Embedded Mysticism

Thanks to Peter for alerting me to a fascinating review of a new book called Mystics by William Harmless. Harmless examines a variety of both Christian and non-Christian mystics and interpreters of mysticism, and draws the conclusion that mysticism is so fundamentally embedded in its cultural and religious/theological context that the modern/romanticist notion that suggests “all mysticism is the same” is called into question. I have long felt that it is a mistake to see mysticism as reducible to a single, unified experience: there are many “mysticisms” even within Christianity, let alone within all faiths. I think the romantic insistence that all mysticism is the same really emerges from a laudable, if misguided, effort to assert unity across all cultures. It’s a way of stumping for religious tolerance. Now, I believe in religious tolerance because I think it is a good thing, regardless of whether our divergent mysticisms share anything in common. And while I think there can certainly be commonalities amongs the great mystical and wisdom traditions, the profound diversity in mystical experience — and particularly in mystical theologies — is not something to be shunned or feared, but rather something to be embraced, even celebrated. It is only when we honestly acknowledge our differences that we are liberated to find and rejoice in our authentic unity. That goes for mysticism as much as anything else.

Click here to read the full review, Raids on the Ineffable.

  • http://www.transmillennial.blogspot.com kevin beck

    Thanks for the heads up on the book. Your comments remind me of what Ken Wilber describes as the pre/trans fallacy. That is, confusing premodern magic-mindset with trans-modern mysticism.

    Thanks,
    Kevin

  • http://haecceitas-chris.blogspot.com/ Chris

    Thanks for such a thoughtful post. I couldn’t agree more– all mysticism is determined by cultural context. While Ken Wilbur is interesting to read, trying to systematically explain and catagorize all of human experience is an endeavor fraught with no small amount of confidence in one’s perspective. Expaining my own experiences and constructs is difficult enough. The I don’t know expounded in this post, seems to be a safer and more humble path.

  • http://naqsh.org/ned/ ned

    I think that of course, as embodied beings embedded in certain cultural contexts, all our experiences of the occult and the unseen will be conditioned somewhat by the culture we were raised in.

    Moreover, as we’ve discussed previously on your blog, the Divine is multi-faceted and there is no point in collapsing the Divine into a single type of mystical experience, much less a single type of theology or mental framework.

    Nevertheless certain universal themes and experiences seem to crop up everywhere, and I can’t say that mysticism is culturally-constructed in a totally postmodern, it’s-all-relative kind of way. I think that the Absolute, the Universal, tries to express itself through each human instrument, but the uniqueness of the instrument and the nuances of the instrument’s experiences does not take away from the universality of the awareness of the Divine as seen in everything.

    The hallmark of a mystic — learning to live with ambiguity — is actually borne of an unshakeable faith in the Universal. Contradictions can only be resolved and reconciled on higher planes of reality, not through the rational mind or on mundane planes.

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

    Ned, I think your previous comment about arguments re. the Trinity applies equally here. A question like “is mysticism completely culturally embedded or does it point to a higher unity?” can be an invitation to the same kind of mental-level wrangling as questions of monotheism vs. trinitarianism. Of course, approached in the right spirit (i.e., with plenty of humility and hospitality), such wrangling can be a pleasure if not even an unexpected source of illumination. I suppose the key here is learning to be faithful to our own experience and intuition (as well as tradition), while also being radically open to getting surprised by insights from unexpected places.

    I tend to be impatient with “all mysticism is the same” rhetoric because it often strikes me (as I alluded above) as naive or romantic or trammeled by political correctness. I don’t think I’ve ever found such problems in your commentary. Thank you for reminding me not to become overly identified with my own frustrations! :-)

  • http://naqsh.org/ned/ ned

    Of course, approached in the right spirit (i.e., with plenty of humility and hospitality), such wrangling can be a pleasure if not even an unexpected source of illumination. I suppose the key here is learning to be faithful to our own experience and intuition (as well as tradition), while also being radically open to getting surprised by insights from unexpected places.

    Well-said!

    That’s exactly it.

    I always tell people of my very close relationship with my dear friend Bob (http://godnix.wordpress.com) who is coming from a totally different theology than me (he’s a Christian). Yet we communicate and connect at the soul-level like few others in my life, and even few others who practice the same yoga as me (i.e. Aurobindo’s integral yoga). I daresay our respective preferred theologies have been incredibly enriching for the both of us. As I told him the other day, I feel that our relationship is a sign that the Master of the yoga is waking up in each human heart in today’s world. Imagine — this is just the beginning. What diversity we are going to encounter! What fun! ;-)

    Despite appearances to the contrary, there is a hidden harmony to God’s creation. All the problems of existence involve reconciling our differences on higher, more harmonious planes of reality. But admittedly climbing up that ladder is very difficult! ;-)

    I may quote portions of this discussion on my own blog later on if that’s okay with you.

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

    Well, of course it’s okay. A linkback is always nice, of course. :-)


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