Conservative believers fixate on the culture wars, religious liberals preach social justice, and neither leaves room for what should be a central focus of religion — the quest for the numinous, the pursuit of the unnamable, the tremor of bliss and the dark night of the soul.
On senses, though, that he’s looking for virtue in a whorehouse. It would be odd indeed if our most political religious leaders — that is, those whom we can most easily label as conservative or liberal — were attempting to get us mystical, by way of political action. It would be odd, and more than a little scary.
But next he writes:
Yet by some measures, mysticism’s place in contemporary religious life looks more secure than ever. Our opinion polls suggest that we’re encountering the divine all over the place. In 1962, after a decade-long boom in church attendance and public religiosity, Gallup found that just 22 percent of Americans reported having what they termed “a religious or mystical experience.” Flash forward to 2009, in a supposedly more secular United States, and that number had climbed to nearly 50 percent.
Given that in the meantime our culture discovered magic mushrooms and LSD, I am hardly bowled over. This is not as flippant as it sounds. Research from my alma mater confirms what the hippies were only just discovering back then — that a single dose of magic mushrooms will commonly turn into one of the most important mystical experiences of a person’s entire lifetime. Yes, it really is that easy, as even proponents of the psychedelic experience, like Aldous Huxley, were wont to celebrate. (Not to condemn, but to celebrate. Mysticism for the masses — Huxley wasn’t born in America, but he probably should have been. He sure knew a typically American turn of mind when he saw one.)
I’m not presumptuous enough to rule one way or the other on the sincerity of drug-induced mystical experiences. I’ll just say that in 1962, the vast majority of Americans were either unaware of them or unwilling to consider them legitimate. Now, however, we read of a noted author who had a mystical experience after dental surgery, and it’s not all that shocking to us. Some of us may even have had similar experiences in similar perfectly legal and socially approved settings, and we feel comfortable calling them mystical in a way that our grandparents certainly would not.
And Douthat again, almost as if to prove himself a conservative:
[It may be that] something important is being lost as well. By making mysticism more democratic, we’ve also made it more bourgeois, more comfortable, and more dilettantish. It’s become something we pursue as a complement to an upwardly mobile existence, rather than a radical alternative to the ladder of success. Going to yoga classes isn’t the same thing as becoming a yogi; spending a week in a retreat center doesn’t make me Thomas Merton or Thérèse of Lisieux. Our kind of mysticism is more likely to be a pleasant hobby than a transformative vocation.
I have a hard time seeing anything other than snobbery here. America is a mass-produced society, the first and the most resolute of the type. You want full-time mystics? We do happen to have those by the dozens. You want a weekend — but only just a weekend — of mystical transport? Heck, we invented that trip.