What a difference nineteen years makes

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.

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  • http://discombobula.blogspot.com Sue

    You always give me something to chew on and today is no exception.

  • Peter

    That’s it! You’ve got it!

    I knew there was something critical missing from Ken Wilber’s mesmerizing unitive view of emergent transcendence–”transcend and include”–evolutionary integral theory…and here you’ve pegged it: grace, the freely given gift–the core of the gospel! Wouldn’t you know it? Totally simple, yet utterly profound: easy to catch yet impossible to comprehend.

    I greatly appreciate the contributions of Wilber, his grieving over the vast (and totally unnecessary) poverty of the flatland mindset, his unitive view of the kosmos which leaves abundant room for the development of Spirit in an age of endless shallow exploration of surfaces. But you have popped the lid off (=apokalupsis, revelation) for me of Wilber’s own limitations and spritual poverty by going back to square one of the Gospel message: the unmeritable sovereign overwhelming transforming grace of God in Jesus Christ. This is huge!

    Thank you thank you thank you, Carl, for this gift. It will not make me appreciate Ken any less. But it will renew my enjoyment and approval of your choice (at least for this current study) of specifically Christian mysticism as the purview or field of interest. As a byproduct of this, if anyone of my narrowly evangelical brethren asks me if I believe that you are a Christian, I will have abundant evidence to say Yes!–since in at least this instance you caught the essence of the Gospel where I was floundering and looking for my moorings.

    I wish to join you in “simply taking the hand lovingly outstretched to us”–at the beginning of this journey, and as its underlying theme all the way through to our experience of theosis. Thank you again!


  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    I agree, Peter; just because Wilber doesn’t “get” grace doesn’t make me want to dismiss him. I just think it’s lovely to appreciate all he has to say in the light of the gospel, which takes his wisdom and suffuses it with Divine Love.

    Thanks for all your very kind words.