The word “spirituality” has become increasingly common. What does it mean? It is not limited to spiritual practices, such as meditation, but suggests the pursuit of a life shaped by a sense of meaning, values, and perhaps transcendence. Although the word is used in different religions, and by people with no religious beliefs, its origins were Christian and referred to living life under the influence of God’s spirit.
Nowadays, in a consciously plural world, Christian spirituality has a specific content whose origins are the Jewish and Christian scriptures. In particular, Christian spirituality is associated with following the teachings of Jesus Christ or imitating his values. The main New Testament word for this is “discipleship,” which has two main elements. First, there is a call to personal transformation (conversion). Second, Christians are to continue the mission of Jesus to transform the world and to build the kingdom of a God of love. In that fundamental sense, Christian spirituality is inherently concerned with social transformation. In the Gospel of Matthew, this includes sharing in Jesus’ work of forgiveness and healing. In the Gospel of Mark it involves selfless service of others. The history of Christian spirituality is a varied story of ways of approaching discipleship. Needless to say, part of what makes Christian spirituality distinctive is its underlying beliefs—in other words, how it understands the reality of God, the value of the material world, human nature, and identity and how these interconnect.
The great variety of spiritual traditions and writings within Christianity originated at different times and places. However, they are continually being adapted in the light of new historical and cultural contexts. Scholars have sometimes found it helpful to identify different types of Christian spirituality. Their choices vary, and the types are interpretative tools rather than straightforward descriptions. “Types” help us to identify distinctive styles of spiritual wisdom. The ascetical type, sometimes associated with monasticism, highlights discipline and detachment from material pleasures as the pathway to spiritual growth. The mystical type focuses on the desire for an immediacy of presence to, and intuitive knowledge of, God, frequently via contemplative practice. The active type promotes everyday life and service to other people as the context for spiritual growth. The aesthetic type covers a range of ways in which the spiritual journey is expressed in and shaped by the arts, music, and literature. Finally the prophetic type of spirituality embraces an explicit commitment to social justice and the transformation of society.
Christian spirituality has become a major area of study. It is an interdisciplinary field shaped by scripture, theology, and Christian history, but which may also draw upon psychology, the social sciences, literature, and the sciences. The study of Christian spirituality is also “self-implicating,” in the sense that it is not treated in a purely theoretical way but includes a quest for practical wisdom.
Finally, the traditions of Christian spirituality increasingly engage with important issues of social and cultural transformation, for example interreligious dialogue, peace and reconciliation, ecological questions, the future of cities, the world of business, and the meaning of healthcare.
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.
Ralph W. Hood Jr.
The common core thesis contends that mystical experience is an ultimate non-sensuous experience of unity of all things. It can be identified within major faith traditions, whether explicitly religious or not. Its roots are in the work of William James who explored mystical experience outside the limits imposed by what he perceived as only a provisional natural science assumption of the newly emerging discipline of empirical psychology. Following the explicit phenomenological work of Walter Stace, the phenomenology of a universal core to mystical experience has been operationalized and an explicit psychometric measure developed to allow empirical assessment of the claim to a common core to mysticism. It is the linkage of psychometric approaches to the work of James and Stace that is now known explicitly as the common core thesis. The common core thesis needs to be delineated from the perennialist thesis popularized by Aldous Huxley in which there is postulated not only a common core experience, but also values and practices claimed to be associated with this experience if not directly derived from it. Psychometric and empirical evidence for the common core thesis is substantial and continues to accumulate. The common core thesis is restricted to mystical experience and assumes that this experience seeks to express itself in various faith traditions, whether religious or not, but is not restricted to or defined adequately by the culture or language with which this experience is interpreted. Unlike the perennialist thesis, the common core thesis does not assume that any common theology, philosophy, or practice necessarily follows from mystical experience.
The comparative study of mysticism began in the mid-19th century, with the development of the modern meaning of the word, which had begun to be used as a substantive, with the classification of “mystics” in the 17th century. This differed from the traditional Greek Christian use of the adjective mystikos, to qualify rituals, scriptures, sacraments, and theology as “mystical” contexts of the human encounter with the Divine. This modern shift highlighted the personal experience of ultimate Reality, rather than the sociocultural context. Certain individuals claimed to encounter the Divine or spiritual realities more directly, separate from traditional mediums of religious experience. The study of this phenomenon tended in the early 20th century to focus on the psychology and the phenomenology of the personal experience, generally described as an altered state of consciousness with specific characteristics, processes, stages, effects, and stimulants. This emphasis on common features influenced the development of perennialist and traditionalist theorists, who saw evidence of the same experiential origin, fundamental principles, or epistemology among major world religions. Some essentialist views of mysticism argued that a pure consciousness-experience of undifferentiated unity or non-duality is the core feature of all mysticism, in contrast to other religious experiences. Reaction to these positions led to contextualist or constructivist views of mysticism, which presume the sociocultural character of mysticism. In its most extreme form, the contextualist perspective suggests that all mystical experiences among traditions are different, given diverse socio-religious categories that overdetermine the experience. In turn, some critical scholarship has proposed qualifications to contextualism within the context of a general acceptance of many of its tenets, even among many theorists with essentialist tendencies.
Up to the late 20th century, much scholarship in the area tended to downplay the sociocultural features of mysticism, emphasizing the psychological dynamics and an individual, disembodied, and radically transcendent ideal. This brought into question the relationship of morality to mystical experience and raised concerns about the status of entheogens—the use of psychoactive drugs in religious contexts. Interest in the comparative study of mysticism has also extended into the area of neuroscience, where researchers explore electro-chemical brain states associated with mystical experience, in proposing evidence of a mystical neurological substrate. But the essentialist/contextualist debate also moved the comparative study of mysticism beyond issues of epistemology, consciousness-states, ontology, and cognitive neuroscience, broadening the field to include other aspects of religious experience. Some studies have brought feminist concerns to bear on the discussion, insofar as women’s mysticism has been overshadowed and even repressed by men, and was seen to preclude legitimate experiential possibilities of a more embodied character. Related scholarship in history and depth psychology has focused creatively on the nature and significance of erotic elements of mysticism in comparative studies, with special attention to associated physical phenomena and their transformative dynamics. Similarly, more embodied features of comparative mysticism are the subject of transpersonal psychology, which draws on many humanistic disciplines and supports participatory approaches to the field. Transpersonal psychology remains open to claims that the ego can be transcended in movements into higher states of being that ideally involve personal/spiritual enhancement and integration. Also, some more recent proponents of new comparative theology advocate methods that engage the scholar in specific beliefs or practices of another tradition, and include subsequent clarification and elaboration of one’s own perspective in light of such comparative study, in exploring phenomena related to comparative mystical experience.
Chas S. Clifton
Paganism is based largely in an Enlightenment-era rejection of Christianity and Romantic-era ideas of the individual experience, emotion, and creativity, combined with a search for true ethnic culture in the lore and practices of the pre-Christian past and a rejection of universal transcendental religion, in favor of the local, the particular, the polytheistic, and the animist. Particularly in the United States, Pagans have challenged governmental accommodations for existing religions by demanding equal status in public spaces. Contemporary Pagan groups began forming in the 1930s, but the largest, Wicca, emerged in the United Kingdom in the early 1950s.
Judson B. Murray
Daoist mysticism is a subfield in academic areas of study including comparative mysticism, Chinese religions, and Daoist studies. Methodologies employed in it often adopt and adapt different definitions, categories, and theories formulated in contemporary Western scholarship on the subject of “mysticism” for the purpose of analyzing Daoist thinkers, texts, practices, and traditions throughout the religion’s history. Important topics examined in scholarly works on Daoist mysticism include, first, Daoist views of the human self, both as it exists in its problematic state of degeneracy—physically, intellectually, emotionally, and morally—and in the natural and optimal condition it can and should embody. A point of emphasis regarding the latter condition is the self’s experience or consciousness of, conformity to, and unity with that which is of ultimate significance for Daoists: the “Way” (Dao/Tao). Daoist mystics, by understanding themselves to be microcosmic embodiments of the world and its processes, grasp that they are inherent constituents of the Dao and are unified with the totality of existence that it encompasses. Second, there is an array of Daoist self-cultivation techniques that are combined into training regimens aimed at cultivating and actualizing this awareness. Methods range from practices relating to the optimal setting and lifestyle to adopt for training, proper preparation and maintenance of the body, qi/ch’i cultivation, ethical observances, visualizations, and other meditative techniques. Third, successful training in them achieves the mystical aims, experiences, and transformations that practitioners seek, including physical vigor to aid the body’s functioning and longevity, moral integrity, profound visions, true and omniscient insight, correct and effective conduct, self-divinization, and immortality. Fourth, the scholarship also identifies both notable continuities and intriguing innovations in comparing ancient Daoist mystical ideas, practices, and goals to later expressions and elaborations of them.
Studying Daoist mysticism has also reciprocally contributed to Western scholarly inquiries into theories of mysticism and comparative mysticism, not only in providing a wealth of material that is relevant to these fields, but also in offering both additional perspectives on debated issues and new trajectories for future research. For example, recent scholarship has contributed to the debate between, on the one hand, Essentialist and Decontextualist theorists and, on the other, Contextualists concerning the subject of mystical experience. Scholars of Daoist mysticism have also underscored the distinctiveness of the content and the literary form of its mystical writings, as well as the vital role the practitioner’s body plays in its theories and practices, and how these defining features distinguish Daoist mysticism from some of the world’s other mystical traditions.
Leslie E. Sponsel
Interest in the degradation of the “natural” environment, and the scientific, academic, and activist responses including ecology have developed in Western societies largely since the 1950s. Western ecology is a subfield of the biological sciences, and more broadly it is related to the environmental sciences, environmental studies, and environmentalism. These have all generated accumulating evidence about the ongoing ecocrises at the local, regional, and global levels, and this in turn requires remedial actions. Ecocrises are increasingly becoming an existential threat to the human species and the planet, especially the reality of global climate change.
Secular approaches are absolutely indispensable and have made progress but have also proven insufficient to turn things around for the better. Spirituality pursued as an integral part of religion and also independently from it may help. Spirituality refers to mystical phenomena that include profoundly moving emotional experiences that can generate vision, meaning, purpose, and direction for an individual’s life in pursuit of the sacred. Spirituality appears to predate any religion, in the sense of formalized social institutions with a system of prescribed sacred texts, specialists, beliefs, values, and practices. Furthermore, while in recent decades affiliation with religion declined, in contrast interest in spirituality increased. Surveys indicate that individuals range from religious and spiritual, religious but not spiritual, spiritual but not religious, to neither religious nor spiritual. Ecology and spirituality are interrelated in various ways and degrees: spiritual ecology has grown exponentially since the 1990s, although it has deep roots. It is a vast, complex, diverse, and dynamic arena of intellectual and practical activities at the interfaces of religions and spiritualities with ecologies, environments, and environmentalisms. Spiritual ecology may help contribute to the reduction or resolution of many ecocrises.
Yudit Kornberg Greenberg
Erotic representations of the divine occupy a pivotal place in religious myths, poetry, liturgy, and theology. Reading eros as a category of religious love highlights its ubiquitous presence in sacred literary sources; moreover, it renders the nexus of erotic love and the divine critical to comprehending religiosity as an immanent and embodied phenomenon, rather than as an abstract idea. As an embodied phenomenon, religious love is subject to an investigation of topics such as gender and sexuality, and its multiple cultural meanings and contexts. Western philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, (Pseudo-)Dionysius, and the Neoplatonist renaissance thinker Leone Ebreo, delineate a hierarchy or a “ladder of love” differentiating lesser and higher subjects and objects of love from love of the particular, to the universal, cosmic, and divine. An interrelated distinction is ascertained between “desire” as a state of lack often seen as a lower state, and “love” as the higher state, in which fulfillment and joy of the union with the object of one’s love is achieved. Love and desire as marked yet interrelated emotions are contextualized in religious phenomena cross-culturally, most obviously in theistic frameworks in which a personal and intimate relationship with the divine is an ideal. Poetry and autobiography are the most common genre of depicting the intimate and passionate encounter of human and divine. Despite the prominence of male voices in the sources, the contributions of medieval Christian and Muslim women mystics to this literature are significant. Key base-texts from which mystics and philosophers are inspired and draw upon to elucidate their own personal experience of yearning for the divine, include the biblical Song of Songs, Bhagavata Purana (Book 10), and the Gitagovinda. Although the yearning for the divine, associated with an emotional, embodied state and therefore seen as problematic from a rational perspective, this yearning is also a cherished state, even for rationalists such as the medieval Jewish thinker Moses Maimonides. The significance of erotic love for the divine is confirmed, not only by Sufi and Hindu bhakti poets such as Rumi and Jayadeva, but also by philosophers such as Ibn Arabi and Rupa-Goswami. The idiom of erotic desire and love for God is particularly poignant and integral not only in poetry but also in theology, as exemplified in Hindu bhakti and Christian theology. Exploring the meanings of erotic love in religious poetry, theology, liturgy, and the history of religion more broadly offers a rich scholarly and personal medium for contemplating the reality of human and divine nature.
As part of a broader turn in humanities scholarship toward emotion since the late 20th century, scholars of religion increasingly have explored how emotion has been a key component in the lives of religious Americans. The relation of emotion to religious ideas has been particularly important in this nascent scholarship. In exploring how emotions and religious ideas are intertwined, scholars have focused on emotions such as love, melancholy, fear, and anger, among others. However, for reasons having to do with the historiography of American religion, as well as with categories that have governed much academic study of religion in America, the feeling of emptiness, which is so crucial to understanding Buddhism, and other Asian religions, has been underestimated for its role in American religions. In America, the feeling of emptiness plays a central role in religious practice, community formation, and identity construction, among Christians (the religious majority) but also in other religious communities. This essay describes some of the ways in which the feeling of emptiness has been expressed in American religions, and in American culture more generally, comments on how it has been joined to certain ideas at various times, and suggests how it has played a central role in shaping relations between religious groups in a society where religion is disestablished. The approach here is eclectic, blending historical narrative with cultural analysis, and the essay proceeds thematically rather than chronologically. Focusing on the feeling of emptiness allows a fresh perspective on religious practice in America, prompts new questions about belief and community, and enables new lines of interpretation for the development of religious ideas in America. Christians, Buddhists, Jews, and other religious communities in America have distinct ways in which they interpret the feeling of emptiness as a spiritual phenomenon. Religious persons often conceptualize it as an emotional experience of great value. Among Christians, it is important as a sign of an emptying of the self of immorality, distractions, and worldly clutter in preparation for being filled with the grace of God. Accordingly, Christians and others in America have developed spiritual disciplines aimed at cultivating the feeling of emptiness and advancing it to a point where deep longing becomes deep fulfillment. Religious practices involving the body include fasting, which is emptying the body of food, and tears, which empty the body of fluids. Bloodletting is also a notable practice, and, for those who do not cut or otherwise make bloody sacrifice (including war and lynching), bloodletting nevertheless is revered as a model discipline of emptying. There are aspects of sexual practices and the performance of work that also are exercises in self-emptying. All such disciplines are expected to prompt and enrich the feeling of emptiness. The severe fast, the deep feeling of emptiness, the desperate longing, the distancing from God becomes, paradoxically, a drawing closer to God. From the earliest settlement of North America, white Europeans and their descendants constructed the emptiness of the land to match the emptiness of their souls. Americans claimed to feel space. They expressed the spiritual feeling of emptiness in ideas about North America as a barren desert, crying to be filled by colonists and their descendants. The Great American Desert, a fiction created in the early 19th century, was one way in which Americans continued to imagine space as empty and themselves, as God’s exceptional nation, as the agents of fullness. American fascination with millennialism was a valorization of the fullness of eternity over the emptiness of history. Millennial movements and communities in America felt time as they did space, and when American Christians felt historical time they felt its emptiness. Americans have constructed elaborate and richly detailed depictions of the end as they look forward to a time when empty time will become eternity, fullness. Christian groups in America, populated by persons who cultivate emptiness, have defined themselves largely by saying what they are not. Both persons and communities, invested in the feeling of emptiness, mark personal and collective boundaries not by projecting into the social world a pristine essence of doctrine so much as by pushing off from other groups. Committed to emptiness, there is little to project, so the construction of identity takes place as an identification of Others. Such a process sometimes leads to the demonization of others and the production of identity through the inventorying of enemies.
Gender and spirituality are both terms that signify alterity, especially a critique of established social conventions, including conventions of disciplining personhood on the basis of gender classifications and according to doctrinal and ritual patterns of organized religion. To be aware of gender as a hierarchical system is a modern phenomenon; “spirituality” has a much longer history of use and was generated from within organized religion, though its evolution increasingly marked it as a perspective distinct from, and necessitating the evaluative intervention of, official religious channels. Developing through a confluence of interest in Western esotericism, Transcendentalism, Theosophy, the German Romantics, and Asian traditions in the early 20th century, spirituality as a cultural concept and practice was poised to respond to widespread late modern questioning of received social modes, especially in terms of defining oneself. Contesting theoretical predictions of society’s secularization but supporting those of the “subjective turn,” late modern spirituality groups, especially those inspired by feminism, civil rights, and gay rights, valorized marginalized bodies and their distinctive experiences, creating new paths of spiritual expression in which personal experience in the context of group affirmation was foregrounded. Postmodern ideas on the fluidity of gender further contributed to the voices of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and queer) people who critiqued residual gender binaries operative in some New Age spiritualities and provided new arguments for social inclusivity in spirituality groups and in the wider society.
What characterizes spirituality into the 21st century is the “turn to holism,” in which a wide variety of methods are promoted as leading to a holistic sense of the well-being of body and spirit. Diverse practices include Kirlian aura photography, Johrei Fellowship healing, tarot cards, shiatsu massage, acupressure, aromatherapy, kinesiology, and yoga, leading some scholars to critique the spirituality climate as a neoliberal capitalist “spiritual marketplace.” Others view it as a generative opportunity for seeking and bricolage construction of the self that has transformative potential for both self and society.
Roger R. Jackson
Mahāmudrā, “the Great Seal,” is a Sanskrit term (Tibetan: phyag rgya chen po) that connotes a wide range of concepts and practices in Indian Mahāyāna and, especially, Tibetan Buddhism, most of them directly or indirectly related to discourse on ultimate reality and the way to know and achieve it. The term first appeared in Indian tantric texts of the 7th or 8th century
Rosemary R. Corbett
Religious moderation is hardly the first thing that comes to mind when considering the history of the United States. Would one have spoken of the Puritans as moderates? Could one characterize the many great revivals and awakenings that coursed through colonial and early republican American in such terms? And what about the impertinence of Anne Hutchison, the audacity of Jarena Lee, the bold experiment of Prohibition, or the modern political fervor that accompanied the rise of the religious right? When compared to England and many other nominally Christian European nations, the United States generally figures as an example of religious zeal. Yet moderation holds a special place in American religious thought, and not just recently. Since the Protestant Reformation, at least, the concept of religious moderation has been inescapably entangled with concerns about the form and shape of government. Just how much religious “enthusiasm” is safe for a monarchy, a democracy, or a republic? wondered English political theorists in the 1600s and 1700s. Their concerns unavoidably carried to the “New World,” contributing to the persecution or marginalization of Quakers, Shakers, and other religious practitioners deemed too immoderate in their passions and, not infrequently, their gendered practices and sexualities. With the birth of the new republic, Americans also raised questions about the political valences of religious moderation when debating which residents of the nation could fully enjoy the rights of citizenship. Appeals to moderation were used for centuries to exclude not only religious minorities but also racial and ethnic minorities and women. And yet the contours of moderation were continually contested by both those who wielded power and those subject to it.
Since the late 1800s, questions of religious moderation have also been intertwined with questions of modernity and the reconfiguration of public and private spaces. This was especially true with the rise of the fundamentalist movement in the early 1900s, a movement that opposed some of the modernist interpretive measures gaining currency among many American Christians, as well as the idea (increasingly popular over the course of the 20th century—particularly after the failure of Prohibition) that most forms of religion properly belong to the private realm. While fundamentalists were no less technologically savvy or educated than their theological opponents, their positions were nevertheless cast as anti-modern and immoderate, in that fundamentalists ostensibly held more closely to revelation than to modern science. This notion of fundamentalism as the incursion of immoderate anti-modernism, traditionalism, or enthusiasm into politics and public life has continued into the 21st century. While 21st-century arguments for religious moderation are most often directed at Muslims (who, in addition to conservative Christians, are frequently depicted as prone to trampling on the rights of those with whom they disagree), American history has no shortage of incidents involving pressures, often violent, on racial and religious minorities to moderate or privatize their ostensibly uncivilized behavior for the sake of the nation or even for humanity.
Modern yoga refers to a variety of systems that developed as early as the 19th century as a consequence of capitalist production, colonial and industrial endeavors, global developments in areas ranging from metaphysics to fitness, and modern ideas and values. Modern yoga systems transformed from largely controversial, elite, or countercultural ones to pop culture varieties when entrepreneurial gurus became strategic participants in a global market and succeeded in marketing yoga by establishing continuity between their yoga brands and dominant values and demands. Today, modern yoga is most frequently prescribed as a part of self-development believed to provide increased beauty, strength, and flexibility as well as decreased stress and that can be combined with other worldviews and practices available in the global market.
The definition and meaning of mysticism have been the subject of debate for decades within academia. While in a colloquial sense its referent may be readily apparent, there is no one existing definition of the term that adequately captures the multiple, diverse phenomena that have been termed “mystical.” Genealogical studies reveal its origin in the Greek mystery religions (muo; mystikos), later taken up by the early Christian Fathers (mystical theology; mystical contemplation) to denote the effects of God’s presence as granted through grace and accessed through participation in a total religious matrix. Starting in the 17th century, one finds the beginning of the modern uses of the term as it became deracinated from a total religious matrix. In its new incarnation as a noun (la mystique), “mysticism” was utilized in the service of multiple academic methods designed to analyze religious phenomena. The implications of this trend were numerous: the democratization of mysticism, its rendering as an “experience” (e.g., William James’ pivotal analysis in The Varieties of Religious Experience), and its “modern” form as nontraditional or “unchurched” (e.g., the “spiritual but not religious movement”; “psycho-spiritualities”). In this latter sense, mysticism became linked to a cousin term, spirituality, which followed a parallel historical trajectory.
The Western origins of the term evoked consternation from comparativists who accept using “mysticism” as a “term of art” only after shearing it from its theological echoes and possible orientalist and colonialist uses, further qualifying it relative to similar terms (e.g., moksha, nirvana, fana) as they accrue specificity in their particular socio-historical and religious contexts. This new, modern rendering of the term also gave rise to additional, sometimes incommensurate academic adventures (e.g., historians, theologians, philosophers, and a wide range of social scientists) into the “what” of mysticism. Such investigations have had the advantage of obviating the idealizations that may blind one to the more problematic formulations and implications regarding, for example, gender, sexuality, and race that can be found in tradition-based forms of mysticism. In turn, they helped facilitate the move to nontraditional forms of spirituality and mysticism while ushering in a new series of debates that currently occupy the field.
Martin Luther’s spiritual and theological development was deeply rooted in mystical traditions. During his early years as an Augustinian friar, he experienced mystical visions following the paths of Dionysian mysticism, while a few years later he was inspired by Ps-Bonaventure, Bernard of Clairvaux, and John Tauler. His early theology of penitence, as expressed in the Ninety-five Theses, derived from these sources, as did his description of justification in the image of bride and bridegroom in his tract On the Liberty of a Christian. Even more so, central elements in his theology were shaped by mystical influences, including his distinction between Law and Gospel, the doctrine of justification, and the concept of the priesthood of all believers. Thus, Luther’s theology should be seen as a reception and development deriving from the mystical discourse of the later Middle Ages.
Sufism is the major expression of mysticism in Islam. While Sufism developed out of the fusion of Qur’anic ascetic tendencies and the vast fund of Christian (and other) mystical sayings present throughout the classical world, by approximately the 10th century it had become a uniquely Islamic feature. Major writers such as al-Ghazali and Ibn al-ʿArabi took this heritage and molded it both into a normative tradition for Islam as a whole (by wedding it to the Prophet Muhammad’s life experience) and, in the case of Ibn al-ʿArabi, into completely new spiritual paths. These interpretations of mysticism were critical in the vast conversion to Islam that happened during the period 1000–1800. Although other factors were involved as well, including trading by Muslims and the Islamic educational system, this conversion happened largely at the hands of the Sufis, especially holy men and healers, and thus the Muslim world is still largely Sufi or Sufi-influenced. Starting in the 19th century, however, and culminating in the mid-20th century, large numbers of Muslims abandoned Sufism, accusing it of being fundamentally anti-Islamic and even polytheistic. Today although Sufis still constitute the bulk of world Muslims, and they are visible throughout the non-Muslim world as well, their belief system is under attack as never before.
Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer
Diverse theories and cases are associated with artistic expression attributed to mystical experience. To showcase variety as well as underlying commonalties, the intersecting experiences of mystics, shamans, and visionary arts builds on understanding shamanic altered consciousness in multiple time periods, attunement to nature manifest through art and sacred sites, and modernist impulses beginning in the 20th century. Cases range from prehistoric cave paintings of Chauvet and Lascaux to contemporary shamanic rituals of Siberia, from oracles, amphitheaters, and firewalking in Ancient Greece to the calendrical mysteries of Egypt, Stonehenge, Crete, and Mesoamerica. The cosmology-saturated paintings of Wassily Kandinsky and the mystical mountains of Nicholas Roerich can be productively juxtaposed, since these artists created resonating movements of global followers. For deeper analysis, insights of artists, including poets and epic singers, into their creative processes can be combined with analytical literature on spirituality and visionary arts.
Focus on roots of shamanic consciousness and on cases selected from cultural anthropology and art history shifts analysis away from famous examples of religious art within organized religions. Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, and Zoroastrian mystical traditions should be celebrated, but not at the expense of fluid and open-minded definitions of spirituality in the arts. This shifted gaze enables some conventional distinctions to be dissolved, for example, that between “art for art’s sake” and art that may result in individual and communal healing. In some interactive contexts of mystical artistic expression, distinctions between artists and their perceivers may also dissolve. In sum, mysticism and art are “eye of the beholder” phenomena. Experiences of mystics, shamans, and artists can be viewed as having significant interconnections without overgeneralizing about mysticism, shamanism, or the arts.
Various social and cultural changes from modernity to late modernity have been key to the appearance and development of new spiritualities in Western society. The often-contested term of “new spiritualities” is often liked with other no less contested ones such as “mysticism,” “popular religion,” “the New Age,” and “new religious” movements. Further, if the expression new spiritualities or alternative spiritualities took off outside of institutionalized religions in the Western world, this term is now re-used by these institutions within their specific theology. As new spiritualities are becoming mainstream in the first quarter of the 21st century, they are having a low-key impact on post-secularism (i.e., a specific type of secularism characteristic of late modern societies).
J. Brent Crosson
Contrary to many of the predictions of secularization theory, religion seems to be at the heart of political contests in avowedly secular nation-states. While religious identities seem to define many modern polities or political orientations, “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) has arisen as a growing identification that eschews these forms of “organized religion.” The politics of the spiritual in contemporary worlds points toward neoliberal emphases on flexible labor and self-making, but also indexes a longer genealogy of the categories of religion and superstition in colonial contexts. From Reformation invectives against superstition to colonial regulations against superstitious practices, a history of the distinction between “true” and “false” religion has informed the more recent separation of spirituality from religion proper. Emerging in the 19th century, movements emphasizing personal spirituality in opposition to organized religion both extended post-Reformation visions of true religion while also adopting some of the very practices that European reformers had deemed false religion. To complicate matters further, the notion of religion that spirituality came to oppose also contradicted what scholars have deemed a “Protestant” theological bias in the formation of the modern category of religion. This bias asserts that personal dispositions rather than outward manifestations are the essence of religion, but the “organized religion” that spirituality opposes is defined precisely by outward manifestations of structure and power. In this way, spirituality both extends and rejects the contradictory poles of the modern category of religion as both the essence of community and an eminently personal affair. Spirituality does not simply foreground these shifting poles of religion and not-religion in the modern era, but also highlights contemporary transformations in the category of politics itself. The emphasis on personal experience and self-transformation in “spiritual but not religious” movements points toward a similarly therapeutic register in movements for restorative justice or human rights. No longer confined to the realm of collective contests for state power, contemporary politics often speaks in the psycho-juridical register of spirituality.
The word yoga refers to a multifaceted array of beliefs and practices. Yoga is twinned with sāṃkhya as one of the six orthodox darshanas (worldviews) of Hindu philosophy, with Patañjali’s Yogaśāstra having been codified by around the 5th century of the Common Era. A distinct body of texts known as the haṭhayoga corpus appears around the 11th century and emphasizes physical practices most likely used by ascetic communities. The ultimate aim of yoga is described by various words (e.g., kaivalya, samādhi, mokṣa, etc.); it is often described as an experience of an individual soul’s uniting with the divine, and/or becoming liberated from the material world. These historical precedents have continuities with contemporary yoga practices, and for many Indians today, yoga is understood as the essence of Indian spirituality.
Yoga, however, took on new meanings in the late colonial period, becoming a mental, physical, and ethical discipline to aid in the struggle for an independent Indian nation state; a scientific, evidence-based practice to improve health and well-being; and a template for the evolution of an individual as well as humanity as a whole. At the same time, yoga kept an association with liberation and the realization of the ultimate nature of reality.
In the early 21st century, all these meanings remain current in the Indian context, where yoga is continuing to experience a revival. In India, yoga is understood as a unique and valuable cultural resource that has the potential to revitalize both an individual’s health and the Indian nation-state, being an exemplar of the unique insights that Indian traditions can give to the rest of the world. Despite a notable shift in what is understood by yoga in the modern period, yoga continues to be a multivalent and increasingly popular practice in contemporary India.