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 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.
The title “Scientific Approaches to Mysticism” reveals half the task and belies the other half—namely, which of the sciences and whose mysticism are to be considered. Is it Capra’s tao of physics, Bohm’s holomovement of undivided wholeness, or Saver/Rabin’s limbic correlates of mystical ecstasy? Is it Freud’s psychoanalytic oneness of nursing at the breast, or Goodall’s evolutionary biology of mystical wonder? Numerous mystics have presented us with a cornucopia of mystical experiences, and many sciences have been employed to analyze mysticism. Any effort to create a singular scientific approach to an “imagined singular mysticism” is doomed to vagueness. Specifics matter, and they matter in the scientific approaches to mysticism. A scientific study of mysticism must first clarify what mysticism means—namely, a conscious experience in which one feels that the normal subject-object boundaries manifest in waking consciousness are altered, presenting a state of unity, union, or interrelationship. This definition of mysticism is broad enough to encompass nature mysticism, theistic I–Thou mysticism, and various forms of non-dualistic mysticisms ranging from experiences of the oneness of Being to the awareness of the emptiness of becoming. Each of these broad categories of mysticism must be refined by examining the particular tradition in which it manifests. As such, the scientific study of mysticism cannot assume, for example, that all Christian mystics, proclaiming the ultimacy of a personal communion with the Trinitarian god, are uttering the same thing, nor that non-dualistic mystics from different traditions, such as Christianity and Hinduism, are saying different things. The scientific study of mysticism must immediately confront the threat of reductionism, in which “mystical experience” is reduced to some elemental explanation such as, “it is only one’s brain.” This threat of scientific reductionism has long been elicited by the knowledge, for example, that the intake of drugs is correlated with mystical experience; more recently, this threat of reductionism has been intensified by the knowledge that we have machines that measure the neural patterns associated with individuals having mystical experiences, and we have machines that can allegedly induce mystical experiences. Stepping beyond the psychological, cognitive, and neuropsychological approaches to mysticism, the connections between mystical experience and physics have also been drawn. Relativity and quantum theories have become the hermeneutical tools to analyze and interpret the declarations of all sorts of mystical experiences. These studies of mysticism tend to present parallel explanations of the world. Evolutionary theory and biology also offer different angles of approach to the study of mysticism proposing explanations, for example, which relate mystical experience to the evolutionary chain of being or to techniques for transcending present limitations.
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.