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.
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.
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.