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.
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.