Should Christian theology be interested in mysticism? A strong current within contemporary theology believes it should be, linking up with an older tradition holding that the mystical dimension has always formed the deepest current in the flowing river of Christianity and its theologies and doctrines, even if some have failed to recognize that. This article explores this modern current, its “founders,” its motivations, the questions it raises, and its accomplishments. Mystics are acknowledged as witnesses to the originary experiential source of Christian doctrine and theology. These modern pioneers explore possibly constant features of the mystical element, and emphasize the “turn to experience” as a central feature. The contemporary discussion has moved in the direction of exploring as holistic a view of experience as possible, stressing its constructed nature, and employing a lexicon emphasizing consciousness, practices, participatory awareness, and performative utterances. One typically thinks of mystics who have written classic articulations of their journey as “the” mystics. This is natural, as these writings are the time-tested paradigms that have founded the science of mysticism. But might one be a mystic whose form of expression occurs through art, or through the prophetic struggle for justice, or simply through the humble and often unnoted life of selfless love? Perhaps most mystics remain unknown! All forms of Christian mysticism are related to Jesus but take varying forms: a kingdom-centered and Father-centered focus, echoing somewhat the liberating focus of Exodus and the Gospels; a Logos mysticism, who indwells believers and whose indwelling unites all disciples (John 17:20–24); a spousal mysticism, echoing the bride and bridegroom theme in scripture (Hos 2:16–20; Mark 2:18–20; John 3:29; Eph 5:23–33). Paul’s letters are a treasury of participative mysticism (koinōnia), celebrating fellowship with fellow disciples in the body of Christ and being “with” and “in” Christ (1 Cor 10; Rom 6). As the trinitarian belief and doctrine gain clarity, one increasingly comes upon a more trinitarian style of mysticism (e.g., the Rublev Trinity icon). The relationship between theology and mysticism appears to be mutual: Christian sources and beliefs influence theology, but the mystical vivid experience of God’s presence keeps belief and doctrine anchored in a rich experiential soil. But it is suggested, by way of a heuristic for further exploration, that this mutual, back-and-forth interplay between mysticism and theology or doctrine is asymmetrical as well. That is, mysticism may be thought of as the originary and even paradigmatic source of theology (and formal doctrine). This would echo an older tradition voiced, for example, by Evagrios in patristic times and Vladimir Lossky and Karl Rahner in modern times. One way of understanding this would be to begin with the phenomenon of spirituality and to view mysticism as spirituality’s radically transformative expression. Spirituality derives from the work of the Spirit, who renders our life “Spirited” (1 Cor 2:15). Spirituality can take on a range of theological and doctrinal forms, as the human faculties needed for this are gradually enriched and transformed by the Spirit. At times the mystics become paradigms of theology and doctrine, through the radical transformation of consciousness and action. An important by-product of this model is that theology and spirituality are never really separated. When one begins to think in this separationist way, it is a signal that one’s experience and understanding are suffering from a certain narrowness and distortion. Finally, Christian mysticism and theology (along with doctrine) have been and are continually challenged by seismic transitions in human history, as is Christianity in general. These are never really left behind, even when their challenges are more or less successfully met. At best one can build on them and continually seek to integrate their enduring lessons. The key transitions that the mystic is challenged to learn from and integrate include: “primary”/cosmocentric challenges; biblical; Classical; sapiential; Far Eastern; Muslim; medieval; Renaissance and Reformation; modern; late modern; postmodern; globalization; neocosmocentric; and ecological challenges. The traditional mystic stages and states, for example, will undergo important transformations as they pass through these various transitions. To the extent that the mystics meet these challenges, they become the paradigmatic theological explorers and guides for the rest of us on our journeys.
The contemporary academic study of religion has its roots in conceptual and theoretical structures developed in the early to mid-20th century. A particularly important example of such a structure is the concept of the “numinous” developed by the theologian and comparativist Rudolf Otto (1869–1397) in his work, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational (1923). Building on the work of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), Friedrich Schleiermacher (1772–1834), and Jakob Fries (1773–1843), Otto developed the concept of the numinous—a “category of value” and a “state of mind”—as a way to express what he viewed as the “non-rational” aspects of the holy or sacred that are foundational to religious experience in particular and the lived religious life in general. For Otto, the numinous can be understood to be the experience of a mysterious terror and awe (Mysterium tremendum et fascinans) and majesty (Majestas) in the presence of that which is “entirely other” (das ganz Andere) and thus incapable of being expressed directly through human language and other media. Otto conceives of the concept of the numinous as a derivative of the Latin numen, meaning “spirit,” etymologically derived from the concept of divine will and represented by a “nodding” of the head. Otto argues that understanding the numinous in a satisfactory way requires a scholar to draw upon their own experience of religious sentiments, given its non-discursive and direct nature; this becomes a point of contention among later secular scholars of religion. In later works, such as Mysticism East and West: A Comparative Analysis of the Nature of Mysticism (1932), Otto gives numerous examples of the ways in which the concept of the numinous can be applied cross-culturally to traditions beyond Christianity, such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Otto’s theories regarding the numinous have been extremely influential in the development of the academic study of religion in the 20th and 21st centuries, as evidenced by the impact they had upon scholars such as Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Ninian Smart, whose works were instrumental in the formation of religious studies as a discipline. Jung cites the concept of the numinous extensively with regard to his theories on the breakthrough of unconscious material into conscious awareness. Eliade’s work The Sacred and Profane: The Nature of Religion (1959) takes Otto’s concept of the numinous as a starting point in the development of its own theory; Eliade’s use of the category of the “sacred” might be considered derivative of Otto’s larger conception of the “holy” (das Heilige). Eliade’s work, like Otto’s, has been extensively criticized for postulating a sui generis nature of both the numinous and the sacred, which are viewed by Eliade as irreducible to other phenomena (historical, political, psychological, and so forth). Smart’s influential “dimensional analysis” theory and his scholarship on the topic of world religions is highly informed by his utilization of Otto’s theory of the numinous within the contexts of his cross-cultural reflections on religion and the development of his “two-pole” theory of religious experience. The concept of the numinous continues to be theorized about and applied in contemporary academic research in religious studies and utilized as part of a framework for understanding religion in university courses on world religions and other topics in the academic study of religion. In part through the work of Eliade, Smart, and other scholars—Otto included—who have found a popular readership, the term has been disseminated to such a degree as to find common usage in the English language and popular discourse.
In works like What Is Ancient Philosophy and Philosophy as a Way of Life, French classicist Pierre Hadot argues that, in the ancient world, the word philosopher was used primarily to refer to people who transformed their way of living through spiritual practices—and not, as in the modern world, to someone devoted to the reading and writing of specifically philosophical texts. Along similar lines, in You Must Change Your Life, German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk argues that the concept of religion should be replaced by a concept of spiritual practice, or anthropotechnics, the regimens of spiritual training whereby human beings strive to shape themselves through repetitive actions. Importantly, both of these thinkers are attempting to revive spiritual practice not only as scholarly concept but also as a living exhortation, for human beings to once again take up the crucible of disciplined self-transformation. That being said, the ancient understanding of spiritual practice remains radically different from the way spiritual practice manifests for a contemporary thinker like Sloterdijk. This difference, in turn, stems from a profound disagreement concerning the nature of reality itself. Generally speaking, ancient philosophers understood reality to be fundamentally harmonious, peaceful, and good—and within this vision, spiritual practice was understood in terms of reconnecting to this fundamental goodness. In modern thought, by contrast, reality is generally understood to be fundamentally violent, chaotic, and ultimately indifferent to human flourishing—and within this alternative view, spiritual practice is then understood in terms of the cultivation of self-control, as part of a larger cultural project to transform the indifferent natural world into a comfortable human home. As for ancient spiritual practice and its concomitant cosmology, these are criticized from the modern perspective as being nothing more than a flight into illusion, motivated by terror at the as-yet-uncontrolled world of nature. If the modern critique of ancient spiritual practice begins with a critique of cosmology, the ancient critique of modern cosmology would begin from the opposite side of the spectrum, with a critique of modern spiritual practice. More precisely, the ancient practitioner would argue that modern cosmology is actually the result of a flawed approach to spiritual training. This critique turns on the location of what Hadot calls practical physics within the ancient curriculum of spiritual development. In short, the widespread historical narrative, whereby the infinite depths of space and time only became thinkable after Copernicus and Galileo, is actually not true; people have been contemplating the way human life appears from the perspective of the infinite abyss for thousands of years, and the moral upshot of this practical physics was the same in the ancient world as it is now: to inculcate a sense of humility, shared vulnerability, and universal human solidarity. In the ancient world, however, this perspective was not seen as the single, scientific truth of the human condition, but rather was understood as an imaginative spiritual exercise. Moreover, this exercise was itself set within a larger curriculum of training that began with the practice of selfless moral discipline. This is because the ego-dissolution that arises from this “view from infinity” can be spiritually dangerous, leading to a sense of fatalism or even nihilism—the idea that the only good is the power to ensure our own pleasure and survival within a fundamentally meaningless universe. According to the ancient philosophers, however, this conclusion, and the abyss of terror, as well as the sense of ontological despair often experienced by modern people, would be the logical results of an incorrect approach to spiritual training: namely, the precocious dissolution of the ego in the infinite, but without the preliminary cultivation of a relatively selfless ego that can peacefully endure its own dissolution. By the terms of this ancient curriculum, meanwhile, the proper pursuit of these two sides of spiritual life—moral selflessness and self-dissolution—would eventually give way to the experiences that Neoplatonists referred to with the word metaphysics, and which 3rd-century theologian Origen describes in terms of the experience of infinite love.