The Christian Mystic Paradigm

Christian Mystic Paradigm
“Failure with a new
sort of problem is often disappointing but never surprising. Neither problems
nor puzzles yield often to the first attack.” – Thomas S. Kuhn


A Christian mystic’s journey can be one of the most rewarding and discouraging undertakings that an individual can pursue. Full of peaks and valleys, seduction and rejection, ecstasy and despair, marked by moments of brilliant lucidity and shadowed by whispers of madness. The first step on this journey is a BIG ONE! It’s like stepping onto the surface of the moon or better yet like being shipwrecked by a violent wind (Euraquilo). While I’m writing this blog post I have in mind as my audience all of those who visit looking for direction and/or hope. I see it often in the forums through the questions that are being asked and the passionate stories that are communicated. I normally don’t offer advice and in this case I’m still not, but what I do offer is a simple reflection on hope for those who wash up on this site from time to time after a spiritual shipwreck.

My first brush with the “mystic anomaly” occurred shortly after I was baptized (30+ years ago). From my perspective, I had just completed what should have been the most spectacular life changing event imaginable. I was officially committed to Jesus and let me tell you I had big expectations. However, I was shockingly surprised when nothing had appeared to change. I was just a boy then, barely eleven, and the questions that occurred to me truly arose from a state of childlike faith. The problem I faced was that my experiences did not line up with my expectations. Naturally I sought out the expert advice of the pastor, deacons, Sunday school teachers and other pillars of my faith community in my search for resolution. They all testified of their amazing life changing experience, their joyous walk with God, and undoubtable experience of blessed assurance.

To make a long, very long story short I believed as they did, I drank from their trough and yet my thirst was not quenched. I could not find within myself anything that convinced me that my blessedness was assured. I had done, said, prayed, and believed every aspect of the religious doctrine pontificated to me from birth. Nevertheless at a time when I should be experiencing similar results to those who lead the way, I was not. As time passed I observed my friends, neighbors, and even complete strangers begin to testify of their very own joyous walk and blessed assurance after they too whole heartedly believed and confessed the church doctrine. To put it lightly, I truly began to believe I was the odd-man-out and somehow was completely missing the boat.

Let’s skip forward about twenty years. I never absolutely lost faith, but found it much easier to stop expecting a joyous walk and blessed assurance, especially since I had become convinced at a very early age that God did not have much interest in my soul. Of course this perception was not the best attitude in life to adapt. Ultimately I discovered I was running from accepting an extremely negative alternative. That is, I was unknowingly surmising that if I couldn’t experience blessed assurance, then my future was eternal damnation. No matter how hard I tried to solve the puzzle, in all honesty, I could not fervently testify to the selfsame results as those who bore witness and sought to spread the good news within my faith community.

As the years passed I discovered many ways to run from God, but never a place of rest. This God thing never went away. No matter what I found myself doing in life I could not get away from my broken religious heritage and inability to experience the tell-tale signs of personal salvation. Eventually I decided to stop running, turn and face my pursuer. That’s right. I decided to go toe to toe with “god!” In beginning my investigation into experientially relating to God I started out almost where I left off. However, this time I figured I would need a broader sampling of witnesses consequently I did not restrict my quest for the experience of blessed assurance to just one faith community. As time went on I had not merely explored multiple faith communities, but multiple religious variants and even considered God from the viewpoint of other traditions. This seemed a risky endeavor for a person with my Southern Baptist heritage to pursue, but I could not ignore my desire to experience God and besides that, I was pretty much a black sheep of the Baptist fold anyhow. I’ll continue this story in a minute…

Why Talk About Kuhnian Paradigms?

Paradigm is one of those words I had strongly avoided. For me the word itself was just another corporate buzz word tossed around by ill-informed decision makers in cheap suits who had very little understanding of what they were talking about, but that’s “a whole nother” can of monkeys. Putting aside my personal bias, others might object to having a Kuhnian paradigm discussion on the premise that science and religion don’t mix. And to those of you who have made that statement on this site in times past let me reassure you I agree to an extent. We’re not going to meet God in a quantum formula or “pour God into a test tube.” That said, I have chosen the word paradigm as defined in Thomas S. Kuhn’s work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions not because I want to put God in a test tube but rather to draw attention to the fact that religiosity is driven by innate desires whether the follower is consciously aware of their workings or not. In my opinion Kuhn has done a wonderful job of defining a process of discovery, its effects on objectivity, and has outlined a methodology that can be just as applicable in one’s spiritual journey as it is in scientific revolution.

What attracts me to Kuhn’s work is his methodology for exploring the idea that “science” or as I see it any specific “field of study” does not progress via a linear accumulation of new knowledge, but arise through periodic revolutions. Kuhn describes these revelations as “paradigm shifts” by which the essence of inquiry within a particular field (scientific or otherwise) is abruptly transformed… For those who are interested in delving into the depths of Kuhn’s paradigm ideology I recommend getting his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions or downloading the audio version at:


Kuhnian Paradigm Shift

What is a Paradigm
– As defined by Thomas Kuhn

In order to expedite my point I will be taking extreme creative liberty in paraphrasing some of Kuhn’s more specific ideas from F. Pajares outline of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions as well as interweave in my own spiritual parallelisms and factoids. What follows is that condensed view of Kuhnian paradigm methodology…

Paradigm: (community held beliefs)
First off in defining “paradigm” the idea that Kuhn presents is that a community cannot practice its trade without some set of “received beliefs.”  In a nutshell these received beliefs form community standards of shared assumptions AKA paradigm. Some notable characteristics of a paradigm are:

• A paradigm transforms a group into a discipline and from this follows:
specialized groups – first principles – justifications of concepts – scholarly articles – discussion groups on the internet.
• A paradigm guides the whole group’s research and it is a criterion that most clearly proclaims a field or community.
• Paradigms help communities to bound their discipline in that they help define:
areas of relevance – establish meaning – create avenues of inquiry –  formulate questions –  offer methods by which to examine questions.
• Paradigms gain their status because they are more successful than their competitors in solving a few problems that the group of practitioners has come to recognize as acute. But more successful does not mean completely successful!

Normal Science: (paradigm based puzzle solving)
Initially, a paradigm offers the promise of success. Normal science consists in the actualization of that promise. This is achieved by extending the knowledge of those facts that the paradigm displays a particularly revealing, increasing the match between those facts and the paradigm’s predictions, and further articulation of the paradigm itself. In this area of what Kuhn describes as normal science devotees of the paradigm are practicing puzzle solving. The process involves: consulting experts – considering historical ties – determination of significant facts – matching facts with theory – articulation of theory.

In this puzzle solving mindset followers of the paradigm undertake empirical work to: articulate the paradigm theory itself — resolve residual ambiguities — refine and permit solution of problems to which the theory had previously only drawn attention. This articulation includes: determination of universal constants — development of quantitative laws — and selection of ways to apply the paradigm to a related area of interest.

A striking feature of doing normal science i.e. puzzle solving is that the goal is to discover what is known in advance. This type of activity should produce new information and a more precise paradigm, but if the puzzle solving being practiced is so ridged and paradigmatic communities so devote, how can paradigm change take place?

Anomalies: (a novelty of fact that creates tension)
Novelty emerges only with difficulty, manifested by resistance, against a background provided by expectation. The process of paradigm change is closely tied to the nature of perceptual (conceptual) change in an individual. Discovery begins with the awareness of anomaly, the recognition that nature has violated the paradigm-induced expectations that govern normal science (paradigm based puzzle solving). This creates a phenomenon for which a paradigm has not readied the seeker. After perceiving an anomaly within the paradigm the investigator i.e. seeker can ignore, deny, or explore the anomaly.

In other words, a process of discovery begins based on the awareness of the anomaly. Upon exploring the anomaly paradigm change is complete when the anomalous becomes the expected. Consequently, anomaly appears only against the background provided by the paradigm.

What happens when anomaly awareness produces new theories that the existing paradigm fails to resolve? Hmm? Here is where Mr. Kuhn uses a word that really starts to peak my interest. CRISIS

*Anomalies are counter instances within a paradigm that create tension and give rise to crisis.

Crisis: (paradigm failure mode)
Observed discrepancies between theory and fact—this is the “core of the crisis.” The emergence of a new theory is generated by the persistent failure of the puzzles of normal science to be solved as they should. Failure of existing rules is the prelude to a search for new ones. The awareness and acknowledgment that a crisis exists loosens theoretical stereotypes and provides the incremental data necessary for a fundamental paradigm shift. Crisis is always implicit in research because every problem that normal science sees as a puzzle can be seen, from another viewpoint, as a counter instance and thus as a source of crisis.

In typical response to crises individuals generally do not renounce the paradigm that has led them into crisis. They may lose faith and consider alternatives, but they generally do not treat anomalies as counter instances of expected outcomes. They devise numerous articulations and ad hoc modifications of their theory in order to eliminate any apparent conflict. Some, unable to tolerate the crisis (and thus unable to live in a world out of joint), leave the practice altogether.

All crises begin with the blurring of a paradigm and the consequent loosening of the rules for normal research. As this process develops more attention is devoted to it. Proponents express explicit discontent and competing articulations of the paradigm proliferate. Scholars view a resolution as the subject matter of their discipline. To this end, they first isolate the anomaly more precisely and give it structure. Push the rules of normal science harder than ever to see, in the area of difficulty, just where and how far they can be made to work. Finally they seek for ways of magnifying the breakdown and generate speculative theories. They may even turn to philosophical analysis and debate over fundamentals as a device for unlocking the riddles of their field.

All crises close in one of three ways.
I. Normal science proves able to handle the crisis-provoking problem and all returns to “normal.”
II. The problem resists and is labeled, but it is perceived as resulting from the field’s failure to possess the necessary tools with which to solve it, and so investigators set it aside for a future generation with more developed tools.
III. A new candidate for paradigm emerges, and a battle over its acceptance ensues.

How do new paradigms finally emerge?  Some emerge all at once, sometimes in the middle of the night, in the mind of a man deeply immersed in crisis. What then is a paradigm shift?

Revolution: (paradigm shift)
Kuhn dedicates five chapters to comparing a paradigm shift to the process of revolution. Or as Kuhn puts it, a revolution is a noncumulative developmental episode in which an older paradigm is replaced in whole or in part by an incompatible new one.

During revolutions, revolutionaries see new and different things when looking with familiar means in places they have looked before. Familiar objects are seen in a different light and joined by unfamiliar ones as well. They view the world of their research-engagement differently. See new things when looking at old objects. In a sense, after a revolution, individuals are responding to a different world.

Why does a shift in view occur? Because of a change in the relation between the individual’s manipulations and the paradigm or between the manipulations and their concrete results in this, the existing paradigm fails to fit. It is hard to make nature fit a paradigm…

CM Gets Back on His High Horse

As you can see the method that Thomas Kuhn utilizes in explaining his theory of scientific revolution can be applied to many fields of study. A fact that Mr. Kuhn himself later points out in a postscript that is added to his revised version of the original essay. Okay then, now I can get back to the point of my little story.  I speak from experience when I say “the first step on this journey is a BIG ONE!” The mystic anomaly is a very seductive mistress. She bellows her Siren song and lures weary travelers who have journeyed far on traditions’ oceans. In hunger and thirst they are willing to risk the end of all to reach her shores, for they hope she cries to them from dry land.

Poetic polishing aside, the point is when a person shifts from a dogmatic, religious paradigm to a blatantly differing view such as that offered through the eyes of a mystic, this new reality can feel like a very unwelcoming place. When a soul actually is awakened, becomes aware, or sees how their very ideas of “self” and “god” influence, or dare I say dictates their reality and then chooses to discard both in pursuit of God, that soul has taken the first step on a mystic’s journey. One might discover that they have leapt from the proverbial mountain. During the long fall one prays for a soft-landing, a quick end, or rescue, anything but plunging faster into fathomless darkness.

In Kuhnian terms this broken state, the hopeless fall, is simply crisis mode brought about by an anomaly awareness that caused a traditional paradigm to fail. If a soul can only remember it was they who took a step, and then the whole of perception changed – perhaps they’ll learn to flap their wings.

It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” – Hebrews 10:31
Yet, its fear that gives men wings.


A Mystic Paradigm – Explored

I was going to stop with that last statement as I feel that my point was made and perhaps the meaning will find the soul who needs to hear it. However, while writing this I received a very genuine email from a longtime forum member, which got me thinking about the next level. My focus now shifts with a different audience in mind, those who frequent and have already developed a taste for the mystic Kool-Aid. Let’s explore the idea of “A Mystic Paradigm.”

From my point of view defining a mystic paradigm is like trying to place a firm one handed grasp on a giant squid. It’s a very dynamic topic with long and slippery arms wriggling loose no matter how firmly you try to grasp it. I realize I’m way too personally invested to step back and take a thousand-foot-view on the topic, but I would like to share some interesting thousand-foot-viewpoints highlighted from a lecture summary by Professor Luke Timothy Johnson (course # 6130). Although the lecture is a bit too academic to quote exactly, I will once again take creative liberty in paraphrasing parts of the lecture summary for the purpose of introducing a semi-objective exploration of the possibility that a mystic paradigm, at least from a Kuhnian perspective might exist.

Whether you consider yourself a mystic, contemplative, seeker, complete lunatic, all or none of the above – hope remains. Don’t presume that you must wear a label to see through the mystic’s eyes. Personally, I’m confident that when I arrive at my final station in life I will remain bound to the Christian paradigm and most likely that of the Christian Mystic, even though mysticism is not limited to Christianity. Anyone who has read the works of early and/or contemporary mystics will have most likely discovered that there is a language being used that crosses traditional boundaries. This phenomenon makes me wonder if a mystic paradigm exists or if it’s solely a matter of individual perception within a religious paradigm.

After all what would a mystic be without a concept or awareness of God, Ultimate Reality, Holy One, Other, etc… What would the point of prayer be if there was no hope of gain, no hope of beholding the Beloved? In The Ladder of Divine Ascent John Climacus puts it this way:

“The monk has body made holy, a tongue purified, a mind enlightened. Asleep or awake, the monk is a soul pained by the constant remembrance of death. Withdraw from the world is willing hatred of all that is materially prized, a denial of nature for the sake of what is above nature. All of this is done by those who willingly turn from the things of this life, either for the sake of the coming kingdom, or because of the number of their sins, or on an account of their love of God. Without such objectives the denial of the world would make no sense.” – John Climacus

John Climacus

It could be easily argued that when we are discussing a mystic paradigm we are in effect talking about the heart of a saint. After all, most western traditions have saints and all saints are recognized by how their relationship with God has transformed them into holy men/women. That is to say, individuals who are set apart from societal norms and joined to God or at a minimum distinguished by their heart for God regardless of accomplishment or mankind’s recognition. Mysticism is not primarily a matter of great individuals, great ideas, and great writing. It is mostly a matter of countless anonymous believers practicing prayer as the most important dimension of their lives.

Mystic ideology is prolific in many Eastern religions although I won’t have to stray into pantheistic paradigms to discover enough evidence for exploring the idea of a mystic paradigm. Take for example the big three monotheistic religions of the West Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Even the most superficial of observations into the mystical revolutions contained within each reveals the wriggling arms of mysticism.

Within the mystical veins for Christianity, Judaism, and Islam there is sufficient diversity to beg the question of the existence of “A Mystical Paradigm.” For example, song and dances are important elements of mysticism in both Judaism and Islam, but have no counterpart in Christianity. We can read of the mystical writings of ecstatic’s or non-ecstatic’s. Some mystics have visions other make no mention of visions, but only emphasize their steadfast devotion to God. We see some mystics who emphasize knowledge like Meister Eckhart and other who emphasize love and affections like On Loving God by: Bernard of Clairvaux. Some practice prayer of recollection some abandonment, and yet others like the Hesychastic Mystics focus on The Jesus Prayer.

The flip side of their diversity would be the amazing similarities that mystics share despite their varying traditional belief systems. Mysticism seems to thrive within a community that transmits tradition, enables modeling and imitation, and provides common rituals. Mysticism in the West involves remarkably close interpretation of sacred texts wither that be the Holy Bible, Zohar, or Quran. There is a notable scholarly dimension to mystics represented by a very close reading of sacred text and demonstrated by intense speculation on the meaning. That is to say, mystics practice normal science within a traditional religious paradigm.


The Mystic Anomaly

So what about that semi-objective thousand-foot-view I was alluding to earlier, what can be said of mystics that crosses traditional paradigmatic boundaries?

I. “The mystics are convinced that the empirical world, the world of sense, the world of interconnected secondary causes, a world that natural science can so splendidly describe and categorize, well they tell us that the empirical world is not self-sufficient or self-explanatory. The empirical world does not account for what most needs accounting namely its existence. That it is at all. It is that there is rather than not that calls the mystic to ask the question “isn’t there something more” is there not a transcendent world of spirit that might be accessible through knowledge and love. Surely this world should be seen as an effect of some cause, isn’t there some way of seeking the cause itself?”

II. “This world is not enough; in fact this world may be a distraction, a “veil” from what is most real. The spiritual realm is more real, truer, and more valuable than the transient realm of ordinary existence. In the same way that the cause is greater than the effect, what is points to what transcends the isness of all else and supports it.”

III. “The only authentic human vocation, the only worthwhile goal of being human is to reach that which is Most Real, Most True, Most Good through a process of personal transformation or sanctification, that is becoming more like that which is sought. So for the mystic the only genuine human vocation is to become a saint and therefore the only true human tragedy is to fail to become a saint. To not engage reality at this level, for the mystic, is truly to be out-of-touch! The mystic is convinced that there is some dimension of the human person some element within humans that enables such a transformation that at some level “touches the divine.” The spirit, the soul, the image of God, a spark of light, grace. This gift from The Source can be realized through human response so that one can move from the gift to the Giver. This process is one in which the mystic is convinced that realizing God is realizing the authentic self. There is an authentic self-realization because humans were created to be this kind of self. Self-realization is not a simple acceptance of what one is, but rather to be hungry and thirsty for the self that is intended in the Source Itself.”

IV. “Finally the mystic is convinced that prayer is not simple an optional activity it is the essential activity. That prayer is simply not what people say in public when they go to church and make prostrations or sing hymns or read scriptures together. Prayer is the movement of the human mind and the human heart towards what is Most Real and the mystic insist that these higher forms of prayer are a real form of knowledge. They come into contact with what is Most Real, through the cloud of unknowing. Mystics like Pseudo Dionysius insist that although one cannot grasp, one can touch, and although one cannot define that Source, one can reach it.”

V. “The highest state of this mystic quest is not that one is distracted from God’s creation, but rather that one is in most real contact with God’s creation because now one is not mistaken creation for the creator and one is perceiving creation precisely from God’s perspective, as creation. So the highest point of mysticism is not Fanaa (passing away) it is not annihilation of the egoic self, it is the return to what is ordinary. That is why the greatest saint is at once the most fully human, not the most complicated, but the simplest, the most “in touch” with what is real in life.”


If you’ve read to this point consider yourself fortunate it’s almost ending. I realize that I went a little long in writing this post, but it has been awhile since I’ve had a chance to vent. I know that there is still much to explore on this topic, many puzzles left to solve, and plenty of wriggling arms that I didn’t even mention this go around. I hope by now it’s easy to see the correlation between my own quest for experiential awareness and the Kuhnian methodology for objectifying the process. I’m willing to step out on limb and say that I’m not alone in my somewhat convoluted expectations. My hope is that others might be able to shorten their visit to the dwelling place of shifting paradigms by stepping back, even outside of their personal expectations, and regain a bit of Kuhnian objectivity. In any case, I get that the idea of shifting religious paradigms based on the mystic anomaly is far different than the actual experience of it. Keep in mind though, egoic annihilation is only one aspect of the mystical anomaly and we must allow God to rebuild the house if our transformation in Christ is to be complete.

“if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” – 2 Corinthians 5:17

By now you may have concluded that I’m the type of person who appreciates systematic approaches. True and I have also grown to appreciate the irony that the study of mysticism is a look into systems within systems, yet in practice mysticism aims to unravel those very systems that give rise to its existence. My stance is that an individual “mystical” paradigm shift can and apparently does take place within a religious tradition, however mysticism in and of itself is not a Kuhnian paradigm. Mysticism is an anomaly that creates the essential tension between the dogmatic exoteric legalese and superficial morality of reformist religions. Religions that seek to change the external world around them. The anomaly of mysticism gives rise to crisis for those who seek esoteric transformation and ultimately can lead to the hybridization of a traditional view. In other words “The Christian Mystic Paradigm,” which in my opinion has many wriggling parts no matter how one attempts to grasp it, and apparently it has taken me over 4500 words just to make that statement!


Pax Vobiscum
-C.M. Gregory

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