It’s fascinating to read the “Preface to the Twelfth Edition” of Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness. The first edition of Mysticism came out in 1911; the twelfth edition appeared nineteen years later. In the new preface, Underhill discusses how scholarly attitudes toward the subject of mysticism evolved in the nearly two decades since her first book came out. Now, as we approach the centenary of the book’s first publication, it’s interesting to consider what has or hasn’t changed in how we collectively understand mysticism and its role in religion and culture in general.
Underhill suggests that when she wrote the book, she was still arguing against the nineteenth century’s deterministic view of the universe. But in the space of twenty years, she no longer felt that determinism was the primary enemy of mysticism; instead, she saw monism as the new threat. It’s interesting how she responds: she suggests that the students and advocates of mystical spirituality should affirm a “limited dualism” that incorporates both matter and spirit, soul and body, God and creation, being and becoming. Underhill sees in the fashionable monism of her day a dogmatic worldview similar to what Ken Wilber some 55 years later would christen “flatland” — the disqualified universe where the transcendent is denied. But while Underhill’s perceptive analysis of the philosophical errors of those who eschew mysticism may be in some ways similar to Wilber’s perspective, she also clearly distinguishes herself (and the Christian tradition as a whole) from Wilber’s integral model when she notes that the intellectual climate of 1930 needs to be reminded of “the predominant part played in [mystical] development by the free and prevenient action of the Supernatural — in theological language, by ‘grace’ — as against all merely evolutionary or emergent theories of spiritual transcendence.” Amen! As profound and beautiful as evolutionary integral theory may be, the Christian gospel insists it is an incomplete picture of how the universe works. The missing element? The freely given gift. We do not need merely to evolve to reach heaven, even if evolution may be a joyous part of our journey there; to reach paradise, we begin by simply taking the hand lovingly outstretched to us.
Every time I read Underhill, I come away amazed at how relevant her work continues to be. Maybe I’m missing something here (and certainly she doesn’t begin to address the fascinating issues raised by postmodernity in its many permutations). She was astute enough to see a world of difference between the intellectual climates of 1911 and 1930; but in doing so, she began to explore issues that remain relevant even today.