asserts the earthly possibility of a personal, immediate union of the soul with the being of God Himself. It offers direct knowledge of God by extraordinary experiences and states of mind.
Mysticism as a whole is not unique to Christianity, being found in religions and philosophies worldwide. Christian mysticism claims roots in the Scriptures, but it was also influenced by Neoplatonic philosophy via the author Pseudo-Dionysius and the scholastic philosopher John Scotus Erigena, the eighth-century translator of Pseudo-Dionysius.
The fourteenth century produced the mystical Dominican theologians Meister Eckhart, Johann Tauler, and Heinrich Suso. Interestingly, their mystical book Theologica Germanica influenced Martin Luther to some degree. Gerhard Groote, a Dutch mystic, was founder of Brothers of the Common Life, which is considered a forerunner of the Reformation. English mystics included the female Julian of Norwich. Other contemporary female mystics were Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Ávila.
Christian mysticism emerged from other practices in the history of the church that have “magical” and unrealistic qualities about them, which make such practices highly suspect or unorthodox. These practices include asceticism, sacramental superstition, and the allegorical interpretation of Scripture.
The first of these forebears of Christian mysticism is asceticism, which is the radical rejection of the physical world. Like Christian mysticism, asceticism took its impulse from Neoplatonic philosophy.
Next, superstitions grew out of the influence of Greco-Roman mystery religions, such as the Cult of Mithras and Isis, which influenced the church with mystical and magical beliefs about the powers of special rituals. These beliefs affected the Christian view of the sacraments and of the relics of martyrs and heroes of the church.
Third, allegorical biblical interpretation flowed from the belief in a fourfold exegesis of Scripture. That is, instead of a Christ-centered historical focus, the Bible was purported to have hidden meanings that conveyed secret metaphysical and eschatological knowledge.
What drove this desire for experiencing the extraordinary and for reaching new levels of consciousness? One factor was misinterpretation of the Bible.