Rationalism is the Child of Mysticism

February 8, 2010

It is entirely wrong to place the rationalism of the Enlightenment in contradiction to pietistic mysticism. It is popular nonsense that reason and mysticism are the two great opposites. Historically, Pietism and the Enlightenment both fought against Orthodoxy. The subjectivity of Pietism , or the doctrine of the “inner light” in Quakerism and other ecstatic movements, has the character of immediacy or autonomy against the authority of the church. To put it more sharply, modern rational autonomy is a child of the mystical autonomy of the doctrine of the inner light. The doctrine of the inner light is very old; we have it in the Franciscan theology of the Middle Ages, in some of the radical sects (especially the later Franciscans), in many sects of the Reformation period, in the transition from spiritualism to rationalism, from the belief in the Spirit as the autonomous guide of every individual to the radical guidance which everybody has by his autonomous reason. From another historical perspective, the third state of Joachim of Floris, the stage of the Holy Spirit, is behind the idea amount the bourgeoisie of the Enlightenment that they have reached the third stage, the age of reason, in which every individual is taught directly. They go back to the prophecy of Joel, in which every mad or servant is taught directly by the Holy Spirit, and no one is dependent on anybody else for the Spirit.

Thus we can say that rationalism is not opposed to mysticism, if by mysticism we mean the presence of the Spirit in the depths of the human soul. Rationalism is the child of mysticism, and both of them are opposed to authoritarian Orthodoxy.

Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought, ed. Carl E. Braaten (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1967), 286-287.

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