Mysticism and Millennials


Mysticism is part of every religious tradition. It is defined as union with God or ultimate reality, and is often experiential in nature, involving dreams and visions or some kind of subjective experience where a person claims contact with the Divine.

Cathleen Falsani reports for Religion News Service that mysticism is appealing to Millennials, helping them discover faith or to find their way back to the religious tradition of their upbringing.

Falsani’s feature focuses on the influence of Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar who has written many popular works on Christianity and mysticism. He is also well known as a teacher of the Enneagram. Rohr’s emphasis on Christian contemplation has helped Millennials like Anthony Graffagnino, who is featured in Falsani’s article, connect with a religious tradition.

Falsani writes, “While many younger Americans today are spiritually unaffiliated, aka ‘nones’ — a quarter of all adults under the age of 30 in the United States say they don’t identify with any religion or spiritual tradition, according to the Pew Center for Religion and Public Life — millennials are increasingly finding contemplative spirituality appealing.”

Practices like silence, meditation, walking a labyrinth, centering prayer, lectio divina, the daily examen, and spiritual direction are commonly emphasized in Christian contemplative spirituality. Contemplation does not necessarily entail a mystical experience of God, though the two can connect.

Falsani, I think, stretches her analysis a little too far when she suggests contemplative traditions are unique in placing a high value on a personal experience of the divine. Conservative and evangelical traditions also stress personal encounters with God, whether it be through conversion or in the practice of daily prayer and Bible reading in which one cultivates intimacy with God.

But she is right to profile Millennials who have found a home in the contemplative tradition after leaving another corner of Christianity. She interviews a former evangelical, former Southern Baptist, former Pentecostal, and a Catholic who returns to his roots after learning from Richard Rohr. That is a trend I’ve observed among Millennials, and the reasons these people gave to Falsani for their migration to the contemplative tradition are ones I’ve encountered among Millennials more broadly. The emphasis on the personal and subjective has been found freeing for some in emerging generations.

There are obvious concerns and questions that arise from this emphasis, such as the role of church tradition and the vulnerability to the whims of a particular cultural moment.

Christianity strikes a fine balance between truth that endures for all times and in all places and the application of truth within a changing world. Following Jesus involves a missionary impulse that discerns what is taking place now and an eschatological directive that calls us forward to a future that is not of our own making, but is instead of God. Faith in Jesus is also grounded in that past--in what God has done, which we find not only in the Bible, but also in the testimony of Christians in our past.

Falsani may be right in pointing us to a trend, in that Millennial Christians are drawn to contemplative spirituality, which should lead us to examine our own churches. How do we invite emerging adults to experience God? What is the role of the subjective?

But also, what objective criteria are presented, and in what spirit, by which subjective experiences of God can be understood and evaluated?

Millennials need good answers for both.